1986’s The Legend of Zelda (The U.S. didn’t get it until 1987) is a landmark in gaming. It’s the first in what would become one of Nintendo’s flagship series, second only to the Super Mario Bros. series.
Thirty-five years or so after its initial release, it’s interesting to go back and look at it in context of both the rest of the series it spawned, and in gaming in general. It’s also interesting to look at just how much is hinted at or signposted in-game and what’s relegated to the manual or supplemental materials.
A note: It’s been 35 years, but if you somehow still haven’t played the original Legend of Zelda and want to go in fresh, I will warn you there will be gameplay spoilers in this article. This is your opportunity to bail out now.
First, the plot. From the game itself, only imagine this in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS because computer etiquette wasn’t a thing in 1986: “Many years ago prince Darkness “Gannon” stole one of the Triforce with Power. Princess Zelda had one of the Triforce with Wisdom. She divided it into “8” units to hide it from “Gannon” before she was captured. Go find the “8” units “Link” to save her.” Good enough to get you started, and really all you need. According to the manual, though, there’s more to it. This all takes place in the land of Hyrule, which may or may not be one region in a larger world (According to Legends of Localization, the Japanese manual implies this, while the U.S. version just kind of refers to the whole world as “Hyrule”). After Ganon (Yes, the manual spells it with one “N” in the middle, and this is his name for the rest of the series) steals the Triforce of Power, Zelda not only splits the Triforce of Wisdom into 8 pieces, but sends her nursemaid Impa to find someone with enough courage to destroy Ganon. Impa gets ambushed by Ganon’s minions, but is saved by…a boy named Link. Impa tells Link the tale of Zelda and Ganon, and Link resolves to save her.
Gameplay-wise, since this is the first game—and since video and especially console games as a medium are still rather new at this point—there isn’t a “Zelda formula” or “Zelda tradition” yet. But it’s still interesting to see the foundations of that being laid here. If I had to describe the “Zelda formula”, I’d do so as follows: You travel through an overworld to find a dungeon. In that dungeon, you find an item that either lets you through the rest of the dungeon, or allows you to find and/or access the next dungeon. That item is then frankly rarely used for the rest of the game. Repeat until you get through the game.”
While there are surprisingly few “Transport Items” in The Legend of Zelda—really, in terms of “major items”, it’s just the Raft, Ladder, Recorder to an extent, and arguably the Candles—you can see the prototype for what would become “classic Zelda” at points in this first game. If you’ve never played it, the game’s dungeons are called “Levels” in the game. And sometimes one “Level” item helps find the next level. For instance, you get the Raft in Level 3, and you use it to access Level 4. You get a Red Candle in Level 7, and can use it to burn a bush to open Level 8.
But while this sometimes holds, it doesn’t always, certainly not as often as in later games. You get a Bow in Level 1, but it isn’t all that helpful until Level 5, and not strictly necessary until Level 6. You get the Recorder (Sometimes also called the Whistle) in Level 5, but it opens Level 7, not Level 6. Several dungeons have items that, while helpful, aren’t required to beat the game.
It’s also fascinating how much the game presages an open-world paradigm before that was really a thing. From the jump, you have access to almost the entire overworld and five of the first eight Levels, though you won’t be able to complete two of them. The only guidance on whether or not you should be in a given area is the strength of the enemies you face. This is especially true of the extreme northwest of the overworld, where Lynels (Sword-shooting birds) are extremely durable and can kill you in two sword throws…which can’t be blocked with your default shield. The non-linearity carries over to some of the Levels. Keys to unlock doors can only be used once, after which the key is consumed and the door stays open. But keys carry from Level to Level, and you can simply buy more keys in some shops in the overworld. Plus, while you can follow the obvious paths and get through the Levels, especially in the early ones, use of bombs to get through walls will enable you to make off with several keys from those Levels to more easily explore later ones. The game encourages exploration and trying things in a way a lot of the later series doesn’t.
At the same time, though, you can start to see conventions take hold here. Helpful or not, each dungeon does contain at least one item, though some have two (This would not survive to future entries in the series). Every dungeon has a “boss enemy” one room before the Triforce piece in it, and beating the boss grants you a Heart Container, a maximum life increase. One of the temporary items you get is a bottle of medicine that completely refills your life, an idea which would survive in the form of refillable bottles in subsequent games.
But there are a number of things that didn’t survive past this first game in the series as well. Besides some dungeons having multiple items, the concept of the Blue and Red Candles, where the Blue Candle is only usable once per screen visit while the Red Candle gives unlimited uses, was something only seen here. The use of Rupees as arrow ammo is also something you only see here. Honestly, ditching the first one in particular is a good thing—having to continually reload screens to search for secrets by burning one tree at a time wasn’t challenging, it was tedious.
And of course, a discussion of the original Legend of Zelda wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the second quest. This is something very few games have ever done that I’m aware of. This isn’t simply a New Game + mode—dungeons are in completely different locations and have different methods of opening them, the dungeon layouts are completely altered, and some enemies have been powered up from the First Quest. And yet none of these are the cruelest aspect of the second quest. To sum it up in four words: “All bets are off”.
Level 1 starts off innocently enough, although you’ll meet one of the powered-up enemies right off the bat—Stalfos, the skeleton enemies, can now throw swords at you. But it’s Level 2 where the gloves really come off. Going through the Level, you’ll completely explore it, probably finding the Triforce piece, but not the major item in it. Your only clue to what to do is a room divided into three columns, the center column seemingly leading to a dead-end. Trying to bomb the wall does nothing. As it turns out, the layout of the room is the intended signpost—you have to push against the southern wall of the room, eventually walking through it. This is otherwise never hinted at in the game, and it’s the first time you’ll walk through a wall in this specific fashion (You can walk through a wall in the overworld in the first quest, but it’s obvious right away once you begin walking through it, unlike here.). It won’t be the last, though it is the most famous, the true “Welcome to Second Quest” moment.
Level 3 is relatively light difficulty-wise, but it does throw a few monkey wrenches at you. The first is that the “Grumble Grumble…” enemy isn’t strictly necessary to progress—it just leads to the Magical Boomerang. The second is that the boss isn’t immediate adjacent to the Triforce room. There are two more rooms you have to get through to claim your prize. This is the only time in either quest that happens. And all of this is a warmup for Level 4.
Level 4 just messes with your head. For one, the obvious item in this Level is the Magic Book, which serves as an upgrade to the Magic Wand. The Magic Wand you probably don’t have yet, because that’s tucked away in Level 8 of this quest. For another, there’s a key tucked behind a lava river. You need the Ladder to get it. Which, again, you probably won’t have on your first trip through this Level because that’s in Level 6. And neither of these is the worst part. You’ll probably finish the dungeon, confused why you’re a few rooms short of completing the map, and exit wondering why you can’t find Level 5 anywhere.
Well, you need the Raft, which is in Level 4 along with the Book. Where? You have to walk through the north wall of the Triforce room, through a couple more rooms, then push a block in a room full of them to finally claim your prize.
The puzzles peak here, though the combat gets even more difficult in the later levels, especially Level 5 and 6 of the Second Quest. And there are still plenty of one-way doors, walls to walk through, and even staircases to come in the later levels. Making your own maps in addition to the ones provided in-game (Or finding some online) is probably a sound thing to do; it’s what I did this most recent playthrough. Even with some of the pre-knowledge I had at my disposal, I’m definitely glad I did.
Oh, one last thing–at least some of the U.S. manual is actually wrong in terms of what the items do. Again from Legends of Localization, the two biggies are that the Magical Shield blocks swords in addition to rocks (The regular Shield you start with already blocks rocks), and that a supplemental description for what the Recorder does is completely wrong owing to a botched translation (It also calls the Recorder a “Whistle”).
Looking back at The Legend of Zelda, it’s fascinating and amusing to see how much they got right from the jump. It’s also amusing to look back at stuff that, were it to be in a modern Zelda or Zelda-like game, would get criticized as, if not “objective bad game design” (Some of the one-way staircases that send you back to the start of a dungeon; the walk-through-the-Triforce-room-to-the-Raft puzzle), just flat out mean in a not-fun way.
But either way, I’m glad it exists, and I’m glad I get to look back on it and think about it in this fashion.