The Legend of Zelda - Retroview

Oldest School

By: Andrew Long

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 4
   Interface 8
   Music/Sound 4
   Originality 9
   Plot 1
   Localization 4
   Replay Value 9
   Visuals 6
   Difficulty Fairly Easy
   Time to Complete

5-8 hours


Title Screen

   Let's be perfectly honest. If you get right down to it, The Legend of Zelda isn't really an RPG, per se. If this was the case, arguments could be made for the inclusion of various titles ranging from Metroid to Mario Sunshine in that particular definition, and these do not possess sufficient RPG elements to qualify. That said, The Legend of Zelda has always held a special place in the annals of RPGdom for softening the way for those games that would go on to solidify the genre's hold on the hearts of a generation. Given the NES's technical limitations, there's also much to be said for the definition of The Legend of Zelda as an RPG, and most people choose to view it at least partially in this light. Either way, the fact remains that the game spawned an impressive succession of sequels, each a different, enjoyable, engaging experience. There are few enough games truly deserving of sequels, but The Legend of Zelda is one of them.

    Back in the day, space was limited, so the story leading up to a game's start usually got jammed in the manual. This is as good a place as any to start, since a couple of the characters don't really show up in the game itself. Most importantly, Zelda's caretaker Impa is pretty much omitted, and so to go back to the series' true beginnings requires a look at the manual. Therein, Zelda is kidnapped and the Triforces stolen, prompting Impa to embark on a search for the young man who is destined to unite the Triforce and restore balance to the world. Link's the man - or eight-year old, in this case. Unarmed, the protagonist thus begins his fight for justice dumped unceremoniously in the mountains, where there is handily an old man sitting around waiting to give him a sword. If the game is the only point of reference, Hyrule is a pretty odd place; the only inhabitants seem to be old men and women hanging out in caves, and most of these are pretty crotchety, some even going so far as to sic their tame fires on Link if he looks at them the wrong way.

At any rate, once Link is armed, the game begins in earnest, and it's pretty open-ended at that. In point of fact, it's possible to play the game without getting this first sword, though that particular path is hardly worth it and reserved for Nintendo Power fanboys with too much time on their hands. Assuming players take the sensible approach and grab the basic sword, there is immediate derring-do afoot; each segment of Hyrule bristles with creatures, from the lightweight Octorok to the spear-wielding Moblins to the jittery Tektites. Link, of course, loves his accessories, so players are quickly able to pick up a wide variety of other tools to dispatch creatures with, from candles (blue and red) to bombs to magic wands. Link also has the option of upgrading the puny shield he begins with, although coming out second best in encounters with LikeLikes can reduce him to his former unshieldedness.

   The beauty of this battle system is its ease of operation. Gamers can switch effortlessly between the inventory and game with the press of a button, and thus the action is seldom interrupted. On the world map, the screen shows how many pieces of triforce remain to be gathered, while in dungeons it shows a stylized version of the map. This formula has been repeated in most of the game's sequels precisely because of this smooth efficiency, and this is one of the areas in which The Legend of Zelda succeeded remarkably.

Link must have missed his streetproofing lessons
Well, as long as it's not candy...  

   In addition to distinctive names, The Legend of Zelda is also possessed of one of the most memorable theme songs of all time. Probably ranking only second to the original Mario Bros. theme, this piece just has that certain something that many of the old eight-bit classics had, that ability to worm their way into the collective consciousness and memory of gamers to the extent that they're probably ubiquitous to the way we think. At any rate, this marvellous bit of composing is unfortunately balanced out rather neatly by a rather dreadful dungeon theme. The sound effects, for their part, are 8-bit; Link's sword sounds pretty good, but the beeping that occurs when a player is near death is terribly irritating, and also sucks up a channel of sound in the bargain, wrecking the music when it's present.

   Back in the early days of the NES, most games had levels. The Legend of Zelda was one of the first games to deviate from this formula, offering a static world with various areas that required completion. This was a profound shift in structure, and changed the thinking of many gamers and game developers alike. In many ways, this aspect of The Legend of Zelda was instrumental in shaping the basis of many RPGs, and in this area, it is to be applauded for its originality. The basic mechanics were also somewhat different than most other games; the option to switch between items was another element that would later appear again and again in action RPGs, and in a very real sense, this is the genre The Legend of Zelda is most associative with.

   Setting aside the instruction manual for the time being, there's absolutely no plot in the Legend of Zelda. This is what really hampers any attempts to classify the game as an RPG, since it basically just follows action or platformer conventions and leaves players to clear areas as they will. It's not really necessary to the game, but at the same time, story should be more than an old woman murmuring "Go up, up, up into the mountains" after extorting various amounts of rupees in exchange for her insane ramblings.

   There's various other pure classic statements immediately recognizable from The Legend of Zelda as well. From the immortal "Grumble, grumble.." to "Dodongo fears smoke," to the slightly less endearing and definitely more crotchety "Pay me for the door repair charges", economy of expression is the order of the day. In this respect, the localization definitely doesn't live up to even NES standards, but on the other hand, the naming of characters and areas is one of the elements of this game that continues to delight. With such inventive names as Pol's Voice, Peahat, Darknut and Goriya (several of which, incidentally, lend themselves to childish renaming), there's just something about the nomenclature of this game that sets it apart from other titles. There are, of course, the inevitable bastardizations of English; Keese for bats and Rope for snake in particular are rather silly, if in keeping with the rest of the names.

Ganon's skull fetish would go on to disturb generations of Hyruleans
Link realizes the awful truth  

   Another real innovation The Legend of Zelda offered was its inclusion of a second quest. In the days of warp zones and rigid platformers, the ability to play the game all over again with new and difficult-to-find dungeons was a real breath of fresh air - and finding those dungeons was a royal pain. Before the advent of FAQs, this basically involved taking a trusty candle and cluster of bombs and checking every freaking tile in the game, an arduous process probably not worth the trouble - but hey, it was the eighties, and that's what passed for fun in those days.

Incidentally, The Legend of Zelda was pretty much what passed for good graphics as well. Though ridiculously rudimentary by today's standard, the game had a wide variety of character and area designs for its time, and stacked up well against contemporary titles. It even, in the eyes of many, outstripped its sequel in graphical goodness. Still, there is the usual pallette switching and blockiness which can be found in most NES games, so it is by no means a masterpiece.

Few gamers will have much trouble beating The Legend of Zelda unless they happen to be eight years old or younger. There just isn't too much to the gameplay, since it's the basic nuts and bolts of the much more advanced digital gymnastics required of today's gamers. Still, a few monsters can be a royal pain to get around, and there will probably be an inevitable "beep-beep-beep-you're-almost-dead-beep" found in any playthrough of the game.

Zelda later sued Ganon for failing to provide a reasonable floor
Thank you, but the princess is in another- Oh wait  

It is useful in judging older games such as The Legend of Zelda to look at them not just as an RPG, but as a contributing element to the genre today. In this respect, it is easier to be fair and critical, since stacking it up against, say, Final Fantasy VII, just wouldn't be fair. In this light, then, The Legend of Zelda is one of the building blocks upon which the genre is formed, and just happens to be a whole lot of fun on the side. Though it doesn't take very long to complete (it takes a great deal of screwing up to reach the ten hour mark), it is a game that every RPGamer should experience at least once.

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