The Legend of Zelda
Article by Jeremy Parish | August 20, 2009
These days, The Legend of Zelda is probably better remembered for its progeny -- landmark classics like Ocarina of Time -- than it is for its intrinsic merits. Certainly it was a huge game in its own time, due in no small part to the mystique Nintendo built up around the so-called "never-ending adventure," with its unique golden cart and full-to-bursting packaging. Yet modern gamers tend to regard it as fairly archaic for its simple graphics, its lack of any real narrative, and most of all its occasionally maddening opaqueness.
These are all fair criticisms, yet they also rather miss the point of what Zelda is about: the sheer joy of exploration and discovery. Admittedly, the point of the series has shifted considerably over the years; modern Zeldas are more about completing tightly knit puzzle dungeons in order to acquire a proscribed sequence of tools and weapons, which is definitely a more accessible and innately game-ish structure than that found in the series' progenitor. At the same time, these games retain the central, founding premise of the original Zelda: that is, to comb through the land of Hyrule and find all the treasures and weapons necessary to rescue an abducted princess. Modern Zelda games don't stray too terribly far from this overall tenet, at least as far as the end goal is concerned; it's a pretty rare Zelda outing that doesn't have you trying to save, well, Zelda. Where the original Legend of Zelda stands apart is in how you go about accomplishing that objective.
Zelda's quest begins as Link, an elven kid clad in green, finds himself in a clearing, unarmed and without any real sense of direction or purpose beyond what players could glean from the attract mode or manual. At the same time, the player should have a pretty reasonable clue about his first step: find a weapon. Precisely how you should go about this isn't explicitly stated, but the level design makes the process transparently intuitive. The starting screen is completely empty of enemies or objects, with paths leading off-screen to the north, east, and west. Yet the player's eye is drawn to an enticing opening -- a cave -- located a few steps up and to the left in the rocks that define the screen's boundaries.
In this way, the adventure begins—and indeed an adventure game it is, in the truest sense of the word. Zelda is a graphical front-end for a quest that would have felt right at home on any IBM-compatible computer of the era. On PC, the quest would have been primarily text-based, of course, but Zelda director Shigeru Miyamoto was working to his hardware's strengths. Text input on an NES would have been unreasonably cumbersome, but the system could create attractive graphics and respond quickly to control commands. Zelda dropped the text parser of Infocom's library in favor of a more direct, visceral interface in which players spent as much time stabbing, bombing, and zapping foes as they did solving puzzles; yet, the familial resemblance can't be denied.
Zelda certainly wasn't the first game to make this effort. Warren Robinett had long since beaten Nintendo to the punch -- before Miyamoto had even designed his first game, in fact. Robinett's Atari VCS classic Adventure was a highly simplified take on the seminal, mainframe-exclusive, text-based pioneer ADVENT (aka Colossal Cave), with blocky-yet-functional visuals standing in for text descriptions as players sought treasure, carried keys through mazes to unlock doors, and evaded deadly dragons. Zelda was simply an evolution of this concept, and the sophistication of the NES hardware relative to the ancient VCS meant Miyamoto's world could be more clearly rendered than Robinett's, the quest larger and more complex, the hero better armed with tools and weapons.
Knowing Zelda's origins, its comparatively open design should be little real surprise. From the very beginning, players were free to explore the run of the land. Even before acquiring that wooden sword (or any other tool), only a handful of screens were inaccessible to Link at the moment he arrived in Hyrule. The places you could go immediately weren't necessarily safe, mind; a single stray sword beam from the Lynels roaming the northwestern mountain range would send a novice adventurer back to the beginning. Yet the potential to go anywhere was there, and armed with a single bomb a daring newcomer could head immediately to Death Mountain and bomb his way into Spectacle Rock, where the final dungeon awaited.
Of course, a fresh-faced hero couldn't simply waltz into Ganon's mountain lair and save the princess; the final dungeon and its ominous music were locked away behind a mystical seal that could only be broken with the power of the Triforce, which of course had been scattered through the land's other eight dungeons. So in a sense, there was a definite structure and sequence to the adventure, but it was a loose one. Dungeons didn't have to be completed in any sequence, and even the levels locked away behind obstacles (surmounted with tools acquired from a prior area of the Underworld) didn't require the completion of those previous levels; you could, for instance, grab the raft from Level-3 and head straight to Level-4 without taking time to defeat the master of the third lair or acquiring the life and Triforce fragments he protects. You could head to Level-8 the instant you had a candle, which could be purchased from friendly merchants who dotted the Overworld... although you wouldn't get too far without the ladder hidden in Level-4.
No, the challenge -- and the joy -- of Zelda lay in discovery. Legend has it that Miyamoto's inspiration for the game was drawn from his own experiences as a boy, exploring the hills behind his home. Zelda was simply a childhood fantasy given form, and if at times the quest's next objective seemed opaque, perhaps that can be ascribed as much to the nebulous enthusiasm of youthful imagination as it can to the quirks of the adventure genre. Make no mistake about it, though: While Zelda put a bold, colorful look on Zork's milieu, it still fell prey to many of the same shortcomings. Areas and dungeons were hidden behind confounding riddles delivered by cryptic oldsters hiding in caves, and paying more for their advice didn't always ensure a better class of clue.
But this, too, worked to Zelda's benefit: while the Lost Woods or the hidden entrance to Level-5 stumped fans -- often for weeks at a time -- these mysteries brought gamers together to collaborate. The kid who figured out the secret behind the Lost Hills and shared it with us was a hero the following day after we went home and applied his advice. In time, too, attentive players began to notice a certain logic and consistency behind the game's design: Though not every section of the Overworld contained a secret, there was never more than one hidden item per screen. Once you realized this limitation, the prospect of bombing and burning and touching everything in sight became far less daunting, and you began to develop an intuition about where those singular caves and treasures might be hiding. Behind this flat expanse of cliff along the beach; beneath that moblin statue. And once you discovered that certain blocks in the dungeon could be pushed to reveal secret doors, it all began to fall into place. On top of that, exploration became easier as you explored more, too. Eventually, you'd find the magic candle that could be used infinitely rather than once per screen, your maximum bomb inventory increased significantly, and you
worked out a way to warp around the countryside to save travel time.
Perhaps the cleverest thing Nintendo did in a game already packed with good ideas was the "ALL OF TREASURES" teaser in the attract mode. Not only was it enticing -- in 1986, a console game with an inventory (let alone such a large inventory) was a real revelation -- it also offered a useful benchmark for your in-game progress without actually spoiling the game. You had no idea how to go about finding these treasures and weapons and tools, nor what most of them did, merely that they existed to be found. The standard Zelda experience was weeks of exploration, tentatively poking about the Overworld in search of clues and loot and hidden entrances to dungeons, with the quest's pace accelerating as you neared the end. Sure, the dungeons became more difficult in the final stretch (Level-9 in particular was massive and packed with the game's toughest foes along with unique, terrifying minibosses), but the longer you played Zelda the better a feel you developed for the game's unique logic and rules. Those who braved the entire Second Quest usually cleared it far more quickly than the first. While this bonus remix mode was an order of magnitude more difficult than the standard adventure in terms of enemies and hazards, the real challenge of Zelda was simply to master how the game world worked. An adventurer who had bested Ganon had conquered the land of Hyrule as well; the secrets may have been relocated, but the mechanics behind them were already laid bare.
Zelda's perhaps most fascinating because it's so obviously the work of a younger, brasher Nintendo -- a company with more confidence in its own design instincts and more faith in the intelligence of its customers. The game came packed with a detailed map, a comprehensive manual, and plenty of tips to get players started, but it stopped shy of hand-holding them through the adventure. Contrast that with the most recent Zelda title: Twilight Princess drags on for about six hours before it finally deigns to stop leading the player about gingerly through a toothless tutorial, and Phantom Hourglass, arguably, never does stop. The modern Nintendo is an entity petrified by the prospect of alienating a single potential customer by imposing anything so grim as a demand or expectation upon them; the Nintendo that created The Legend of Zelda was still perfecting the art of making a good videogame and was more than happy to have us tag along for the ride, however bumpy it may have been.
Maybe the new Nintendo has it right. The company's finances have never been better—no, not even 20 years ago, when it owned the industry by draconian rule. And really, who back in the day actually finished Zelda? I had lots of friends who played it, but only two of them finished... and I was the only one nutty enough to complete the Second Quest. Most of my classmates gave up around the first quest's Level-6, which introduced enemies which colloquially came to be known as "AIDS viruses" and "those beefsteak things" (bubbles and like-likes, which temporarily robbed Link of his ability to use his sword and permanently ate his shield, respectively) amidst an already infuriating flurry of mages called wizzrobes. And those who persevered that long often quit after failing to burn the single unremarkable bush that hid Level-8, or simply surrendered to the brutality of the maze beneath Spectacle Rock.
But I like to think that there was merit in the old approach to game design. It was a little like tossing a baby into a pool and waiting for him to figure out how to swim on his own, with the company's toll-free tips line standing in as a protective parent for those in danger of drowning. Yet there was satisfaction in self-reliance; triumph in a hard-earned victory. The Legend of Zelda took risks, and while they didn't always work out for the best, the experience was profoundly rewarding for those who took the time to explore the land of Hyrule and see for themselves Nintendo's glorious, ambitious, genre-changing take on the adventure game.