The Legend of Zelda
There are few game titles that can immediately engender such powerful levels of raw nostalgia in the minds of gamers in quite the same way that The Legend of Zelda can. Released in August of 1987 for the Nintendo Entertainment System, Zelda is famously known for being the brainchild of Mario creator and beloved videogame rockstar, Shigero Miyamoto. Legend has it that the basis for Zelda has its roots in Miyamoto’s exploration of the hillsides outside his childhood home. The game was a new and very much unique experience for its time, both inside and out, that left players with a completely new outlook on the kind of experiences that console games could offer.
The Legend of Zelda instilled a longing in the hearts of players long before the game pak so much as touched their consoles. I’ll never forget my first experience with Zelda’s packaging. The box featured a large, silver shield on a golden background above the game’s logo. Said shield was segmented into four squares, one of which had actually been cut out to allow potential buyers to see the cartridge within. This was novel in its own right, but the cartridge was not your garden variety, government-issue grey plastic; instead, the cartridge was gilded with a glimmering, metallic gold sheen. It was several years after the game had been released that I stood motionless in the videogame section of my local department store, transfixed on that sliver of golden treasure flanked by copies of lesser games like Pipe Dream and Yo! Noid, as my mother waited not at all patiently for me to make my decision. I knew nothing of good or bad. I didn’t know that this particular game was made by Nintendo itself, or even that a first-party Nintendo game was a guaranteed ticket to fun... and I especially had not the slightest idea of what “first party” meant. At that point in my life, I’m not even certain I was able to read. All I knew at that moment was that there was no other game on that shelf that could even begin to compare.
The first of its kind in many ways, Zelda was unique in that unlike most games before it, the goal at the game’s outset was not immediately apparent. There were no foes to shoot initially, nor were you given any method to do so. You could not simply begin running in one direction to reach the goal, either. Instead, Zelda offered players a sprawling, open world to be explored. The player, taking the role of elfboy Link, is simply given a silly green tunic and what might be a hat -- pixel art is ever so abstract -- and is then left in the mountains to fend for himself. The grammatically questionable blurb on the game’s demo screen informs you know that your overarching goal is to save the titular Princess Zelda from the no doubt evil clutches of one “Prince Darkness Gannon,” and that at some point you’ll be picking up a laundry list of common adventuring gear, such as a boomerang, some candles, and a stepladder. From that point on, however, the game take a very hands-off approach.
As the old adage goes, though: Thank goodness for old men who live in dark caves. After enough exploration, Link will eventually come across helpful strangers who will give or sell him items, and eventually even find the entrances to one of the games dungeons, each of which holds a piece of that relic of nebulous purpose, the Triforce, and eventually the distressed Princess Zelda. Still, the next destination is never explicitly provided to you, and as you might expect from elderly cave dwellers, the advice provided by such strangers is not always as lucid as one would hope. Nintendo was thankfully cognizant of this, and included a partial overworld map, along with maps of the first two dungeons, packaged with the game. Additionally, the instruction manual provided hints on enemy weaknesses and a walkthrough of the game’s earliest parts, a welcome boon for what is admittedly a sink-or-swim experience.
Interestingly, the version of the game released in Japan a year prior wasn’t actually a Famicom cartridge; instead, the game was released for the Famicom Disk System add-on. This version of the game was able to save a player’s progress by writing data to the disk, but considering the NES had no such add-on, the game had to be put on a cartridge instead. But alas, when a cartridge loses its power, no data is saved, and any progress within the game is lost. While the NES conversions of other Disk System games such as Kid Icarus and Metroid received their infamous password systems, Nintendo instead opted to eschew arcane cryptography in favor of another, more elegant solution: They stuck a battery in the thing. This was the first time such a system was ever baked into videogame cartridge, but certainly not the last; battery-backed cartridges saved game progress for years to come.
Another bit of Famicom weirdness is lacking from the NES version of The Legend of Zelda. As anyone who spent hours poring over their instruction manuals should know, the baddie known as Pols Voice is “a ghost with big ears and a weak point -- he hates loud noise.” Now, you might assume this is a prompt for you to whistle these things to death, but you’d soon find that your sword and arrows are much more effective at dispatching them.
Not so in the Land of the Rising Sun: The Famicom actually had a microphone built into one of its controllers, and the only way to destroy these baddies was to give them a stern talking to. For whatever reason, this protip still made its way into the English version’s literature. Later games in the series actually did provide Link with more audible ways of dealing with this particular foe.
While it wasn’t the first game to offer a non-linear, inventory-based adventure -- that title belongs, aptly enough, to 1979’s Atari 2600 game, Adventure -- The Legend of Zelda set the “gold” standard by which all games of its kind would be judged, not to mention laying the groundwork for what would become an entire genre. Other NES classics such as Crystalis and Nintendo’s own StarTropics? were hewn close to the original formula, while even now it is easy to see where current games have taken Zelda’s core concepts and built upon them. Few games are held in as high a regard, and fewer still stand the test of time to remain as playable or as fun as The Legend of Zelda.