There I was, twelve or thirteen years old, in a quiet corner of a Sears department store. It was midday, and no one else was around the lone Nintendo kiosk with its strange rectangle controllers. As I picked up the now iconic but then alien controller, I had no idea my life was about to be changed.
The video games I had played before were all in the arcade. I had played Atari at a friend’s house once, but the abstract dots and lines and harsh bleeps and bloops never caught my attention. The arcade games were better, with better graphics and sound, and a better sense of what you were supposed to be doing. But even the arcade games never held my attention, they seemed like simple experiences limited to one usually burned out CRT screen. The Legend of Zelda was different.
It was mid summer and my dad had dropped us off at the mall for a few hours to get us out of his thinning hair. After the usual wandering, I came across this Nintendo kiosk and started playing. There was no time limit, no line. The opening screen had beautiful music and this intriguing screen that promised a great adventure: (feel free to leave this on repeat as the soundtrack to this article)
I was blown away by the freedom I had exploring Hyrule. I could travel any of the four compass directions in a land that had realistic geographic boundaries like mountains and lakes. Going any direction was a revelation; all games I’d played before had been single screen like Pac-man or Centipede. Side scrolling games like Super Mario Bros. were out there, but I hadn’t played them, and besides that was just one direction. The Legend of Zelda let you go anywhwere! Well, almost.
It didn’t take long for me to run into monsters that took bites out of my three red hearts, killing me and sending me back to the beginning. Soon enough I found the strange old man in the cave uttering the words that are now on 1000 T-shirts, “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.” Armed with my new sword, I went back and took my revenge on the beasties who had destroyed me earlier. But I still died a lot, as each enemy moved and attacked in different ways. It would be several months later until I even learned how to use my shield to block Octorock and other monster’s projectiles. The Tektites were my least favorite, leaping at me from above in(to me at the time)unpredictable frightening death dealing drops.
Avoiding some monsters, I explored as far as I could. Along the way I discovered that stones could sometimes be pushed, some shrubs could be slashed with the sword. My sense of wonder increased with each discovery. I found a magical fairy fountain that replenished my hearts. More strange old men in caves selling items.
I had just discovered my first dungeon in a tree on an island, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Was it someone else wanting to play at the Sears kiosk? No, it was mall security. Apparently I’d been playing for four hours, lost all track of time, and forgotten to go back to my pickup point in the mall. My father had contacted mall security, and they were all looking for me!
That time with the demo of The Legend of Zelda profoundly affected me. Not only would I start a lawn mowing business so I could save up for a NES and a 13 inch TV, but my interest in gaming was cemented in that moment. It’s safe to say that I would not be writing on games blogs now if it weren’t for that day.
That was my own personal introduction to the Legend of Zelda, but the game had quite a worldwide impact as well. It was a bestseller for Nintendo, selling over 6.5 million copies. The game is almost always included in any list of influential video games that have shaped the industry. In The Legend of Zelda, there are 8 pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom to collect before you can rescue Zelda. In a similar vain, I thought I would list 8 great things about The Legend of Zelda that when combined together form a greater whole.
For its time, The Legend of Zelda had a large sprawling map. It was divided into squares co-responding with what could be displayed on the screen. When the player leaves the edge of the screen, the view shifts to the next square on the grid, which might seem jarring and limited now, but in 1986, felt like a vast wilderness to explore. There were green forests, grey graveyards, brown deserts and mountains, and blue streams and lake. Yes, it might seem simple by today’s standards, but the brightly colored map allowed the player to fill in details with their imagination, and there was always the feeling that something magical would be discovered on the next screen. Game Designer Shigeru Miyamoto drew inspiration for the game from memories of his childhood exploring caves, forests, and streams around Kyoto. “When I was a child,” said Miyamoto, “I went hiking and found a lake. It was quite a surprise for me to stumble upon it. When I traveled around the country without a map, trying to find my way, stumbling on amazing things as I went, I realized how it felt to go on an adventure like this.”
Almost every screen of the map held a secret to be discovered. That differently colored crack in the wall? Bomb it for a secret passage. Three stones in a row? Push them to reveal a trapdoor. Bushes could also be burned to reveal entrances, and there were a few other ways to interact with the environment, once the proper tools were acquired. Once the player figured out a lot was hidden under the surface, they were encouraged to spend more time in each area, and it made the areas something to explore, not just rush through.
Items and Tools
Sometimes the player would be certain an area held a secret, but there was no way to interact with the suspicious item in the environment. That’s ok! After playing the game for a while, the player knew they would beat a dungeon later that would give them an item that would let them tackle that spot. For example, maybe you can now burn that gnarled tree thanks to the Blue Candle you just earned. By the way, anyone who says anything other than the Magical Boomerang is the best item is just dead wrong!
While a few monsters such as the goblin-like Moblins or Wizzrobes felt familiar for a fantasy game, The Legend of Zelda introduced many unique monsters. Pesky Octroks flung stones at you from Qbert like mouths, Tektites bounced toward you like your worst nightmare, and who could forget the crazy spinning Leevers? Seriously, were they a plant or animal? Some of the most terrifying (and my favorite) monsters were reserved for the dungeons. These monsters could not only kill you, they could make your life difficult. Once you were trapped in the snakelike grasp of a Like Like, you would lose your precious shield! Or if you were scooped up by the ominous floating handed Wall Master, it was back to the start of the dungeon for you, all progress lost.
Dungeons were the treats the game rewarded you for exploring. Twisted challenging mazes with traps, rooms that would go dark, and their own set of monsters, dungeon were a challenge you loved to hate. In the days before the internet, it was not uncommon to be stuck in a dungeon for a while until you talked to a friend or gave up and called the Nintendo game play counselor. Yes, that was a thing. And if you reached the center of the dungeon, your reward was a special Boss monster! In a whimsical touch, the grids of the dungeons were shaped after creatures like eagles, dragons, and demons. For all the frustration, the dungeons of the Legend of Zelda were somehow one of the aspects of the game I remember most fondly.
Sound and Music
Composer and sound director of the series, Koji Kondo had very limited hardware to create sounds and music for the game. Yet, with scratchy percussion and tinny horns, he managed to create a theme that was beautiful and evocative. Although I will confess I enjoy versions of the theme played with real instruments, I still get nostalgic when I hear it in its original 8-bit glory. The game sounds were fantastic too. I still to this day feel elation when I hear the sound of Link acquiring a new item!
Other games have done it before and since, but it was still neat that after you beat the game, you could play “The Second Quest”. While most of the Overland areas were laid out the same, the dungeons were laid out much differently, and the enemies were harder. Back when the game came out, games weren’t released as often as they are now and were quite expensive, so in effect doubling the content of the game was a very nice thing for Nintendo to do. Word soon spread on the playground back in the day that you could access the Second Quest right from the beginning by typing “Zelda” as your player’s name!
The Gold cartridge
There was just something cool about seeing the gold Legend of Zelda cartridge next to all the standard grey NES carts in your collection. Nintendo knew they had something epic and special with this game, and I’m glad they chose to celebrate it with the extra effort and expense to modify their normal manufacturing process and give us something nice. In the day of more and more games being downloaded directly, something as cool as a physical gold cartridge becomes an even rarer treasure.
If you’ve never played The Legend of Zelda, I hope this article gave you a taste of what made it such an amazing experience at the time. This blog is part of a larger series explores the history of the series and its major entries. Be sure to check out the hub article here for links to all the great articles and retrospectives on this epic series.