The Legend of Zelda has remained one of the most revered, beloved, and best selling videogame franchises for three decades. Link, Zelda, the Triforce et al are now part of an elite club of gaming characters that have transcended their own medium to become bona fide pop culture icons.
Even if I pry myself away from what is undoubtedly my favourite videogame series to examine Zelda’s NES debut with objective eyes, there’s no mistaking the phenomenal (lasting) effect that The Legend of Zelda has had on videogames.
Let’s take a look at what exactly made The Legend of Zelda so fucking great, examine the innovations introduced 30 years ago on a humble NES cartridge that are still influencing the franchise today, and look at some of the ideas Zelda may have since left behind – but should perhaps acknowledge now to push the series forward.
Cast your mind back to 1986, if you can. I wasn’t around, so I’m gonna have to get in the zone by using the internet for of-the-moment references. Bear with me while I do some Googling.
Kids at the time were busy playing with their Rubik’s Cubes and listening to Bon Jovi (nailed it). There was no Skyrim, or Grand Theft Auto – the idea of being able to explore an entire fantasy world from the comfort of your sofa was a pie in the sky dream.
Anyway, The Legend of Zelda landed for the Nintendo Entertainment System and blew the minds of a generation. For the love of God, the cartridge it came in was gold as opposed to the standard grey for NES games. It’s as if Nintendo knew they’d crafted something truly special.
Players were dropped into a world where they could travel in any direction. The first screen alone presented you with a myriad of options: To the right was a mountainous canyon, to the left a river. To the north was more forest, but most gamers were naturally drawn to the cave first.
Entering the cave, an old man would hand you a sword, and greet you with one of the most iconic phrases in gaming…
The idea that a modern videogame would give the player the option to walk right by the game’s main item without a dozen or so onscreen prompts or intrusive hints seems mad. In fact, it was entirely possible to get upto the very last dungeon without ever obtaining a sword, which is hugely indicative of the freedom you had with this game.
The Legend of Zelda didn’t ever talk down to players, and that was perhaps its greatest strength (and to some its biggest weakness). You were placed inside a huge world and told to go nuts.
Perhaps realising that such freedom may well cause many gamers to lose their minds, Nintendo included a map of the world, and directions to the first two dungeons. After that though, you were on your own.
Your mission: gather the eight shards of the Triforce from eight dungeons hidden across the land, find and fuck up the evil Ganon, and rescue the princess Zelda. This basic format has remained largely unchanged not only for the Zelda franchise, but in the adventure genre as a whole, for better or worse.
There was of course, an intended order in which to tackle dungeons. A level number would display in the corner every time you entered the “underworld” so that you knew if you were walking into level 6 when you had yet to beat level 3, you might be in for a bit of a fight.
Still, the order was simply a recommendation, not a command. Later Zelda games have come under a lot of fire for creating the illusion of an open world, but then forcing you to experience it in a very specific order. With the original, you were free to make your own choices – and your own mistakes.
You could wander into a dungeon and get fucked up by anything. The thrill of potentially not being ready for what lay in wait was incredible, and coming back later once you’d found better equipment was always satisfying. This concept has since been echoed in the likes of Skyrim and Dark Souls to great effect.
If you wanted to try and beat level 7 with three hearts and nothing but a sword, that was your call. Link still had a small arsenal of gear to discover on his journey, as he always does: bows, boomerangs, magic wands, armour and more – but finding these items wasn’t (for the most part) essential to progressing on your journey.
You weren’t dependent on your items, it was your skill and nerve that got you through – something that modern Zelda efforts have unfortunately forgotten, on the whole.
But as inventive as the dungeons, and the bosses hidden within were, it was the Hyrule overworld that really grabbed the imaginations of players. Hyrule was a vast, sprawling land that managed to squeeze in mountains, a lake, a graveyard, forests, deserts and an almost indecent amount of secrets.
Enemies lurked around every corner, hidden caves with treasures or new gear lay behind bushes or rocks. Back in 1986 jumping on Google wasn’t an option. Gamers had to grope blindly around the world, deciphering vague hints from NPC’s who themselves were often well hidden.
It’s a real testament to the design of the game that so many fans plowed on for hours at a time to uncover everything they could, sometimes having nothing to show for their play session besides knowing where not to look next.
There was no incentive for 100% completion. Hyrule was such a brilliantly designed creation that the journey of discovery was ended up just as satisfying as your eventual discoveries. Every secret you found would only enhance your abilities, or knowledge of the world around you.
Zelda appealed to your innate sense of curiosity and adventure. Players didn’t run from left to right collecting coins or jumping over platforms because that was their only option. They went north to explore the mountains because they wanted to. They went down into the dungeon that was 4 levels too high for them because they were dying to know what treasures lay inside.
The most important thing was that players could do these things if they wanted to. Choice was the inescapably key element of The Legend of Zelda. There was absolutely nothing like it at the time, and it changed everything.
It’s key that Nintendo’s upcoming Zelda Wii U looks to its past: Respect the player. Don’t hold their hand or insult their intelligence with irritating comanions that spout hints at every opportunity. Let us have our adventure at our own pace.
By all means, utilise 30 wonderful years worth of innovations, items, bosses, and ideas – but the fans are desperate for Nintendo to remember the original’s groundbreaking concept: Freedom.
For my money, The Legend of Zelda was the very first videogame to really empower players with a sense of freedom. A world full of character and teeming with secrets combined with tight, well paced gameplay and a soundtrack that remains iconic to this day have created something truly wonderful – legendary even.
Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.