One of the biggest blind spots of my gaming life is that I never finished the first Zelda game on the NES. I remember renting it when I was a kid, but I never got more than a few screens deep. When I was a bit older I tried it again and bounced right off of it when I could have been playing some new SNES game…. And it went on like that until this week.
The original Zelda title is very obtuse compared to it’s 3D counterparts, where I mainly started the series with back in 1998 with Ocarina of Time as my first main Zelda that I finished. So starting this game really was a trip back to a different time in games.
The game starts by dropping Link right into the middle of Hyrule, where there is no real indication of where to go or what to do. The first screen does not have any enemies but does have one black door leading into a cave. Going into this first cave gives you the famous “It’s dangerous to go alone, take this!” phrase while presenting you with a free wooden sword to take. Now, that you have your trusty sword at your hilt, it’s time to explore.
And this is where I always bounced off of the game. There is no actual map in game, no way to know where you are or where to go. It is 100% up to you to go exploring and either jot down every screen and make a map yourself on a piece of paper, or look up a guide. This game was meant to take weeks to complete, not hours. By repetition you start to kinda learn the map a big, but it is decently large and the time it takes to get from one screen to another seems like it takes forever in the modern era of games, where we have infinite worlds and huge draw distances with near zero loading times after getting into the game.
Learning the map is key to playing this game, bombing and lighting every single inch of the map to reveal hidden rooms is also imperative. Without doing this, you can never finish the game. Again, one of my main issues with the game. It’s just kinda impossible to progress in this game very much without spending hours just blowing up every single wall or lighting every single bush on fire. It’s unintuitive and frankly a huge time waster.
When I sit down and play a game, I don’t want to pull up a walkthrough on my phone, nor should I have to. Games should be an experience you get sucked into and are able to concentrate and pour all your focus into, getting lost in the world of the game. Immediately getting stuck or wandering around for 25 minutes at the start of the game with zero progress is exactly the kind of thing that kills all enjoyment for me. I’m not saying the game needs to hold my hand, but a bit of text or even just an actual game map telling me where I am and where I have been would be incredibly helpful.
It’s was a weird and frustrating experience to have come to this classic game so late in my life and be immediately stumped as to what to do and where to go. Playing games for 31+ years of my life, I have grown accustomed to certain quality of life improvements by games becoming more advanced and technologically superior. It has hindered my patience for aspects of games that are more or less something minor. But again, I have to take into account the time period these games were created in. Games like these were meant to be completed in weeks or months, not hours. The developers wanted an experience like this to teach you to explore every nook and cranny of the game world. Never trusting any surface as a solid interface.
The game itself is the beginning of the Zelda formula. Finding a dungeon and gaining a tool to defeat the boss and picking up a heart container and piece of the shattered triforce to ultimately take down Gannon. It’s a great game that teaches you strategy and patience. Dying in the game just means you go back to the beginning spawn area, but you still keep all your rupees and items. It’s a solid game that I really did enjoy playing through.
I can now check off a section of my gaming list of shame and say I finished the original NES Legend of Zelda. It feels good to be able to say that, and know that I did everything in that game and can now understand how and why people hold it so dear. But the way the game is so obtuse and really doesn’t explain enough, where to go, where you are and just allows you to aimlessly wander around is a bit of a bummer. My only regret is not understanding this sooner and I wish I took the time to really just pull out a notebook and create my own map and spend the week or two finishing this game by taking notes… Maybe I should have used those blank notes sections in the back of the game manuals more often when I was a kid.