The Legend of Zelda is my favorite game franchise of all time, which is a position you only get to claim if I hate many of the games in that franchise. No Zelda fan got to be that way by loving the series unconditionally and without complaint; complaining is how you show your love for Zelda. It’s only fitting that I hate the first Zelda game with a burning passion.
The Legend of Zelda (1986) for the Nintendo Entertainment System spawned a legendary story that forever changed adventure games, and any discussion of it would be negligent if it did not include mention of how revolutionary this game was, both in its genre and gaming as a whole. However, if it had any more merit than that, I would have written this as an entry to my series, Does It Deserve to be a Classic. I try to maintain the appearance of impartiality in those piece, which I simply refuse to do for this abomination.
The Legend of Zelda is every bit the nostalgia trip that inspired a generation and established icons. It also happens to be one of the worst games I’ve ever played, aged like the Crypt Keeper, and does not deserve to be talked about in hushed reverential tones. It’s a hunk of garbage, and I’m here to tell you why.
And if you couldn’t tell, this essay is a light-hearted affair poking fun at how we put classic media up on a pedestal whether or not it deserves to be, and was written out of love for Zelda as a whole. I wouldn’t have stated that so clearly, as explaining that something is satire is itself the death of satire, but the internet was built on getting angry because someone disrespected a plastic cartridge. Got it? Good, let’s get into just why this is a hunk of garbage.
The Legend of Zelda is not the first adventure game, but it was so definitive that it might as well be. Games that preceded it were too crude and lacked the necessary detail to communicate a sense of scope. The most iconic might be Adventure for the Atari 2600, and while it was perfectly fine considering the technical limitations of the era, it’s literally just a pixel on a screen. The NES might have been the first console with the graphical fidelity to portray a proper adventure.
The games before it failed to capture the magic of striking out on a mythic quest, especially if you were expecting Dungeons & Dragons and got a single square moving through a maze. There were text-based adventure games, in the same vein as imagination-driven tabletop RPGs, where a player would receive a prompt or situation and have to type their answer or action. I can attest to the fun these games provide, having whiled away many childhood hours on Zork, but it was an inelegant solution at best.
So maybe you can imagine the hype in 1986 with the release of The Legend of Zelda, being able to play as a lone swordsman traversing a dangerous countryside slaying monsters, exploring dungeons, and saving the princess. If I take a step back and view the original Zelda as the culmination of years spent trying to emulate a legitimate adventure, I can better appreciate its large map and relatively advanced graphics.
But no piece of art exists in a vacuum, and video games age exponentially faster than film or television. I try to bring the mindset of a fresh player in the time it was released when I play a classic game, and maybe better appreciate how groundbreaking they were at the time, but you know what? The Legend of Zelda broke me. It saw how I generously tried to enjoy it in its original context, and it laughed and told me to buy a copy of Nintendo Power.
When I think about The Legend of Zelda, the first word that comes to mind is obtuse. This game has dozens, if not hundreds of secrets, and it does not hand over a single one willingly. That sounds fun on its face, I recently praised Hollow Knight for a similar tactic. We endlessly criticize modern games for holding our hands and not trying to challenge the player, but you know what we don’t give them credit for? Tutorials.
Simple instructions are too much to ask for, because once Link picks up his sword, you have to figure out where to go, what to do, and how to do it. It’s a relic of the time where a game’s entrie story was tucked away in the game manual, or if you wanted to get anything done you would need to pick up a reasonably priced issue of Nintendo Power. See, when games left the arcades, they couldn’t extract money from you repeatedly anymore, so they made the games confusing and left no instructions so you’d have to seek out help. The games weren’t designed to challenge you, they were done so they could extract money from you.
Yeah, go tell your snobby retro game loving friend that The Legend of Zelda has microtransactions. It isn’t like Zelda games that have come out since, where a boss’ weak spot is intuitively designed to grab your attention, or how a bomb-able wall has a distinct appearance. If you want to get into every dungeon, you have to set a random bush on fire, and the only way to figure out which bush is to either set Hyrule aflame, or find out the answer from a walkthrough.
These things I describe are not puzzles, because a puzzle inherently has a solution that can be discerned. To get basic upgrades or to complete the dungeons, you have to interpret the most cryptic of clues, like how the secret is in the easternmost peninsula. While a lot of this can be put down to the localization errors that were common at the time, they don’t excuse how much of the game is hidden. If you want hearts, better weapons, or even to know what the boss’ weakness is, good luck, or pull up a walkthrough, because the game isn’t telling.
And that is barely even touching on how poorly the game has been designed to play. Clunky gameplay was common in the NES era, but that was far from being a rule. Zelda’s closest peer that released the previous year, Super Mario Bros., is a masterclass of how smooth and precise controls could be at the time. The movement and combat of Zelda are a far cry from both that and the famous Nintendo polish.
Link can only attack in four directions with a stubby sword, and there’s a horrible lag between the attack input, the attack itself, and being able to move again. Darknuts are now a mainstay as Zelda enemies, and they can only be defeated by a precise stab to the back. The problem is that they pace relentlessly and turn corners erratically with no warning.
A fundamental rule of game design is that your enemies cannot be unpredictable, as it prevents your player from making meaningful plans on how to engage them. Link cannot reliably attack a Darknut, and it’s not a matter of skill, but pure luck that they don’t turn at the wrong time and foil your efforts. This artificially increases the game’s difficulty, but it’s just intended to frustrate more than anything.
Then there’s the map, which is not deserving of the name. It’s a gray rectangle in the corner that tells you Link’s approximate location, but if you want the specifics or how each location connects to the other, pull out a pen and paper. I shouldn’t have to draw my own map of the game in order to navigate it, but please, go on and tell me how The Legend of Zelda is so freeing and inviting to explore. I totally get that, it doesn’t come across as a half-baked monstrosity designed to test the upper limit of human sanity and patience.
And what about the complete absence of resources? Arrows are tied to your rupees, which I suppose come along at a reasonable rate, but bombs are another story. Considering you have to use them to unlock many of the game’s secrets and defeat multiple bosses, you would think they’d be easily acquired. But if you miss too many times or simply don’t have enough because the game never told you they were necessary, you’re out of luck.
I could lament how they put items like the bow and raft in dungeons and don’t make it mandatory to pick them up. This means that you can complete a dungeon and have no idea how to proceed, but the way they leave you out to dry if you run out of bombs is next level. You can be locked in a boss chamber with no way of possibly winning, and the game doesn’t make the slightest effort to prevent that from happening. From the way the game is designed, you might think that it was intentional. I’m going to be generous and say that the developers were sadists, because the only other option is sheer incompetence.
I will always love Zelda games for the sense of wonder and awe they provided me with from a young age, and how they continue to do so. This attitude is simple not present in The Legend of Zelda, and wouldn’t appear until A Link to the Past, take a nap until Wind Waker, and then was brutally murdered by Skyward Sword. I hope you’re looking forward to my review of the remaster.
I can respect that they try to give the player freedm by dropping you off in the middle of nowhere and just letting you go, but it’s done in the completely wrong way, and in the wrong game. I don’t expect it to have mastered that sense of being unfettered and exploring the vast unknown like Breath of the Wild, it’s unfair to a game that came out thirty years prior.
It might seem vindictive to compare this game to the rules of game design that are common today, but that’s forgetting that many of these rules were invented and mastered by Nintendo, specifically Zelda. However, based on the standard of games at the time, you could have expected better.
At the very least, we could have wiped away the fog from our nostalgia goggles and acknowledge that The Legend of Zelda, while revolutionary, is flawed to the point of being unplayable now. Outside of the time and place where it was released, it can only be enjoyed as a relic. Even then, it is best enjoyed with a walkthrough.
If you thought I was too harsh here, buckle in, I haven’t even begun to mention Ocarina of Time, and my thoughts there border on being unble to broadcast. If you want to see this become a regular series, the way to tell me is to like this essay, say so down in the comments, or mention it over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku, where I’ll be airing my individual thoughts on Skyward Sword, the video game equivalent of the rocky relationship I have with my parents. Until next time, thanks for reading.