A tale about the original Legend of Zelda

Editorial note: this article is from @timbledsoe689. The reason it’s republished here is that his website got taken down due to events out of his control. In mutual agreement, we are republishing the article here to give it a new home. Apart from fixing a few typos… there is no difference between this publication and the original.

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.

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
Then, and besides, that was just one direction. The Legend of Zelda let you go anywhere! 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 At 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 form a greater whole.

Exploration


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, gray
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.”


Secrets


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!
Monsters
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 an 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


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!


Second Quest


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 gray 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 gold cartridge becomes an
even rarer


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 via this link for links to all the
great articles and retrospectives on this epic series.

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