With Robin Williams’ untimely passing on August 11th of this year, an old name from my past was all over the media: Zelda. This, of course, is due to the fact that Williams’ daughter is named Zelda, but the inspiration behind her name came from what is not only the greatest Nintendo Entertainment System game, but possibly the greatest game of all time, The Legend of Zelda.
Released in North America in 1987, The Legend of Zelda was created by legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka. Miyamoto, of course, is also responsible for the Super Mario Bros. games, among other classics. Zelda became the inaugural game in the NES’ new “Adventure Games” line, which would include Metroid and Kid Icarus. However, unlike those others, Zelda would not carry the pink logo that designated Nintendo’s first party adventure games. In fact, nothing about The Legend of Zelda was like anything gamers had seen from Nintendo, from the package design to the game cartridge itself.
The package was gold with a shield and “Zelda” emblazoned on the cover in red. There were no depictions on the cover of the hero or the eponymous Zelda or even the villain. Only that silver shield divided into quadrants. One was a heart, another a lion, and a third contained a key. The fourth was a cut out that provided a look at the golden cartridge inside. Wait, a gold cartridge? On top of all that, the game had Nintendo’s first battery-powered save feature. For the first time on a home console, you could stop your game and pick up right where you left off later. It was revolutionary for the console market and necessary for a sprawling game like The Legend of Zelda.
In the land of Hyrule, a boy named Link comes across an old woman named Impa, who tasks him with saving Princess Zelda from the clutches of the evil Ganon. Along with kidnapping the princess, Ganon has stolen the mystical Triforce of Power.
Before Link can save the princess, he needs to reassemble the Triforce of Wisdom. And so, the player’s quest begins as you guide Link through Hyrule and visit eight different dungeons to find the shards of the Triforce as well as the weapons and items he’ll need to defeat Ganon.
The plot was simple, but it led to an expansive adventure. The name of the game in Legend of Zelda was freedom. Now, Hyrule was in no way as wide open as, say, Skyrim, but if you could survive the journey and had the proper items to get past obstacles, you could take Link anywhere in the land. After Nintendo made their bones with side-scrollers like Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda was a revelation. Who can forget the, pardon the pun, legendary theme music. Along with the original Super Mario Bros. theme, Zelda has the most recognizable music.
Of course, the main theme played while players explored the “Overworld,” but once they stepped into the “Underworld” dungeons, they were greeted with a much spookier tune. The gameplay was also just so damn clever. You could find hidden passages and rooms practically anywhere in the game world. Some brought useful items or monetary rewards, while others held monsters or an ornery guy yelling at you for destroying his door. It was a total crapshoot.
Speaking of the monsters, they were so varied and inventive. I’ll never forget the classic TV commercial with the guy with the bad perm popping up all over the screen, shouting the names of the monsters. “Octoroks! Tektites! P-p-peahats! Levers! Aaahh!” Classic. Each enemy had its weaknesses. The biggest pain in the ass enemies were the Darknuts—the knights you could only hit from the side or back. They were quick too! Often, they would turn just in time to deflect my strike. I remember my friend Jason would always toss me the controller when he ran into them, he had such a hard time with them.
The puzzles were also fun. I remember bumbling through the Lost Woods and totally discovering the pattern by accident. So much so that I had trouble finding my way back through again. Thank goodness for the magic whistle. Remember, this was long before the time of the Internet as well as strategy guides. The dungeons were intricate mazes shaped like animals, which you discovered once you found the maps.
Possibly the coolest element of The Legend of Zelda was the second quest. This was another run-through of the game, but difficulty level was turned way up. Items were moved around from where they were in the first go around and enemies were tougher to defeat. To give you an idea of how difficult the second quest is, the only way to get to certain areas in the dungeons, you have to walk through walls…with no knowledge that you can do that. The goal of every Zelda player was to complete both quests without losing a life—much harder than it sounds, but doable.
The Legend of Zelda gave birth to my love of fantasy. After I rescued the Princess, I discovered a love of role-playing games and fantasy in general. I developed an interest in Dungeons & Dragons, mainly for the world and character building elements, but never really got to play as a kid because my friends weren’t into it. My video game tastes slowly shifted to RPGs like Ultima and Final Fantasy. I also discovered Dragonlance, a novel series that still holds a special place for me—I smell another essay! It all came from The Legend of Zelda.
I would argue that the first installment of the Zelda series is still the best one. It was certainly the most difficult, I think. You were really just thrown into it with no real direction, whereas later installments really mapped out the road for you. I love the Super Nintendo installment, A Link to the Past, but really, it felt like an easier version of the first Zelda, but with better graphics. The leap to 3D movement with Ocarina of Time really opened up the world of Zelda, though it feels like each subsequent Zelda game since has just been a re-hash of that one. But then again, that seems to be Nintendo’s modus operandi anyway—remake the same game over and over again.
The Wind Waker was an interesting experiment as for the first time Link and his friends were more like cel-shaded animated characters than traditional video game designs. It was a fun game too, save for all the endless sailing you had to do in order to find the pieces of the Triforce.
Many games have come and gone since The Legend of Zelda hit game consoles, but it leaves all of them in the dust. Yes, more modern games have flashier graphics and bigger worlds to explore, but Zelda had it all in one package. It has infinite replay value and was revolutionary for its time. In this writer’s opinion, all of the endless sequels have never matched the sheer originality of the first game and while Zelda had many doppelgangers, none of them ever seemed to match it in quality. That’s why, for my money, The Legend of Zelda is the greatest video game ever made.
Doug Simpson is an author and blogger. As one half of The Hodgepodge Podcast, he talks movies, music, TV, and pop culture with his partner, Dirty A. He also writes a ton of movie reviews, which can be found at Doug’s Reviews and The Hodgepodge Podcast. His first Young Adult novel, Great Big World: The Trouble with Dr. Beamo, is available NOW. Please follow him on Twitter.