April 24, 2017
Welcome to the Zelda series through the Lens of Truth! This will be the first entry in a series I plan to continue until I have objectively scored every Legend of Zelda game. The rating system is simple, four categories (graphics, sound, story, and gameplay) are rated on a scale of one to ten, the game with the most points out of the total forty wins. I considered creating a ranking such as Two Guys Playing Zelda are known for, but while contemplating how to put it into an article, I remembered my father’s words: “An Irishman neither understands how to make a long story short, nor why anybody would want to.” My medium in mind, I believe an individual entry for every title will also give a chance to expand my thoughts on each, share my experiences with the series, and provide a steady flow of content for several weeks by giving me an easy writing choice when I can’t think of a more interesting topic. Without further ado, The Legend of Zelda through the Lens of Truth.
In 1986, these may have been the greatest graphics gaming had seen. In many games the 8-bit style got muddy and you weren’t always sure what you were looking at, but for this title, each image concisely conveyed what the designers intended. In general, simple sprites depicted items, scenery, monsters, and other enemies enemies, and you were always constantly certain of what they were; dragons looked like dragons, spiders like spiders, etcetera. This may not seem like a big deal, but looking at even the most highly graded games at the time such as the Super Mario Bros. series had these issues. To this day, I am not one hundred percent certain what species the hammer brothers are supposed to be, and let’s not even get started on Birdo. Designs from this game were so clear in fact that many became gaming icons. The Octorok design was among the simplest, but even that was translated into every subsequent Zelda game, and a quarter century later went so far as to inspire the Guardian design in Breath of the Wild. Few choices became stale, even when you were fighting the same enemies in level eight that you had been in level three. With gaming circa 1986 in mind, turning those Darknuts blue didn’t change how cool it was to fight an armored knight or eight.
If there is a complaint it deserves graphically, I would point out that every dungeon had the same theme. Cobblestone walls and what I always thought looked like iron doors made for a believable dungeon experience most of the time, but simply changing the color of the tiles gave a worn and wearisome feeling by the end of the game.
The overworld, in contrast, was full of many vibrant locales from the graveyard to rolling hills to forests and plains, which compared to other games at the time was an incredible inclusion of supplementary scenery. Observe Final Fantasy and you’ll see about as many scenic sprites, but outside of that, I can’t think of a NES title that comes close. Graphically, the original Legend of Zelda set the bar for games at the time, and to this day it remains a visual joy to behold. I score eight out of ten.
Straightaway from the moment you insert the cartridge, you are greeted with a mesmerizing, memorable soundtrack. Many might criticize this and other NES games for the simplicity of tunes, but I consider such to be overshadowed by the clever use of limited technology. The Nintendo Entertainment System was only capable of playing soundtrack files with four digital instruments, which in general composers treated like a four part rock group; assigning the tracks to a lead melody, backup rhythm, bass line, and drums. Working effectively under these constraints, composer Koji Kondo presented unto the world tune after tune that inspired that Zelda feeling like gameplay alone would have been incapable. Not only was every track orchestrated in a way that fit the area it was unique to, but also they were cleverly repetitive. Because there is enough substantial musicality within this allegedly oversimplified soundtrack, I don’t even care when a track gets stuck in my head. When you absent-mindedly whistle a tune that was written before you were born, it is a sure sign that you found some good music. I would testify that The Legend of Zelda has the most memorable game soundtrack of all time. The dungeon theme felt rather repetitive by level 8, but excluding this, every track is one I would not mind giving a listen on repeat for a few days.
Along with graphics, a stuttering point for many NES games was sound effects. Oft have I found designers’ choices unclear in assigning sounds to actions or reactions. Take for example once more Super Mario Bros. This game does not necessarily deserve all the criticisms I keep forcing upon it but there are few references as quick to mind. There is a sound that plays immediately when you contact an enemy before the “lost a life” jingle plays, and I’m certain that it just played itself in your mind. What is it, though? It is difficult to even describe, but it certainly does not sound like a plumber being murdered by a walking mushroom.
The sounds effects were always appropriate and well made in the original Zelda. When an enemy hit Link, he would be knocked back a few squares and it would sound like he grunted with discomfort. Slashing your sword sounded like slashing a sword. Rupees sounded like… Well okay, that isn’t a real sound, but it sounded shiny. I understand that shiny is not an adjective that can be applied to a sound, but despite this, I think most people who heard that sound would think of coins, gems, or other treasure. It is also possible that I am alone and attempting to defend a case that only makes sense to me. Nevertheless, the sound effects played a vital role in immersing the player into the game world, and those in this game even supply a certain satisfaction in obtaining even the most useless items because of the “Duh Na Na Naaaa!” Thirty years later I have this same sound effect as my text message alert. They must have done something right. The sound for this game gets a nifty nine out of ten.
The Legend of Zelda established the standard formula for almost all action adventure games to follow for thirty-one years, and I see no sign of drastic changes coming in the next thirty-one. I do not believe there is a single title in the genre which does not borrow some aspect or another from this congenial classic, and I doubt there ever will be. Whether or not you agree with every game finding this inspiration, you cannot deny the impact it has at least had on its own series, and Nintendo games since.
Many have recently praised Breath of the Wild for being a rather difficult game, which has not been a series norm since at least Majora’s Mask, and arguably A Link to the Past. The series’ breakout title was quite a bit harder than even the most recent entry, but gamers at the time loved a great challenge so nobody nowadays gives it a second thought. 1980S games were almost all difficult, forcing players to develop skill in order to progress. Today’s games are almost exclusively easier by comparison since they deliver more options of control to players, and often more ways of dealing with situations than games of old. In Ocarina of Time, for example, the control scheme allowed for one dedicated button to be used for your sword, and three customizable buttons to assign hundreds of combinations of items to use. In every game preceding it, a single button was allowed (Two in Link’s Awakening but my point remains valid), forcing you to select one go-to item and only use your others as they became necessary. This limitation on gameplay obviously made for a more difficult experience overall, however I still think it was on par with games of the time since they all suffered such a fate. I’m not going to knock it down a peg because gamers of today are spoiled without knowing it, but just the opposite. I say it was a better game because of the difficulty which came about due to clever enemy design and item implementation. On the subject of assigning items to a button, this was a feature nobody had done before Zelda. It presented every player the opportunity to choose their favorite items to have on standby while having many options of weapons to solve puzzles as they came along.
Another phenomenal feat this game managed to achieve was granting many ways to play. Games of today, again, are praised for what Zelda was doing three decades ago. Whether you choose to explore the wilds of Hyrule just to see the sights, kill every enemy you find in hopes of becoming a supreme combat expert, hunt for treasure, or follow the story, you will find that this game will surely satisfy. The fantastic formula behind this original title fits every gamer’s needs, and earns this game a perfect ten for gameplay.
I hate to say this, but what story? You kill monsters and find Triforce pieces and kill Ganon (who in those days was spelled “Gannon”) and save the princess. The story only existed to give reason to the gameplay, which also was common at the time, however occasionally titles would release that proved that having a deep story was possible as well. Final Fantasy crafted a world more believable and interesting than any other for the console’s generation, and Ninja Gaiden offered players very rewarding cutscenes animated in pixel art that still looks clear today. Many games get a pass because of the limitations at the time while those which excel in this aspect very seldom find higher scores because of it. The story in this game was interesting enough to set the hook, but it had to hand the rod over to the sound and gameplay to reel. Three out of ten.
If you have been counting along, that places this game at thirty out of a possible forty points. Not too shabby, but I think this game’s true value is in what it set up for generations to come. The Zelda series has now thrived and evolved exceptionally from this stupendous starting point, and as I stated previously, every other action adventure game (and many of other genres) drew inspiration from what became what I believe to be the most important video game of the NES era. If you can think of one that did not, I challenge you to post a comment so that I can prove you wrong, or at least have an interesting debate. Also let me know what you think about this classic that led us all upon the adventures we will never forget and keep the conversation rolling.