The Legend of Zelda

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The Legend of Zelda 1 NES box cover art

Being one of game designer Shigeru Miyamoto’s early landmark titles, The Legend of Zelda remains to be one of the best NES games of all time.

ConsoleNintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy Advance
DeveloperNintendo EAD
PublisherNintendo
GenreAction-adventure
Release Year1986 – 1987
Game Number1
Purchase (NES Classic)Purchase from Amazon.
Purchase (NES)Purchase from eBay.
Purchase 3-Month Nintendo Switch Online subscriptionPurchase from Humble Store.
Purchase 12-Month Nintendo Switch Online subscriptionPurchase from Humble Store.

If you played video games and haven’t been living under a rock, chances are that you have played (or at least know of) The Legend of Zelda series. After all, it is one of Nintendo’s biggest franchises of all time. From the very beginning, The Legend of Zelda series was destined for greatness. And that was made clear from the very first game, which came out over 30 years ago. God, those years are counting by fast…

Shigeru Miyamoto IMDB profile picture

The Legend of Zelda is a game designed by Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka. The exploration and dungeon-crawling aspects of the game were inspired by Miyamoto’s fond childhood memories and Tezuka’s love for fantasy stories (mainly, stories by J. R. R. Tolkien). The name “Zelda” actually comes from Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of Francis Scott Fitzgerald (best known as the author of the novel The Great Gatsby). And of course, the general gameplay was inspired by an Atari 2600 game called Adventure.

ATARI 2600 Adventure gameplay
Apparently, that big yellow bird thing is a “dragon.” And you’re playing as the little orange square.

The Legend of Zelda started off as a launch title for the Famicom Disk System in Japan (which is basically an add-on to the original Famicom), then would later get released as a cartridge for the NES and Famicom. Initially, Nintendo didn’t think the game would succeed in the United States. It’s basically the anti-Mario, requiring you to explore and solve puzzles rather than going straight to a finish line. Thinking the game would be more frustrating for American players due to its more open-ended gameplay, the North American release came with instructions with many helpful tips that made the game considerably more bearable.

And I can kinda see why. Because nowadays, it can be hard to get into this game if you don’t know what to do and how to do it.

 

The Hyrule Fantasy

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The game starts you off with a brief story written in Engrish. Something about a “PRINCE DARKNESS GANNON” taking a Triforce and Zelda breaking another Triforce into eight units and hiding them. It gets the job done in filling you in. However, the manual expanded upon the story and this is what we get…

So some random blue pigman named Ganon and his forces of evil stole the Triforce of Power, some magical MacGuffin with an unknown purpose. Apparently, it’s a part of a magical artifact that bestows great power.

So Zelda, the princess of Hyrule, took the Triforce of Wisdom to keep it out of Ganon’s hands and shattered it into eight pieces and hid them in dungeons. Where she got the time to do this and how she managed to do it all without dying or getting captured, I have no idea. I guess in this setting, Princess Zelda is actually a badass… up until the point where she gets captured by Ganon and becomes the damsel-in-distress you must rescue.

The Legend of Zelda 1 Link saves Impa artwork

Before her capture, Zelda sent her nursemaid Impa to find a hero courageous enough to fight against Ganon. And wouldn’t you know it, Impa comes across a young man named Link, who saved her from Ganon’s soldiers. After being told the whole story, Link sets out on a quest to collect the eight pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom, defeat Ganon and rescue Princess Zelda.

Interestingly, Impa never shows up in-game and is only mentioned in the manual. Despite that, she is one of the characters who gets reincarnated throughout the series (usually playing the role of attendant or nanny to Zelda).

So there you have it. The basic premise of the first game that would later inspire many similar premises, albeit with more identifiable characters and complex narratives.

 

IT’S DANGEROUS TO GO ALONE! TAKE THIS.

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So after you get a wooden sword from some random old man⁠—resulting in a well-known Internet meme⁠ many years later—the land of Hyrule is your oyster. You are free to go wherever! This kind of open-ended game design was mind-blowing for people at the time. In fact, you might even call this one of the first open world games ever released! Of course, being the first of its kind, The Legend of Zelda can be rather confusing to navigate.

And let’s not forget that GLORIOUS theme song that will never leave your head and you want to kill yourself because it plays on loop so damn often…

As instructed, your main goal is to visit eight dungeons to collect the eight pieces of the Triforce, then face off against Ganon in the final dungeon. The game plays in the familiar top-down view the series is known for, where you explore a big overworld and fight off enemies. Unlike later Zelda games, Link is locked into a grid and can’t move diagonally, making his movement strictly limited.

Link’s main weapon of choice is his sword, which can fire off Sword Beams when he is at full health. When he’s not attacking, Link can use his shield to block projectiles—but not all of them, as you’ll soon learn when you get hit by a Zora’s glowing projectile. If a projectile is glowing in this game, chances are that you need to buy a Magical Shield to block it.

You can also equip a secondary weapon using the game’s simple inventory system, if you have the necessary items. Usually, you can find these secondary weapons inside shops or dungeons, such as the:

  • Boomerang – temporarily stuns an enemy and disables their attack; can also obtain items from a long distance
  • Bow – fires an arrow at an enemy, which can be very useful; requires you to buy the Arrows in order to use; using the Bow costs 1 Rupee each time
  • Blue Candle – fires one ball of flame per screen; can burn trees and light up dark areas

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Sometimes, enemies will drop Rupees (or “Rupies” as this game calls them), which act as the game’s currency. You can spend those Rupees to get consumable or permanent items from shops scattered all over Hyrule. As a recommendation, I would get Bombs, the Blue Candle, and the Magical Shield before anything else.

And major advice here: you ALWAYS needs bombs in this game. ALWAYS. Restock them before you visit a dungeon.

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If you’re low on Rupees, you can search around Hyrule for hidden places. You may find a Moblin who will give you a large number of Rupees. There is also the Money Making Game, which is basically gambling (and a big scam). You only have a 1/3 chance to win anything. And even if you win, it may not even be worthwhile (really, 20 Rupees?) Unless you don’t mind grinding for Rupees (which can take a long time), chances are that you will lose a lot more than you win.

In fact, this is what generally annoys me about The Legend of Zelda. You almost always need Rupees to make progress, and yet the game frequently inconveniences you by forcing you to spend what you have to complete an objective.

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Without a guide or walkthrough, all you have are your own wits and the hints you get from NPCs. There is one specific kind of NPC who gives information for Rupees; an elderly woman you may find in a cave. For WHATEVER reason, you’d have to pick one of three different amounts to pay her, like the Money Making Game. If you choose the wrong amount, she’ll either say that you’re not paying her enough or she comments on how rich you are but gives you nothing in return. So again, a scam.

Ma’am, this ain’t a charity. Give the guy armed with a sword and bombs the information he wants. The land of Hyrule and its princess are in peril and you’re here scamming a kid out of his hard-earned Rupees due to your insatiable greed. Next time, I’m using you as Moblin bait. Stupid old bitch.

I know Nintendo was pretty new at the time when this game came out, so they had to experiment in order to find out what works and what doesn’t. Looking at this minor grievance now, it’s a great example of unnecessary padding for the sake of it, which there is never a shortage of in The Legend of Zelda. And before you all skewer me on that statement, just hear me out for a little longer.

 

A Grand Adventure of Confusion

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The overworld uses a simple navigation system where you can see yourself on a blank mini-map relative to where you are on the whole map. It kinda works and it does help you somewhat in trying to orient yourself in Hyrule.

However, it’s not good for backtracking and trying to find new locations can be very tedious. Most of the separate screens look the same with all the copy-pasted trees and mountainsides. Even to this day, I STILL have trouble finding Level-2 because it’s well-hidden in a series of screens that are full of trees and not much else. And because the game does little to hold your hand, it’s highly likely that you’ll end up at a place that you’re not prepared for and where enemies will utterly destroy you.

In a sense, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in 2017 would follow this non-linear level design philosophy as a way to add challenge to your journey. Will you face the overwhelming odds head on or will you run away? Are you going to destroy the Guardian that stands in your way or are you going to try to keep out of its line-of-sight as long as possible?

Not trying to complain here, but locating dungeons in The Legend of Zelda is a pain in the ass without a map or a walkthrough. Their actual locations don’t coincide with any specific “level path.” A game like Breath of the Wild makes it easy to find shrines. It’s also very clear on where you can find the Divine Beasts.

But in this game, the very first dungeon I ever found is Level-3. And wouldn’t you know it, I got my ass handed to me. At that point in the game, I sucked ass. I was not prepared for that level of challenge, but I had few alternatives to visit anyway because I couldn’t find any more dungeons and I wanted to make at least some kind of dent of progress.

You would have to check nearly every screen to get anywhere in The Legend of Zelda and most screens have a lot of enemies in them. So chances are that you’ll die often, especially when you only have a small health bar.

Thank god this game actually has a save feature. Believe it or not, but The Legend of Zelda is the first cartridge-based game to use an internal battery for an in-game save feature (as opposed to saving using passwords).

Yeah, imagine that. Being able to SAVE YOUR GAME was a luxury back then. It was pretty revolutionary for a game of this scale to have this feature. Now, we’re just spoiled sows.

Now, I understand that part of the appeal of this game is the actual exploration aspect of it and I can respect that, but boy let me tell you that wandering aimlessly with little to nothing going on can be a little taxing.

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But once you actually find the dungeons, you get to play through the best bits of the game. The entrance greets you with a room full of strange-looking statues. And the following rooms ahead are full of monsters, items and puzzles that you need to clear to reach the end and claim the treasures within.

Unlike the overworld, the dungeons actually have a comprehensible map that fills up as you visit their rooms. Once you found the actual Map item, you can see which rooms you haven’t visited (minus hidden rooms, of course) and which rooms directly connect with each other. This is super helpful, and you won’t get lost most of the time. And with the Compass, you can see where the piece of the Triforce is located.

As you explore the dungeons, I recommend defeating all of the enemies in the rooms, because you’re often rewarded with items for doing so (Keys, Bombs, Rupees, etc.) And while it’s not clear that you could do this, you can try pushing blocks in order to reveal a hidden staircase in the room. This staircase can either lead you to a shortcut or to a treasure that you need to get through the rest of the game. This is the closest thing to puzzle-solving this game has. Yeah, doesn’t that sound exciting?

Also, the dungeon music is very annoying. It’s not bad after the first few loops. But when you literally had to listen to the same shrill, repetitive tune hundreds of times, you get pretty damn tired of it. No offense to the great Koji Kondo, but I learned to loathe this tune. It now causes me physical pain! Well, not really. But you’ll see why I feel this way as you read along…

The Legend of Zelda 1 NES overworld Heart Container

Some of the items you find in dungeons include a Bow to shoot arrows with, a Recorder that can teleport you to dungeons you previously visited and cause various unpredictable events, and a Raft that allows you to cross a body of water from a bridge. There’s also a Stepladder that allows you to cross one tile of water—wait, that doesn’t even make sense. The ladder would sink. Why not use a long plank of wood for that? And I don’t think Link is placing it the right way anyway.

…Well, I guess it gets the job done.

But as you continue through the game, that’s when you realize a walkthrough is almost mandatory because you don’t know where the hell the next dungeons are.

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Oh boy, here comes the fun part. Remember when I said finding new locations can be very tedious? Let’s emphasize that part. Very. In order to find new places, you either have to do trial-and-error for a long time or think outside of the box using the cryptic hints given to you.

These hints include:

EASTMOST PENNINSULA IS THE SECRET.

SECRET IS IN THE TREE AT THE DEAD-END.

DODONGO DISLIKES SMOKE.

DIGDOGGER HATES CERTAIN KIND OF SOUND.

SPECTACLE ROCK IS AN ENTRANCE TO DEATH.

10TH ENEMY HAS THE BOMB.

THERE’S A SECRET IN THE TIP OF THE NOSE.

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Never mind the fact that I’m trying to figure out what the hell is a Dodongo or a Digdogger or a Dingalinglingalingaling. Trying to discern what these “clues” mean is a puzzle in itself. To defeat the otherwise invincible Dodongo, you need to drop bombs directly next to its mouth. And to defeat the otherwise invincible Digdogger, you need to play the Recorder to make it vulnerable.

For secrets, you can reveal hidden staircases in the overworld by burning trees with the candle. And if you’re using the Blue Candle and the tree you fired at doesn’t burn, then you have to leave the screen to change to a new one, then come back to use the candle in a different spot. This is wholly unnecessary. Why can’t there just be a cooldown period to use the Blue Candle again?

You know, like its upgrade, the Red Candle. The Red Candle can shoot two flames in one screen, then can continue shooting fire after the other flames die out. Forcing you to use the Blue Candle once per screen transition really adds in the playtime for no real reason.

And to access Level-8, there’s a specific tree close to your spawning point that you had to burn out of the literal hundreds of trees in the game. There are no in-game hints for finding this dungeon.

Link, the Hero? Nah, man. Link, the Arsonist.

You also have to do other weird stuff like moving tombstones in a graveyard, disturbing the annoying Ghini, in hopes that one will reveal a new entrance. Or playing the Recorder at a random pond so that the water will drain and reveal a staircase. And the ONLY hint you get to figure that one out is:

THERE ARE SECRETS WHERE FAIRIES DON’T LIVE.

This is one of those infamous moments where you had to think outside of the box and defy logic. There is a pond in the game where a fairy will appear and heal all of your wounds. You will find a similar-looking pond with no fairy, which is likely the place “where fairies don’t live.” And when you try all of the items you have on hand, you realize that the Recorder drains that pond’s water to reveal an entrance to a dungeon.

HOW WOULD ANYONE KNOW TO DO THIS!? I mean, up to this point, you know the Recorder’s main purpose is to teleport you around the overworld next to dungeon entrances. Who would’ve thought this item had a hidden secondary function? One that was never established in having a secondary function and doesn’t make a lick of sense?

The Legend of Zelda 1 NES "I BET YOU'D LIKE TO HAVE MORE BOMBS."
YES! PLEASE!

You can use bombs to break open walls and reveal hidden entrances. They’re also great for killing monsters, like those annoying Darknuts. And they’re mandatory to kill Dodongos, who usually travel in groups of three and require at least 6 bombs to kill.

There are no visual indicators on where you can destroy walls, so again it’s all trial-and-error. This applies to both the overworld and the dungeons⁠—at least with dungeons, you need to bomb the center of a wall to reveal a new entrance. When you first began the game, you can only carry 8 bombs at a time. And you’ll lose them fast. And enemies don’t drop them very often, so you probably need to go look for a shop that sells bombs. And even after you bought the bomb upgrades to expand your capacity, you still need more bombs. Again, this is just more unnecessary padding to fill up your playtime! You see where I’m going with this?

Allow me to repeat this: you ALWAYS needs bombs in this game. ALWAYS. Restock them before you visit a dungeon.

To me, this is the biggest fatal flaw to The Legend of Zelda. It’s bad enough that the mandatory dungeons you need to visit are locked behind secrets. But it’s maddening when you lose all of your bombs and the dungeons refuse to provide you with more, so you had to go buy some more from a faraway shop.

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And behold, the final dungeon! Everything we’ve been doing up to this point leads us to Death Mountain! And it’s one of the most joyless dungeons in the game.

At the very least, this dungeon has different music. The standard dungeon theme in The Legend of Zelda has played hundreds of times for me at this point. So thankfully, the final dungeon has a theme that’s easier on the ears.

And well, the dungeon is more of the same of what you experienced before, but much more annoying. This level is massive and has a confusing layout. It is also crawling with some of the most annoying enemies in the whole game: Wizzrobes, Like Likes and Bubbles. I hate every single one of these guys.

Wizzrobes are some of the cheapest bastards in The Legend of Zelda, as they love to spam their magic spells and bump into you with their teleportation technique. They inflict large amounts of damage per attack too. They’re assholes. Kill them quickly.

Like Likes can ensnare you and eat your Magical Shield, making the dungeon significantly harder. They’re also assholes. Kill them before they reach you.

And Bubbles move at an erratic pattern and constantly bump into you, preventing you from using your sword for a few seconds at a time. They’re also assholes, but you can’t kill them. Well, fuck.

Also, you need bombs. A lot of them. Hopefully, you found the two bomb upgrades in the game. If not, this dungeon is going to be a lot longer. There are many hidden entrances and two hidden treasures you should find before you face Ganon.

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Speaking of the big pig himself, the game throws yet another curveball at you with this boss fight. At first, Ganon turns invisible and teleports in a counterclockwise pattern, occasionally changing directions. Once you understand this pattern, you can easily strike him with the sword while he’s pelting you with projectiles.

Then Ganon turns red and he’s completely stunned. So what do you do next? Your instinct says try striking him again with the sword! Except… it doesn’t work this time. What the fuck?

And then he just comes back up, health fully restored. And you’d have to fight him again.

…Well, as it turns out, you are required to get the Silver Arrow item in this dungeon. If you don’t get it, you’re basically dead. You need to shoot Ganon with the Bow and Silver Arrow combo when he’s vulnerable, which ends the fight. Otherwise, he’ll just keep getting back up until you’re dead.

NOWHERE IN THIS GAME WAS IT EVER MENTIONED THAT YOU NEED THIS ITEM, NOR WOULD YOU KNOW THIS ITEM EXISTED UNLESS YOU THOROUGHLY EXPLORED THE DUNGEON!

This is utterly infuriating because Death Mountain is a long and tedious dungeon. Coming that far just to lose to some bullshit script really makes the boss fight seem trivial.

The Legend of Zelda 1 NES Princess Zelda

So, at last, you defeat Ganon, reclaim the Triforce of Power and rescue Princess Zelda. Hooray! You are the Hero of Hyrule!

Pretty basic ending, but at least you can take pride knowing that you completed a pretty harrowing game. And that it’s all over… right?

 

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The Second Quest

The Legend of Zelda 1 NES first quest ending

Yeah, it’s not over. There’s more to The Legend of Zelda.

As you may know, having a “second quest,” “New Game+,” or “master quest” is a staple in The Legend of Zelda series. Right from the very beginning too. The second quest is accessible after you completed a full playthrough of the game. But if you wanted to jump into this mode right away, you could also input “ZELDA” in the name entry screen.

Heh. I feel bad for anyone who thinks Link is actually Zelda, then decided to name their character “ZELDA” only to play a much harder version of the game. That’ll show ’em for mixing up the characters!

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So in case you’re wondering what the second quest is like, there are quite a few differences. While the overworld is mostly the same, the locations of nearly every secret and dungeon are not. Almost every place you’ve known is now in a different location.

*sighs*

I mean, the second quest shows a tiny bit of mercy to you by making sure Level-1 is in the same exact place as before. So at least you know where to start. But things are also tough right away.

Different dungeon layouts with more underground tunnels. Tougher enemies from the beginning (Stalfos can now throw unblockable swords now like Lynels, what the hell). Treasures in different dungeons.

Oh, and also, more walls to bomb. And there are now mandatory invisible walls you can simply pass through, a mechanic I despise. Some of these invisible walls are a one-way trip too.

LAWL

And you have to use the Recorder more often to, you guess it, reveal more hidden staircases.

The Legend of Zelda 1 NES second quest Dodongo
I’m stuck in this room and I don’t have enough bombs to kill all three Dodongos!
How is this FAIR!?

The second quest also introduced new enemies: Red Bubbles and Blue Bubbles. This is one of the main gimmicks of the second quest and I hate it. Basically, Red Bubbles permanently disable your ability to use the sword, even if you exit the dungeon—unless you touch a Blue Bubble, which restores this ability. And the dungeons throw these enemies so often that it add more artificial padding to your playthrough. I hated the normal Bubbles, but these bastards are even worse. Not a fun gimmick.

So basically, the second quest took everything I hate about the game and made them more prominent than before.

Thanks, Miyamoto… I… I sure… appreciate that…

*gulps*

Seething rage…

The Legend of Zelda 1 NES "LEAVE YOUR LIFE OR MONEY."

Oh, and get this. You need Rupees now more than ever. Because sometimes, you’re going to come across an old man in a dungeon and he’s not going to let you pass unless you give something up. Either 50 Rupees or a Heart Container. More time to grind for Rupees versus making the rest of your playthrough harder.

I mean, the way he worded it, it’s like he’s trying to mug you.

LEAVE YOUR LIFE OR MONEY. OR I WILL POP A CAP IN YOUR ASS.

What is up with these scumbag elderly folks trying to rip you off? Do they WANT Hyrule to be saved? Or are they profiteers all along, willing to sell out the kingdom and its princess just to stare at some shiny stones for the rest of their short lives?

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Oh, and I love this part right here. You know how I mentioned that the dungeons are difficult to track down in this game? The second quest is HORRIBLE about this. It places the dungeons in some of the most random spots possible, often with no hints. So it’s even more trial-and-error just to find them! Meaning more trees to burn and more walls to bomb.

Level-6. Go play the Recorder at the graveyard and some random gravestone will vanish.

Level-8 is at a random wall you need to bomb, next to a river.

And Level-9 is at a random wall at a different part of Death Mountain. I’m… I’m done…

So I went through the motions and got everything. Ganon is the same as before, so yeah. And the ending is the same too.

The Legend of Zelda 1 NES second quest ending

Ahh… that was painful. I hate the dungeon theme. I hate the dungeon theme so much.

I’ll admit, The Legend of Zelda has a lot of annoying shit to it, especially when you’re trying to play most of it without any kind of outside help. Some of it due to system limitations. Others due to questionable design choices.

Oddly enough, deliberate design choices. Apparently, Miyamoto wanted to make The Legend of Zelda into something like a team-based experience. Something that you can talk over with your friends about and share secrets that you each discovered. Questions like:

Dude, did you ever find the Magical Sword?

And then someone tells you the answer and you’re happy because the game is now much easier thanks to this tip.

Well, this design decision worked out for Nintendo’s marketing. Because of the game’s tendency to hide secrets everywhere (some of which you need to reach the end of the game), people want guides, tips, walkthroughs and cheats. And guess what came out of it?

Nintendo Power magazine cover first issue July/August 1988

That’s right! Nintendo Power magazine. Get the Power! Nintendo Power, motherfuckers!

The first issue of Nintendo Power gives a detailed walkthrough of the second quest of The Legend of Zelda. It brought up pretty much everything. Where to find the dungeons, how to clear them, how to get their treasures, how to defeat the enemies, where to find all the secret stairways, etc. All organized with a colorful presentation and appealing layouts.

Well… I guess I should’ve gotten the Power. My mistake, everyone! I’m just being a douche.

So that was The Legend of Zelda, a legendary game that set a strong foundation for a legendary series. I’ll admit, it is a product of the times and it did age poorly in some respects. It looks decent (even if the dungeons look same-y). It sounds decent (even though that dungeon theme will be stuck in my head for the rest of my life). But it still plays pretty good. And this game is older than ME!

While I don’t consider it among the best Zelda titles, it set the groundwork for nearly every Zelda game after it. Whether it’s games with a top-down perspective like A Link to the Past or Link’s Awakening. And even 3D games like Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. Or hell, Breath of the Wild even took the non-linear gameplay and evolved it!

To put it shortly, The Legend of Zelda is an important part of gaming history. If it hadn’t done as well as it did back then, action-adventure games wouldn’t be as good as it is now. Even when you’re looking at more modern titles like The Binding of Isaac, the influence is clearly there. So even when this game doesn’t quite hold up that well (though many NES games are like this now), it inspired a whole genre and we owe a lot to it.

And that’s magic.

The Legend of Zelda

Price Varies
7.3

GAMEPLAY

8.0/10

GRAPHICS

7.0/10

SOUNDTRACK

7.0/10

Pros

  • Among the first of its kind to successfully implement a non-linear, open world approach to a game.
  • The combat, while simple, is pretty fun.
  • Finding Heart Containers, new treasures and hidden secrets are very rewarding.
  • The dungeons are the high points of the game, putting you through challenging fights and puzzles to reach the end.
  • One of the first games in gaming history to have an actual save feature as opposed to password saves.
  • For its time, looks and sounds good.
  • The second quest adds an extra depth of challenge, if you're interested.

Cons

  • Sometimes forces you to waste money for no reason.
  • Navigation in the overworld can be aimless and confusing, especially if you're not familiar with all the pathways.
  • Hunting down dungeons is a chore, as you only get a few cryptic hints to find some of them and lots of trial-and-error to find the rest.
  • Too few bombs, even after finding the upgrades. Enemies don't drop them often and you sometimes need them to finish the rest of a dungeon.
  • Nowhere in the game does it ever indicate that you need the Silver Arrow to defeat Ganon and complete the game. And you need to find it in one of the most confusing dungeons in the game.
  • The second quest has a lot of annoying BS to it.
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