Legend of Zelda

Nintendo NES

Review by Dave Warmington



Graphics: 10

Sound: 10

Gameplay: 10

Overall: 10

“The first truly free form video game”.

This review will cover the Legend of Zelda in its entirety. It will make generalizations on game logic, and other assumptions regarding the game’s internal code. Being as no such code has been released, certain aspects of the game, which will be covered regardless, are controlled by functions not clear to this reviewer. Again, generalizations and assumptions will be made. They are SOLELY the opinion of this reviewer.

The Legend of Zelda. Shigeru Miyamoto’s little adventure engine that could. This is the game that spawned the lucrative and legendary game series, which has sold millions and millions of copies over 15 different games. More or less, the game made Zelda a household name, and common knowledge in the gamer world that it is one of the most revered and critically acclaimed game series, ever. While technology has improved several times up, the game has remained the same deep down, and each new game is expected to be, and most always is, a classic instantly.

While a book could be written on each game in the series, we will focus on the first game, Legend of Zelda, for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. This game was released in 1986 and featured in a gold case, as well, later on, a gray case. This review will start with a multi-part analysis of the game, followed by an actual, typical review. Please jump to page 7 for the actual review. The text preceding the review is for support of the opinions and judgments made in the actual review.

Part I: The Basics.

The Legend of Zelda is a top-down adventure game allowing free exploration of a world consisting of ‘screens’, and the world consisting of a grid of 128 screens, 8 by 16. Each screen is different, except for the Lost Woods and the location leading to Level 5 First Quest, both to be discussed later. Your character, Link, is allowed to freely move over most terrain, as long as he is equipped to make such a move. He can collect weapons and items to assist him in his quest, which he can use, in turn, to help himself and to hurt his enemies.

a. Story

The story for this game is as follows: (verbatim from the manual)

“A long, long time ago the World was in an age of Chaos. In the middle of this chaos, in a little kingdom in the land of Hyrule, a legend was being banded down from generation to generation, the legend of the "Triforce"; golden triangles possessing mystical powers.


One day, an evil army attacked this peaceful little kingdom and stole the Triforce of Power. This army was led by Gannon, the powerful Prince of Darkness who sought to plunge the World into fear and darkness under his rule. Fearing his wicked rule, Zelda, the princess of this kingdom, split up the Triforce of Wisdom into eight fragments and hid them throughout the realm to save the last remaining Triforce from the clutches of the evil Gannon. At the same time, she commanded her most trustworthy nursemaid, Impa, to secretly escape into the land and go find a man with enough courage to destroy the evil Gannon. Upon hearing this, Gannon grew angry, imprisoned the princess, and sent out a party in search of Impa.


Braving forests and mountains, Impa fled for her life from her pursuers. As she reached the very limit of her energy she found herself surrounded by Gannon's evil henchmen. Cornered! What could she do? ... But wait!


All was not lost. A young lad appeared. He skillfully drove off Gannon's henchmen, and saved Impa from a fate worse than death. His name was Link. During his travels he had come across Impa and Gannon's henchmen. Impa told Link the whole story of the princess Zelda and the evil Gannon. Burning with a sense of justice, Link resolved to save Zelda, but Gannon was a powerful opponent. He held the Triforce of Power. And so, in order to fight off Gannon, Link had to bring the scattered eight fragments of the Triforce of Wisdom together to rebuild the mystical Triangle.


If he couldn't do this, there would be no chance Link could fight his way into Death Mountain where Gannon lived. Can Link really destroy Gannon and save the Princess Zelda? Only your skill can answer that question. Good luck. Use the Triforce wisely.”

With this, your character now has to scour the world, find the 8 pieces of the Triforce, and defeat Ganon. At its simplest, this is your objective. As I will describe, this game is much more than that.

Part II: Devices

This section will cover the broad range of devices at your disposal, whether they are weapons, items, and, your enemies themselves.

a. Weapons

At face value, the sword is your main weapon. Simply, you hit the A button (this button is solely for sword use… if you never pick up a sword, you will never need it!), and Link will extend his sword straight out in front of him. Link can swing his sword in the four cardinal directions only. If the sword touches something that is weak to it, it will incur damage, visible by a quick swapping of palettes (flashing) on the enemy. If it does not, it will either make a chink sound effect (Darknuts), or none whatsoever. Certain enemies are immune to the sword (Dodongo), while others can only die by its hand (specifically Ganon).

If Link has full life (all red hearts) the sword will shoot a flashing image of itself directly in front of it. This sword hit hits with ½ damage of a normal strike. This will almost always be Link’s first ranged attack.

There are three swords in the game, Wooden, Silver or White, and the Magical Sword (Often referred to as the sword that would, in the future, be known as the Master Sword.). Each sword is a step up by one of the previous version. The Wooden incurring one “point” (actual visual points are irrelevant in this game, but many refer to them as in “how many hits XX enemy has to take before it dies”), the Silver incurs 2 points, while the Magical incurs 4. This leads to an enemy like the Blue Darknut taking 2 hits from the Magical, 4 from the Silver, and 8 from the Wooden in order to die. The swords are awarded either by finding it (Wooden), or by finding it and having a certain heart level (5 or 12 respectively) to get the Silver or Magical Sword. In its own way, this qualifies as the experience system (a system popularized by other NES games like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy), rewarding you for progressing to a certain point in the game. This point will be touched upon later.

Due to the mechanics of this game, Link’s sword has an absurd amount of flexibility for a game of this time. Take, as an example, the room in Level 5 First Quest, two UP, three LEFT of the start of that dungeon. It is a room full of blue Darknuts. A decent amount of dodging is needed to survive this room with most of your life intact. However, you can incorporate ‘sword swinging’ and the fact that you are allowed to move very shortly after a weapon draw. By sword swinging, I mean the act of swing your sword, connecting with any enemy, and pulling the control pad in another direction with the sword still out, essentially canceling the first attack, into another, with one button press. It is not often the second swing will hit, however, it is quite useful for hit-and-run techniques, which are essential. It is not often you will connect a “strike” onto a Darknut (strikes will be discussed shortly), and odds on; there will be another Darknut nearby to get in your way. For these reasons, sword swinging, or even sword canceling becomes commonplace. This tactic shows the flexibility of the game’s engine perfectly. Other games will leave your character more vulnerable when you attack making you execute a more passive strategy to survive. In Zelda, your character is allowed to be aggressive with the flexibility to defend at the same time.

As touched on before, strikes are attacks that push the enemy backwards. For obvious reasons, strikes will only show on enemies you can’t kill in one hit. You will know you performed a strike when the enemy is, flashing, pushed back to the nearest solid square. While useful for obvious reasons, this also shows the touch of realism that the designers added into this game. Often times, in fights, you can hit your opponent hard, or in a weak spot, that sends them back, or stuns. This is implied by the strike mechanism. How this works exactly is unknown. It may work on the basis of face to face hits, or backstabs.

The next weapon is the bow and arrow. The animation for this weapon is like the sword, but it just shows the bow graphic over Link’s, and an arrow moves in the same path as the sword shot. This weapon is found separately, the bow in a dungeon, the arrow in a shop. In this reviewer’s opinion, this was a wise move. It allowed the player to find one, and not the other, and have a useless item in their inventory. Each arrow shot costs one rupee (the game’s monetary unit) to use, giving an additional use to rupees after you have purchased all there is to purchase. Finally, the Silver Arrow is available at the end of the game, and is needed to finish the game. This added an additional dimension to the end of the game – you could find the final boss, and not be able to kill him, forcing you to explore more and think more into what clues you have been given to finish the quest. This would bring me to almost call the bow & arrow the most punishing-to-the-user item in the game. Almost. J

Two versions of a boomerang are a part of this game; one, wooden, and another magical. The boomerang (spinning) is thrown forward in front of Link, and when it reaches its maximum distance, or a solid object, it returns to Link. The magical boomerang offers increased power (slight) and range over the wooden version. The boomerang also tracks itself back to Link, allowing it to curve, which can be useful in some situations. This weapon stuns most enemies, and only kills one (small bols). This weapon is a good secondary item to use in conjunction with the sword.

The final weapon to be classified as solely as weapon, is the wand. The animation for this weapon is the same as the sword, a straight thrust, but the wand graphic itself does not do any damage (Check this for accuracy). Instead, the wand shoots a wave beam out, similar in path to the sword shot. However, this beam is also stronger than the sword shot of the magical sword. The enemy known as Wizzrobe is immune to it, as it should be, as they use it as well. The Magic Book item adds another dimension to the weapon, as when the beam reaches its target it creates a flame, like the candle. This leads to multi-hitting situations, allowing you to kill an enemy susceptible to fire in one shot, as well turning the wand into a makeshift candle.

b. Items

In this section, any notable, for the purpose of this review, item is listed. Also, any item that can be used as a weapon is listed here (ex. Bomb). Only pure weapons will be in the preceding section.

A good part of the items in this game can be used as weapons, a novel concept that allows for creative play (combos), or even to alter the way you play through the game. (Sword-less). Yet another reason why Zelda’s item system was beyond what anyone had seen at the time. Also, most items in the game are multifaceted, giving Link more than one purpose, even if the item is not offensive in nature.

The first major item categorized as a weapon/item is the bomb. When the item is used, a bomb icon is placed directly in front of Link. After a short time delay (fuse), the bomb explodes damaging any item that can be damaged in its range (a 3x3 square, designated by smoke), including Link, enemies weak to its blast, and any breakable walls. The Dodongo can only be stunned by a bomb blast, and it must “eat” (placing the bomb directly on its head) the bomb in order to die. You have a limited number of bombs, and they can only be replenished by buying them or by finding them on dead enemies.

The candle comes in two incarnations, blue and red. The blue is only available for purchase (it cannot be found), and the red can only be found inside a dungeon. Both work the same, Link “slides” a flame in front of him, which works the same way as a bomb, damaging Link, susceptible enemies, and now bushes that are burnable, all in the candle shot’s one square range. This flame multi-hits multiple enemies, can combo, and also lights up any dark rooms. The flame lasts for about a second. The difference between blue and red is uses on a single screen. Although both candles can never run out of total uses, the blue can only be used once per screen (to hinder exploration of hidden areas early on), while the red can be used infinitely.

Every other item in the game does not have an offensive use. The whistle is the exception to this rule, however, it does not kill, but makes the enemy affected by it susceptible to normal attacks. The whistle, when played in the overworld, pauses action on screen, and a whirlwind comes on screen, left to right, at the level Link was at when it was played. This whirlwind will take you to a dungeon entrance. The mechanism for this has not been completely identified. Depending on the direction you are facing when picked up, it will take you to a different location. Apparently, the whistle has “memory” that remembers the last dungeon you went to, and takes you to the next one in order on the next use, even if it is 20 minutes later! This affect is not saved in your save file. The whistle will not take you to a dungeon you have not yet visited (so if you don’t know where First Quest Dungeon 7-9 is, it won’t find it for you). This whistle function is a precursor to many warping/tunnel systems seen in later games to transport you from one end of the world to the other, when traveling by foot could be redundant, and retard gameplay. This is similar in nature to the power bracelet, that uses static warp areas to transport you around the world.

Other notable items include the raft, regular keys, and the master (Tiger/A) key.

c. Enemies

This section will only touch on enemies thought to be supportive of the forthcoming review.

Probably the most significant enemy in the game is the Darknut. It is a knight character only found in the dungeons of the game. This creature is unique in the fact that it is the only enemy that can block your attacks. The shield the Darknut carries prevents your sword from hurting them in their face. They can only be hurt from the sides or behind. Coupled with the Darknut’s seemingly random movement pattern, and the fact there are always at least three of them per room, the Darknut becomes an enemy that forces the player to act defensively and aggressively in order to survive (the aforementioned sword swinging can be shown to be effective here).  It’s no longer a case of “How fast can I kill them”, it’s now “How fast can they kill ME”.

The Gohma and Dodongo are notable as enemies (and bosses at times) as the sword cannot kill them. Simply, this forces the user to think and use trial and error to overcome them. Akin the Ganon fight, if you run out of either arrows or bombs, respectively, you will have to reset or die, and try again.

The game’s enemy gallery is also quite varied, offering different effects aside from the standard “hurt the player” seen in most games before Zelda’s time. The Like-Like steals the player’s expensive large shield along with hurting Link. Fairy balls take away your ability to use your sword for a short time, and the second quest fairies take away your sword indefinitely, unless you find a healing fairy.

One other device of note to be mentioned is the Lost Woods and the path leading to Level 5. Although the Lost part of it is simply the area you are in recreating itself until you trigger the proper path out, this mechanism shows how the developers wanted to change the standard of screen to screen and throw tricks at the player to make them think, and to mix things up for the player.

Part III: The Free Form Open System

What exactly do I mean by an open system? Well, a number of things. First, the game drops you off at the bottom of map, with no clues, no hints, no direction except find the 8 dungeons, and ... no items. What you do at this point is completely up to you. Want to explore the overworld completely before heading down into the dungeons? So be it. Know where you’re going? How about doing the dungeons in reverse order? Would you like to try the game without picking up a sword? Well, it’s not completely possible (Ganon needs to be hit with a sword), but you can do 99% of the game without it.

Or, if you want to play the game as it was meant to, one through eight, you can. You have the choice, as there are no rules, except for when items are needed for entry, on where you can go and what you can do. You can skip some items altogether, or you can take your time, and pick up every single one. Whereas other games of the time forced you on a linear path, Zelda changed all that and allowed you to do what you wish, and play how you wish.

Once you have taken up the game, and are knowledge in it, there are a number of ways you can play the same game in a different way. First and foremost, the second quest is one. The developers added, essentially, a whole new game after the first. Where a lot of sequels these days are essential rehashes of its predecessors, Legend of Zelda put the rehashed sequel as part of the game, increased the difficulty, changed around both over and underworld maps, and gave the player the same feeling of what do I do now all over again. It essentially offered the quest and master quest in one package, akin to what they did with the Zelda: Wind Waker Bonus Disc.

From there, you can apply different ideas to make the game more difficult and challenging, and also to make the way the player plays and handles the game different. You can play the game for speed, play the game with only the Wooden sword, sword-less, no rings, so on, and so forth. It allows the game to become fresh again, as it is a new challenge for the player.

This is what I mean by free form and open. It allows the player to do what they want in-game, and to decide how they want to do it. The game extends a replay value that is more in-depth and longer than any game before it.

Part IV: The Review

The Legend of Zelda is arguably, and in my opinion, the most important video game of all time. Designed by the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto (based in part on his own childhood adventures and imagination), it set the stage for many, many games in the future, from the NES, to the current systems of today. Simple at first glance, this game forms an experience like no game before it. The basic story is that Link has been given the task to find the Triforce that was split, defeat Ganon, and save Princess Zelda. (Part I.a). The game only touches on the story in the attract mode, and in the ending, but when you play this game, the story becomes an afterthought to one of the best video game experiences ever. This is the one game you cannot play and call yourself a seasoned video gamer, at the same. It must be played to be truly felt and understood.

The game’s graphics were great at its time, but have paled in the face of newer systems. The important thing to remember is that the graphics accurately depict what the game wants to show you, and that they do not hinder the gameplay in any way at all. From the ominous tree doors on Level 1 First Quest, to the room of statues that greet you in every dungeon, the graphics add what they need to, and no more. They are perfect.

The game’s sound is akin to the game’s graphics. The music is great for its time, but in the face of CD audio, it begin to falter. However, the sound purveys the moods that are desired for each area. The triumphant overworld music gives the player the background music appropriate for their exploration. The dungeon music also gives the player the mood of a dark area, while Level 9, Ganon’s domain, slows down the pace of that music, giving an urgent and darker sense to the player. The sounds themselves also exhibit what is needed; a clink here, a slash there; what is appropriate. Again, the music and sound are perfect in furthering the game’s different areas and encounters.

Finally, the gameplay of the game is unmatched, even in some ways, by today’s games. Featuring a truly open game system (Part III), the game has perfect control with a system that allows for a larger freedom than before (Part II.a), a weapon system revolutionary for its time (Part II.a.b), and an enemy bank more varied than any game before it (Part II.c). The game also offers a gameplay system which allows for an incredible amount of replay value, depending on how much you want to challenge yourself. (Part III) It was expertly designed, and it shows in every part of it.

And did I mention the game is a BLAST to play? The Legend of Zelda is at the top, or near the top of many gamers and magazines all time top games list for a very good reason. It immerses the players into a world like no other. It is not a game to be missed.


Go to Digital Press HQ
Return to Digital Press Home

Last updated: Sunday, February 08, 2004 12:43 PM