Retro-Grade: The Legend of Zelda (NES)


There is a short list of video games that can be considered timeless classics. Games like Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man endure in the hearts of gamers who played them as young, bright eyed children. But do these games really deserve such lofty labels? Masterpieces in their time but can they compete with toilet time suckers like Angry Birds? As a young and “spry” 23 year old, I decided to tackle some of these older classics without a nostalgia filter to see how enjoyable they really are.

As a veteran of the Legend of Zelda series, the original Zelda released in 1986 for the Nintendo Entertainment System, was a logical choice for my first foray into retro gaming. Universally acclaimed for it’s innovative gameplay, this Shigeru Miyamoto produced game birthed one of the staples in Nintendo’s classic lineup of franchises. But is it all nostalgia or can this game be the hero of time like its protagonist?

I booted up the game and was greeted with the lovely title screen and a classic 8-bit rendition of the Zelda theme. I started a new game file and was prompted to name my character. I approach all of my work with professionalism and class so I chose the moniker “Fart”. I pressed start and there I was on screen, one of the overworld with my classic green tunic, pointy ears… and no idea what to do next. I knew enough to go into the cave to get a sword from an old man who warned me, “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this” before promptly leaving me alone. With zero exposition it seemed to me the story seemed M.I.A. but of course my young naivety had already reared it’s baby-faced head.

The hero Hyrule needs

After consulting my brother, who is 16 years my senior and a veteran of Nintendo’s first console, I learned that game manuals used to play a much more important role than they do now. As it turns out many games would put details of the story in the included manuals; most likely due to a restriction on space in old NES cartridges. The story is similar to most other Zelda games but for the uninitiated, my duty as hero was to collect the “Triforce”, which was broken into eight pieces and scattered across Hyrule by Princess Zelda. Then, with it, defeat Ganon and bring peace back to the land. In even simpler terms: “here’s a sword, kill the bad guy and save the world”. It’s a classic hero’s quest formula but it lends itself to the overall feel of the game.

From the get-go, the game actually allows you to go where you want making this really an open world game. Your main goal is to find the eight dungeons that have the Triforce pieces but the manual informs there are many caves to explore, baddies to fight and upgrades to discover. The game encourages exploration because some upgrades, like the magic shield, might cost less in another shop if you look hard enough. It even allows you to do the first few dungeons out of order if you feel like it but there is some equipment you need from them to do later dungeons, so there is some forced linearity. All of this exploration and lack of guidance left me feeling that I was on my own adventure and not just being led by the hand through a predetermined adventure like some modern games. This was a very creative way to immerse the player in the game when technology limited graphics and game mechanics.

Well I never!
Well I never!

Not to say this lack of help wasn’t occasionally frustrating. The manual tells you how to get to the first two dungeons and provides a handy map of the overworld but after that you are on your own. Which is fine for the most part. Like I said, exploration is half the fun but some of the later dungeons are damn near impossible to find. I actually had to look up how to find the entrance for the seventh dungeon because the game only gave one vague hint about how to reveal it. This is only a minor gripe though because once inside the dungeons, a whole new level of gameplay is added.

The controls are simple with only two primary buttons, a d-pad, a pause button and select button so the real challenge is in the timing and finesse. As a rookie to vintage games, which were typically higher in difficulty, the learning curve was steep (I yelled a few things at the screen that could land me jail in some Minnesotan Counties). I eventually got comfortable, though, and really came to enjoy fighting enemies as I explored the overworld. However, dungeons presented a whole different beast, figuratively and literally.

The overworld screens are large and spacious giving more room to dodge and get angles on your enemies, unlike the cramped dungeon screens which were smaller and usually more crowded. This heightened difficulty shifts the tone of the game to a more intense vibe, which is good because the dungeons were supposed to be crescendos throughout the game. They remind the player, who may have gotten comfortable exploring the overworld, that there is still peril and they keep the game from getting dull.

The Verdict: 9.4 out of 10

The Legend of Zelda exceeded my expectations. Though the lack of direction and difficulty were initially off putting, I found the beauty in its simplicity. The freedom allowed to explore made me feel like an adventurer saving Hyrule in my own way and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. This game truly stands the test of time.


For more information about what the score means, check out our official review scale.

Jason Vinetas is an Associate Writer for MONG, current student at the University of Minnesota and candidate for mental rehabilitation. You can’t follow him anywhere yet and you’re just going to have to live with that.


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