Rewind Review - The Legend of Zelda (NES)

The Legend of Zelda - despite being the foundation of the action-adventure genre - does not stand up to modern standards of gaming

Back by (un)popular demand it's Rewind Reviews! After dealing with a whole slew reviews that started with the original NES title, some fans of the Metroid Rewind Review series suggested that I take on the series' equally famous cousin: The Legend of Zelda. Taking into consideration that Zelda (Wii U) is hiding in the not-so-far-off lands of 2016, and Triforce Heroes comes out in October, I can't think of a better time to take the RR-Hammer to everyone's favorite adventure series.

As any respectable gamer should know, The Legend of Zelda is the founding father of the action-adventure genre. The game provided little boys and girls in 1986 with their first real exploration and dungeon crawling experience in a video game and has long since stood as the paragon of the action-adventure genre. The Legend of Zelda also serves as the foundation of many modern adventure games, introducing now-basic concepts like dungeon maps, utility equipment, and boss formulas that we still see used today. But does the great-grandfather of the action-adventure game stand up to the tests of time, or has it crumbled with the years?

As with all Rewind Reviews, The Legend of Zelda will undergo a review process through the eyes of a modern critic. No nostalgia glasses, no excuses, no rationalizing hardware limitations, and no sparing myself from angry fans and readers. Nothing will excuse the game from anything that we - as modern gamers - would expect to see in the genre today. With that said, let's talk to a creepy old man to get a wooden sword and start our very first adventure in The Legend of Zelda on the Nintendo Entertainment System!

The Plot


In terms of in-game story, this is all we get due to the limitations of the console. As a result, The Legend of Zelda uses an instruction manual to deal with most of its need-to-know information - including the story - much like the first Metroid title.

According to the instruction booklet, an army attacked the Kingdom of Hyrule with the goal of stealing the Triforce of Power, part of a golden triangle possessing mystical powers. The army - led by Ganon - plunged Hyrule into perpetual fear and darkness, forcing Princess Zelda to split the Triforce and hide the fragments across the kingdom. Zelda then commanded her nursemaid, Impa, to escape from Hyrule and find a young man with enough courage to stop Ganon.

Braving the forests and mountains, Impa was soon ambushed by Ganon's forces. However, a young man by the name of Link appeared, vanquishing the forces of evil. Impa then told Link what had happened to the princess, and that he would need to rebuild the Triforce of Wisdom before confronting Ganon at Death Mountain.

This story presented in the manual cannot stand up to modern video game storytelling, however, it does get the message across: the princess is in trouble, Ganon is the bad guy, and we need to find the Triforce pieces. Simple, but effective. It also does not sound like a fifth grader wrote it - as Metroid's instruction manual did - so that is a plus.

However, I would not go so far as to claim that this story fares better than Metroid's in terms of depth. Let's not pretend Link is anything more than a Gary Stu in this game since he has zero reason to help Impa or Zelda aside from it being the "right thing to do." Literally, Link's only reason for fighting Ganon according to the manual is because Impa's story caused him to start "burning with a sense of Justice."

At least Samus was getting paid to kill Mother Brain...

The Gameplay

The Good

The Legend of Zelda offers one good thing - and one thing only - exploration. While this feature expands into other details such as the broad inventory, the use of a map system *glares at Metroid*, and hidden areas, ultimately it boils down to the concept of exploration. The game provides players with a vast area in which they can spend their time fighting enemies, searching for secret loot, or begin their next dungeon.

The non-linearity of the game also allows players to decide what obstacles they want to tackle first, leading to some dastardly results if they arrive at the end of a dungeon without the right equipment.

Look at this giant overworld map! Can you spot the red square marking the starting point for Link's adventure across Hyrule? (Click to Zoom)

Expanding on the idea of an in-game map, I cannot stress how important a map is in this game. Every dungeon has a dungeon map hidden in one of its rooms. Getting the map is essential since the rooms of each dungeon look almost identical save for the tile placement which can be very disorienting since the game does not save which rooms you have visited.

As for the items, there is not one item that does not get used by the late game. Bombs, Arrows, Boomerangs, and so on are all useful for strategically dispatching enemies. Candles are useful for lighting up dungeon rooms which are prevalent throughout the later parts of the game, and the whistle is useful for getting around the overworld (provided you know what you are doing). As for the Magical Rod, it is a fun little weapon for damaging enemies that are out of range since it doesn't use up your rupees like the Bow. However, note that once Link finds the Book for the Magical Rod the Red and Blue Candles effectively become useless.

By the late game, Link does not feel overpowered. In fact, unless you have gone out of the way to find Heart Containers you will likely find yourself dying to overworld enemies, even half-way through the game. Since the game starts you back at the beginning with only 3 recovered hearts and all of your items each time you die, the game feels like you are being punished for failure. Since the enemies you face are also the same ones you will have fought many times before, the game only gets easier.

However, this only will happen if you went out-of-the-way to collect items and upgrades such as the red or blue ring that reduce damage or heart containers to increase your maximum health. It is a nice balance that even modern games still fail to accomplish.

Dodongo is a recurring boss that appears in several dungeons: 2, 5, and 7

The last point I would like to make is that the game's variety of enemies is fairly wide, sporting about 40 different foes out to kill our young hero. However, it should be noted that at least 10 of these enemies are re-colours that have extra health, bringing that total to only 32.

Furthermore, 6 of the 7 bosses return as mini-bosses later on in the game which helps increase the difficulty without making the game feel unfairly balanced since players will know how to defeat enemies they have already faced. However, this lack of boss variety can make the game feel stale by the 8th dungeon since the bosses do not become any more difficult than in their previous battles.

The Ugly

Fans of the Rewind Review series knew we would be skipping "The Bad" section and head straight for "The Ugly." The truth of the matter is that while The Legend of Zelda brought forth a bunch of innovative gameplay in its time, in the 21st century it has aged poorly...

The first issue that comes to mind is the map I praised earlier. In dungeons, you can get access to a slightly more detailed map once you find the Dungeon Map item. In reality, however, it is hardly worth the effort.

The reason is that once you find the Compass, the only thing that the map is useful for is finding out where the Dungeon Boss/Triforce piece is. The map does not tell you where treasures are, or where you might find an item that you will need later in the game. If players were unable to access the Dungeon Boss without said items, then this would not be a problem.

However, this is not the case.

For example: in the first dungeon the Bow is found in the upper-left most room. However, there are only 3 locked doors in the dungeon - all 3 key being found prior to the crossroad between the Dungeon Boss and the Bow. As such, during a first run through the game players could simply walk right past the bow. While this is not a problem for a good portion of the game, you cannot defeat certain bosses without it.

As a result, a player who is inexperienced with exploration games - or simply do not care for unnecessary exploration - could go the entire game without the Bow and then find themselves unable to get past Ghoma. Worse yet, many players would likely never consider going back to the first dungeon to check. This is ultimately a failure in the game's design, not the players of the game.

Another issue is that the controls are very clunky. The NES lacks the ability to emulate diagonal movement. As a result, Link moves like a tank. What is worse is that Link also cannot move while he is using another animation (i.e. using an item). This leaves the player prone to attacks while they are stuck in an animation.

While this does not seem like a problem at first, it becomes one once you consider how short the invulnerability period is (see the video). These two factors combined results in unnecessary deaths before players have managed to find the first dungeon.

This one area alone is responsible for at least 4 of my 20 deaths during my playthrough...

In my own run I died about 5 times between the start of the game and the end of the first boss. This might suggest highlighting The Legend of Zelda (NES) as a game geared toward "hardcore" players, however, the deaths are not because of the game's inherent difficulty. Instead, the difficulty is a result of the faulty controls. 

Normally I get excited whenever I die since the game feels like a challenge, however, in The Legend of Zelda I feel cheated. My deaths were not because of my own doing, but rather because of the failings of the controls or getting stuck in an animation while trying to evade an enemy. What is worse is that enemies seem to have a better time controlling the game than you do. Five octoroks killed me in the first 5 seconds simply because they had numbers. Meanwhile, I was bombarded with rocks while stuck with clunky controls.

The game's intro openly mocks those of us who play the re-released versions

One last issue is the game's reliance on the instruction manual. In the Metroid Rewind Review I made it clear that games should not rely on a manual since the game should be able to tell you what every item does.

While The Legend of Zelda is a little more straight forward with its items since they are real-world items, the game relies heavily on the manual for just about everything else. The manual handles telling players where the first two dungeons are, that merchants can be found in hidden areas accessible only by bombs, and so on. The manual is responsible for everything the game does not explain - including the aforementioned searching for items that players might miss before finishing a dungeon. The worst part about this is that all re-releases of the game do not have the original instruction manual, leaving players at a loss for what they need to do.

Without searching for a guide on the internet, the game is virtually inaccessible by modern audiences (and that is without mentioning the 7th dungeon that cannot be entered without the Recorder/Whistle).

The Presentation

The Legend of Zelda has always been famous for its iconic music, and the original NES title is no exception. Many of the iconic tunes come straight out of this title, and the 8-bit soundtrack is still pleasant to the ears even to this day.

Sound design is functional in the game as well. Every strike, explosion, and jingle draws the player's attention to the screen. This helps the game not only immerse the player, but also ensures that the player's attention is pulled to the screen when it matters such as when an item appears or an enemy is defeated.

Short jingles when unlocking doors also creates a sense of accomplishment in the player, compelling them to press forward.

Manhandla looks as crudely designed as our pint-sized Link, and that's a good thing in terms of design

The graphical presentation - while extremely crude by today's standards - has a certain charm to it. Unlike the Metroid NES title, The Legend of Zelda actually carries over pretty well to 2015. Despite being dated, the game's visuals do a really good job of maintaining a certain style. Had certain enemies or visuals have had unusually higher detail than other assets in the game I would have immediately shunned the game's graphics. However, its strict adherence to a minimalist presentation helps the game transition into the modern day.

The Verdict

The Legend of Zelda despite having a number of failings is still a rather enjoyable game. It has a certain charm to it that time itself cannot take away. However, new players should certainly be aware of its failings. The controls have not aged well at all, and without a guide newcomers should be ready to wander the Kingdom of Hyrule aimlessly for a long time before stumbling upon their first dungeon. That said, the game is certainly playable, and is a worthwhile game to pick up if you are willing to invest the time.

As such, I give The Legend of Zelda (NES) a 6 out of 10 for being a game that only a dedicated fan of the series - or of adventure games - can truly bring themselves to play anymore.

I leave it to you now, readers! What do you think of the original Legend of Zelda game on the NES? Do you think I'm being too harsh on this gaming classic? Do you think I'm just a noob who should learn how to play the game better? Do you agree that the game is simply not suitable for modern casual audiences? Leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments selection below!

That brings us to the end of the first part of this sixteen part Rewind Review series on The Legend of Zelda. Be sure to check back on this article or the GameSkinny front page for future reviews and swords and sorcery action as we make our way from the original 1986 release of The Legend of Zelda on the NES to the 2013 release of A Link Between Worlds on the 3DS!


Reviews in this Series:

Our Rating
The Legend of Zelda - despite being the foundation of the action-adventure genre - does not stand up to modern standards of gaming
Published Aug. 6th 2015
  • The Soapbox Lord
    Featured Contributor
    I think this one is heavily dependent on the player to determine their enjoyment. Some people enjoy the obtuseness (I do from time to time) while some do not. It definitely holds up in some ways, but falls short in others. The opposite of the original Metroid...
  • David Fisher
    Featured Columnist
    Something I've noticed about the Zelda series - so far - is that every Zelda game has its fanbase, almost like a sub-fanbase of the series as a whole. I'll probably look into it more so once I get to the end of this review series.
  • The Soapbox Lord
    Featured Contributor
    I think it holds true for any long-running franchise, but especially to Nintendo's.
  • Connor Van Ligten
    Featured Contributor
    Thanks for taking my suggestion! I totally agree, despite being fun to play, it's very confusing to know where to go in the original Zelda without guides.
  • David Fisher
    Featured Columnist
    You're welcome (I guess?). I'm always open to Rewind Review suggestions, but a lot of my turn-downs aren't based on the fact that I don't want to play the games, but rather because I don't actually have them on hand. I recently got access to all of the Zelda series, so I decided that now was as good as a time as any to start!

    I think that at the end of this review series I'll come to some sort of conclusion as to what the hype behind the series is all about. Like I said elsewhere, I'm planning on doing a Zelda/Metroid dual retrospective at the end of this. Sorta like a "Rewind Review Special" type thing since the two games are Nintendo IPs that both involve the action-adventure genre.
  • Elijah Beahm
    Featured Columnist
    I still want to try this one for personal reasons, but I can certainly say you've got me more inclined to take friends' advice and try Twilight Princess on the Wii first.
  • David Fisher
    Featured Columnist
    If you could find Twilight Princess on the Gamecube instead, I'd vouch for that. I'd explain why, but we'll get there when we get there. :P
  • Elijah Beahm
    Featured Columnist
    I know one place with a copy, but they're charging way too much for it. Most likely why they still have it in stock.
  • David Fisher
    Featured Columnist
    I'm guessing they're charging in the 70-90 range... I know a guy in my area doing the same thing. Amazon's brutal for it too. I know they're selling the GC copy for $126. Try flea markets. They tend to have somewhat realistic prices... well, comparatively... Try ebay too. They've sometimes got some suckers selling it for less than $60.

    I'm just glad I pre-ordered the GC version when I did. :/
  • The Soapbox Lord
    Featured Contributor
    Glad I got mine back in the day. I have a few Gamecube games people are scalping now. For once, I made wise purchasing decisions when I was younger!
  • GameSkinny Staff
    I definitely do not think it holds up at all - it's horrifyingly confusing and punishing for anyone who hasn't read the entire manual. Unless a game is taking advantage of some sort of cool ARG experiment or mechanics, the necessity of outside resources is a huge barrier to entry. Not to mention: I'm pretty sure the game never tells you to refer to that manual - even a little 'hey, dummy, you need this additional info that's still in the box' would suffice. Due to that limitation, the game is incredibly obtuse.

    The exploration/adventure genre began here, but it's important to remember the word 'began' - the genre and its conventions have improved immensely over the past three decades.
  • David Fisher
    Featured Columnist
    Funny thing you should mention the game referring to the manual. See that picture of Link holding up a sign that says "Please look up the manual for details"? That's not a photoshopped image. That's from the game's intro. You know... the one that shows up after you wait for 3 minutes on the title screen? XD

    The genre "beginning" here is sort of what I tried to defend Metroid: Other M with. People think that because the term "Metroidvania" exists, it means that Metroid is the pinnacle or the standard of the exploration genre. However, it simply means that it the game is a source text. Like an essay, game developers use games like Metroid and Legend of Zelda as a foundation, and I think that "foundation" is a much more accurate term to define them with.
  • GameSkinny Staff
    Yep, I remember seeing that as a 'look at the manual for story details' kind of signage, not mechanics. I'm pretty sure it took watching a neighbor placing a bomb along a wall to find a merchant for me to ever catch on to that.
  • Michael Slevin
    I think The Legend of Zelda absolutely holds up. If someone made a game of its caliber today, especially an indie dev, it would be heralded as a masterpiece. I think in a lot of ways the game is better today than ever, thanks to the availability of guides and tips. If a player gets stuck they can immediately look up what they need to know. I feel like the game would have been much more obtuse and difficult in 1986 relative to today.
  • David Fisher
    Featured Columnist
    Everything you said in this comment makes sense. My counter-argument, however, would be that the game's almost complete reliance on a third-party guide is something that somewhat pulls it back based on the criterium of modern adventure games. We expect to have some sort of linearity or at least one arrow pointing us in the general direction of where to go - something that Zelda (NES) doesn't do. While it's not something bad in terms of people looking for a challenge, the game itself isn't marketed to that audience.

    That said, if it were developed by an indie developer (as you suggested) and was marketed to a "hardcore" audience, I could definitely see it sweeping the market as the go-to game.

    As for the 1986 market... I think they were more forgiving. I'd hate to pull out the "2015 kids are spoiled" card, but in this case it couldn't be more true. We expect the in-game map to work, not to have to draw out our own maps and plot out where all our secrets are. I know at least several people who played the original game at its release, and every single one of them has a map drawn with rather pencils or crayons. Video games back then were like an extension of a board game, nowadays they are the board, the rules, and the game (if that analogy makes any sense...).

    I think that by the end of this RR series I'll do a retrospective on both the Metroid and Zelda series. I have some very interesting thoughts about both that I think people will love.
  • Elijah Beahm
    Featured Columnist
    They'd only get heralded as such because of nostalgia, not because of the game itself. And a game isn't automatically due to the availability of guides. A game should be something you can approach without someone telling you what to do, unless you are completely new to the genre.

    In 1986, gamers thought Doom looked realistic. The original perspectives of our gaming ancestors are not what we ourselves are guaranteed to feel or recognize. That's something I appreciate being addressed in these reviews, since David doesn't rely upon nostalgia or excuses to account for any awkwardness in older games.
  • Michael Slevin
    I guess I don't really mind the game being very challenging and obtuse. I actually like that. It's difficult and that can be a desirable quality in a game. I can only really say how I feel about it, but I played it last fall and really enjoyed my time with it.
  • Elijah Beahm
    Featured Columnist
    It has nothing to do with preference. A game that requires guides just to get through has a problem in its design. This is something I learned very early on in my modding/game dev days.

    Challenging and obtuse are also two entirely different things. A challenging game pushes you but also encourages you to keep going (like Dark Souls). An obtuse game is just intentionally vague and confusing for the hell of it or out of laziness on the developers' part (like Lovely Planet).

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