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

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:

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

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

What Our Ratings Mean

About the author

David Fisher

Author, GameSkinny columnist, and part-time childhood destroyer. David W. Fisher (otherwise known as RR-sama) is a no B.S. reviewer and journalist who will ensure that you get as close to the facts as humanly possible!