The Legend of Zelda brought with it a number of firsts: the first official gold cartridge, but more importantly, the first NES game with a battery save. While other games that were originally for the Famicom Disk System, such as Metroid and Kid Icarus, used a password system, thankfully Zelda was important (and complicated) enough to have something totally new. Many NES-era games that were large for their time feel small now, but Zelda is not small even by modern standards.
The original Zelda makes very efficient use of its design. You collect a large variety of items, but only 8 actually need to be selected and half of those aren’t used in combat situations. There are nearly as many passive items like the ladder and raft that work continuously or automatically. The 128-screen overworld map is divided into fairly distinct areas, but still flows more or less naturally. Nearly the entire thing can be explored from the start, with the various items you collect giving you access to secrets and shortcuts rather than opening up new areas. Survivability is the main impediment to exploration, and most of the tools to toughen Link up are found on the overworld.
The game’s 9 dungeons take up approximately the same amount of screens as the overworld, but feel entirely different. Though the grid-based nature of the dungeons certainly limits design in many ways, in others it actually opens things up. A glance at the map will tell you which walls you need to check for secrets when you’re stuck, for instance. The game relies on keys and locked doors to keep the player honest, but if you explore thoroughly this will rarely become an issue. And there’s a fine mix of exploratory puzzles and intense combat.
If the Legend of Zelda has any weakness, it’s that the combat can be extremely hard. Whenever you die or load your save, you’ll have only three hearts worth of health filled, which is annoying when you have a maximum of 16. It’s not much of an issue on the overworld map, but dying in a dungeon can lead to a loop of continuous death, and if you leave to find a fairy you can reset some of the tougher rooms. You don’t gain experience or anything of that sort, and defensive upgrades are pretty rare (and mostly found elsewhere). At times you just have to practice until you’re good enough to finish your quest, but this can be a time-consuming process.
If Zelda isn’t hard enough for you, the game offers a second quest that uses the same basic overworld, but with many details changed, and the dungeons both redesigned and relocated. The second quest introduces new mechanics like walking through walls, and is generally a whole lot harder than the original one. Still, the game is complete after one run through, so this really exists purely as a challenge, which is something still rare to this day.
The Legend of Zelda is a classic for a reason. It’s a generally well-balanced game with smart puzzles and lots of fun items to collect. Most of the hints you need are baked into the dungeon design, with the rest offered in broken English by various old men and women. While it’s easy to get stuck at times, the game is pretty fair–at least in the first quest! And unlike many original games from famous series, Zelda 1 still holds up, and doesn’t play exactly like any of its sequels. It’s definitely worth checking out!