Some thoughts on the Legend of Zelda 1.
Note: The following are my admittedly all over the place thoughts on the Legend of Zelda. They were written in two giant chunks and per the wishes of many I haven't done any editing over them other than for grammar. So, enjoy my unpolished and raw thoughts on this bonkers game.
YOU HAVEN'T PLAYED ZELDA?!?!!? The incredulous cry rang out from the mouth of Kevin and Sean White of 2 Player Co-Op fame. Disbelief swept over them. I knew the look well. For over two decades I have been the guy who's never played Zelda, who never enjoyed what I saw, the guy with no love for Link and Hyrule.
After hearing the guys out and after much dread on my part I finally played Zelda 1, my very first Zelda game. So thanks to Kev and Sean for this giant, sprawling mess. I'm mostly glad I played.
Playing through Zelda 1 for the first time more than thirty years after it's release is a weird experience. The hype, expectations, and legacy of the entire series hangs over you. You can't avoid it, everyone wants you to love this game, to remember it as fondly as they remember their cherished childhood memories with Zelda and Link.
At times, despite my best intentions I do. I never expected to write that I like a Zelda game, but there were moments I found myself caught up in the adventure, in the sense of discovery, in the thrill of beating a dungeon that the Legend of Zelda offers up. I can clearly see what the kid first playing it all those years ago saw. Zelda 1 is quite simply unlike anything else that came before it. Hell it's unlike much of what came after too. Entire genres rose up after it, gaming was forever changed and a legend was born.
It's not 1986 though. Trying to reconcile this has been one of the most difficult things I have had to do while gathering my various thoughts on Zelda. Do I review and rate the game for it's time, for the place and world it was released in, or do I critique the game in this modern gaming world it played a large part in creating and where it doesn't hold up as well?
This is something that every single art form has to deal with of course, but here with one of the earliest and most fundamental pieces of gaming history it feels so much more important and real. Unquestionably to me I must view it in the lens of 2017, of how well the game has aged, of how it fits into this new modern gaming world. Just as the true beacons of greatness remain timeless in films, TV, music, and books, so the best of the best remain timeless in games.
Mario 3 is always going to be a masterpiece. Bioshock will always remain one of the most remarkable stories and worlds games has seen. The Last of Us will always be a towering and stunning triumph for the medium and storytelling at large. These things are so brilliant, so magnificently crafted that they stand the test of time and elevate games to another level. They are the best of the best. They are why we love and play games.
The Legend of Zelda's place is far tricker to nail down. Like I've said a million times now, but bear with me one last time, the game hasn't aged spectacularly well. It is obtuse, complicated, and runs about as far away from holding your hand as any game out there. I still believe nobody finished this game without a guide, or help of some kind.
The trick to this though is that the game is fun. It's not as if the game is bad, it would be far easier if it was. Instead, the games issues with aging clash with the games glorious highs at times. I couldn't stop thinking of Zelda(a fairly common thing to say right now) the game just pulls you in, it has a magical, devious glint in it's eyes. Call it Stockholm Syndrome if you like, but over time after hearing, after seeing, after doing the same things again and again and again you start to find yourself loving Zelda 1 for all of it's(many) quirks, weirdness, and attempts to just be different and a tad bit bonkers.
I found myself loving and growing oddly nostalgic for the overworld map. For the way I memorized so much of it by the end, for remembering back to when I began and how different things were, how lost and frustrated I felt then, I still felt frustrated at the end but it was different, it felt right at the end, perhaps fair is a better word.
Learning the quickest routes to get around, knowing the best spots to farm some money, Zelda made me at least respect things I would have sworn I wouldn't like. Yet, even here there was something holding me back. Something constraining this game from greatness.
There is no difficulty growth at all, seemingly random dungeons surge in their brutality and difficulty and then are immediately followed by the easiest dungeon yet. The last dungeon and the fight against Ganon is honestly probably one of the easiest, for starters there are no Darknights which is good because those guys can go right to hell. These random surges of the game getting wildly harder carry over everywhere, certain parts of the map get far harder than others, trying to get to some dungeons is far more difficult than others but never in the ways you would expect. There is no slow growth of learning, growing, and figuring out things in Zelda 1.
Instead, the world is out to kill you. The whole world, everywhere you turn, some parts are less dangerous, but not in a way that makes sense, not in a way it should. Weirdly, this almost makes Zelda 1 realistic in it's depiction of the world and how it won't be cowed by what you are wanting from it at any given moment. When you feel powerful it will knock you down ten flights of stairs, when you are weak it will knock you down ten flights of stairs, Hyrule hates you, it wants to smack you around and spoilers, it's going to knock you around a fair bit. It doesn't always work, it doesn't function like how games really should, but damn if at times I don't sorta love it.
Even as I reconcile myself to the fact that I don't hate Zelda and indeed like the game, I find myself pondering what this all means. That's the trick with this damn silly, bonkers, maddening, joyful, adventurous, and good game it's impossible to nail down, impossible to be defined in any way.
It's an adventure game, it's an RPG, it's a puzzle game, it's blah blah blah everyone can tell you just how important and groundbreaking and shocking this game is and that's all great and nice but none of that is relevant to the game being good or not.
The trick is...I'm not sure what exactly makes this game good either, it just sorta is. It lures you in until all of the sudden I found myself enjoying my time in Hyrule, until suddenly I liked the game I never thought I would. I kinda love it for that. There is not a single part of Zelda 1 by itself that I really like that much. It's story is laughably nonexistent. It's gameplay is totally fine but not brilliant. Figuring out it's clues and secrets make me want to bang my head against a wall. It doesn't look or sound particularly amazing, even by NES standards. Yet, here I am liking Zelda 1 quite a bit, flaws and all.
I just keep going back to the magic that lays within so much of this game. It is the blood pumping through the entire experience, it is what gives life and heart and soul to an otherwise plain and whatever game. It makes everything special and that's perhaps the best praise I can give this game.
I don't really have any conclusion or grand eloquent wrap-up to this like I usually do. My thoughts and feelings on this game are so garbled and confused that I feel like I could just talk in circles for hours and hours and still not really get anywhere. I'm glad I played this game, at the very least to be able to play such a monumental piece of gaming history.
Honestly, the big thing for me after playing Zelda 1 is that I need to play a 3D Zelda game. My thoughts and opinions on this series won't really be able to be set until I play a 3D Zelda game, that's the thing I want to do, that's what I feel like has the best chance to grab me, to hook me and get me to fall in love with the series. Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, Wind Waker, these are the games that call to me, that have the best odds of hitting home and striking a cord with me. My time with Zelda does offer me this one last intriguing question. Is Zelda a game and series that you can only love if you first played it as a kid? Is that sense of nostalgia, that unshakeable power of beloved childhood memories like rocket fuel to Zelda, connecting and cementing lifelong bonds between player and game? I'm not sure the answer, I'm not sure if I will ever love a Zelda game or the larger series, but after 25 years I can say that I respect it, and that's enough for right now.
Logan will return to Hyrule.................someday.