Much like Nintendo as a whole in the 1980’s (after Game & Watch at least), the Nintendo Entertainment System completely passed me by. When it launched in Europe, I was still fairly new to the ZX Spectrum, and when it was time to move on from there, I don’t remember ever even considering any console – it was just a choice between Amiga (boo) and Atari ST (yay)! Super Mario Land on the Game Boy would be the first time I’d touched anything Nintendo since Snoopy Tennis, and whilst everyone knew of Mario, I’d certainly never heard of Yoshi or Kirby, and definitely not Zelda or Link!
Over decades of gaming, of course I became more aware of the Zelda games, but was never compelled to try one on the Game Boy and its successors, the GameCube or my son’s Wii. Then when I got a 3DS in 2017, Ocarina of Time was dirt cheap and knowing its reputation, bought it with the console. Then didn’t touch it… Fast-forward to May 2018, a Switch for my birthday, as well as a copy of Breath of the Wild , which I also didn’t touch for months, but I had an excuse this time!
I decided I couldn’t start Breath of the Wild until I’d played one of the classic Zelda games, to have an appreciation of where it was coming from. By this time, I actually had a choice – as well as Ocarina of Time, I now had a NES Classic Mini too, which also offered the original The Legend of Zelda and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. As I’d not really heard anyone over the years hyping up the NES games, and obviously everyone hypes up Ocarina of Time all the time, I went there first. And it was great, and I finished it (which took the entire summer), but it didn’t say greatest game of all time to me. I fired up Breath of the Wild the very same evening I finished Ocarina of Time, and over the 90+ hours it took me to finish it, it did blow me away. I was very glad I’d played Ocarina of Time first because it gave it context and also heightened the spectacle of this new masterpiece; now we’re getting closer to that greatest game of all time tag!
September 2018, and where do we go from here? By now, I’ve gone from couldn’t care less about Zelda to fanboy in the space of a few months, and I wanted more, so of course we go back to the beginning. And by now I have a choice of where to play it, with the launch of the Switch online service and its library of NES classics (and that dreadful football (soccer) game). I decided it deserved to be played with a proper controller though, so went for the NES Classic version. Initially at least…
Originally released in 1986 in Japan and 1987 elsewhere, you play Link, a young man out for some action-adventure who needs to find eight bits of the broken Triforce of Wisdom spread all over what must have seemed like a massive monster-filled Hyrule at the time, then confront the evil Ganon and rescue the kidnapped Princess Zelda. Then do it all again, should the urge take you, in a harder and remixed second quest.
I was aware that this game didn’t exactly hold your hand when your adventure begins; you start with nothing, and I knew about people spending hours burning bushes, bombing rocky outcrops and prodding statues just to find basic equipment before you even think about finding bits of Triforce. I’d also read an extremely useful tip – read the manual! In particular, it pointed to a map you find in there, apparently included because Nintendo of America decided it was all a bit too much…
Look really closely, and you can see question marks – at least you know where the bushes are worth burning! Eventually, suitably equipped with the start of what will be a veritable arsenal of powerful gear and life hearts by the time you’re done, you’ll come across a dungeon. Things are a bit more straightforward with the dungeons, where you’ll find a map, a compass, sometimes some equipment like a raft or whistle or magic rod, which will be essential for getting to or completing later dungeons, and then a boss between you and your bit of Triforce. Collect all the bits from the eight dungeons, then there’s one more dungeon hiding the big bad boss man and Princess Zelda.
As you get more powerful, the challenge ramps up, but all the time the focus is on exploring every aspect of the 128 screens of Hyrule and its dungeons, which is hugely rewarding when your patience finally pays off. The monsters that inhabit the dungeons do become more challenging too, and by the time you’re at the sixth or seventh, you’ll be tearing your hair out trying to dispatch a screen full of teleporting undead wizards or knights you can only attack from the side then getting out of there with enough health to make it worthwhile carrying on. None of this more so than in the final Ganon dungeon, which is a beast by the standards of 30 years ago or of today. Thank goodness for the modern convenience of easy saves and restarts on the NES Classic and the Switch…
I almost forgot the Switch. Somewhere around dungeon two, I’d completely fallen in love with this game and kept thinking how cool it would be to have this ready to go anytime and anywhere on the Switch. But by now I was thinking even more that the right way to play it was on a NES controller, as well as the fact that if I finished it on the NES Classic it would have made buying it worthwhile in itself. Then I had the brainwave of catching up to where I was on the NES Classic on the Switch, and playing every dungeon on there as soon as I’d finished it on the NES Classic. Which is what I did to the end, at which point I decided I could dabble in the second quest on the Switch whenever I feel like it.
The Legend of Zelda is an an incredible piece of games design today, and I can only imagine the impact it had on anyone that had the patience to get to the first dungeon back in 1986/7. The remarkably atmospheric 8-bit world completely immerses you – through the distinct looking forests, deserts, coastlines and lakes as you traverse Hyrule; through the menagerie of different monsters and characters you come across; through the wonderful music and now-iconic sounds; and through the vast and ingenious world and dungeon design. Truly epic, and for me, one of the greatest games of all time.