Legend of Zelda

I recently played through The Legend of Zelda, and to my surprise I found it to be a much better game than I remember it being from having played it many years ago. It certainly has its rough edges, and A Link to the Past improved on the gameplay in almost every way, but there’s still a lot to like about the original.

In no particular order, here’s a bunch of random things that struck me while playing.

There is a lot more freedom than in modern Zelda games. Right from the start, you can go pretty much wherever you want in Hyrule, including most of the dungeons. Want to go right to Ganon’s lair in Level 9? No problem! Granted, you won’t get past the Old Man in the second room without the Triforce, but you can still go inside. But if you know where Level 8 is, you can buy a Blue Candle, burn down the entrance, and see how far you can get. Heck, in the Second Quest, I cleared Level 8 before I found Level 7 at all.

Modern Zelda games have more of a tendency to keep you on a particular path, forcing you through a tutorial-ish segment at the start and blocking access to the next dungeon in the predetermined sequence until you complete its predecessor. You have some freedom to explore the world in between, but it always feels like you’re straying from the intended path, instead of freely exploring at your leisure. The otherwise fantastic Ocarina of Time took this to an extreme, with Navi frequently shouting her irritating “Hey! Listen!” if for whatever reason you hadn’t reached the next plot point yet.

Speaking of which….

Dungeons aren’t built around their treasure. In the original game, a lot of the treasures aren’t at all necessary to complete the game. In fact, a lot of players deliberately avoid getting the Book of Magic since it arguably weakens the Magical Rod‘s attack, which itself isn’t actually needed for anything. With the exception of a few critical items, if you fail to thoroughly explore each dungeon and miss something as a result, you’re free to keep on going anyway.

Contrast that with Ocarina of Time and later games, where each dungeon’s treasure is invariably necessary to reach the end, and is typically key for defeating the boss guarding whichever plot coupon you’re collecting. And once that’s done, the treasure will be needed to reach the next dungeon. Every time.

Puzzle solving is surprisingly lacking. The original game’s dungeons are much more fighting-oriented, with puzzles generally restricted to finding hidden passages between rooms and pushing the occasional block to reveal a staircase. This is definitely something that the later games improved on, striking a better balance between fighting and puzzle solving.

The real puzzle solving is in finding where some of the dungeons are in the first place. In the First Quest the entrances are out in the open up until Level 7, but in the Second Quest they start hiding them as soon as Level 2, with nary a clue as to where each one can be found. The Second Quest is actually a bit unreasonable about this, expecting you to find which tree Level 7 is hidden under armed only with a somewhat inaccurate clue and the Blue Candle (the superior, not-limited-to-one-use-per-screen Red Candle being hidden within Level 7 itself!). I’ll admit to resorting to look online to find out where Level 7 was, which was a good move, since it would’ve taken hours and hours of repetitive and time-consuming play to eventually come across it.

That said, however….

The Second Quest is pretty nifty, and adds a lot of replay value by upping the difficulty considerably. I thought the placement of the first few levels was well-done. Level 1 is in the same place in both locations, letting you get started in a superficially familiar environment. But where Level 2 would be in the First Quest, you find a fairyless pond. Of course you immediately suspect there’s a dungeon hidden below the water (and there is — Level 3), but you need the Whistle to reveal it, and the Whistle is hidden in Level 2. So where is Level 2? Where the hidden shop selling the game-critical Food was in the First Quest. A player familiar with the First Quest would have little trouble finding the first three dungeons in the Second Quest just based on his or her knowledge of where important locations where in the First Quest. But after that, however, the training wheels come off and the dungeons are hidden in much less obvious locations. Sometimes, excessively so. [glares at Level 7]

The dungeons themselves also have some nifty tricks to them. I was particularly amused by how Level 4 has a decoy treasure! The Book of Magic is fairly easy to find, but completely worthless since the Magical Rod isn’t found until a later dungeon. The real treasure, the Raft needed to reach Level 5, is only accessible through a series of rooms reachable from a hidden passage in the Triforce room! Pretty sneaky, but fair, since the Map of the dungeon makes it clear there’s a few rooms that are otherwise inaccessible, so you’re given a chance to realize something’s up.

Not many Zelda games reused the idea of a Second Quest, though. The only one I’m aware of is Ocarina of Time, which had a “Master Quest” version on Gamecube that significantly changed the dungeons. Granted, it’s more work to do that sort of thing in 3D than it is in 2D, but it’s still an idea worth revisiting.

The real villains are the Old Men. Think about it. Sure, Moblins will shoot arrows at you, but they’re just doing their job. They can’t help it that the Hyrule economy is in a slump and Ganon is the only person… er, pig thing… hiring. But when you catch them off-duty, chilling at home, they’ll immediately offer to pay you off to keep that little secret between the two of you.

But the Old Men are jerks through and through. Come into their home, and they’ll fine you for breaking down their door.

… OK, maybe that’s fair. Do you know how long it takes a tree to regrow after being burned down? But that’s no excuse for them giving you incomprehensible “clues”…

10TH ENEMY HAS THE BOMB

… or running illicit gambling operations …

LET'S PLAY MONEY MAKING GAME

… or making surprisingly stereotypically thuggish threats …

LEAVE YOUR LIFE OR MONEY

… is it no wonder that so many live in dungeons that are otherwise filled with monsters? Clearly, they are monsters too. If nothing else, they’re evolved from Cuccos — why else would they be impossible to kill yet relentlessly fight back if you attack?

Also, come to think of it….

If Zelda had the Silver Arrows, she could have defeated Ganon herself. The game’s intro text clearly states that she is the one who broke up the Triforce of Wisdom and hid its pieces in the eight dungeons, so somehow she managed to fight her way through all the same areas that Link does. So how did Ganon manage to capture her, if she’s just as tough as Link? Because she didn’t have the Silver Arrows, Ganon’s one weakness, which for some reason he keeps hidden in his own lair. If she had them, she could have used them, too — notice how in Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, she fires Light Arrows at Ganon while Link engages with his sword.

That’s a lot more impressive than Peach, certainly, who gets kidnapped by Bowser so frequently that she has to schedule board game nights and kart-racing tournaments around Bowser’s weekly invasions of the Mushroom Kingdom.