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Why Zelda 1 still holds up

All of its design quirks have inspired several trends in video games throughout the years, especially this generation of games, particularly the now ubiquitous sandbox action titles like The Witcher 3 and the Grand Theft Auto series.

Mark Sylvia

July 6, 2017

5 Min Read

One of most celebrated series in video games of all time is The Legend of Zelda.  It one of the popular series of all time, as well as one of the most critically acclaimed series of all time and a personal favorite.  Its roots trace all the way trace all the way back to Nintendo’s original gray box, the Nintendo Entertainment System, with the eponymous game released in February of 1986 in Japan, and seeing a release in the west one year later.  Considered to be one of the greatest games of all time, it’s lauded for its open world, its puzzle-box style of play, its challenging combat system, and it numerous secrets that made players come back for seconds.  All of its design quirks have inspired several trends in video games throughout the years, especially this generation of games, particularly the now ubiquitous sandbox action titles like The Witcher 3 and the Grand Theft Auto series.  It’s so timeless, and yet so much of its time, and not just because of its near rock hard difficulty.

In fact, the worst thing that can be said about the series, in general, is that each of its games is very much indicative of the time of which it came out.  Zelda 2 was a response to the ubiquity of action title of its day, A Link to the Past is to Zelda 1 as Super Mario World is to Super Mario Bros. 3 (or Super Metroid to Metroid 1), Ocarina of Time is both a “me too” to and a “this is how it’s done” to Eidos’ Tomb Raider and Capcom’s Mega Man Legends, Twilight Princess is a gritty reboot (of sorts) to Ocarina, The Wind Waker piggybacked off of Fear Effect and Jet Set Radio in terms of aesthetic, etc.  But, none of the seemingly dated trappings of its individual should undermine its key principle that justifies is own existence; its call for adventure.  While I can’t call the original NES game one of the best in the series (although most of the internet may actually do that for me), it is safe to say that it fits the paradigm of adventure better than anything that came after it, Breath of the Wild notwithstanding.

To explain how everything in Zelda 1 work would be a little redundant to those who are familiar with Mark Brown’s video, from his series “Game Maker’s Tool Kit,” where he talks about the design choice that makes it work.  The game’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, designed the game, again, adventure in mind, inspired by his own childhood adventure in the forests and caves of the Kyoto countryside.  And the game literally starts as the player hit the start button as if to say, “The world is yours to explore.  Venture to your heart's content!”  Interestingly, this is the only real instruction that the game gives at the start; the map is a funky old gray box, the were no visual direction on where the player should be going, and the player doesn’t even start with a sword.  It has to be acquired by entering the first cave in the game.  To put it plainly, the world may be yours, but that’s all you get.  What you do in that world is all on you.  The goals aren’t always clear, but it’s that spontaneity through exploration that gives the games its lasting appeal.

Although the game can be clandestine at times, it’s far from incomprehensive. Of the game’s nine dungeons, there are only three that the player can access just by wondering around (Levels 1-3).  You need the raft to access level 4, the ladder bridge to get to level 6 (unless you go through the lost woods, level 5 can’t be accessed at all unless you can solve the puzzle of the magic mountain.  Worry not, however, as Hyrule’s residents are more than willing to aid you on not only how to access the next dungeon, but find items that you’ve might have missed.  Not every hint help, however, as the game was poorly translated, and there is one, in particular, that doesn’t make sense.  I personally don’t understand how certain aspect of the game doesn't hurt the overall quality of the game, but this is a discussion show; to each their own.

But, it does stand to reason that it is the most influential game to be released, especially in this generation.  The open-ended nature of The Legend of Zelda would not only spawn its fair share of copycats (most Nintendo properties do; nobody in platformers jumped on their enemies’ head to defeat that before Super Mario), it also became the basis of the whole open-world sandbox games that we see from the Grand Theft Auto series and Batman: Arkham City to The Witcher III, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Nier: Automata.  Its dungeons have even provided inspiration from indie games like Hyper Light Drifter and The Binding of Isaac.  And… well, do I need to bring up the Dark Souls series?  While there are other games that were inspired by other titles in the series, the original is still the Rosetta stone of this generation’s many current trends.

That’s the thing; not every game has to be the best, or even good for the matter, in order to best rather influential.  And while outstanding in its own right, Zelda 1 is still a pixelated, cryptic mess.  It’s just a pixelated, cryptic mess that actually still works.  The emphasis of exploration over following a linear, beaten path is ingenious and makes the game infinitely replayable, and more importantly, it has a design that a lot of games have been aping to this day.  It even inspired the recent entry in the series to perhaps much results.  Where it ranks in the series’ best is certainly up for debate, but there’s no debating that the most influential, most vital, and most important game in the series was, is, and will forever be the very first Legend of Zelda.

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