Greatest Game of 1987: The Legend of Zelda
I maintain that The Legend of Zelda is the greatest game of all time when measured relative to the circumstances and time period of its release. The game brought the most engaging and story-rich genre, the action RPG, to the video gaming masses. Zelda’s complexity was unmatched for years to come, it introduced a franchise that consistently saved Nintendo (the greatest video game company in history), a character was introduced that is as widely known as any video game character in history, and its gameplay was more enjoyable than any other game of its time.
Influence on Video Game Trajectory
Zelda was one of the first rich role-playing experiences available to video gamers. The success of the game helped ensure that the genre of RPGs caught fire almost immediately thereafter. Zelda had its contemporaries,most notably Dragon Warrior, but in my opinion, no other game of the time had the complexity and draw of The Legend of Zelda, a first-generation NES console game. Zelda brought the concepts of a world map, in-game currency, weapon upgrades, equipment management, tactical fighting styles, Easter eggs, secret lairs, level bosses, enchanted items, and save features all together to create a rich RPG experience that has been imitated many times over in various forms.
The Legend of Zelda introduced one of the most recognizable video game icons ever created: Link. Outside of Mario, perhaps no character is more widely known than this pointy-eared sword-wielding scrapper. Link’s nemesis, Ganon is also considered to be one of the great early video game antagonists – I can still hear his evil laugh in my nightmares. Link’s journey to save the beautiful princess Zelda and collect the pieces of the Triforce was such an enjoyable quest that it spawned a comic that appeared in the monthly magazine Nintendo Power“ which I couldn’t wait to read each month. Link also was cast in a TV series and in the N64 hit Super Smash Bros.
Above all else, a game has to be enjoyable to play through. A game should be difficult enough to be a challenge while not becoming overly frustrating (a fine line that was violated in the N64 edition of the series). The Legend of Zelda walked this line beautifully and brought in some interesting challenges as well as player aids to balance the equation. Speaking of game aids, the game came with an actual physical map of the Overworld to help the player navigate the different sections of Link’s world. The game was also packaged with a beautiful gold cart that toted a battery. This invention was revolutionary in that it allowed users to save their game progress in one of three slots without having to use an annoyingly complex password.
The game also gave clues along the way to help the novice gamer progress without getting too frustrated. “Dodongo dislikes smoke” has become iconic and is an example of the types of strange but helpful clues the game would offer along the way. This isn’t to say, however, that Zelda was an easy game. On the challenge side of the equation, the Underworld levels were labyrinths that required significant investment in time to gather all of the components necessary to complete the stage: a compass, map, enchanted item, Triforce fragment, and the occasional heart piece. Also, the basic mechanics of the game remain enjoyably difficult to this day. If you think thousands of hours playing complex games like Call of Duty, Left for Dead, or Halo give you the dexterity needed to consistently slay a basic blue spider or the whirling dervish creature of the sand areas without losing a heart in Zelda, you’re sorely mistaken.
The game had intellectual challenges as well. For example, to get through the Lost Woods, you had to navigate a series of screens in the proper order to progress through the game. There was also a mountainous area where you had to go “up” through the same screen multiple times to advance on the world map. On a frustratingly difficult note, the flute would whisk you off to god knows where if you happened to press B on accident. Challenges like this would seem tiring nowadays, but in Zelda’s time, these were novel puzzles that engaged gamers and kept them playing until Ganon was beaten at least once. To add an order of magnitude to the depth of the game, you could play through it a second time; the “second quest” feature was quite significant. It didn’t just up the difficulty like the Mario franchise; the secrets and even dungeons were completely changed to add hours more of fun to the gaming experience.
Aside from delicately mixing challenges and rewards, Zelda’s gameplay was reinforced by a majestic soundtrack that made Mario’s theme sound like dyslexic circus music. To this day, I think the theme from Zelda is the best hero theme music in video game history. From the second you turn the cart on, you are inundated with orchestral sounds emitting from a very basic 8-bit MIDI device that, despite its technical constraints, is able to elicit intense emotions from the gamer. Daaaaah da da da da da dah da, da da da da da dah da, dah da, dududududududud – into the theme – DA DUH, da da da da daaaaah (you get the idea). If that theme doesn’t inspire you to spend a few hours kicking Ganon’s ass, nothing will. I love this theme so much, a derivative of it was used in my wedding ceremony – no joke. You can argue the role of music in a game, but to me, a game is all about emotional attachment, to the characters and to the story. If the music helps make that connection, the gamer is hooked for life. The Legend of Zelda accomplished this like no game ever had before and like no game ever
did again until years later, when the Final Fantasy series used themes to entrance the gamer and to bring consistency across consoles and game editions.
I still get teary-eyed thinking of The Legend of Zelda and the emotions I felt as a kid as the title screen would glide in. Your character would show up abruptly in the Overworld without a sword or a friend. You had to discover the world around you on your own, fend for yourself, and achieve the goal you set out for. In a way, Link’s life is like yours when you discovered him at age 6: new, challenging, and engaging. I think this is why The Legend of Zelda is such a unique game and a treat to remember.