The Legend of Zelda RetroActive Review

The Legend of Zelda picture

The Legend of Zelda

Original Release Date: 1986

The original Legend of Zelda is widely regarded as an absolute classic. It was one of the first games to feature open ended exploration, and was a pioneer of the genre. As someone who is a major fan of the Zelda series and video games in general, I have a healthy amount of respect for this game as a piece of gaming history.

However, I can’t say I particularly care for this game, because as an actual game it leaves a lot to be desired. It may have been impressive when it first came out, but it has aged rather badly.

The first problem is that the game does not give the player any direct feedback. The game sets you into the middle of the world, and then you’re supposed to figure it out from there. Now, this wouldn’t be a problem if the game was intuitively designed, but it’s not. I’ll compare it to another game, namely Super Metroid, and explain why Super Metroid works and why the original Zelda fails by comparison.

One key factor is that Super Metroid had a map that was actually helpful. It told the player where they were, and ensured that they never got lost. The map in Zelda, however, is much more vague, and does not help the player to navigate through the world. It doesn’t give the player information about where they need to go or even about where they’ve been, and only gives them a general idea of where they currently are. And while the maps you can find inside dungeons are marginally more useful than the overworld map, they’re still pretty vague, and cease to be that helpful once the dungeons start to get bigger and more complicated.

But the main reason why Super Metroid works where the original Zelda fails is that it is intuitively designed. Both games are similar in that they don’t give the player any explicit directions. Neither game tells the player where they need to go, how the controls work, how the items work, how to uncover secrets, or anything else about how the game works. But Super Metroid’s level design is incredibly clever because it gives the player implicit directions that give them the guidance they need while still letting them figure things out on their own. Super Metroid is also not ridiculously open ended. While there is a great deal of exploring, the game also requires the player to do specific things in a certain order before unlocking new areas. This sequence is key, as it is what enables a properly paced and balanced experience.

This is not at all the case with the original Zelda. There is nothing intuitive or straightforward about how it is designed, as the game gives the player no direction at all, explicit or implicit. On top of that, the game lets the player explore almost the entire world from the get go, which makes it impossible to have a properly paced or balanced experience. In theory this gives the player a lot of freedom, but in practice it simply makes the player wander aimlessly around trying to figure out what they’re supposed to do. Whatever the apologists might say, there is something fundamentally wrong with a game where it is entirely possible to wander around for hours and make no progress.

All of this would be forgivable if the game was fun to play, but speaking as someone who doesn’t have rose tinted glasses, it’s really not. You’re extremely limited in how you can interact with the environment, and as a result there’s really not that much to do. Yes, there are secrets to uncover (though this can get mind numbingly tedious if you aren’t using a guide) and shops to buy from. But beyond that, most of the gameplay consists of wandering around the overworld and killing the various enemies you encounter.

Which brings me to my next criticism; the combat is incredibly choppy and imprecise. Link cannot swing his sword like he can in the later games, he can only stab directly in front of him, and he has to pause every time he does. In short, Link cannot attack diagonally or move while attacking. However, the enemies are not limited in this way. This makes combat in the overworld rather tedious and annoying, but it gets downright frustrating in the dungeons once they introduce enemies that take a lot of hits to kill, but can kill you in a matter of seconds. And when the game starts to dogpile that type of enemy on you, things can get extremely infuriating.

To top it all off, the game looks downright ugly. I know that graphics are not everything, but if the gameplay isn’t fun, an uninteresting or unappealing aesthetic can only compound the problem.

Between the unintuitive design, the cryptic hints that are only helpful when compared with the ones in Simon’s Quest, the choppy combat, the flat and lifeless NPCs, the ugly visuals, and the lack of any context to make the player understand or care about what they’re doing, the game as a whole is a big mess. Playing the game, I never got the feeling of exploring a vast world or going on an epic adventure, I just felt like I was wandering around a barren wasteland with no real purpose at all.

Some may say that I don’t get it, as the fact that I grew up with titles such as Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, and Wind Waker makes me prejudiced against the older games that came out before my time. Well, my counterargument is that I didn’t grow up with A Link to the Past either, and yet I think it’s a phenomenal game. Why? Because, without any nostalgia, I find A Link to the Past to be a game that has genuinely aged well, and consequently is still good even years after its release. But I can’t say the same of the original.

You will never hear me dismissing the importance of the original Zelda as a piece of gaming history. But looking at it as an actual game, ultimately I cannot recommend it to anyone except to video game enthusiasts who are curious about how this franchise began.

How well it holds up       1/4

Overall quality               4/10

Not Recommended

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