The Legend of Zelda: 35 Years Later

The Original “waterfall with something behind”.

It’s strange to look back at a game as long-running as the original The Legend of Zelda and discover how many of the pillars on which one of the medium’s most famous franchises stands were established by its first instalment. I would even go further: how many elements are here that we now take for granted but owe to a relatively small game.

Take for example the main element: exploration. The Legend of Zelda doesn’t give you any directions. It drops you in a field with three paths and a cave, a vague objective of retrieving eight pieces of something called the “Triforce” (35 years later, we still don’t know what EXACTLY it is) plus an inventory of the items you’ll encounter on your adventure (mostly so they’re identifiable by their icons on the NES’s limited graphics capabilities) and, from there, asks you to make your own way. It doesn’t even give you the sword, your primary means of defence, until you enter your first cave.

Gauntlet (1985) only preceded it by one year, but Atic Atac (1983) is perhaps the game it is most reminiscent of, not only because of elements such as the perspective of the dungeons. In addition, a differentiation is also stipulated here between the general overhead view and a second side view in the dungeon cellars, an element that would be repeated in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993) and, with greater technological skill, in The Legend of the Mystical Ninja (1991). That disparity gives it a slight verticality effect that it’s a shame doesn’t vary across the various basements we encounter, but that’s another matter of technical limitations.

Rehearsing for Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.

That original top-down perspective puts more emphasis on exploration and the open world, on the environment as a priority and the diversity of the landscape (forest, mountains, graveyard, river, sand) as an element of exploration and orientation. The small grey map at the top of the screen accompanies the fold-out paper map that came with the game. It is necessary to compare both maps to find your way around the outside world, just as inside the dungeons we also have two maps: one in our inventory menu, which is the one that points out the rooms we have already been to, and one that must be located as an item in the dungeon, showing the total number of rooms and, (thanks to another item, the compass) tells us where the Triforce piece we need is located.

This map is a swastika.

One difficulty factor has to do with how the game is divided into “screens” whose transition replicates our movement. With no continuous scrolling and a one-second delay when enemies appear, it’s hard to know what you might encounter ahead, which leads to some amusing situations (an ambush at a crossroads in Lost Woods) but also many moments of frustration. At least the enemies leave behind enough rewards to make the task easier: hearts, rupees, healing fairies or a clock that stops time and allows us to attack enemies without having to constantly dodge them, inviting you to take the risk.

TLoZ exists at the intersection of the dungeon exploration, key collecting and dragon fighting of Adventure (1979) and the real-time, labyrinthine combat of The Tower of Druaga (1984). The ability to save progress at each death implied the idea that this was a habitable world to return to again and again, exploring and experimenting until the right route and items were found to complete its 9 dungeons.

Die Nibelungen: Siegfried.

In contrast to other fantasy games that invoked board-based RPGs and their turn-based combat and experience systems, TLoZ decides that the important thing is not to make the character stronger, but to reward the player with stronger weapons and a variety of other items with a variety of uses. The other element is hearts, which increase the hero’s health. It is, in fact, essential to have a certain number of hearts to be able to acquire two more better swords in the game — a fact that would be repeated in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017) — and a couple of rings that reduce the damage received can also be acquired. It’s all about giving the player more opportunities, making them still rely on their skill and reflexes but rewarding their curiosity.

Let’s stop for a moment and talk about difficulty in video games. No, rather, let’s talk about the History of Difficulty in videogames, because it is something that I don’t think is discussed enough when it comes to these topics.

In general, all current discussions about difficulty in video games are, in reality, discussions about accessibility — “Should there be easier modes for a particularly complex game?” But the truth is that there is a whole legacy of difficulty levels in games and what its role is.

These guys, for example, are the worst.

Originally, excessive difficulty in games came from something as reprehensible as the need for arcade machines to keep players spending coins to continue the game. In the case of early home console games, it was a matter of making what were usually short-lived games last longer.

Later would come another stage, which is where we fit The Legend of Zelda. The game itself was not the only object of consumption, but had to be accompanied by certain elements that allowed the player to finish it. The most notable were the guides or magazines (Nintendo Power would not have existed if there had not been a catalogue of obtuse games from its origin) but also complements such as the Game Genie cartridges that allowed the first “cheats” to be introduced.

Environmental Storytelling.

This trend took a curious turn in the next stage. With the need to appeal to more players, games started to become relatively more accessible. However, cheats and codes were still there but not only to remove the challenge of the game (to the point of making those same codes undesirable or only useful in a pinch) but also to generate fun variations on the main game.

As the internet became more popular, cheats stopped making sense and have been implemented less and less in the absence of a market to make them real surprises, and yet there has been a huge interest in mods and exploits, with their own unique features. It is no longer a matter of having a hint, a guide, a cheat to make the game easier… today it is within our reach to modify the game to our liking and to completely hack the code.

Nowadays a game can have its complete walkthrough on video within a few hours of release. Any mystery will have its community on Reddit or Discord dedicated to deciphering it as quickly as possible and delivering it to the world at the click of a button.

Difficulty no longer pays.

This is how Twitter works in Hyrule.

Most of this effort has been devoted to generating other kinds of content, more advertising but also more narrative, especially trying to generate more complex mythologies or winks and references in games with so much content that the question is not so much whether the secret will be discovered but which one will be discovered first and which one soon after. The secret door that was the talk of a couple of weeks in the recent remake of Demon’s Souls (2020) or the backstory of the world of Little Nightmares II (2021) are examples of this latest trend, which has its influence on transmedia.

Does this mean that we should not have an interest in games that challenge our skills? Not at all, but it is also true that games today are made to last “less”. Yes, the paradox is that AAA games are longer today, but their half-life, the interest they generate, is consumed more quickly. Nobody has the time to be a completionist, so it will depend on others who have done their part and unlocked the secrets they can’t devote their full attention to.

SCANDAL: Red Moblin hides in Cave, Bribes Hyrule Hero.

TLoZ was designed, at least according to Shigeru Miyamoto-san, to be a world full of mysteries where different players would exchange tips with each other. Part of this social dimension has always been in the nature of Nintendo’s design but it hasn’t really made sense until the volume and flow of communication between players has exploded with social networking. On the other hand, the problem of localising the original texts from Japanese to English was a huge disaster that only contributes to misleading gamers outside Japan, something that should have been foreseen. Much is made of the fact that this is a game that invites you to bomb or set fire to every corner of the map in search of secrets as they are not well signposted — as they were in The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons/Ages (2001) or Breath of the Wild — but the clues should have been clearer had there been a tighter translation.

It doesn’t help that some of those secrets are more like punishments. If you’ve progressed by finding some of the secret caves by blowing up certain parts of the map, you’ll eventually meet an old man who asks you to pay him for the damage. There’s also the old woman who gives you a hint to advance through the forest that keeps repeating — something that will happen again in Link’s Awakening and Breath of the Wild — but refuses to talk to you if you give her a little money, and instead, if you give her a lot more money, she taunts you by saying you must be rich without adding anything else.

They are the mummieees! Protecting 25 B.C.!

Perhaps this is where the later influence of transmedia makes the most sense. The comparison between maps and the communication Miyamoto-san appeals to points in that direction, perhaps influenced by the Atari game series, Swordquest (1982), which were games designed as puzzles and accompanied by a comic book, forming part of a quiz. But the truth is that these advertising gimmicks were not up to the technology of the time.

Because there were so many limitations, the game could not afford an ammunition system. Yes, bombs are stored up to eight units and we can even increase the maximum number available twice, but the same is not true for arrows. Instead of making arrows an infinite resource, the game chooses that every time we shoot an arrow, it consumes rupees. It’s a decision that, while not organic and justified within the world it presents, it’s an interesting one. Something similar will end up being adopted by the little known (but very admirable) spin-off Freshly-Picked Tingle’s Roopeland (2006) where the final fight involves using all our rupees as ammunition.

Link was already against private property.

Inventory management, on the other hand, is excellent. It may now be slightly cumbersome to switch between items, given situations such as entering a dark room, having to switch to the candle, using the candle, switching to bombs or having to switch between shield and arrows. Although it lacks today’s quick menus, it’s a fairly clear and easy to understand system and the fact that the game pauses while you switch items makes things easier.

The famous key system is curious because it’s not as limited as previous installments: there are more keys than doors to open, and some of those keys can be used in other dungeons, as well as purchased in the shops. Towards the penultimate dungeon, we find a Master Key that allows us to return to those doors we have left unopened, again, a nice feature to invite us to explore before the hard-fought final dungeon.

“This ends the story” until a new game changes the timeline of the saga.

TLoZ is not only a difficult game, but also a precedent for the New Game+ mode, allowing you to continue your adventure once you’ve finished, this time with greater difficulty. This second adventure doesn’t add anything new beyond the personal challenge, but it is quite unusual for the time. Today, TLoZ remains a valuable gaming experience, especially for those familiar with the series and those who missed a less linear and more combat than puzzle-focused approach in its previous stage. Looking back, it is obvious why the saga, a place for experimentation, gradually became more accessible but lost a certain amount of freedom along the way that it has not recovered until its latest instalment. 35 years (the same that this writer will be celebrating in a few months) are enough time to mature and learn from mistakes and look to the future with optimism.

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Henrique Lage

Writing essays. Writing games. Writing essays about games. Narrative Design Teacher.