Smithers used to be black, but Link was always white



The Legend of Zelda (1987)

You may one day be flicking through your TV guide (on your television’s internal EPG of course – what use is a TV guide magazine in this day and age?) and see an episode of a programme you like about to come on. But the episode synopsis seems rather unfamiliar, and when it comes on you’re wondering why Kramer is being called Kessler or why Smithers is black with blue hair.

What you’ve done is stumbled on a very old episode, perhaps the first ever – and it looks remarkably different to what you’re used to. Everything looks weird, and it’s pretty jarring. This isn’t the show I fell in love with, think to yourself, with the occasional mewl of protest at the television to show your disapproval. You pick up on every single detail and say to yourself “yeah, I see, so that’s where that came from, but… I don’t know, it’s a little weird”.

And that’s what it was like for me, going back to the original Legend of Zelda having been weaned on A Link to the Past and its two immediate successors. This really was the one that started it all, which means that it must have done something right. Talk about pressure: if the title screen music on this 1987 NES outing had been naff, we wouldn’t have the thrilling Zelda overworld theme that we do now.

Actually, this game gave us the overworld full stop, plus nine dungeons (doubled with the famous Second Quest), Link, Princess Zelda and Ganon (or is that Gannon?), items like the Boomerang and Bombs (and a few not so lucky ones like a Candle and a Stepladder, which were quickly shuffled out), Rupees, Heart Containers, sword beams and the like. It was charged with defining the Zelda formula that brought about Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker, but was it left hamstrung by the embarrassing limitations of the quaint little NES?

You navigate past the cumbersome file select screen (the very first of its kind unless I’m mistaken), then start off in a clearing. You have your character, Link, on-screen, you have a shield, you have a sword once you walk into a nearby cave… and that’s it. The old man who bequeaths you the series’ first ever child’s-play sword suddenly disappears and you’re left to explore Hyrule all by yourself. It’s good to be let out into a vast world (and it really was vast, at the time) and be allowed to go just about anywhere you want, but some direction wouldn’t go amiss, right?

Well, that’s not the order of the day – Shigsy himself, the brainchild behind all this 8-bit non-linear madness, commented that it was his intention for many kids playing the game to become stuck frequently at the cryptic puzzles, but that they could ask their friends for tips, compare what items they had, where their schoolyard peers had been and all of that tomfoolery. That, he says, was the real goal of the game they were trying to make.

Hmm. Was it really? It sounds lazy, but also like a decent idea – everyone would have had a NES at the time anyway; there was no Nintendo vs Sega console wars at the time and Ataris already looked set for the knacker’s yard. Still, you cannot tell me that walking through walls four times in a certain direction is in any way intuitive. Nor does an enemy monster screaming “GRUMBLE, GRUMBLE” give any indication that he wants some expensive meat from you that you probably never bothered buying, and he won’t let you past until you go back out of the dungeon and buy the most expensive pork leg in the world.

If you’re playing this one for the first time today, having missed out for the last 25+ years, then I really would suggest to do it with a guide – it certainly doesn’t ruin the game, and saves you the heartbreak of trying to get into some mad Japanese developer’s head, the one who exercised his sadistic architectural muscles and tried to make this game as enigmatic as possible. After all, life’s too short these days for us to burn every single tree on a square of the map – and that’s without the Red Candle, a little upgrade on the original Blue Candle that lets you summon more than one bit (Chunk? Block?) of fire per screen. Upgrades don’t come much littler than that.

Still, there’s a fair few items in the game, more than you might readily expect from the first in the series. What’s crazy is that many of them aren’t even necessary. An awful lot of things aren’t necessary in this game, in fact. You can skip maps and compasses easily, quite a few dungeon items, a lot of keys are superfluous (I had 10 spare at one stage, and they carry between dungeons) – you can even get right up to the final boss (Ganon, alias Gannon, if you don’t mind spoilers) without a sword, which is mind-bogglingly brilliant.

As for the other trimmings, things aren’t so bad – there’s not much music, but it’s great to hear the very first iteration of the classic overworld music. Each dungeon bar the very last has the exact same dungeon theme, which does have enough retro cred in its own right, but God does it grate after a while. The graphics really aren’t that bad. Certainly not as offensively mutilating as some other games of the time, like, I don’t know, Kid Icarus. Yes, Link may go a little bit bug-eyed when he picks up an item, the Lynels look a little malnourished, the Darknuts almost look cute, the Armos Knights look like they’re carrying around wooden television sets, and some of the dungeons have the same colour scheme as huey… but the game looks fine in motion, trust me.

Famously, the game comes with a ‘Second Quest’, which rejigs the locations of the dungeons and what’s inside them, which was a pretty amazing concept at the time (and arguably still is – it’s actually more than what Ocarina of Time’s Master Quest does). I can’t say I’ve beaten the Second Quest, because the puzzles involved in undertaking this quest are even more mysterious and unassailable again, but it’s a great little trick for extending the game’s longevity, something that must have been a real selling point back in “the day”. And on the subject of longevity, I’ll give it this – this game really does warrant replays. You can pop this one in any day (having thoroughly blown the cartridge connectors first, of course, and checked to see if your precious files are still there) and rifle through the vast majority of the game, or beat it in one sitting even. You may look at this game and find it to be a little quaint, or a little awkward, or a little cumbersome, or even a little off, but it’s most definitely a Zelda.

20 July 2014

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