The question sat at the back of my mind for years: Why hadn't I gotten around to finishing The Legend of Zelda? People love to complain about their backlog, but the original Zelda has been around for 30 years now. It's like being a movie buff who has only watched half of Casablanca.
Knowing this, I finally decided to buckle down and play the original The Legend of Zelda to completion last month. My guide on this venture was my friend Jim - a series afficionado whose claim to fame is finishing the original Zelda without a sword. He still remembers where almost everything is after all these years, making him something of a living GameFAQs guide.
My own history with Zelda is somewhat spottier. I obviously knew that it existed when I owned an NES in the early '90s, but I found its open-ended structure intimidating. On the few occasions that I played it, I ended up wandering around in circles and killing enemies, uncertain as to what exactly I was supposed to be doing. I didn't get a proper introduction to the series until Link's Awakening on the Game Boy.
When it came out on the Wii's Virtual Console years later, I decided to make a proper run at beating The Legend of Zelda. I did okay, but I don't think I got much further than the fourth or fifth dungeon. After that, nothing. I had finished a half-dozen or more Zelda games, but never the original.
That had to change.
I chose the Wii U Virtual Console of The Legend of Zelda - not exactly the RetroN 5, but satisfactory for my purposes. Unfortunately, my Wii Remote batteries were dead, and it was raining. I wound up using my Wii U Pro Controller, which was a mistake. The oddly mushy directional pad was a problem in the later dungeons.
As we got started, Jim sat next to me with his phone open to an overworld map. Even with all of his experience, he still needed a map to keep track of everything. I joked that it was the modern equivalent of checking an old copy of Nintendo Power.
Thankfully, I didn't need the map for the first dungeon. I've been through the opening steps of Zelda enough that it's easy to get into a rhythm - grab the sword, head north, cross the big bridge, and head into the dungeon. I asked Jim how hard the first dungeon was without a sword.
"Usually I don't even start the dungeons until I've picked up the items and heart containers I need," he told me.
One thing he had me do was pick up a lot of keys. There were tons of little tricks, like leaving and re-entering the first dungeon to get a spare copy of a key. By the end of the game, we had something like a half dozen keys just on reserve, which wound up saving us a good deal of time. Zelda's final dungeons are among some of the longest and most difficult in the series - the less time spent wandering, the better.
As expected, the first couple dungeons were a breeze. In between killing dragons and other monsters, Jim would direct me to various seemingly innocuous locations and tell me to bomb them. Inside the cave would be a heart container - no individual heart piece in the original Zelda - or a shop. I observed that there was no way I would have been able to find any of these items without a guide back in 1986.
"We had a saying: Bomb every wall, burn every bush," Jim replied. A sound strategy, but not always practical. Money and bombs are both at a premium in Zelda. By the middle of the game, I was constantly checking my bomb supply, worried that I wouldn't have enough to deal with a room full of Darknuts - shield-wielding monsters capable of doing massive amounts of damage - or open up a new pathway. Rupees, meanwhile, are needed to buy some of the best items, including the Blue Ring - which halves enemy damage - and the Blue Candle, which is necessary for lighting rooms and burning the aforementioned bushes. I wound up spending a lot more time grinding items and money than I was expecting.
Chalk it up to Zelda's open-ended structure. Unlike later games in the series, it's possible to access many areas almost immediately in The Legend of Zelda. We had Link's more powerful second sword before we even headed into the second dungeon, and we had the Blue Ring before the third. Later on, we skipped the fifth dungeon so that we could grab the Magic Wand from the sixth dungeon.
Still, even with the benefit of some powerful equipment, The Legend of Zelda proved a lot more difficult than I was expecting. Dungeons are a battle of attrition in which it's often better to sprint through a room than to engage enemies directly. I died an absurd number of times fighting the Darknuts introduced in the third dungeon - an enemy that would continue to be my bane through the rest of the game (Wizzrobes, too). On more than one occasion I declared defeat and bailed out of a dungeon in order to refill my hearts.
After a while, the non-descript dungeons start to blur together. The relative lack of puzzles make them hard to remember on an individual basis. Each successive dungeon merely piles on more and more enemies, with bosses eventually getting demoted to the status of common foe (bosses, incidentally, might be the easiest part of the original Zelda, usually requiring only a few hits to kill). This progression culminates in Ganon's dungeon - a brutal maze of Wizzrobes, Vires, and Like Likes, the last of which want to eat your hard-earned (and very expensive) Magic Shield. Just for reference, this is the map of the final dungeon:
Look, I'm no stranger to Zelda at this point. I've played pretty much every modern entry in the series. But even A Link to the Past, which isn't exactly a cakewalk, can't prepare you for this. Most Zelda dungeons are artfully crafted spaces that mix puzzle solving with combat; this level is just pain. Suffice it to say, when you make a run at the final dungeon, you better come prepare with potions, high-level equipment, and a whole lot of bombs. Ganon does not mess around in this game.
In the end, I did finish it, though. Defeating Ganon himself is a breeze - all of you have to do is swipe until he appears a few times, then shoot him with a silver arrow. He'll disappear in a cloud of dust and the game is over. Easy peasy. After four hours, I had finally gotten the original Zelda off my bucket list.
When it was all over, we sat staring at the screen for a moment. Then Jim turned to me, "So when are you going to do the Second Quest?"
Going back to the original Zelda is a strange experience. In comparison to its more advanced successors, its almost unrecognizable. Rooms are basically just blocks loaded with powerful enemies, environmental puzzles are almost non-existent, and the overworld is open to the point of feeling like a sandbox. You can see the outline of what the series would eventually become, but it was the Super Nintendo's A Link to the Past that ultimately filled in the rest of the details.
Still, the original Legend of Zelda was a remarkably ambitious game for its time. It was long enough that it required a battery save - one of the first - and it was loaded with secrets, giving it the feel of an epic adventure. It was extremely difficult to finish without a guide - good luck deciphering the meaning of "Grumble, grumble" on your own - but that was a weird part of its allure. The Legend of Zelda was the game that drew kids to Nintendo Power and got them to swap secrets on the playground.
In that way, I found it to be a thoroughly old-school gaming experience... and an old-school challenge. Having played so many classic NES games, it's rare that I'm surprised anymore. Ninja Gaiden and its ilk are just pure muscle memory at this point. But when I learned that I had to feed the grumbling Goriya, it was the sort of "Ah hah" moments that used to make those games so addictive (and yes, I have indeed been living under a rock for 30 years).
With that in mind, it's certainly worth revisiting the original Legend of Zelda. It's big, its mean, and it defines a lot of what console games were like in the mid-80s. Bring a guide, though; or better yet, a knowledgeable friend. Link's first adventure certainly doesn't pull its punches.