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Long Time Coming: Finishing the Original Legend of Zelda in 2016

Kat finally got the original Zelda off her bucket list this year. Here's what she found.

Retrospective by Kat Bailey, .

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.

It doesn't seem so bad, and then...

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.

The Run

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.

Time to call the Nintendo Game Counselors.

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?"

Oh god.

Perspective

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.

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Comments 26

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  • Avatar for Davidg #1 Davidg 2 years ago
    After super Mario brothers this may be the first game that I ever beat. I never had a guide but I definitely got help from friends that had found where things were especially in the second quest. Who would have thought to look for the raft where it ended up being? After a lot of effort and pushing against every wall, every block and bombing almost everywhere I finally did complete the second quest. It was a lot easier to accept as a kid because I could only buy a few games a year and it was still a year or two from when I got to regularly rent games. I still remember where nearly everything is and play through it every couple of years.
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  • Avatar for Mikki-Saturn #2 Mikki-Saturn 2 years ago
    Such a good game. ALttP and OoT are my favorite games in the series (and also among my favorite games ever) but I have a big soft spot for the original as well. Although parts of it are pretty opaque, overall I find this game to have a very satisfying sense of mystery. Zelda II is in my opinion unfairly opaque, and A Link to the Past and Link's Awakening both have a few good secrets but the critical path is so well sign posted that there's no reason to ever wonder where to go next. Starting with Ocarina even the secrets are pretty obvious and straightforward. Similarly with combat, Zelda 1 is challenging but except for a few rooms with Blue Darknuts it's mostly manageable. Again Zelda 2 is straight up unfair at times and everything after that is positively easy, from a combat perspective.

    In my view, the series would do well to look to Zelda 1 and ALttP. These games are both much much better than the recent offerings, even with their age showing. Zelda 1 could certainly stand to be modernized in a few places, but it is admirable how willing it is to just let you go about your busy. It trusts the player to figure things out on their own, without hand holding or tutorializing. I really hope the upcoming Zelda for Wii-U captures at least some of that spirit.Edited February 2016 by Mikki-Saturn
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #3 LBD_Nytetrayn 2 years ago
    I love the original Zelda for how open it is, as this article sums up well. I usually go around and get what I want when I want it. The openness, the exploration... I wish more of the modern Zeldas embraced it instead of "Puzzles... puzzles everywhere! Even using your sword is a puzzle!"

    At least A Link Between Worlds tried to be more open. Meanwhile, Skyward Sword wrecked your game if you performed a task out of sequence. =\

    I dig a more action-oriented Zelda, too -- another reason this and Zelda II are still favorites (I don't think finding your way around was that bad for its time).
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  • Avatar for camchow #4 camchow 2 years ago
    Congrats! I did this a few years back. I remember playing the game as a kid but never actually finishing it. Finally got around to it and man that final castle was nuts. Still, it was really rewarding to transform Ganon into a tortilla chip in bean dip.

    Second quest can go to hell though. I drew the line there once I realized I wasted an hour because I didn't realize invisible doors were going to be a thing now. That and the new version of the bubble enemies that took your sword away forever until you tracked down a blue bubble. No thanks!
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #5 SatelliteOfLove 2 years ago
    Feels good to get some of the bucketlist out don't it? Got the IBM-compat PC Yses and the Portals down last year. Felt good.
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  • Avatar for Jereme-Jackson #6 Jereme-Jackson 2 years ago
    This is my All-Time favorite video game. I absolutely love it. I consider myself to be some what a grand master at it. It takes me an average of about 1 hour and 15 minutes to complete the entire game from beginning to end. It never really takes me longer than that to beat the game. I know exactly where everything is without looking at any maps. I do have 1 question though. How would you even manage to beat the game without using a sword? You need your sword to kill almost all enemies with a few exceptions.
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  • Avatar for mattcom26 #7 mattcom26 2 years ago
    I picked up an NES last year and this was one of the first titles I bought to replay. It's funny how the lines blur between whether *you* beat it or one of your friends did -- it was such a shared experience back in the day that even if you weren't playing, you were right there cheering your friend, your sibling. Many a copilot scoured a Nintendo Power and still felt they were playing the game even if someone else held the controller.Edited 2 times. Last edited February 2016 by mattcom26
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  • Avatar for linkismyhero2016 #8 linkismyhero2016 2 years ago
    i might be out of line to let people know this but go to purezc.net and there are over 100 custom quests there and a zelda program. Many great zelda quests there. It is fun to play a 8 bit zelda game that has the hammer magic meter magic spells etc go give that place a look and enjoy
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #9 Kuni-Nino 2 years ago
    Reading this reminded me of why I quit playing that game early on. It sounds like something I wouldn't enjoy. The fact that it's so focused on combat is what kills it for me. That isn't Zelda to me.

    Thank god for A Link to the Past.
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  • Avatar for torianowalker72 #10 torianowalker72 2 years ago
    the first zelda made me a rupee hoarder for life, every zelda game i will slash every blade of grass, smash every basket, bucket pot, whatever,, i probably spend half of my gameplay on it...i dont wanna be searching for rupees when i come upon a shop with an item i want! old NES games made you like this, castlevania 2 another prime example you spend as much time killing to collect hearts as actually progressing in the game..gets boring but its worth it eventuallyEdited February 2016 by torianowalker72
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #11 VotesForCows 2 years ago
    @mattcom26 Lovely comment. I've been on a NES kick too recently, but focused around the early Mega Man titles. I think back then I largely watched my mate play them. Thankfully, 30 years has improved my skills a little!
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #12 kidgorilla 2 years ago
    A few years ago, I was in NYC crashing with some friends and we had some time to kill before going to a party. On the elevator ride up to the apartment we were staying at a few hours before we planned on heading out, I wondered aloud to my buddies how long it would take us to finish the game with our collective knowledge of it. We promptly ordered a shitload of food and blitzed through it in about three hours, three guys sitting around a screen trying to drum up where all of the hidden heart containers and latter levels were hiding. We got to the party late, but accomplished. It's one of the best memories I have of something like this; the social aspect of playing a game with friends on the couch. When you're in your mid-20s and ready to skip out on a party in Fall in New York City for little elf kid and the raft that curiously fits into his backpack, that says something
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  • Avatar for TheOldMan2084 #13 TheOldMan2084 2 years ago
    I have to say, the first two Zeldas will always be my favorites. I like later ones okay (I had a blast with A Link Between Worlds), but those first two will always be special to me.
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  • Avatar for nolan54 #14 nolan54 2 years ago
    I know I couldn't remember every little hidden secret of the original, but I'd like to believe I could beat both quests without a guide. I never owned Nintendo Power or really had friends that really played video games. It was my brother and I. Always deciphering every little thing. I do think I could remember a high majority of secrets in Super Mario 1 and 3 though. I've beaten every Zelda. OoT is still my favorite Zelda. Possibly my favorite game of all time. I used to be able to say the same about Mario till the wii u. Hoping I can skip it though. The next Zelda looks exciting. Really hoping for a dual console release.
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  • Avatar for mganai #15 mganai 2 years ago
    @Mikki-Saturn Zelda 2 was much tighter combat-wise than 1, where being limited to moving in the 4 cardinal directions really hurt.
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #16 Roto13 2 years ago
    I also finished this game for the first time as an adult. I'd finished literally every other Zelda (including Zelda II) and thought I should probably finish the original just so I could say that I did. It's basically impossible without outside information. The game is so combat focused and yet Link can only move in four directions and his sword swipe is more of a poke. I'm glad I finished it but I doubt I'll ever do it again. Unless I finally do what I've always said I was going to do and play the entire series in order and write about each one as I go.
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  • Avatar for Xemus80 #17 Xemus80 2 years ago
    I don't remember this game being particularly difficult. Tedious, perhaps, but not difficult. ("Oh, look. That bush didn't have a secret. Time to go to next screen, come back, and burn the *next* bush." Rinse; repeat.) Between burning every bush, bombing every wall, and so on, it took an incredible amount of time to find all the hidden goodies. (Even now, at 36, I remember where most of the secrets can be found.)

    One of the things I love about The Legend of Zelda, in retrospect, is the lack of expectation. In 1987, there was no "Zelda game," no idea of what is and isn't a "Zelda game." There was no formula. There was no "Zelda game" other than THE Zelda game. Legend of Zelda. Period. That was it. (And the mere sight of that shiny gold cartridge was nothing short of magic, gentlefolk. MAGIC.)

    I'm more excited for the new Wii U Zelda than I have been for a Zelda game in a long time, mostly thanks to the appearance of a huge, open overworld. I would love if Nintendo threw caution to the wind, gave Link a sword and shield, and then forced you to stumble your way through the new Hyrule and figure it all out, a la Zelda 1. I don't normally enjoy the go-anywhere-do-anything-ness of open world games but for Zelda, it would be like coming home.
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  • Avatar for davidarnold97 #18 davidarnold97 2 years ago
    Dont forget to use the name Zelda as your save file name to access the entire game were nothing is were you thought is was.
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  • Avatar for Mega_Matt #19 Mega_Matt 2 years ago
    Good job Kat. This game is brutally difficult towards the end.
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  • Avatar for jjmahoney3 #20 jjmahoney3 2 years ago
    I remember getting this is 7th or 8th grade. A few friends had it and we'd bring in our maps and fill out sections that were blank, or circle bushes to burn (or walls to bomb), to help each other out. I did beat it back then.

    Zelda 2 in the other hand, I got to the final boss (maybe not even Shadow Link), died, and had to stop playing. I never tried to beat it again. In hindsight I have no idea why I didn't try again. To come so close and leave it unfinished still kind of boggles my mind.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #21 brionfoulke91 2 years ago
    Great to hear that you ultimately enjoyed it! Yes, the original Zelda is rough around the edges, but in some ways that makes it the most exciting of the Zelda games to play. There is no Zelda game where exploration is as much at the forefront, the openness of this Zelda game is something I would love to see return to the series. And the challenge makes it one of the more satisfying games in the series as well (second only to Zelda 2.)

    Definitely a must play for anyone interested in video game history! I think it holds up remarkably well. I would love to see the series come full circle and mimic some things that made the original Zelda so great, while perhaps adding a bit more polish and diversity.
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  • Avatar for pdubb #22 pdubb 2 years ago
    Congrats Kat. I'm glad you finally did this. It kinda sucks that you never got to experience the game from the playground days of the late 80s. Still, the fun of that was only when the you finally had a tip from one of your friends work, instead of yet another lie.

    Jeremy did the Anatomy of Games for Zelda 2. Dont let him convince you to try it. I have no idea how I was able to beat that one multiple times as a kid. Still, if you decide you hate yourself and sanity, start up adventures of Link and try to play as far as the 3rd dungeon. Good luck with that whole Death Mountain bit.
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  • Avatar for JinjoHayabusa #23 JinjoHayabusa 2 years ago
    Don't use a guide. The game gives you enough hints for you to figure everything out yourself. Using a guide is just spoiling the game.
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  • Avatar for beauborchardt20 #24 beauborchardt20 2 years ago
    I remember when I first beat this game. I was in the fifth grade and it was early morning before I would go to school. It took me months to complete this game, and of course games were tougher, more obtuse(things weren't spelled out for you), and just downright mean. Now I have this game memorized and can usually finish it in about 2 hours. One thing I can say though is that before Super Mario Bros and The Legend of Zelda video games were (Mostly)complete garbage.
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  • Avatar for docexe #25 docexe 2 years ago
    My sincere congratulations, Kat!

    Despite my undying love for the series, I have never finished the two NES Zelda games. I have played both so I can confirm they do indeed get brutally difficult and can feel opaque, especially when compared to later entries in the series, but I have never actually finished them. It’s something that I need to remedy at some point.
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  • Avatar for Bulbasaur #26 Bulbasaur A year ago
    Nice work! I finally finished LOZ today, GBA Advance NES Classic cart, played on my DS Lite.

    (dude, WIzzrobes are assy af)

    I gave up on my nice shield, I let those sucking tubes keep it and grinded (ground?) on w/out it.

    It took awhile to navigate that final dungeon, so much so that when I finally faced Gannon my first response after beating him was, "that it?"

    But I'm stoked to have finally beaten this game (1st quest only). Now onto Link's Awakening on my GBA SP and Ocarina on my N64.

    Word!

    (I dig this site, great work!)Edited May 2017 by Bulbasaur
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