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The Legend of Zelda

Every Legend Has a Beginning

At 25YL, we love gaming, and moreover, we love The Legend of Zelda series. That’s why we’re going to cover the entire official Nintendo franchise, including the handheld games, every week. We kick off our in-depth coverage with the 1986 original, The Legend of Zelda.


I can hear that tiny creak flipping open the NES cartridge lid. If I recall the lid never didn’t creak. That creak is factory detail. I remember inserting that gold cartridge almost all the way in, pushing it down and flicking the lid shut with my pinkie finger as if I had an ounce of cool inside my scrawny body. If I had done it all just right, I would push the power button in and upon release the red light would go on and that tune would immediately kick in.

The Legend of Zelda title screen, featuring the golden triforce and a tall mountain with a waterfall.
The Legend of Zelda start screen is iconic

If you’ve ever played this game before, I’ve just (through the power of words and screen captures) gotten that tune stuck in your head. You’re welcome.

OPEN YOUR EYES…

The Legend of Zelda was the first thing I knew in my bones I would love before I ever played it. Maybe it was the first color edition of the Nintendo Fun Club magazine featuring the game on the cover, or the aforementioned gold case with the hole in the box, which was also gold, but somehow I knew I would love this game. I suppose if it turned out to be just another game, it would’ve been the first time I was fooled by the hype, but as it turned out, it was the beginning of everything.

The Zelda franchise today is massive, influential, and a worldwide phenomenon, but back in 1986 it was just the game with the gold box. Its legend was a simple one:

(enter crawl text)
In my day, the English and grammar in this were not quite so polished.

My life as a fan of video games came from this title. Yes, I was into video games before it. I grew up in the 80s, the early 80s. I played Super Mario Bros. in the arcade, along with Ms. Pac Man, and Crystal Castle, and a ton of other classics, but Zelda is where my love of games grew deeper.

Zelda taught me about the nature of video games, and moreover, critical thinking in general. It encouraged experimentation. Sure, we look for walls to bomb in every game now. Back then? You bomb a secret door and find a heart container? That’s a proud moment, son. You’re an innovator! These days, if something isn’t behind a waterfall we’re left scratching our heads. In the original Zelda…well, in the original Zelda, I couldn’t tell it was a waterfall, but you get my point.

Link fights the spider-like Tektites in front of a waterfall.
I wasn’t even aware that was a waterfall I went chasing.

That is what makes Zelda special. That first time you bomb a wall the game opens up so many possibilities in your mind. What else can bombs do? What else can I use them on? Who else can I use them on?

It’s the first time you realize your boomerang can scoop up items left by enemies, or that your boomerang can stun some enemies. It’s the first time you stabbed your way out of a Like-Like’s belly to discover your shield got smaller. Those little discoveries.

It’s the first time you burn a bush to reveal a stairway and that secret jingle plays. That little tune is etched into the brain of everyone who has ever heard it.

THE ESSENCE OF ZELDA

There are dozens of articles online about things you probably didn’t know about The Legend of Zelda, and I’ve read them all. I know all the useless trivia there is to know about this game. I know Shigeru Miyamoto based the game on his own childhood spent exploring the woods and caves of Kyoto. I know Zelda is named for Zelda Fitzgerald. And yes, I even know the game designers initially intended to start you with the sword already equipped. I’ve seen all the clickbait. None of that speaks to what Zelda truly is.

I’ve seen every game with a trace of retro in it do an “It’s Dangerous To Go Alone!” reference or joke, and only The Binding of Isaac earned the right to use it. You can’t minimize this game to a meme or a pop culture reference. This game was a puzzle box, and back in 1986 you best bring your notepads because you will need it to draw out the Death Mountain dungeon.

This game is like your own memory. There are parts you remember. There are parts you just sort of recall. Some parts you dread. Some parts you can never forget.

I strongly disagree when people say that the original game is not much to look at. Yes, you can tell how it was designed tile by tile sure, but I found it’s earthy quality endearing. When the game wanted to get your attention it would give you a visual clue. The game would often reward those who spotted and investigated suspicious landmarks with hidden doors (secret jingle) leading to secret shops, games of chance; traitorous Goriya’s giving you money on the sly, and surly old man charging you for ruining their door. I mean honestly, whose front door is a bush? A crazy person. Yeah, I said it. Not all Old Men are crazy, but that one specific Old Man? Crazy.

An old man offers Link a game of chance saying "Let's play a money-making game."
Depends. On an emulator? Sure. Otherwise? Pass.

The original Zelda created a blueprint the series has been using to varying degrees of success for decades now. The entire game is based on finding dungeons and figuring your way out of them using both your muscles and your mind. Almost every Zelda game is based around this structure. Hidden around the world in secret locations are heart containers that increase your maximum hearts (life). Sound familiar? He’s armed with a boomerang and bombs and a bow and arrow, just like whatever Zelda game those items made you imagine. This game is the birth of whatever Zelda game you consider your favorite.

An Old Man offers Link either the Red Potion or the Heart Container
Yeah, first time I took the Red Potion. How was I supposed to know?

WHAT’S OLD IS NEW AGAIN

I’m not here to talk about any of the other games in the series but I think anyone who played this game and Breath of the Wild will agree that both games are very similar in tone.

This game drops you into a world and basically lets you decide how you go about conquering it. Breath of the Wild takes that to a euphoric extreme, but when I played this game as a kid I was constantly filled with bursts of euphoria when I would discover a secret. Or if my mom discovered a secret and I was just watching. I forget how it went down exactly; Someone discovered a secret. I remember that being exciting. I was being serious by the way; my mother is a legit Zelda fan. Her hand-drawn map of Level 9? Masterful. It needs to be laminated like the treasure it is.

I play through Zelda a couple of times a year. It’s literally on every Nintendo console I own. My Zelda experience is always a little different, but like everyone, I have my own unique experience.

Two giant rocks sit side by side. Link stands in front of the right one, bomb at the ready.
I always think it’s this rock. It’s not.

If you’re an experienced Zelda player, you can beat the first quest without ever having to go NORTH WEST SOUTH WEST through the Lost Woods. You can get to Level 6 and the Graveyard the long way round. That’s how I do it. Of course, I also exit Level 6 and immediately turn right so Link does this goofy little side shuffle back down the stairs. It’s the cutest thing. And some of you know exactly what I mean — those little gaming moments.

Link descends a stairway of a dungeon in the shape of a monster mouth.
Link goes cavity hunting.

I even say the same stupid jokes out loud every playthrough:

An Old Man tells Link "Go to the next room". A hole in the wall leads the way.
“Why couldn’t they have just made this The Next Room?”

The Legend of Zelda is why I have such an unnatural obsession with The Binding of Isaac. Isaac is just the most intricate Zelda dungeon generator ever created, but sometimes nothing beats the original.

Which brings me to one last thing.

THE SECOND QUEST

The Second Quest is exactly what it sounds like. Upon completion of the game, or by naming your character ZELDA (Is that why some people call him Zelda?), you are launched into a similar-looking, but strikingly different adventure. Let me be clear; the Second Quest isn’t simply a post-game Hard mode; it’s a whole new game.

Using almost the exact same overworld, it plays with our expectations and also asks us to remember what we learned the first time.

The experimenting continues.

The rules have changed. The Stalfos have swords. You can walk through certain walls. Sometimes the dungeon boss is in the middle of the level. The red bubble makes it so you can’t use your sword, and the blue one reverses that. Sometimes the Triforce Room has a secret path in it. Since when? Since now.

This quest asks you to solve more puzzles via the dungeons themselves. The first quest had a few puzzles players had to solve (move a brick, feed the hungry), but the second quest dungeons are where I believe the Dungeons as Puzzles vibe that permeates through the entire series originated.

The Legend of Zelda is a timeless classic that also happens to have an often overlooked second quest filled with lesser-known moments and harder to remember secrets. I love this game and all it represents. The way it respects the intelligence of its players. The way it gives you all the tools and clues you need and still manages to challenge you is how all games should be. It may not have invented some of the game mechanics that became so popular; they just perfected them. To me, it’s a flawless game.

MISSING HEART CONTAINERS

  • Hey, listen! These are the Missing Heart Containers! It’s basically like a bulleted list of random thoughts and observations. You should read them. They probably have trivia and jokes, but beware the siren’s song.
  • If Link is based so much on Disney’s Peter Pan, why is vertical leaping his Achilles’ heel?
  • If you think you can beat this game’s Second Quest without any trouble, you’re gonna go down in flames, just like Jesse James.
  • Did you know the character of Link is always left-handed, except for the handful of times when he isn’t?
  • Link not talking in this game was merely a limitation of the hardware and not a story choice.
  • Some people think Link’s name is Zelda. Those same people call Samus “Metroid”. If you encounter these people, please be kind, but educate these people.
  • Listen, I may have subliminally put a few songs in your head over the course of this article and I regret that. Honestly, if I could turn back time I would, but there’s no time travel in this game, so thematically that wouldn’t make much sense.

I was visiting my parents and mentioned this article and my mother mentioned she had recently found some of our old notes, which felt serendipitous, and I simply had to share two photos with everyone:

A hand drawn, detailed map of Level 9, from the author's mother. Map courtesy of Roxanne Malloy.
Hand drawn map courtesy of Roxanne Malloy, mother of the author and Bubble Bobble co op warrior.

And here is one of my contributions. Mangling clues, poor spelling, and an eye for clumsy metaphors even as a young boy.

Notes from me as an 11 year old. I wrote: Super Clue! Spectacle (spelled wrong) Rock is an entrance to death! Death = Death Mountain. Number 2. 10th enemy has the bomb.
For someone who always pokes fun at bad localization in NES games, I sure couldn’t spell either.
  • Spoiler Alert: In the end, YOU are the Hero of Hyrule. All along. The whole time.
  • Join us here at 25YL as we journey to Hyrule time and time again. Up next, Link hits puberty in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.

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Written by Johnny Malloy

Johnny Malloy is the Assistant Editor of Gaming and Staff Writer here at 25YearsLaterSite, and is a crafty arranger of words.
A gamer since childhood, he enjoys indie games and considers The Binding of Isaac to be a subversive masterpiece. He has also written an extensive series of articles about the Castlevania series.
He enjoys writing fiction, be it screenplays, scripts, or novels. His favorite TV shows are Twin Peaks, The Leftovers, It's Always Sunny in PA, and Workaholics.
He has one of those faces. Sorry about my face. It can't be helped.
He's @mistercecil on the Twitter. Follow him if you like wild tangents and non sequiturs.

6 Comments

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  1. Great article!! I love this game and have many nostalgic memories of it, like you do. Zelda is my favorite video game series ever since the original. Looking forward to following along with the articles about them!

    • Thank you so much! We have a great team of writers covering the Zelda series. I’ve seen some of the upcoming work and it’s going to be a fun series!

  2. Twink here. Loved the article. Love the game. I wasn’t huge into NES but this is on my to do again list. As for the subliminal songs?..?..? Were you going for Cher straddling the destroyer cannon at the end??? We need to talk.

  3. Yes, Marc, I dropped in a few song references after getting the Zelda theme stuck in people’s heads. Two Cher songs, a little TLC.

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