The scope of this game at its release was unlike anything the video game industry had seen. The concept of an epic adventure that revolved around puzzle and problem solving in conjunction with engaging combat was a relatively novel idea at the time, and made The Legend of Zelda a pretty ambitious title. The game was certainly quite large, and packed a good deal of content into the cartridge, but how much fun could an elf running around in a Robin Hood costume really be?
The game cartridge contained an internal battery that allowed saving. While we take that concept for granted now, the ability to save (much less to have multiple save files on one cartridge) was a pretty nifty feature at the time. And with a game as challenging as this one, it was definitely a blessing.
The game's plot is pretty straightforward: in the kingdom of Hyrule, a dark wizard named Ganon has kidnapped Princess Zelda in an effort to gain the relic she possessed known as the Triforce. There were three such Triforces, one of which Ganon already owned. The second was shattered into eight pieces and hidden by Princess Zelda, buried within dungeons across the land, under guard by monsters. The third? Well...we don't talk about him. You are Link, a young boy tasked with saving the princess and defeating Ganon.
Of course, this would provide the first piece of confusion in the game: it's called The Legend of Zelda, but Zelda is just this kidnapped damsel? You mean your character is someone altogether different? And doesn't that plot (save the kidnapped princess) sound almost identical to Mario, just with different names?
Thankfully, you'll soon find that the similarities with Mario stop at the basic plot outline. The Legend of Zelda plays from an overhead perspective, and from the start puts you in the middle of this giant kingdom with nothing to your name but a tiny shield and no indication of where to go or what to do. But Hyrule can be unforgiving, and it's dangerous to go alone, so you should first find some sort of weapon.
From there on it's basically a search for the dungeons holding the shards of the Triforce, without which you can't hope to defeat Ganon. And dungeoneering comprises the bulk of the gameplay and challenge. While you can go anywhere at any time, the dungeons are labeled numerically to give you an idea of the recommended order and challenge of them. Each dungeon has a map you can find, which is inordinately helpful, as well as a compass showing you where the Triforce piece is hidden. Yet inside the complex are all manners of monsters, from animated skeletons to bats to the bouncing rabbit heads you see above.
But over and above the combat with monsters, the emphasis in the game is placed on puzzles. The old man at right is a regular sight in the game, giving you cryptic clues as to what to do next or where to go to find helpful items. Of course, he's also completely senile, which might cause you to attack him in frustration. But that's really a bad idea. The flames at his sides will start shooting crap at you and you'll get destroyed pretty quick. The Legend of Zelda subtly is telling children to respect their elders, and you have to give it some credit for that.
The puzzles themselves range from the simple to the completely head scratching. You'll often find yourself just wandering around the world looking for the next thing to do. You might have completed dungeon 6, and as you walk realize you have no earthly idea where to find dungeon 7. So you go around looking for any sort of clue, and even when you think you're on the right track, you still might have to try everything you can think of to make it all work. Your opinion of the game will undoubtedly be shaped by your patience for this sort of thing. If you like a mental challenge, you'll love this. But if you want to just play through a game without doing a lot of thinking, you will hate this game with a passion. Or you'll use a walkthrough. Cheater.
The flip side is that this gives you a huge sense of reward when you solve a problem. I'm not sure I've ever felt better about myself for merely setting foot in the entrance door of a dungeon as I have in this game, because sometimes finding the dungeon takes longer than completing it! And a great feature of the game is the inventory, which will steadily expand as you play. Every dungeon has at least one inventory item you can add to your possession. So while you start with just a shield (and a dinky wooden sword when you find it), eventually you're throwing boomerangs, shooting silver arrows, riding rafts, exploding bombs, and...handing out...giant hocks of ham.....ok, so it doesn't all make sense, but it's still pretty entertaining.
There's pretty good variety in the environments of the overworld (that is, anything not a dungeon) as well. The game starts you off in a relatively mountainous and rocky region, but you'll find forests, lakes, deserts, and so forth as you traverse the world. One set of woods infamously trapped the player. You could exit in a certain direction at any time, but attempting to get to the other side would place you back on the same screen. People thought they had glitched cartridges, and the only way you find out how to get through the place was by talking to someone on the other side of the woods. That's just cruel.
And then there's the enormous graveyard, which comprises six or seven screens. Usually there's a ghost floating around each screen, which you can't kill with any standard weaponry, because it's a ghost. So you're content to leave them all alone, but then some hag tantalizes you with the knowledge that there is someone hiding in the graveyard who will give you something. So you walk around trying to move the gravestones to find hidden passages, as any sane, greedy grave robber might do. And the ghosts get pissed. Every time you touch a tombstone a new ghost appears and it's not long before you are having the poop haunted out of you by legions of the undead. And then you flee to the adjacent screen where there are a bunch of warrior statues camped out, and accidentally bump one, and oh god, now it's coming to life and trying to kill me with its spear, get it off get it off!
If you manage to survive the dangers of the world and figure out how to even GET to Ganon's hideout, you're rewarded with the hugest and most difficult dungeon yet. It's even shaped like a skull, which we all know is the universal sign for "You're about to get owned." When you finally find Ganon, who is basically an overgrown swine thing, you have to fight him while he's invisible. That's fair, right?
Beating Ganon saves the princess, who then sends you on a harder quest, just like some other ungrateful prude we remember from some other game. The second quest in The Legend of Zelda is actually more fleshed out though, and is really, really tough. They even change some of the puzzles and item/person locations just to keep the challenge escalated. All totaled, this game is definitely not bad, but definitely not great. It lays the groundwork for an immensely successful formula while never really mastering its implementation. This game is better as the starting point to a wonderful series of games than it is as a game in its own right, but merits a playthrough from any serious gamer regardless.
Bottom Line: 13/20