I just finished my play through of "The Legend of Zelda" on the 3DS Virtual Console this month. Before I get to that however, I want to talk about 1987.
I was 14, and going into Grade 11. Yeah, I skipped a couple grades. But keep in mind that back then we had Grade 13 in Ontario, so it's not as braniac as it seems. When The Legend of Zelda released for the NES in August of 1987, I'm not sure I noticed. I was probably too busy in the arcade playing Double Dragon, or listening to U2's Joshua Tree. You might have found me pulling an all-nighter at a friend's house playing Arkanoid on his 386* with an actual paddle controller. Playing D&D, or attempting to learn how to play Squad Leader. To put it bluntly, I was too cool for a Nintendo.
I'll never know how my life would have been changed had I played The Legend of Zelda back then. But I missed it, and ever since, Zelda has been one of those gaming touchstones that I never got around to playing.
When we got our Wii and Skyward Sword came out, I dutifully purchased and played through about a third of it. Anxious to see what all the fuss was about. It was fun, sure, and as engaging in its puzzling as it was frustrating in its motion controlled combat.
But a part of me didn't really 'get' Zelda. What is it about this story that is so compelling to so many people?
I am unable to project my 14 year old self into my current psyche. I can't do it. I had to look up what major world events happened in 1987. I remember isolated slices of experience, a life lived with my friends, my group of music/video game/D&D geeks.
So when I finally played The Legend of Zelda on my 3DS this past week, it was experienced through the eyes of a 41 year old husband and father of two. Here are my thoughts.
First, without any sort of guide or map, the game is seemingly aimless. Screen after screen of woods, beaches, rocky deserts. Creatures that come at you, and attack you. Oh, you can throw your sword at them, that's cool, until you can't. What? How come I can't throw my sword any more? Oh look, a heart! Hey, I can throw my sword again!
I became quickly frustrated. Not knowing where to go, or what to do. "Come on now, you played Dark Souls, you liked it, you should be able to figure this out," I said to myself. So I set about the task of playing through the entirety of the game.
Right off the bat I want to say that I consulted a walkthrough. Having heard that there are many hidden rooms and areas in the game, I didn't feel like walking around randomly bombing every section of wall or setting fire to every bush. So I used a guide.
I progressed through the game, learning that my health, my weapons, and my defences could be upgraded by acquiring new items. Using a guide really helped me go through the game in a logical manner, taking away what some might say is the game's unique open world design. Rather than stumbling across a dungeon that's much too hard and getting my ass kicked, I took the dungeons in a progressive order, starting with the easiest.
Second, the game reminded me of Dark Souls. When you die, you start back at the starting screen, with your items intact but your health reduced. I got so used to running through certain areas that I knew how the enemies were going to come at me before I got there. When I cleared an area of enemies, running back through them again was like running through an empty Undead Burg.
Also, when you die (which I did, quite often, at the beginning before getting more hearts) you start back at the first area again, but with reduced health. I was glad to find out that I didn't lose any of my weapons or equipment that I'd picked up along the way. And I did die, often as not because I was facing the wrong way when trying to attack, or because I'd been surrounded by a room full of enemies.
One interesting mechanic is that if you are at full health, you can throw your sword as a projectile, but if you take any damage at all, you lose that ability and the sword can only stab adjacent spots. Also interesting is that each arrow fired costs one rupee. I didn't realize this until suddenly I couldn't fire my arrows anymore, and I discovered that all my money had disappeared somehow. So I learned to conserve arrows, and I tried my best not to get hit, and stay at full health.
Third, this map is freaking huge. In my play through, which took under 7 hours, I'm not sure that I actually went to every area in the map. The graphics do a reasonable job of depicting different areas, with clever use of colour and patterns. I was genuinely shocked when I saw boulders crashing down from the mountainside. Dungeons had rooms that were pitch black, requiring you to light them up with your candle.
Secret areas abound, and without my walkthrough, or unlimited patience, I would never have found them all. Most are simply found through trial and error, but there are a few secrets which could be deduced by looking at the level design for things that just seemed subtly out of place. A bush that is on its own, or a pool of water that's not like the others. I felt that those were cleverly done, but the random caves in walls? Hard to find unless you know where to look.
Finally, playing the game on 3DS Virtual Console meant that I had the ability to save anywhere, which really helped against the tougher boss battles. Virtual Console only allows one save, but one is better than none. I got into the RPG habit of saving before going through the next door, or into the next dungeon, or after a particularly difficult room. Without that I think the game would have been much more frustrating for me. Definitely a plus to play it with save states.
I admit that my way of playing through the game is kind of cheat-y, and maybe ruins some of the wonder of exploring and solving a game like Zelda on your own. But I knew that if I didn't finish it before Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate came I wouldn't get back to it for a long time. So I hurried things up a little, with a little assistance.
It's certainly not my proudest gaming achievement, but at least now I can say the following things, and they will be true: I played the first Zelda game, and I finished a Zelda game.
*A 386 refers to the Intel 80386 CPU used in PC's of the time.
For more interesting Zelda analysis, here is a fascinating look at the translation and localization of the Legend of Zelda Manuals.