Other History Lessons posts can be found here. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Playing The Magic of Scheherazade made me want to return to one of its primary inspirations: The Legend of Zelda. A hugely influential classic, The Legend of Zelda was omnipresent in my childhood. First released in 1986 in Japan as a launch title for the Famicom Disk System, a version without the additional Disk System features released in North America in 1987, not long after the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) itself (a rebranded Famicom) appeared on the market. Its iconic golden cartridge was everywhere, enough so that I never actually owned one myself; I would visit friends’ houses to play, or they would bring their cartridges to my house and we’d play on my NES. At school, we all exchanged stories of secrets we’d discovered in the game. I’d already seen and played much of The Legend of Zelda by the time I got my own copy, a re-release with a standard grey cartridge, and tried playing it more methodically. But by that point the collective interest had moved on to newer games, and while I got pretty far, I never finished the game. I’ve always meant to return at some point, and this seemed like the right time.

The Legend of Zelda grew from a stable of games that neither I nor my friends knew anything about: early 1980s action role-playing games for Japanese personal computer systems like the PC-88 or Sharp X1. These machines featured much higher resolution displays than were common in America and Europe, in order to accurately display Japanese writing. That meant they could run games with graphics much more impressive than home computers in the West, including a selection of classic role-playing games that never spread beyond Japan. Felipe Pepe wrote a wonderful retrospective on the history of Japanese role-playing games that covers this early period well. Action role-playing games such as Hydlide and Xanadu had players control a character in real-time, bumping into enemies to fight them, all while accruing gold and experience to make their character more effective. Interestingly, Hydlide eventually released in North America too, but not until 1989. I owned it, and after The Legend of Zelda (which, remember, released two years after Hydlide in Japan, the opposite of what happened in North America) it seemed primitive and boring.

The Legend of Zelda took the top-down viewpoint and real-time action of earlier games like Hydlide and focused on it, eschewing the role-playing elements. A critical addition was an actual attack button, which makes protagonist Link thrust his sword out in front of him. Actively attacking enemies, rather than just running into them, completely changes the feel of combat encounters, especially since Link has a shield which can deflect projectiles from the front when he’s not attacking. This design felt revolutionary, especially to Western players who had never heard of the earlier games that inspired it, and it not only launched the enduring Zelda franchise but also inspired countless other games that would follow. Like The Magic of Scheherazade, for example.

But playing The Legend of Zelda after The Magic of Scheherazade highlights just how finely tuned The Legend of Zelda is. It’s not just the first game to hit upon this action-adventure formula, it’s an extremely smart design full of little, perfect touches. The way that enemies are knocked backwards when hit, almost all the way across the screen, means that battles aren’t just about eliminating foes but also controlling the space around Link. The visual and audio feedback for a successful sword strike is incredibly satisfying. Enemy behaviors are varied, some rushing at Link, others hanging back and firing projectiles, still others moving around in difficult to predict patterns. Most enemies come in red and (tougher) blue varieties, which can have different behavior, and some are only vulnerable to the correct items.

Ah yes, the items. Link collects these as he explores the land of Hyrule, and each has a meaningful impact on how the game plays. One of the first items Link finds is the boomerang, which can stun enemies to make them easier to attack. This leads to a nice one-two punch of the boomerang followed by the sword when fighting certain enemies, but the boomerang has lots of other cool details too. It flies out straight ahead, but if link moves while it’s airborne, it will then curve smoothly back towards him, possibly hitting other enemies on the way. Link pauses for just a fraction of a second when catching the boomerang again, which is such a small thing, but really makes the boomerang feel more tactile. The true stroke of genius, however, is that the boomerang can collect health or money dropped by defeated enemies, making it as much a tool as a weapon.

Other items are similarly useful: the bow and arrows give Link a ranged attack even when he’s not at full health (more on that later), the candle is used to light up dark rooms, but also to burn certain trees to uncover secrets, or even to burn Link’s enemies. Items like the ladder and raft are navigational aids, letting Link reach new places in the world, while bombs play double duty as a means to find secret doors or passages and a way to battle certain enemies. Other items have mysterious uses that must be discovered during play. The Legend of Zelda’s predecessors featured new items and equipment to find, too, but these tended to simply increase a character’s statistics in some way. Link’s collection of items actually change the action, so that exploration and combat evolve wonderfully over the course of the game.

Hyrule is an open world, with players able to wander wherever they please and tackle the numbered dungeon levels in any order they like. It’s entirely possible to stumble upon level 3 before finding level 1, for example, and there’s nothing to stop players from playing through it first, unless it turns out that specific items are needed to progress. Earlier action role-playing games had open worlds too, but to American audiences it was new and exciting, something only seen previously in comparatively crude computer role-playing games like the Ultima series or Might and Magic: Book One. A similar style of design would appear nearly six months later in Japan (but only one month later in the United States) in Metroid, which also launched a famous franchise and influenced countless games to come. Playing The Legend of Zelda now, I was struck by how much certain aspects reminded me of Metroid. That game focuses on finding upgrades that open previously blocked paths, and there are many places in The Legend of Zelda in which specific items are needed in order to pass obstacles, effectively gating progress in a similar way. But the land of Hyrule manages to feel less proscribed, somehow. Perhaps because its overhead view means there are more directions to explore, more places to go at any given time.

And those places are absolutely packed with secrets. It turns out that the communal conversations and sharing of discoveries that my classmates and I participated in were exactly what the designers hoped would happen. Every rock wall might hide a cave entrance, revealed with a bomb; every tree might obscure a stairway leading underground. Still other secrets are less obvious, triggered through use of special items or other actions. These secrets might reveal a shop, perhaps with unique stock or better prices than others, or an old man offering a hint, or some money, or a coveted heart container that increases Link’s maximum health, or even the entrance to one of the dungeons that Link must conquer in order to complete his quest. The dungeons themselves contain secrets too, triggered by pushing certain blocks, or using bombs to open passages to otherwise inaccessible rooms. The musical melody that plays upon uncovering a secret is heard often, but always feels like a triumph.

I was surprised by how many secrets I remembered. I’d largely forgotten where most items were, or what the dungeon layouts looked like, but as I explored Hyrule I would enter a screen and suddenly recall that there’s a secret cave if I place a bomb right there, or if I burn that specific tree. Many more secrets remained mysteries, however, and I enjoyed uncovering them on my own. To a point. Early on I found the game surprisingly difficult, reminding me of the time in college when my roommates (who were far more experienced at Zelda) decided to fire up the game, and then gently mocked my ineptitude when it was my turn at the controls. Roaming the land of Hyrule, I would blunder right into the burrowing creatures that popped up in my path, or I’d mistime my attacks against projectile-spewing enemies, dropping my shield at exactly the wrong time. In the dungeons, my nemeses were the armored knights who can only be damaged with Link’s sword, and only when attacked from behind or from the sides. When Link is at full health, his sword fires a beam across the screen, making these encounters easier. But as soon as he takes some damage, he loses his sword beam, and needs to get up close and personal with these knights, whose unpredictable movement meant they often turn to strike at the worst possible moment. Eventually I learned some tricks for dealing with these guys, but they’re always dangerous.

What really helped was getting better equipped, which meant finding more secrets. In particular, locating the blue ring, which halves incoming damage, made a huge difference, as did finding more heart containers (which in turn act as a prerequisite for other useful upgrades). For the heart containers, I eventually turned to the internet, learning that some were hidden in places I never would have found on my own. But that’s kind of the point: players were always meant to collaborate on finding these things. Now, all the information is easily available online, but back then it meant players needed to talk to each other and work together. Playing The Legend of Zelda extended beyond the game on the screen, becoming a community effort. Some more recent games have tried to recapture this feeling, often by designing convoluted and well-hidden secrets to compensate for the much larger community reach that the internet provides. Fez, for example, hides layers of secrets for dedicated internet communities to sleuth out together, and the convoluted alternate reality games used in marketing some recent releases offer similar puzzles to communally solve. Another sign of Zelda’s lasting influence.

Armed with more heart containers, better items, and my own increasing skill, I had an easier time making it to the end of the game. At which point I found something I’d totally forgotten: players can choose to continue with a “second quest”, starting the game over but with new locations for items, secrets, and even the dungeon entrances themselves. In fact, the dungeons are completely new, sporting unique and devious layouts to confound the expert player. No one I knew got very far in the second quest back when The Legend of Zelda was released, but I decided to dive in, knowing that if I didn’t play it now I likely never would. The land of Hyrule is the same, so I decided to scour the map for secrets and upgrades before venturing into the dungeons. I quickly made a terrible discovery: the secret locations are (mostly) new. I thought they would just contain different things the second time around, but when I dropped a bomb to open up a secret cave on the coast, I was surprised to find the cave wasn’t there. I was going to have to search for all the secrets again.

Stubbornly, I decided to try to find everything myself this time, rather than look them up like I eventually did in the first quest. I had a decent idea of the kinds of places that might be hiding secrets, so I grabbed my pouch full of bombs and my blue candle (well, I had to buy that first) and went exploring. I sure found a whole lot of secrets, making me wonder just how many I’d missed the first time around. But most of them weren’t very helpful, just containing shops or some money. In fact, many were actively detrimental: on multiple occasions I got excited when a bomb revealed a secret cave, only to find an old man inside who demanded I pay him for the door repair. This tended to happen while I was also trying to save up money for something else, making it extra frustrating. Eventually I’d scoured the entire map (or so I thought) and ventured into the dungeons once more.

The new dungeons in the second quest aren’t messing around. Remember those knights I told you about who gave me trouble before? How about facing a pack of them while statues in the corners of the room shoot fireballs at Link? Or, try tackling some of the dangerous wizard enemies while confined to narrow paths between immovable blocks. There are even some rooms in which the floor is the same color as the enemies, making them difficult to see. The worst challenge, however, are the new ghost bubbles. Looking like a ball of television screen static, these deal no direct damage to Link when hitting him, but instead prevent him from using his sword for a short while. At least, that’s how they work in the first quest. In the second quest, bubbles can be found in blue and red varieties, and they’re much, much worse. Bumping into a red bubble will prevent Link from using his sword indefinitely, until he’s able to find and bump into a blue bubble, which breaks the curse. That’s hard enough when there are both types in the same room, and Link must carefully dodge them while battling the other enemies (bubbles cannot be killed). But many dungeons in the second quest have rooms filled solely with red bubbles, and if Link bumps into one, he’ll have to travel many rooms, often backtracking significantly (or even taking a one-way shortcut back to the beginning of the dungeon) just to find a blue bubble to restore his sword. These make for some truly devious dungeons.

Not that I got that far at first. I gave up and looked to the internet for hints much earlier, when I realized I was unable to progress without a certain item. Turns out it was in a dungeon I’d already finished, but was hidden behind an entirely new type of secret, never seen in the first quest. I didn’t even think to try something like that, not knowing it was possible. It wasn’t the only time, either. In the second quest, many secrets, including some dungeon entrances, are hidden in ways so unexpected that there’s no way I would have come up with them on my own. I suppose it stands to reason that a game designed to be solved communally would add even tougher secrets to its second quest, but it’s no wonder that the kids I knew never got that far. Even though I was often stumped, however, I enjoyed my secret hunting, feeling I’d made as much effort as I reasonably could before I looked up solutions. I was also pleased to find the nonlinear design worked even better this time around. When I discovered the entrance to the eighth dungeon before I’d located the seventh, I decided to try exploring it anyway, and was surprised to find I was able to complete it entirely. I had to look up where the entrance to the seventh dungeon was afterwards, but then I was able to use the items I’d found in the eighth to help conquer it, which was nice.

When I reached The Legend of Zelda’s second and final ending, I was even more impressed than I’d been after the first. The remixed second quest let the designers go wild with all the enemies, obstacles, and design elements they’d crafted, without having to worry about new players who are still learning the ropes. The result highlights how perfect many of the design details are, and how everything can combine to create nefarious navigation and combat challenges. It also made me appreciate just how well the first quest is designed, scaling its difficulty to match the skill of a player encountering these things for the first time. Perhaps the best part is that the second quest is entirely optional. There are no narrative reveals reserved for the second quest, no sense that this is a “true” mode that needlessly locks out players who aren’t interested in the extra challenge. It’s just some more of the game, extra stuff for players to try out if they like. And I loved the victory screen, which simply says “you are great”.

The Legend of Zelda absolutely deserves its classic status, and I’m glad I finally played through the entire game. It holds up surprisingly well for a game from 1986, still feeling great to play today. And unlike many early console games, it actually got some faithful re-releases that didn’t alter the graphics or design. These include releases for the GameCube and Game Boy Advance, as well as the Virtual Console for the Wii. These are all getting old themselves, however, and require specific Nintendo hardware to run. More recent releases include versions for the 3DS and Switch, but I opted to use emulation instead, running the game using the Mesen core via Retroarch. This gave a nearly perfect recreation of the original cartridge version. However you choose to play it, The Legend of Zelda is worth trying. I bet you’ll enjoy your adventures in Hyrule.

Next on Console History: Miracle Warriors: Seal of the Dark Lord