There’s a story in my family that while my mom was going into labor, my older brother was kept occupied by teaching a family friend how to play the legend of Zelda on the Nintendo Entertainment System. I grew up with that original Nintendo and its classic games, and with an older brother who actually knew how to play them. I, on the other hand, had no idea what I was doing, but my earliest gaming memories are still of wandering aimlessly around Hyrule.
I remember learning how the combat worked. I remember learning that the sword would only shoot lasers out when you had four hearts. I remember learning to deflect Octorok’s rocks with the shield. I remember finding out that sometimes burning down a tree revealed a secret passage. I remember learning how to equip new items like bombs and boomerangs. I really remember a lot about this game, but mostly I remember that I could never figure out what I was actually supposed to be doing.
I think I did, as a kid, figure out where the first two or three of the games nine dungeons were, because I do remember their locations, layouts, and enemies pretty well and pretty specifically, but I never really got further than that. I definitely saw more of the game than I actually played by watching my older brother and his friends playing it, but mostly it was a game that was fun to play but that I had no hope of making real progress in.
I’ve played – and beat – most of the games in the series over the years, but I’ve never gone back and finished the original game. I’ve tried to a couple of times, but it has always remained inscrutable to me. I mean, I could find the first few dungeons thanks to my childhood wanderings, but after that there’s no guidance on where to go. Having played the heck out of the N64-and-later games, dealing with a world that is expansive with no signposting kept frustrating me.
Last week, the Nintendo Jump podcast asked about the favorite series of their listeners. I said, naturally, Zelda, which got me thinking again about how I never beat the original game. I always refused to use guides when I tried to play it, with the idea that I wanted to experience the game properly. However, as the past 29 years have proven, that was never going to happen. With that in mind, and inspired by Nintendo Jump, I started the game on my Twitch stream on Sunday, and yesterday I finished it.
I used a map of the overworld to help me find where the dungeons were, and to find a couple of health upgrades and cash caches along the way, eliminating the need to wander around, bombing and burning everything in sight. I still feel like I got to explore the world, and after just a few days I finally feel like I know Hyrule on the NES the same way that I know it on the N64.
The mechanics of this game are mostly pretty fun. The combat feels fairly good and the enemies are fun to fight, with the exception of stupid Darknuts, who walk around in patterns that are completely unpredictable. There’s not a lot in the way of puzzles compared to later Zelda games, with more of a reliance on hidden items and passageways, but it still felt awesome each time I figured out how to move forward in a dungeon.
The biggest disappointment of the game was the final boss fight. I was familiar with most of the major battles in this game from going against them as a kid, watching my brother, or from their appearances in later Zelda games (I’m looking at you, Gamora), but I didn’t know anything about what my fight with Ganon would be like, except for that silver arrows were somehow involved. I was absolutely thrown when he immediately turned invisible and started chucking fireballs at me from all over the place. I basically ran around the room getting zapped by fireballs and randomly swinging my sword and shooting arrows until he eventually reappeared and I whacked the hell out him. I still don’t know why he became visible again when he did, but I beat him and beat the game!
Now it’s on to The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventures of Link, a game I’ve intentionally not played, because it’s renowned as one of the weirdest and worst games in the series… but I can’t wait to see what it has in store!