Nostalgia Review – The Legend of Zelda (NES)

Nostalgia Review is a feature where we go back and replay games that mean something to us on a personal level. You could call them “Retro” but we just call them games we love <3

I remember the precise moment I got hooked on vidya games. I was about 3 years old and watching my older brother play the Legend of Zelda. And I was entranced.

Back in those days, my father used to light incense all the time (self-styled hippy in a suit that he was) and it would waft through our huge, weathered, Victorian home. I remember that smoky smell creeping through the house as I sat on the on the carpet–staring wide-eyed with each new boss we encountered or area that we discovered.

When it was finally my turn to play I would wander that world for hours, trying to set every bush on fire, bomb the middle of every wall, push every rock. And at the time these things were… important. The secrets needed to be found, the princess needed to be saved. There just wasn’t really any other choice.

All of these little things only became even more important to me as my parents began the divorce process. Shortly after that began the yelling. Then my mother escalated that to screaming, then to hitting, and finally to my sister, brother, and me escaping through the garage on a winter morning.  But the Legend of Zelda and games like it provided me with an outlet for all that shit that I wouldn’t understand until much, much later. It was simple, clean, and helped reinforce my bond with my siblings–I couldn’t have asked for more at the time.

So, as I get ready to review this Nintendo classic after nearly 30 years since I last played it, I wonder what exactly is this going to make me feel? I click the button on my NES and…

It hits me all at once. I hear the original Legend of Zelda theme kick in and I remember a time when this was essentially my entire young life. I WAS Link. I had my sword and my boomerang–and neither life nor these god-damned moblins were going to stop me.

I walk into the first cave–a little excited, a little worried. This can’t possibly match up to the feeling of when I first experienced it, can it? The screen changes and I see the old man and his blazing fires on either side. And then, those words that started it all.

It’s dangerous to go alone.

I break into a big, goofy grin.

Unlike many of the games that came after, there is no clearly defined story for the Legend of Zelda. The setup for the game is entirely in the manual–there’s no real in-game story.

But even in the manual, there’s not a lot to go on. Ganon attacks Hyrule, Zelda breaks up the Triforce of Wisdom, Ganon imprisons Zelda, Impa runs away and finds Link, Link goes on a quest to put the Triforce back together and save Zelda. Again, not a lot of substance.

Link in this game isn’t really a character. He’s a blank slate, a vague archetype that you inhabit. And it has been that way ever since this game, for the most part. The world of Hyrule exists around him, vibrant and wonderful, though only really changing through his actions–your actions.

After getting my first sword, I go grind on the east side of the map–I remember that there’s a store around here somewhere that sells bombs (always a good thing to have.) Moving from room to room, I kill tectite after tectite, lever after lever. Once, I’m satisfied, I head back towards the beginning area and wander around, northwards, until I find the bridge and scary looking tree-thing that marks the first dungeon.

As I enter the first dungeon with its combination of dull blue tiles and the iconic music, I’m hit with another wave of nostalgia. Weirdly enough, my brain mixes the music from the game occasionally from one of my other favorite NES games, Crystalis, which just compounds the feeling. I wander a while before finally finding the first boss, Aquamentus. Those bombs I collected earlier come in handy–a handful of them and them and the pixellated dragon goes down.

Things have come a long way since the original Legend of Zelda was released, obviously. But even 30 years later there is still that distinct Zelda-feel to this game. It’s like… Playing Ocarina of Time without the intro and being thrown straight into Hyrule field. Or the beginning of Breath of the Wild. The world exists and you must learn its rules as you go, with little to no context. Zelda reduced to its absolute basics–which you probably knew, but it’s interesting to actually see it and play it.

It only takes me a few hours (maybe six?) to beat the whole game–I wind up remembering where about 60% of everything is even so many years later. When Ganon finally takes his last hit, and the screen flashes, and the demon king explodes into waves of energy and dust… I feel a strange sense of relief.

I enjoyed playing very much, but… Games have become so much more complex over there years. While making my way through this classic, there was a sense of lack. It took me a second to figure out what was going on, but I know what that feeling was: my brain was craving more stimulation. It wants complex soundscapes and landscapes with unique visual cues. Dynamic music that swells with the gameplay.

It’s impossible to fully realize just how far we’ve come without revisiting our roots. The original Legend of Zelda is still a good game in its own right, but it will never be the game it was at the time it was released. None of us will be able to go back to the 80’s and experience it again as it was. But for those of us that were alive when it came out… that’s not really the point.

See, it’s dangerous to go alone.

But when you are playing an old favorite, you’re not alone. All the memories of the people you loved who played with you are attached to it. All of your favorite characters are there to take that journey with you one last time.

Ultimately, we can’t escape the present, no matter how fondly we look on the past. But it doesn’t hurt to remember it, to feel it, and realize that there are new favorites that you’ll be looking back on right around the corner.

Whatever’s next… All us have those gaming moments that we will never truly forget and this game will always be one of mine.

Final Score: Recommended!

You’ll like this game if:

  1. You can reboot your dopamine addled brain to a simpler state.
  2. You have a good imagination and can handle the slower pace and simplicity of old games.
  3. You have a great memory about it somewhere in there.

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Strings A.K.A. Tony C

Just a random dude trying to spread a little bit of game love to the world. Founding Editor at ForTheLoveOfGame.com and Twitter goblin.

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