Thursday, 16 June 2011

Retrospective: The Legend of Zelda (Gaming, 1986)


Tomorrow marks the launch of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on the 3DS. While I don't own Nintendo's latest handheld, I do still have my N64, so plan on playing through the original game to see how it holds up. Since both the original and the 3DS versions feature the same gameplay - albeit with easier to use Iron Boots in the Water Temple, so my agony there will not be yours - it should serve as a buyer's guide, as well as a look back at one of the most important games in the industry's short history. That article will appear at some point next week. Since this year also marks Zelda's 25th Anniversary, expect to see more articles looking back at the classic games in the series' history popping up in the near future.

In the meantime, I thought I'd go even further back in the Zelda timeline and take a look at the game which started it all. The Nintendo Entertainment System played host in 1986 to what would be one of the most influential games ever made: The Legend of Zelda (or The Hyrule Fantasy, as was its primary title in Japan) was developed by Shigeru Miyamoto, who only six months earlier had been behind the smash hit Super Mario Bros, and Takashi Tezuka, a largely overlooked figure in Nintendo's lustrous history who has worked alongside Miyamoto on nearly all their most influential games, most recently as producer on Super Mario Galaxy 2. Although Super Mario Bros is often cited as the key title in Nintendo's almost single-handed revolutionising of the gaming medium during this period, for its anarchic spirit that rewarded player exploration and manipulation of the game's nuances, there's a strong argument to be made that The Legend of Zelda's influence extends far wider than that of the iconic plumber.
A number of things are striking when replaying the game today: the first is the question of how anyone managed to finish the game without a walkthrough to hand, especially when dungeons are hidden in such random places as beneath an innocuous bush or behind a bombable wall high up in the mountains. The second, more important, observation is how familiar a lot of it is and, despite the sometimes infuriating lack of help, how much fun. In its enormous world, fantasy setting, upgradable weapons and (relatively) huge boss battles, it's from this fertile earth that the roots of the modern RPG have sprung. 

The non-linear design foreshadows the advent of the modern sandbox game, encouraging players to spend hours wandering vast environments and making the most of the resources on offer to build up your character's strength for the battles ahead. Rockstar may never acknowledge it and the forests and beaches may have been replaced by metropolitan districts and skyscrapers, but even the Grand Theft Auto series owes a debt to this humble 8-bit adventure. On a technical level, Zelda introduced the battery-backup save system that is one of the most vital gaming innovations of all time. You know that 'notes' section that still lingers at the back of many games' manuals? You can thank Zelda for the fact that you no longer have to fill that with passwords.

But no game can survive on innovation alone: there are no doubt countless games littering the backlog of history that pulled off an important trick long in advance of a more illustrious successor, but failed to take the credit because at the end of the day, the game itself wasn't much fun. One might mention Shiny Entertainment's MDK, which introduced the concept of zoomable sniper rifles at the same time as Rareware's GoldenEye 007, yet it's the N64 game which is frequently cited as the source of the idea primarily because it has proven the more memorable game. The Legend of Zelda is remembered not just for marking the start of one of gaming's most beloved series (the top-down GTAs are barely get a mention these days), nor for changing the gaming landscape forever, but because in its own right it is a terrific game to play.


No-one could deny that the game has its frustrations, like the lack of direction I've already mentioned, but Miyamoto's intention of relaying to the player the excitement he felt exploring caves as a child comes through strongly. In a way, that lack of direction even helps: without any sort of guidance, Hyrule feels like your own world waiting to be discovered. Just as Super Mario Bros encouraged gamers' inner-anarchist, Nintendo are wise enough to their players' instincts to be able to guide them in certain ways. 

On the starting screen, you have a choice of three paths and a cave. All in their own way are mysterious, but caves have the imaginative attraction of being a challenge. Anyone can walk down a path, but not everyone feels courageous enough to venture into a dark cave. In the safe environment of a videogame, Nintendo knew that human nature would make that dark square irresistible. By no coincidence at all, that cave contains your first sword, the tool without which it is impossible to progress through the rest of the game. Without any visible external guidance or a fairy screaming at you to "Hey, listen!", that discovery feels entirely your own and is all the more thrilling for it, even if there's no doubt that Nintendo knew exactly what they, and you, were doing.

No less remarkable is how many elements from this original Zelda have survived intact in later incarnations in the series. Many of the core items are still around – the sword of course, but also bombs, bows, musical instruments, heart pieces and even the candle – plus motifs like moblins, fairies, graveyards, forest puzzles, hidden caves, destructible walls, enemies rising from beneath the surface of sandy beaches, block and torch-lighting puzzles, triforce hunts and many more. Every corner of this nascent Hyrule seems to bring a new smile of recognition as the birthplace of a lifetime of gaming memories.

It could be said that this dependence on its legacy has over time been both the series' greatest strength and crutch: having so perfected the formula the first time around, anything other than refinement would be seen as a waste of such magnificent source material. Zelda's first sequel, The Adventure of Link, went in a more platform-oriented direction and despite not being short of innovations of its own, is widely regarded as the black sheep of the family for messing with the template.

Recent Zeldas have struggled to feel fresh because, as perfect as many of these elements are, there are only so many times that anything can be recycled without showing signs of wear. Ironically, several of the suggestions for where the series can go next can be found in this original Zelda: non-linear progression, more items found outside dungeons, greater focus on the overworld... it would seem that fans want to see the series' history reflected in its future as much as it ever has been. 

For when a game's history is this rich and so at the heart (no pun intended) of an entire medium's development into a multi-billion dollar business, you don't need the Triforce of Wisdom to remind you of the importance of maintaining a link to the past (pun definitely intended). Because for all the complexities of modern gaming culture, those first steps into a Hylian cave reveals in seven simple words the philosophy that came to define a brave new world for interactive entertainment: 'It's dangerous to go alone! Take this.'


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