This is an ongoing series where I attempt to Play/Complete/ and Rank every video game in the known universe. Think of it as really real science and not an opinion piece at all.
To start things off today, I want to do a quick refresher on the rules of the series. For every game I playthrough, I approach them all with two definitive rules:
1) I will not cheat in the game to make progress in the game.
2) I will not be using a guide of any kind to make progress in the game.
I have these two simple rules (and a few others) because if I am truly going to pass judgement on a game, I will have to approach and play the game the way it was meant to be played. If I cheated past hard encounters, then I can't accurately speak about difficulty, and if I look up a guide to solve puzzles, then I'm not engaging the game on its terms. So far throughout 43 ranked games, I have yet to break those rules. Perhaps you might see where this is going.
My brother had an NES from before I can remember. I was born in 87 and probably didn't start playing games until 5 or 6 years old. It meant that there are some games that I grew up fondly playing, and others that I just didn't have the patience for. It also wasn't long after hitting video game playing age that the family got a SNES, and like most other kids, I quickly abandoned our NES library for newer and shinier games.
Zelda, Faxanadu, Chrystalis, and Dragon Warrior were all games that outside of the first hour with the game, I never really made progress in. I have been trying to rectify that, through building up my own collection, and playing games from diverse time periods, but up until 2020 I had never beaten the original Zelda. I'm not saying I got to the final dungeon and just didn't beat Ganon, I am instead talking about never really making it farther than an hour in. That's right, I haven't played Zelda since I was probably 6 - 8 years old. Don't get me wrong, I understand the importance of that game, and have played many other games from the series, but this wasn't a game I ever had nostalgia for and thus never was a go-to game when I would pop in retro games for the odd retreat. It wasn't until talking to my friend that we forced each other into playing two zelda games we missed out on (he had never played SNES Zelda). This has all been a big leadup to ultimately say, this is my very first time through the game, so if you want to pause here and start typing up angry comments, I'll wait.
For the very few people who might now know, The Legend of Zelda is an action/exploration game, where you are travelling from dungeon to dungeon looking to gather pieces of the tri-force and rid the world of evil. The world map is set out like a maze where each screen is a piece of that maze. The joy of Zelda was in the exploration of these screens. What enemies were waiting for you? What secrets could be found? etc. etc. You were supposed to get lost in the world and stumble upon your next objective simply by exploring. Once you were in a dungeon, the game operated the same way, work your way through the maze, until you reached the end (boss of the dungeon) defeat it and then claim your prize. Repeat until all dungeons are cleared.
Now something that doesn't get talked about a lot, and something I really miss, is how important all the extra documents are that came with the physical game. The instruction book is a beefy book that not only sets up the story (something that is barely touched in game), but allows you to get information on items, enemies, and has other incredibly useful tips to those willing to read the manual. There was a map, and even a guide to basically the first two dungeons all included as well (please note I did not use the guide portion when completing the game). In order to truly beat this game, I had to refer to the manual a lot, to make sure I wasn't missing anything or missing a tip that told me what I should be doing.
Simply put, Zelda is a confusing game.. it is meant to be, but that doesn't necessarily make it great. I had to tap into my past and get in the habit of drawing my own maps, checking to make sure I got every treasure in dungeons, and constantly do dumb things in the hope of finding secrets. I knew from the zeitgeist about burning bushes to reveal secrets, pushing statues and gravestones, using bombs on walls, but because of the games desire for exploration to be the predominant design most of these secrets are not spelled out or signposted. Sure there are some obvious ones, but I think about all the time I spent trying to burn random bushes, pushing every statue and gravestone I came across, and wasting countless bombs on walls just to attempt to push forward, I realize that the "Joy" in discovery is based on the ratio of attempts you tried the same action to no avail. The game doesn't need an arrow pointing at every secret, but outside the few "characters" that give vague hints, your only action is to try all of these things ad nauseum because you don't want to miss out on a key item.
The game is an exercise in trial and error. Like I said, because of the Zeitgeist and playing Link to the Past, I knew that I needed the Silver arrows to beat Ganon, but I had a hell of a time finding them. Not knowing if they were in the last dungeon, out in the overworld or perhaps missed in the 8th dungeon, I spent large swaths of time looking for (and eventually finding) the silver arrows, but that was only because I knew I needed them. There is an alternate timeline where I play and complete this game as a kid, without the knowledge I have now, who is trying to figure out how to kill Ganon with items you already have. Do I need to time a bomb explosion, regular arrows, a candle? Now I know that there is someone (or multiple someones) who is reading this and thinking how stupid I sound. "Of course you get them here (points to imaginary map)" or "I beat this game as a kid with my eyes closed," all of that may be true, but you are saying that now, with years of playing the game under your belt, imagine (if you can) playing it the first time without a guide. I know I didn't 100% the game, I never turned in the letter I got from an old man, I never found the red candle, and certainly missed some heart container pieces, but I am ok with that stuff, because none of it is needed to beat the game. I was more perturbed looking for dungeons to find they were hidden under statues/bushes or looking to advance only to find that I had to bomb one of the 4 walls seemingly at random to progress farther. Those few things I would have loved more hints from characters strewn across the game, but I am sure I'm in the minority there.
Now I don't want to sound down on Zelda. I enjoyed my time overall with the game, hell I love how it feels to make my own map like I am on an adventure, taking notes furiously and activating part of my brain that hasn't been used like that in video games for years (I used to have a notebook near my old PC, just for adventure games). However, I can admit that this game has flaws, and no number of hand waving "that was the style at the time" will make me see it differently. I think about how far Zelda came when just moving from NES to SNES, how it was able to keep its exploration and action mindset, but make the game less of trial and error. How you always knew where you were going, even if you didn't know how to get there, and I would love to retroactively add some of that back into the NES version.
I can honestly say that I "like" Zelda, but don't love it, and when it comes time to introduce my kids into video games, it might be just a game on the shelf for them to explore on their own time, rather then being one I try to coerce them into playing.
*For new people, who might be interested, I do not take into consideration cultural importance for greatest game of all time. Otherwise this exercise would be futile, because games like Pong, Donkey Kong, and Pac-man would be in your top 5 greatest games of all time. Instead games are ranked heavily on how much fun I had playing them*
Is this game the Greatest game of all time: Not in my opinion
Where does it rank: I have placed Zelda as the 10th best game out of 43 games. It falls below Yakuza Kiwami 2 and right above "That's You." For comparison purposes I think Mario 1, Super Spike V-Ball, and Mega Man 2 are all better NES games... maybe not as important, but more fun to play.
Up Next: Dante's Inferno (X360)
Anyone looking for it: here is the link to the list and more if you are interested in following along with me (this is not a self promotion). Here
Thanks for listening.
P.S. - there is a lot I didn't discuss here that I think have been better said elsewhere, but they have not gone unnoticed. The music is phenomenal, the ability to play harder game 2, the monster variety.. Chef's kiss to all.