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Sunday, November 9, 2014

NES Replay: The Legend of Zelda

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: July 1987
Of all the games Nintendo made for the NES, there were two great, towering achievements that stand above them all. The first was Super Mario Bros. The second was The Legend of Zelda. Super Mario Bros. was a demonstration of pure game design at its most distilled. Zelda, however, was pure technical prowess. And, oh, the gameplay was pretty amazing too.

The Legend of Zelda featured one of the most expansive worlds that had ever been put on a console. Here, look at this overworld map and compare it anything else at the time. When looking at that overworld map, just remember that there were also nine dungeons and a completely hidden second quest. How did they fit so much into such a tiny cartridge? After all, the NES had a very, very limited amount of working memory to work with. How did they do it?

Nintendo had quickly hit the limits of what their NES could do by 1987, so they started having to come up with workarounds to give the system more memory. The had a breakthrough with a memory management controller (MMC), which could go into the individual cartridges. An MMC would swap out chunks of memory from the cartridge to the NES as the game was being played, giving the NES more to work with. That led to bigger and bigger games.


It also had an interesting side effect. Because there was RAM in the cartridge, Nintendo was able to put a little watch battery in the cartridge that could actually keep some of the RAM powered. That powered RAM was able to hold a tiny bit of data about the state of the game. They implemented this in The Legend of Zelda, and thus was born the first NES cartridge that supported a save system. It was absolutely essential for such an enormous game.

However, some players today gain the wrong lessons from games like The Legend of Zelda. They bemoan how modern games have constant reminders of where to go and what to do. They point to early games like Zelda and say, “See! In Zelda there are only vague hints! ‘Dodongo dislikes smoke’? What was that supposed to mean? Gaming was just better back then.”

That’s not necessarily true. If you start up Zelda without any prior knowledge of what you’re doing, it can be fairly confusing. Sure, you can kind of pick your way around somewhat, but you’ll eventually be lost. Yet, in those days, all games came with instruction manuals, and the manual for The Legend of Zelda was fairly extensive. If you read the manual, you see that it walks you right up to where the first dungeon was, as well as shows you a map of the area of the second dungeon. That’s a lot of information to get started.

The fact of the matter was that Nintendo realized that players were going to need more information for a game like this, but there just wasn’t enough room in the cartridge’s memory to put more detailed hints in. That didn’t stop them from trying, with characters saying things like “Eastmost peninsula is the secret” and other vague directions.

There was something else totally unique about Zelda. The boss fights in early games, like Castlevania and others, were like battles of attrition, where you would try and deal as much damage to the enemy as you could until either you or they fell over dead. In The Legend of Zelda, the boss fights were very, very different. For the aforementioned Dodongo, you had to set a bomb in its path, where it would eat the bomb and explode from the inside. Another boss, Digdogger, required you to play a recorder, which made the creature shrink so that you could hit it with your sword. Ganon required you to hit him a few times with your sword, after which he would be paralyzed and you could hit him with a silver arrow. And so on.

This was fairly heady stuff. Look at the games on this list so far and think of what their “final bosses” were. Yes, they had amazing movement patterns or looked impressive, but all of them boiled down to simple games of “outlast the boss.” Not so in Zelda. Zelda demanded your brain as well as your sword.

With some of the bosses and puzzles being so esoteric, how could you learn how to beat these enemies? Yes, most players read the instruction manual religiously back then, but even more important was the proliferation of “tip books” with names like “How to Win at Nintendo Games.” You could find them at any K-Mart or library in those days. They were absolutely indispensable back then, even though they would only have tips for one or two popular games and then fill the rest of their space with unimportant games like The Three Stooges.

When one person in your group of friends learned how to beat a game, they ended up sharing it with everyone else. If you were really good at games, it was like you held some arcane knowledge that no one else knew. This led to lots of ridiculous and unverifiable stories, like the time that I convinced someone on the playground that you could do a “hair-pull kick” in Double Dragon forever. Yet, with this early network of game guides and sharing tips with your friends, most games could be beaten.

When people complain about games being “better” back then, they forget about all these tools that players had to use to win, especially on a head-scratching game full of puzzles like The Legend of Zelda. Nowadays, these very same tools still exist, except they’re placed in the game and on the internet, rather than in game manuals and books.

The Legend of Zelda was an enormous leap forward for games in general. It was so full of imagination, ideas, secrets and fun that it still captivates players today. It’s on the shortlist of greatest games of all time for a very good reason.

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