The Legend Of Zelda [1986]

In a way, I could have started my project right here, except I wouldn’t have known what I was looking at. The Legend Of Zelda [1986] is a consolidation of almost all dominant gaming paradigms from 1980-1984, all into one place, all right up against one another, sometimes simultaneously. It’s a near-brilliant work of synthesis that comes off so natural that I think it would be actually hard at least for me to notice it pulling itself together if not for the format of my blog. Castlevania [1986] is obviously a product of the same bubbling-under tradition, hence why my article on it mainly consisted of namechecks (sorry again,) but it’s a little more humble about it. It’s as if the design-attentive team behind Super Mario Bros [1985], having made a tightly-focused game that was a total paradigm shift in its elegant bluntness, resolved to make something as an affectionate tribute to the sprawlinger games of the past to ensure their spirit would endure.

Legend Of Zelda is therefore kind of another limit case for game genre as it has been hitherto conceptualized, not in 1986 itself where we have documents showing an understanding of genre still working out upon what lines games should be marketed, but for me (an admittedly genre-focused thinker) looking back. After a brief moment where it was up in the air and, for example, Rogue [1980] could self-identify as fundamentally the same genre as Colossal Cave Adventure [1975/77] because they’re both Fantasy games, game genres siloed themselves off rather nicely for the retrospectator not along lines of subject matter but salient modes of interaction and other mechanical qualities. In shooters you shoot, in platformers you jump or climb platforms (which are in turn recursively defined as the thing that you jump or climb in platformers, as David R. Howard recently wrote on.) Art games from The Prisoner [1980] to Deus Ex Machina [1984] would mix these modes by switching you from one to the other in discrete vignettes, ones that fundamentally don’t “talk” to one another. But strangely, the best precedent for Zelda’s attempt to blend modes within what we’ve covered is ET [1982], that ambitious mess of context-sensitive buttons and visual perspectives swapping between top-down and side-on.

The more screamingly obvious Atari game resemblance, though, is Adventure [1980], all elements of which have nearly one-to-one parallels in Zelda. And by my lights, Adventure has just exactly as much claim to being a lower-case-A adventure game as King’s Quest [1984] does. So if I’m going to put The Legend Of Zelda in any single genre, I am going to consider it as an adventure game. It’s sometimes posited as an RPG due to its family resemblence to Hydlide [1984], but its “RPG elements” are extremely light and superficial, basically extending to 1) its having exactly one stat, health (which would make fighting games RPGs too) 2) three swords, each of which deals numerically more damage than the prior and 3) I guess that enemies drop random loot when killed. Conversely, the classic lock-and-key progression through a sizeable but labyrinthine world of smaller discrete rooms stitched together is the very skeleton of this game, not that such a condition is itself alien to the RPG. Everywhere you look, there’s an obstacle that can only be crossed by use of a particular inventory item’s properties, or by using information about how the obstacle works. For example, the two mazes that each have a special trick to them, just like CCA.

The thing that makes Zelda unique as an adventure game is that it is an absolute bloodbath. Adventure games aren’t exactly a non-violent proposition: CCA and Zork [1980] and Adventure and King’s Quest and Deja Vu [1985] and et cetera all provide a couple creatures to kill, if not actively requiring it. But The Legend Of Zelda makes killing the absolute central core of the game, systematizing slaughter in an endlessly-repeatable fashion at a rather grand scale. The screen is so flooded by enemies that at times the hardware struggles to even depict it, screaming through its sprite flickering. Though it shares a dim resemblance with the top-down tactics of the Ultima [1981] series, this mode is most precedented by top-down shooters like Berzerk [1980] and Robotron 2084 [1982].

But the truly shocking level of churning violence isn’t separable from the lock-and-key adventure game flow, they’re thoroughly enmeshed. About half of all the inventory items that the protagonist Link can acquire have violent applications, sometimes but not always as their sole purpose. These weapons work as keys… and the enemies are the locks, which is probably the most brilliant idea in this game. Often, in a dungeon section, killing all enemies in a screen-filling room literally serves to unlock doors. Every new screen you see has a motley but hand-picked assortment of enemies. There’s a wide variety of enemies, many of which are invulnerable to certain weapons or have unique behaviors, requiring the player to swap their tools or approach in turn on the fly, so that hopefully the slaughter remains tactically engaging via combinatorial emergence throughout the game. This combination creates what is known today as “encounter design,” pointing the way forward from Robotron to Doom [1993].

That’s not to say the balance is always quite right. For example, there’s a bow and arrows, but the magic wand completely outclasses it, doing the same amount of damage over a larger area, and having infinite ammunition instead of one where your arrowheads are also the currency of exchange. I actually found the magic wand before I got arrows, even. Some would call that “sequence breaking,” but I swear I came by it honestly. Though it may usually today be played with a walkthrough that takes you on an efficient tour through Dungeon 1, then 2, and so on, this game pretty well communicates from the jump that you are to wander around and stumble into things, sometimes stumble in over your head. Twice, I got partway through Dungeon 6, and had to back out of it when partially-finished because I got to an obstacle that was impassable because I simply didn’t have the right inventory item yet.

But back to arrows. Because they are redundantly worse, there was never any reason at all for me to use arrows… except when the game absolutely necessitated the use of arrows and only arrows. That’s not exactly smooth, but where it falls apart as an adventure game is that there’s not only no cause but no cue to use arrows. In fact, the boss battle with a cyclopedean spider at the end of the very dungeon where you find the magic wand is vulnerable only to arrows. In fact, that’s Dungeon 6 and it was the second time where I had to figure out I did not have the right equipment and leave and go get that equipment, this time with no clue what that equipment could possibly be, but knowing I was just one screen from beating the dungeon entirely. In a text adventure, repeating segments of the game is pretty trivial, but when you have to slog through reflex-based battles you’ve already won and might now fatally lose just to get back where you were, it’s deeply frustrating.

If this game had continued the trend of wordless onboarding that SMB announced, the spider boss battle might go something like this: 1) Maybe put the place where you get the arrows in the same dungeon as the boss that requires arrows. 2) Require the use of arrows somehow in the dungeon leading up to the boss, perhaps shooting ringed archery targets that have an oblong eye shape around them. If you’re not providing the arrows in the dungeon, at least require them early on, so you can be sure that the player who gets into the dungeon has arrows and knows how to use them. 3) Introduce the spider with the giant eye while arrows are on the player’s mind and in their inventory. This is basically how later Zelda games usually work, I’m told. This is “good design.”

…But it’s not a puzzle, is it? There’s nothing that’s to be figured out here. Arguably the spider-arrow connection also doesn’t rise to the level of a puzzle but raw trial and error, but as The Portopia Serial Murder Case [1982] aptly demonstrates, “trying everything everywhere” was as perfectly acceptable adventure game puzzling, in Japan or not. (For this, I do resent The Legend Of Zelda’s stingy, stingy limit on the number of bombs you can carry, when it also eventually gets to the point where a player without guidance must bomb literally every empty wall in multiple entire dungeons to figure out how to progress.) The obtuseness strikes the modern player as rough, and indeed it is, but The Legend Of Zelda is obtuse entirely on purpose. It simply does not share the design priorities of even its own sequels. Like I said up top, this is functionally a salute to the paradigms of 1980-1984. The big touchstone when it comes to obscurity here is Tower Of Druaga [1984], that nest of secrets meant to induce exciting rumors. Instead of playing with a walkthrough, this game is meant for you to talk personally with your friends about when you get stuck, for you to discover odd corners. The old men in caves who speak in cryptic but helpful clues are a model of behavior. But broadly speaking, it’s clear that players and designers of games up to 1986 were people who thought that the friction and difficulty of figuring out how to play a video game was part of the fun of the game. In short, the people who are attracted to computers and their games just plain like fiddling with finicky technology.

I haven’t talked at all about the story of Legend Of Zelda yet, but that’s not just because it’s perfunctory. Rather, it’s because my reading is not really my own… there’s a reading I’ve been exposed to that I just find so inescapably compelling that I can’t really see past it, and all I can do is reiterate/summarize it even if it’s not my reading to tell. (I highly, highly recommend/blame the Hyrule Hyraesis series for a deeper and smarter and broader interpretative dive into the Legend Of Zelda series.) In short, I’m a big believer in Trans Girl Link.

Legend Of Zelda repeats the premise of Super Mario Bros, which means that it repeats the premise of Donkey Kong [1981] and Sherrif [1979]: the big bad monster kidnapped the damsel. The monkey was racinated, the turtle was then de-racinated, but the plot retained the sexual anxiety of cuckoldry. Instead of a giant turtle, Link has to face down a big blue boar beast called Gannon. Gannon is gigantic, burly, and aggressive, in stark contrast to Link’s smooth elven androgyny. As in Duke Nukem 3D [1996], boars litter the landscape and are cartoonishly hypermasculine (all men are pigs, a “hog” is a common euphemism for penis, etc.) A couple of later iterations of Gannon (these with only two Ns) will actually be re-racinated into a black man (with red hair) seemingly precisely because of the stereotypical connotations of hypermasculinity. Where Mario/Jumpman was a full-grown man with a mustache and a career in construction and everything, Legend Of Zelda was famously inspired by the childhood experience of playing pretend out in nature, and that comes through in the game itself pretty clearly. Clean-shaven bobble-headed Link is a “young lad” not yet of maturity. He’s too much an innocent for romance, for the princess to be phrased as his possession.

This is a coming-of-age story, a journey of explorative discovery where you piece together not just knowledge of the world but a multi-part item that Zelda split up, and you can only access her by facing the perilous adversity and piecing it together as the key. Rescuing Zelda is a symbol for Link’s self-actualization, and sacrificing the pig is a rite of passage into adulthood. When you enter the name Zelda as the player character’s, you get access to the Second Quest, so the thing that happens after Link defeats Gannon is… that they now go by the name Zelda. That’s why it’s called Legend Of Zelda and not Link: it’s rude to use someone’s deadname.

5 thoughts on “The Legend Of Zelda [1986]

  1. Nice article, and great site in general. I have one thing to add. Miyamoto is on record saying that he was inspired by The Black Onyx and Ultima to make Zelda:

    With that in mind, I think it’s fair to interpret Zelda as an RPG, however simplified it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fair enough, but this is still only one more “stat” than your typical fighting game. If I were going to make a case for Zelda-as-RPG instead of against it, I would single out the progression, that these stats grow over the length of a campaign. But ultimately, I just intuitively mentally processed it more like Atari Adventure than like Rogue or Ultima.


  2. I’ve said this before but the end of this article is so cheeky. When you told me i giggled.

    One thing I find fascinating is the comparison to E.T. Like. God, they ARE similar, even down to the whole ‘when you go to lower levels, the perspective switches to side-on’ thing, something that isn’t really brought back in future zeldae.

    Another thing that’s interesting is that this game, while not QUITE an RPG… Does kind of predict one of the most annoying parts of the genre- the Grind. There flat out arent enough bombs in your inventory for all the uses of them, so you have to kill extra monsters and rely on RNG to get them.

    Liked by 1 person

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