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Looking Back to 1986 and the one that started it all: The Legend of Zelda


Watching the livestream chat for the Nintendo Direct this week, you’d think that 2021 is on a knife’s edge, and whether it plunges into 2020-like despair is dependent on how Nintendo celebrates Link’s 35th Anniversary. Would they release a compendium of every Legend of Zelda ever made: a Zelda All Stars? Perhaps they’d opt for an HD remaster of a few of the modern classics? Most of us were probably building our own personal dream-teams (Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker for me, please Nintendo), while others were just hungry for news of Breath of the Wild 2. 

When Skyward Sword HD was announced, it felt like there was a scuffing of feet and a reluctant admitting that, yeah, sure, that makes sense and will do. In perhaps the most Nintendo move of the entire Direct, Nintendo chose the big-budget Zelda game that didn’t get a huge amount of play or praise, coming as it did at the tail-end of the Wii’s life, and then repackaged it full price, alongside some fancy-looking but also full-price Joy-cons. The internet did a conflicted “yippee?”.

Watching the feverish guesswork, and the hunger right now for more Zelda, it got us thinking back to how it all started, way back on the NES and 1986.

the legend of zelda 1

First of all, that ‘1986’ is a bit of a mis-dating in western terms. We didn’t get The Legend of Zelda until 1987, a year after it had made its splash on the Famicom and the original peripheral it had been made for, the Family Computer Disk System. That one-year-gap gives you an idea of how it felt to be a gamer when The Legend of Zelda came out, as it didn’t actually arrive as a surprise: there was a huge amount of hype before its arrival on UK shores. Whispers of perfect scores were coming from game publications like CVG and Mean Machines. We would go as far to say that EVERY Legend of Zelda game has arrived at our shores with a dollop of anticipation, since the first had its own kind of fanfare.

On our part, nothing made that anticipation greater than the packaging. Adverts showed a game case that looked like it was made out of solid gold. It was an inspired marketing move, and one that we hold up as one of the best video game promotions of all time. NES cartridges were stupendously expensive (my Zelda cost £39.99 back in 1987), more expensive than current retail releases if you account for inflation, and the gold casing made it feel like your money was well-spent. This was a ridiculously premium product, a Faberge egg in a black sleeve, and – as a kid holding both the gold box and the gold cartridge – you felt like you’d just unearthed a treasure.

Then there was the book and map. You were buying The Legend of the Zelda with an expectation of a Tolkien-level of worldbuilding and storytelling, and a depth that would surpass any RPG from that time. So you open the box, and inside is a fold-out paper map of the game, vast in scope (for the time) and with each square promising secrets and enemies. It’s hard to imagine a game releasing now and printing out a complete, supplementary game map, let alone showing the placement of every enemy and treasure. Goonies-like, it felt like a treasure map with the game (and if you’ve watched the 2019 movie Under the Silver Lake, The Legend of Zelda map actually does turn out to be something of a treasure map). 

the legend of zelda 2

Then there was the game booklet. It’s hard not to get into a ‘they don’t make them like that anymore’ mode when it comes to manuals, but this one was top-notch, thick with illustrations, background story and a hint of the bosses to come. Together with the map and booklet, The Legend of Zelda release was a treasure chest in a NES shaped package; something we’d call a Limited Edition nowadays, but came as standard on release. Popping that matte, gold cartridge into the NES almost seemed like sacrilege, even at the time (most of the boxed Legend of Zelda’s probably sit in glass cases now). 

The Legend of Zelda has rightly been placed on a pedestal. Game Informer put it as the #1 game of all time in both their 2001 and 2009 lists, and it’s routinely near the top in other publications’ lists. Buy yourself the ‘1001 Games to Play Before You Die’ and there it is, right near the start. As is a problem with so many games that find themselves in this revered, god-like status, there is a danger that The Legend of Zelda becomes so iconic that no-one plays it, as it gives off the dusty impression of being important but not joyful. From our perspective, it IS important, and it’s most definitely still a joy to play. 

Addressing the ‘important’ first, it’s hard to over exaggerate just how much Legend of Zelda brought to gaming. Worlds open to exploration weren’t new – I was a big fan of Sierra adventures at the time, and the King’s Quest series did a fine line in letting you explore the world at your own pace – but The Legend of Zelda was the first, as far as I can remember, that let you take the game on in your chosen order. My memory might be hazy, but it’s possible to defeat Ganon without finding the final sword. We’re all celebrating Breath of the Wild’s freedom of approach in the modern day, but it’s something that its lineage, all the way back to The Legend of Zelda, has proudly displayed. In 1987, that openness felt mind-blowing. 

the legend of zelda 3

What made The Legend of Zelda so joyful to me, and still so joyful, is the richness of its game map. You could almost guarantee that every single one of the squares on its game map had a secret to hide, from a gravestone to push or a wall to explode. The packaged map would only tell you so much about those, so it was a case of finding them and then passing on the information to your mates back at school. The Legend of Zelda positively encouraged the water-cooler chat and a pass-the-pad style of exploration. We play countless games that riff off The Legend of Zelda in some form, but we wish that half of them remembered how vital this aspect was. Hats off to Minit, which is the last game we played that got this right. 

The Legend of Zelda may have spawned countless copycats, and the series itself has carried its Ganons, Zeldas, Master Swords, boomerangs, bombs and dungeons to countless worlds, eras and platforms, but it still feels profoundly great to play. Stripped back and simple, but simultaneously generous and rich, it’s a true classic.

When we thought about the games that Nintendo could have revealed in that Nintendo Direct, we never once considered the original The Legend of Zelda. But going back to play the original, and having played the recent Link’s Awakening reimagining, it might make the most sense of the lot. After 35 years, returning to the original The Legend of Zelda and reimagining it? Hold on to my Master Sword, we need to reach for our wallet.

Do you have rosy memories of The Legend of Zelda? Did you own that gold cartridge? Do you STILL own it? Let us know in the comments below.


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Michael R
Michael R
1 year ago

I own the 1st Legend of Zelda game still love playing it my son got me to buy a Xbox series x won’t let me play it on there but I have a retron game system so I can play it through that when I want to it was my favorite game as a kid and still is

Sean A ridge
Sean A ridge
2 years ago

By far my favorite game of all time. I even got a game tester job at midway all because of my essay on why the original LOZ is the greatest game of all time.

Dustin P.
Dustin P.
2 years ago

Yes, I owned the Golden Cartridge, and had a defective battery. Everytime the system would be turned off, I lost all progress. Took all summer, without turning it off, to beat it the first time. Wish I still owned it, but do currently own a grey version and a functioning NES that i now share with my children..

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