I've been a fan of Zelda games for a long time. I played other games before I picked up anything from this series, but Zelda games are still some of my earliest video game memories. I can remember a bit of Ocarina of Time I played on a cousin's N64, when I must have been 11 or 12 or so. I've had the GBA version of A Link to the Past for many years. I loved it as a kid, and I love it now. I played Collector's Edition on GameCube in middle school, and it gave me my first taste of Zelda 1, The Adventure of Link, and Majora's Mask, and my first full playthrough of Ocarina of Time. I played Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword at or near release, and enjoyed my time with each. I've played almost every game in the series. Each one has at least something I can remember fondly. I've played a lot of other games since the first time I picked up a Zelda game, but I still want to come back to Zelda for each new release.
At least, that used to be the case. I've been a bit less consistent with some of the newer games - I don't think I played either Spirit Tracks or A Link Between Worlds to completion (and I've never owned the latter). If I'm being honest, Zelda hasn't been on my radar for a while. I played Skyward Sword, but that was probably four or five years ago at this point. I played Wind Waker HD in ... 2014, I think? I never got a chance to play Majora's Mask 3D. I haven't played any Zelda recently, and I've been okay with that. I've had other things to play and do, a life to live, etc. It's been fine. I probably perked up a bit the first time I heard they were working on a new Zelda after Skyward Sword. That didn't stick, though, over the years of not really hearing much else. What did stick was watching the E3 reveal. When I saw that video for Breath of the Wild, I finally got excited. I watched it live, irresponsibly, at work, and in an instant, I was ready for a new Zelda again. It was a wonderful feeling.
To keep that excitement high until the release, I've stolen an idea from a friend. That friend is playing through every main-series Zelda game before the Breath of the Wild release in March 2017. Now, I am too. Running through all the games will get me excited for a new Zelda, remind me of what I loved about each game in the series, and let me get to the games I never got a chance to play. This is the first of a series of blog entries I'll be posting about this revisit. I want to capture my thoughts on each game as I play or replay it. I'll make connections between them where I can. I'll cap off the series with whatever I have left on the whole series, and on being a Zelda fan for so long. I hope you enjoy all of these words as much as I enjoyed writing them.
1. The Legend of Zelda / Zelda 1 (1987)
I played Zelda 1 in the Collector's Edition a while back. I got pretty far in it (or even finished it), so I had some familiarity when I picked it back up. Between that familiarity, and some heavy guide use, this replay went pretty quickly. It didn't feel rushed, and I enjoyed my time playing Zelda 1.
I was impressed, after playing through it again, with how much of what I'd consider core Zelda is present in the very first game. You start out with just three hearts, and a sword. You're very weak. Over time you get more heart containers and more items, making you stronger, but the enemies and bosses get tougher too. That difficulty curve is in every Zelda game - though it's a bit steeper here. The world is full of secrets and rewards you for exploring (and sometimes punishes you with things like "door repair payments", just to keep things interesting). You're given very few hints from the game on where things are - if I didn't have a guide I think I'd have to try everything on everything else to find all the hidden rooms and rupee pickups. I definitely appreciate having my hand held more in the later games. The world isn't completely empty of everything but you and the monsters - you meet the occasional shopkeeper, potion witch, or helpful old man to make it feel like you're not alone. Later games (even Zelda II) blow it out of the water comparatively, but there are NPCs here. The overworld music in this game sets the tone right from the jump. It's THE Zelda music, and it got me back into the Zelda spirit immediately.
I've always found the 2D Zeldas harder than the 3D ones, and this game is no exception. I don't know the exact reason for this. My theory is that you get much less freedom-of-motion in the 2D games. You generally have to fight closer to enemies, which makes fights much more risky - you'll take two hits for every one you land if you're not careful. It's also possible for enemy sprites to get right on top of Link, and do a few hearts' worth of damage before you can get any distance from them. I had this happen in most of the 2D games in this revisit, and it was always a pain. I made solid use of save states in this game, and had a lot of deaths, but I did make it to the end.
Speaking of sprites, there were a few moments where the game threw in more than it could handle and slowed way down. Sometimes just a few enemies and their projectiles were enough to make this happen. I saw the same thing happen in some other games - Ocarina and Majora's Mask 3D, even - so I could believe the emulation layer was contributing and it wasn't just an NES thing. It was never a big deal, just very noticeable. The slowdowns always struck me as funny, and that bit of added humor was nice.
I dug up the instruction manual for this game after beating it. The controls were in there, as expected. The backstory for the game was there, which makes sense - there isn't really room in in-game for it on the NES. The enemies are all in there, along with some tips for fighting them, which was less expected and fairly cool. All of the items Link gets are in there, and there are some hints about upgrades you can get for them. There's even tips on how to get to the first two dungeons! I played without the manual but with guides, and I think I'd have been better equipped the other way around. I had always heard older game manuals had a lot more in them, and it was really cool to see that in action. Reading the manual and seeing all the artwork done for it was a lot of fun. It was a great way to wrap up my time with the game.
Overall, I enjoyed this game. It doesn't have a lot of things that later games made standard, but it still really feels like a Zelda game. It's a tough NES game, but in a way that feels fair. Starting it was enough to make me excited to play through the rest of the series. I'm glad I replayed it.
2. The Adventure of Link (1988)
I've played a bit of Zelda II before, but I've never finished it. As I remember it, I took one look at the first temple and gave up. I started this attempt armed with infinite save states, a guide, and determination to win.
This game is tough as nails. Darknuts are murderous in this game until you get your air-jump-stabbing down to a science, and they're very common enemies. The blue Darknuts that come later only let you get in one stab before you have to block a volley of random thrown knives. That's tough to do if you're still in melee range from stabbing the Darknut. There were enemies in the last dungeon that I gave up on fighting - because they'd land five hits to my every one hit. I started to ran through them and hope I had enough health to survive a few shots. This game really has a focus on (tough) individual enemy encounters that I haven't really seen elsewhere in Zelda. Many of the temples would put me in a corridor with three Darknuts in a row. Sometimes I would get past one with a sliver of health, and have to handle the second and third without a mistake, or I'd be starting over.
This is where I used a lot of my save state reloads. Other times I would have to get through a corridor with a bunch of weak enemies I could easily handle. If I wasn't careful, though, they'd still burn down my health. It really came down to practice and execution. Every enemy had a pattern, and every enemy had a best angle of attack. The challenge was figuring that out, and then repeating it without fail every time that enemy showed up. The bosses were the same way - though for some of those I relied on cheap strategies I found online instead of doing it the "Right Way". I was very happy when I finished the fight with Dark Link and got to see the credits. This game felt cruel at times, but gave me a sense of satisfaction when I was done that I've not had in any other Zelda game. It had very high standards for me, and I (eventually) met them.
There are a ton of JRPG or RPG features in this game. The overworld in this game is full of random encounters. You wander between tiny towns and caves that open up to full side-scrolling areas when you enter. Every person in a town has dialogue, and some of them will heal you, fill your magic, or give you cool items and spells. You basically have to talk to everyone to figure out what to do (if you're not following a guide). Unlike the first Zelda, in this game you have magic, health, and attack levels, and those increase with the XP you get from every enemy and boss fight. I don't think all of these changes are good ones. But, it's really cool to see a Zelda game - the second Zelda game! - change so drastically from its predecessor. It also shows what Zelda looks like dressed up as an RPG, which is neat to see.
This game likes to reintroduce bosses as minibosses. You could argue it's just padding out the game, but I think there's a bit to it. It's a simple way for the game to tell you it expects you to be more powerful than the first time you saw that enemy. You beat them and leveled up. You should be able to handle them again - and actually, it should be easier this time around. It's a tough argument for Zelda II to make, because every enemy encounter is so challenging, but it still kind of works. When you do beat the miniboss, you get the satisfaction that you could in fact handle that boss again. And it probably was easier (if only a bit easier). It's a neat trick that gets some use in other games as well (Zelda 1, A Link to the Past, Wind Waker to an extent), and I really like it.
The music in this game, as in Zelda 1, is pretty limited, but I still really liked it. It has a very different tone than Zelda 1, despite being on the same platform. I'm not sure how to describe the difference - bouncier? Lighter sounding? Whatever. The temple music stands out to me in particular, because I recognize it from Super Smash Bros. Melee. It's good dungeon music. It kind of fades into the background when you're running through the temples, which is probably for the best. It'd get a bit more obnoxious if it stood out and you were very aware of it looping several dozen times during the game. Having the same music and basic layout for each dungeon makes them all seem very similar, which is unfortunate. Changing colors for different temples helps a bit. Enemies and obstacles vary somewhat, and that helps too, but those changes aren't really enough. I like that the last dungeon gets a special soundtrack, at least. Zelda 1 did this as well. It makes the final dungeon run stand out and seem more important. The credits music is very catchy, and I think that deserves special mention.
Overall, I liked this game more than I was expecting, considering how much criticism I've seen it get. It tries a lot of new things, and I appreciate that, even if they don't all land. It's much harder of a game than I'd prefer to play, but that paid off when I finally managed to finish it. It's a proper Zelda game, and it was definitely worth playing through and folding into my Zelda experiences.
3. A Link to the Past (1992)
I've played A Link to the Past before - it was actually one of the first Zelda games I played. I was really happy to get a chance to play through it again.
Link to the Past is a very good Zelda game. It's the first game to really nail the formula that Zelda 1 and 2 started to build. It has the same skeleton as those games - you're dropped in an overworld peppered with dungeons, and you have to go complete them all, growing stronger along the way. But in A Link to the Past, those dungeons all have their own style. You can tell one from another. In Zelda 1 and 2, the different parts of the map have different looks to them. A Link to the Past extends on this as well. There's a swamp that's mostly water. There are rivers you can't swim in until you get flippers. There are rocky areas and grassy areas, mountain areas and stone castle areas. There's a bunch of dungeon and overworld items, like in Zelda 1 and The Adventure of Link, but here they also help the overworld open up, which is neat. I particularly like that Link to the Past lets you pull up the world map, from the very beginning of the game, and look at all the places you can explore. It lets you wonder about the whole world map in a way you can't really do in Zelda 1 or 2 unless you get some paper out and start drawing.
I didn't allow myself any guides for this game, and I honestly didn't need them. I've played this game enough times to know it by heart. I know where all the dungeons are, or, at least, I remember enough to wander in the right direction. Each dungeon went very quickly, and I knew how to fight every boss. I found almost every item and heart piece on my own, again either because I knew where they were or knew enough to work out where they were hiding. I didn't have an incredibly hard time with the enemies here. I don't know if that came from having experience with them, or from coming from two harder 2D Zelda games, but in either case it was appreciated. I enjoyed wandering to find secrets in this game more than in the first two. There's more of a logic here. The walls I had to bomb were cracked - I didn't just have to try a bomb on every middle section of wall in every dungeon. Most caves would have something neat if I wandered into them. If I lifted up a couple rocks, I'd probably find a warp tile or a secret cave. Because I could manage the enemies pretty easily, I felt more comfortable wandering. I didn't think taking extra time to explore would just get me killed, like it certainly would in The Adventure of Link. I had explored every inch of the world map by the time I put down this game.
I'm a big fan of the Dark World.
It's teased partway through the game, when you're climbing to the Tower of Hera. I really like this. You can't explore the full Dark World that early, but you can look at it, and think about it. You can see some areas that look important, and wonder about what you might find there. You might even find something you want to go find as soon as you're released into the Dark World. If you thought the game was going to end when you got the three pendants, you now know better. The Dark World is really neat. It mirrors the Light World, but differs in ways that are sometimes jarring. The Lost Woods become the similar but darker Skeleton Woods, but the Desert of Mystery becomes a walled-in swamp. Kakariko Village becomes Thieves' Town, where everyone is either dead or trying to steal from you. The game encourages you to study these differences by making you jump between the Light and Dark Worlds. Sometimes you're forced to make the jump, and sometimes you're rewarded if you have a hunch and jump over on your own. The Dark World is also a lot tougher than the Light World, especially before you've picked up some heart containers in Dark World dungeons. The darker look and added challenge really sell the Dark World as a corrupt, evil place, and I love it.
There are a lot of connections I can draw between A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time. The two dungeons, divided by an Act II reveal, map very well to the dungeons in Ocarina. You get the master sword after the first three dungeons in both games, and you rescue sages in the back half dungeons in both games. A lot of areas come over - Lake Hylia, Kakariko Village, Hyrule Castle, the Lost Woods, and Death Mountain (though that last one's been in a lot of Zelda games). There's a ton of music here that got remade and put in Ocarina of Time. The overworld theme is one, obviously. Zelda's Lullaby and Ganondorf's Theme are also in both games, which surprised me. I hadn't really thought about the soundtracks side by side until this replay. There's even connections the other way - the GBA remake of A Link to the Past borrows attack and falling sounds from Ocarina of Time for Link. I never picked up on that before, because I played the GBA version originally and thought they were just part of the game. I've started to wonder how intentional these connections are. It wouldn't be incredibly surprising if A Link to the Past is where the dev team started when they began work on Ocarina of Time. I'd love to learn about the process of making this game, and what connections the dev team was and wasn't trying to make.
The music here screams "Zelda" more to me than most games in the series. It's possible nostalgia's affecting me here, or maybe it's that this is the first game in this revisit so filled with good soundtrack songs. I love the title screen's music, and the music and sound effects during the story intro accompany it perfectly. The music at the beginning of the game, in the rain, provides the drama your rescue of Zelda needs. I could listen to the overworld theme from this game for hours without getting sick of it. As stated earlier, there are a bunch of themes that show up in Ocarina of Time, and I think I like them more here. There's just something about the sound of the music in this game. It sounds dusty. It sounds unpolished, or gritty. It sounds like someone took a newer Zelda game's soundtrack, somehow filtered it through old record player, and then poured that into the game. I love the end result, and I don't think I would love this game as much without its soundtrack.
A Link to the Past is one of my favorite Zelda games. I felt right at home when I picked it up again, and every second playing it was a joy. I'm glad I got to revisit it.
The next blog post will just cover Link's Awakening - I want to cover Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask together and the three together would be too big for one blog post. Thanks for reading!