It's Dangerous to Go Alone! Take This!
Undaunted by this Old Man's cowardice, Link set out into the unknown, and he would soon discover a vast and wondrous world filled with challenging labyrinths, horrible monsters, and even more old men that inexplicably barricaded themselves inside of caves. They were either very stupid, or fleeing Hyrule's version of the Internal Revenue Service. Considering their willingness to part with large quantities of rupees, I'd go for the latter.
In the United States, The Legend of Zelda was released in August of 1987, and at the time, its gameplay defied classification. It featured elements from many different genres, including role-playing games, puzzle games, and action games, but was an entirely unique entity in and of itself. It was the very first game to make use of a battery save system and was so expansive that it pushed the NES's capabilities to its limits. Twenty-one years later, I easily downloaded the game onto my Wii for four dollars and still had a few blocks of memory to spare.
Today, The Legend of Zelda is not going to impress anyone with its graphics, but for an NES game, it is fairly nice looking. Considering the NES's limitations, the character sprites are somewhat basic, but all are charming and well-designed. The sound is equally archaic, nothing more than basic chip tunes, but the quality of the compositions easily makes up for any deficiencies in the quality of the sound itself. The themes introduced in The Legend of Zelda are nothing short of masterful, and have become icons every bit as recognizable as Link and Zelda. From the very moment that haunting main theme starts playing on the title screen, you know you're going to be in for something special.
One aspect of the game that has aged very well is the gameplay itself. On the surface, Link's quest seems so simple: venture across Hyrule to collect the eight triforce fragments and unite them to destroy the evil Prince of Darkness, Ganon (he would later promote himself to King of Evil, but his beginnings were far more humble). Alas, things are always more complicated than they seem. Unlike later games in the series, Link doesn't have anybody to hold his hand along the way. There aren't any annoying fairies, mysterious talking hats, talking boats, or anything that should be inanimate talking to Link. After a very brief introduction, Link fetches his wooden sword from the aforementioned Old Man, and he is on his own. There is no set route through the game, and no cut scenes to advance the plot and clue you in to Link's next destination.
And, for someone who didn't exactly exist back in 1987, it's a refreshing change of pace. In order to make any progress in the game, you literally have to explore. While some of the game's nine labyrinths are out in the open, many of them are hidden away inside sealed caves and the only way to find them is to burn bush after bush, bomb wall after wall until that wondrous "discovery chime" is heard and a cave appears behind the smoke. Is it a dungeon? A shop? Or an old man with a heart container? You never know, and it gives the game a real sense of adventure that later games in the series seem to lack.
The labyrinths themselves are fairly innocuous in the beginning. I breezed through the first one in about fifteen minutes without any trouble. But--assuming you play through them in order--the difficulty nudges upward with each successive level, culminating in Ganon's massive, hundred-room labyrinth at game's end. The level design is solid, and while the NES's capabilities kept each labyrinth to one floor, the puzzles are every bit as challenging as those featured in later games, perhaps more so due to the fact the item you find hidden away inside each labyrinth might not necessarily help you out with the boss at the end--no, you won't be beating Manhandla with that raft, will you?
The game can also be brutally difficult on a scale not seen in any Zelda game since 1987. There is no sight more ghastly than a roomful of blue darknuts--and they're not doing a quarter of a heart's worth of damage like some of the enemies in Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. These guys could inflict serious pain, but that is not a criticism. It's nice to have a decent challenge, and The Legend of Zelda certainly provides one. And as an added challenge, once you've beaten the game, a brand new, second quest opens up, giving you access to nine entirely new, much more difficult labyrinths. That sort of replay value is practically unheard of these days.
The Legend of Zelda might look dated and it might sound dated, but underneath that dated surface is an absolutely brilliant game that launched one of the most beloved series in the history of gaming. It established an exacting pedigree of excellence for all Zelda games to come, and paved the way for all future games in the genre. It is truly a legend.