Review: The Legend of Zelda for Nintendo 3DS eShop

What can be said about The Legend of Zelda which hasn’t already been said? Well…

This review was originally posted on July 23rd, 2012. In lieu of anything else to celebrate the game’s 30th anniversary with today, I’m bumping it up now.

What can be said about The Legend of Zelda which hasn’t already been said? Well, with the game’s recent release on the Nintendo eShop and the review opportunity I was presented with, I figured I’d try to see if I could sell people on the idea of going back to the original. In addition, I’m choosing to forgo the normal assortment of screenshots in favor of some dynamic art which the original game provided; you can still see screens and video here. Now, with that out of the way…

If I were to come up with one word to describe The Legend of Zelda, the original game for the Nintendo Entertainment System which launched a franchise, it would be “pure.”

Basically, what I mean by this if you were to take virtually any Zelda game from the past 20 or so years and strip it down to its core essence, The Legend of Zelda is what you would have. No grand tale spanning the game from beginning to end, guiding you from point to point; little in the way of Non-Player Characters to deal with, save for the occasional merchant, old man, old woman, or Moblin in a cave; just you and a wide open world where you can do virtually anything you want, provided you have the means.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t a story to the game, of course; it is this very game which established a lore which gamers would talk about for years and decades to come. In what we would come to learn is a third timeline branched from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Hyrule is a land in ruin as the evil Ganon rules over all that he sees, taking the Princess Zelda captive in an effort to gain the Triforce of Wisdom. She splits her Triforce into eight pieces, each scattered to an underground labyrinth for safekeeping, while sending her nursemaid Impa to find one who can reunite the Triforce and defeat Ganon.

Naturally, Impa comes upon a young boy in a floppy green cap…

The story is there, but it doesn’t dictate the pace of the game. There is but one ultimate goal: Gather all the pieces of the Triforce and defeat Ganon deep within the dreaded “Level 9.” Despite being numbered, the order you choose to find and acquire the pieces of Triforce in is entirely up to you, as well as how. Some people have even gone through the entire game, save for the battle with Ganon himself, without even picking up a sword, Link’s trademark weapon of choice. It is a freedom you won’t see much in later games from the series.

But, as the saying goes, freedom isn’t free. While you can, in theory, go nearly anywhere in the world from the outset, your ability to do so is dictated by… well, your ability to do so.

Link begins with a green tunic, three hearts, a small shield, and a wooden sword (so long as you enter the cave on the first screen to do so). It’s up to you to either become strong enough (through the acquisition of more hearts and better tools) to venture into more dangerous territory, or to gain the skill needed to survive without them. Savvy players can improve their odds by seeking out Heart Containers and claiming the White Sword, as well as halving the damage they take with the Blue Ring, all before even setting foot inside a dungeon.

The places special equipment is needed to access are few; a couple of docks from which to launch your raft, for example, or the fact that you won’t be able to enter the final labyrinth until you’ve claimed all eight pieces of the Triforce. Beyond that, the world is your oyster.

The feel of the inventory is very different from future, 3D-styled Zelda games as well. Some of your inventory is context sensitive, activating automatically when needed in the case of the raft or ladder, or is always on, like the rings.

Unlike certain items, such as the Spinner in Twilight Princess, you’ll find yourself frequently changing between most items in your subscreen, whether it’s to effectively fight enemies or to further explore the surrounding areas. And some of them, from the bombs to the candles or magic wand (augmented by the magic book), can be used for both. Meanwhile, the whistle is used to quickly move around the map, weaken certain foes, and even open the way to one of the labyrinths. The only real one-time case-specific item is the enemy bait, and even that can be used as you please to distract the enemy in combat.

Plus, this game is where the boomerang truly shines. Its usefulness had dwindled since the series went to 3D, so much as to even be eliminated completely from Skyward Sword. But in this game, it becomes your best friend next to your sword, used to quickly stun enemies and retrieve items out of reach. Together, the two form a unique dynamic which more recent iterations seem to lack.

But even with all of these items to help you, skill is a must. Simply put, The Legend of Zelda is probably one of the toughest games in the series, but is no less satisfying. Nintendo originally pitched the game to readers of the now long-defunct Nintendo Fun Club News letter as having “the fast action you’d expect from an arcade hit,” as well as the “depth and advanced roll (sic) playing of personal computer games.”

Part of this feels particularly evident in the way Link fights, using an until-recently all-but-lost ability to fire beams from his sword, an attack which feels rather reminiscent of the arcade classic Gauntlet. To me, this has always been a defining ability of the character, despite it being toned down and eventually lost for most of the series. And while Skyward Sword did bring it back in some capacity, for which I am truly glad, it’s still not quite the same as it was in the original.

The ultimate test comes when you face Ganon deep within the darkened halls of his Death Mountain lair. There, you will face the baddest of the bad, and even the Prince of Darkness himself in one final showdown. At least, that’s how it appears; one of the worst-kept secrets of The Legend of Zelda is also one of its greatest assets. When you beat Ganon, you are introduced to a second quest, one where the overworld map is different in areas, most labyrinths have been relocated, their own layouts changed significantly, and most notable of all, the enemies are far more fierce.

It’s almost like getting two games in one, and until Nintendo released the Master Quest for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, it is a feature which has long been missed in the many, many installments of the Zelda series to come since. At the same time, however, I must confess: I’ve never beaten the second quest. Perhaps someday I will, but the first quest itself is replayable enough that I’m in no rush to do so.

The graphics of The Legend of Zelda were strong for their day, and hold up today in an iconic sense. Granted, the quality of graphics has improved so much in the time since that it’s hard to compare, but there is a simplicity to it all which makes it enjoyable. (At the same time, though, I would love it if Nintendo would release the 16-bit Satelleview Zelda titles based on this one to WiiWare or Virtual Console.)

The music included is little, but iconic. There are only about five pieces of music for the entire game, and that’s including the title and game over screens, but that’s all you really need. The overworld theme, which has come to represent the series itself as its anthem, is an adventurous tune which manages to continue on without feeling repetitive. Meanwhile, the labyrinth music evokes and eerie creepiness, fitting for the dungeon-like environments and assortment of foes you face, including the skeletal Stalfos, the knightly Darknuts, bat-like Keese, and monstrous bosses such as the crablike Gohma, dragon-esque Aquamentus, and the triceratops-like Dodongos.

I have to admit, even after 25 years, the original Legend of Zelda remains at, or at least near the top of my list of favorite Zelda games. Sure, the stories have become more elaborate, the worlds more populated, and the puzzles more complex, but there is just something about the sheer simplicity of it all which draws me back again and again.

And for that, I think $4.99 is definitely a fair asking price on the Nintendo eShop, though perhaps less so if you own one of the game’s many previous releases. But if you are a Zelda fan who has yet to experience the original and doesn’t mind a good challenge, then definitely give this one a try. With its added quick-save feature on the Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console, it’s a great version of the Zelda experience to have while you’re on the go, and undoubtedly the purest.

The Legend of Zelda was released for the Nintendo 3DS through the Nintendo eShop free to Nintendo 3DS Ambassadors on September 1st, 2011, and priced at $4.99 for all other Nintendo 3DS owners on July 5th, 2012.

Images courtesy of Zelda Wiki.

David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you’re interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at)



About the author

David Oxford

David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you're interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at)