There are monsters everywhere. Ahead lies the entrance to a gloomy cave, promising a much-needed rest. Inside, you meet an old man who gives you a gift and utters a line that would become the catchphrase of the entire series.
With these words of wisdom, the old man decides he’s said too much and outright refuses to utter another line of dialogue. The handful of other characters you meet aren’t any more talkative.
The Hyrule of 1986 is a world away from its later incarnations. By A Link to the Past, the few dozen friendly souls you meet on your quest are happy to pass the time of day and fill you in on any rumours from the town square. As the series moved into 3D, more and more companions joined you on your journey, until you barely had a second to think about the next objective before Navi or Fi piped up with the answer.
The original Legend of Zelda had no truck with such mollycoddling. You were pitched into an uncaring world without a sword (or even a map) and expected to survive with nothing but your wits. In this sense, Link’s first outing has more in common with the Dark Souls games than his own later adventures.
Link’s inventory grows over the course of the game, but it never bloats to the level of his later appearances. By Twilight Princess the series had reached its most overblown, showering you with a fancy new item in each dungeon which worked a treat against the boss but would never leave your knapsack once outside (remember the Spinner?). In contrast, The Legend of Zelda works wonders with a handful of items, making the boomerang, bombs and arrows crucial to surviving each monster-filled field. Items such as the raft and the stepladder, posted missing from later games, opened up whole chunks of the map in a far more organic way than the obscure hurdles used to section off later games.
Most of all, The Legend of Zelda is a game about exploration. Whilst the overworld was nowhere near as varied as the snow-capped mountains, fetid swamps and scorching deserts of later games, the lack of a map screen was a masterstroke. Across the globe, eager kids scrawled makeshift charts with pencil and paper, marking up dungeon entrances, secret caves and particularly deadly clusters of monsters. Contrast the feeling of fighting screen by screen through 1986 Hyrule with A Link Between Worlds, which proudly displayed the full map on the bottom screen from the very start. Whereas every journey in The Legend of Zelda is a step into the dark, by 2013 the familiarity of the world (especially for SNES veterans) is the game’s one low point.
If Nintendo want some free advice (and Wii U sales suggest they maybe should) then they should try and recapture the 1986 spirit for the next installment. Ditch the chatterbox sidekicks. Make a handful of items count – I want to be an expert archer and swordsman by the game’s finish. Finally, make the damn game as hard and unforgiving as those first hours in Hyrule.
It should always be dangerous to go alone.