The Legend of Zelda has long been my favorite video game series. There’s something very magical about the sense of adventure and discovery each entry brings. Breath of the Wild is currently my favorite game of all time, with Ocarina of Time and other entries following closely behind! Interestingly, my first exposure to the series was Zelda II: The Adventure of Link when I was in second grade. Even though the game was brutally hard and I had no idea what I was doing, I fell in love with the Zelda world, mechanics, and fun of discovering its secrets.
When I got Link’s Awakening and later A Link to the Past, I was truly blown away and forever hooked on Zelda! But I missed out on the original NES game. I briefly tried it many years later and found it charming but a bit tough to navigate, and never really got into it. But when I was recently able to get a copy of this beautiful Hand-Drawn Zelda Game Guide (UPDATE: HDGG is shut down as of September 2021), I figured this would be a perfect time to play the game properly and write a Legend of Zelda (NES) review!
I love the idea behind Hand-Drawn Game Guides. They’re not step-by-step walkthroughs, but actual guides to help you along your way. I’ve always wanted to have more nostalgia for the original Zelda game but simply didn’t want to invest all of the time in discovering every esoteric secret myself. I feel like using this type of guide is the perfect “sweet spot” of independent adventuring with a little modern convenience! Plus, the illustrations in it are absolutely gorgeous and a ton of fun. So with that, let’s get into how the adventure went!
How to play Legend of Zelda (NES)
There are about 1,000 different ways to play the original Legend of Zelda. Here’s what I did! I chose to play through it on my Switch (like I did for my yearly playthrough of Donkey Kong Country 2) so I could play on my big TV or on the go. I used my Switch NES controller from Nintendo Switch Online, because NES nostalgia of course. Though I could certainly spam save states in the NSO version of the game, I decided to limit them to whenever I needed an honest “save” to stop playing. And I played through it with my glorious Hand-Drawn Game Guide right by my side. Speaking of which…
It’s dangerous to go alone
Before getting into my thoughts on the actual gameplay, I need to gush about how amazing this guide is. Done by the talented Phil Summers (who has also done covers for the stellar Ninty Fresh), it’s an absolutely gorgeous work of art that a ton of love and care went into. I mean, just look at the package it came in:
There’s a beautiful cover, and the guide itself has a bookmark and truly looks like a sketchbook you’d take if you were out on a hike:
There’s also an awesome foldout map of the entire world, with important locations marked. This alone would be a great companion to have when playing the game!
Even though the graphics of the original Legend of Zelda are still quite charming, the illustrations of the guide really make an older game come alive. I genuinely felt a much stronger connection to this version of Hyrule than I otherwise would have!
As I said before, I think the best thing about it is it’s an actual guide. It’s not a walkthrough. You’ve got a few notes and a semblance of a map, and that’s it! I love that hints are just scribbled on the side in an authentic way. Here’s the entire spread for the first dungeon:
Okay, I could go on for quite some time here. Unfortunately, as of September 2021 Hand Drawn Game Guides has been shut down for legal reasons. Here’s hoping there can be a reboot at some point. Let’s get into the actual Legend of Zelda (NES) review now!
Open world origins
One of the reasons I love Breath of the Wild so much is the game gives you all the tools you need early on, then simply says “go”. You can truly, meaningfully explore the world at your own pace. It’s just delightful. Knowing the original game was a big inspiration for BotW, it was fun to dive into the Legend of Zelda map because it takes such a similar approach! I love that the entire world is available from the start and you can discover/collect things in a variety of different orders. It’s very empowering and quite a bit of fun, especially with the glorious overworld theme constantly playing:
Without any help whatsoever, though, exploring on your own can be an exercise in frustration. It’s fairly easy to wander into territory with very tough enemies and get yourself killed, setting yourself way back, and not know if you were even going the right way. That’s why I loved the balance of playing with this type of guide!
As I generally followed the path hinted at in the guide, I started to learn the landmarks around Hyrule. I would often veer ever-so-slightly “of course” to check something out I saw marked on the map, which was fun! Eventually the directions given in the guide aren’t exact at all-it expects you to know your way around. And lo and behold, by that point, I did! It was a fun way to learn the overworld map without being overwhelmed or frustrated, and I feel very comfortable exploring it on my own now.
There may certainly be folks who want to go in and explore “100% spoiler free”, and that’s awesome! But for me, a little guidance made the game all the more enjoyable.
(very well) Hidden items
I’m torn as to whether I think it’s insanely cool or just ridiculous that items are hidden so well in the game. Like the original Metroid (my second favorite series!) finding some items and way forward isn’t necessarily “difficult”. It’s more “tedious trial and error”. Just like bombing every single block in Metroid isn’t exactly “fun”, I’d say the same for burning bushes in the original Zelda. Once more, a guide like this one saves the day. There aren’t indicators of exactly which bush or block to destroy, but a general area to do so in, which makes finding secrets far more manageable!
It was really cool to have some guidance with equipment upgrades too, like the white sword found at this epic waterfall with a Lynel guarding it! It’s helpful to know ahead of time you need five hearts to claim it.
In a similar vein, some dungeon entrances are extremely well concealed, and having some hints to point you in the right direction is much appreciated!
Go outside and (sword)play
This is probably the most critical part of my Legend of Zelda (NES) review. Even after spending hours and hours with the game, I never felt like using Link’s sword was that intuitive. Swordplay always felt a bit “stiff” with too narrow an attack range (I dearly missed the full “swipe range” Link has in the newer 2D Zelda games!). Maneuvering Link to face enemies without walking into them was also consistently a challenge for me!
My solution was to have the boomerang be my “go to” item to stun enemies long enough to safely get within range. It worked pretty well, but there are a few enemies who can’t be stunned! Bombs are also effective (I used them far more than I have in other 2D Zeldas) but stock is limited.
I definitely improved in combat as time went on, but even by the end of the game I never felt very confident in close quarters encounters!
Despite some difficulty with combat, I generally had a blast tackling dungeons in the game. First off, I really enjoy the dungeon entrances! They’re an amazing combination of “charming” and “foreboding”.
The “shape” theme of each is very fun too (snake, lion, etc.) and helps make navigation easier. Using the boomerang to mediate combat, and knowing that dying would just send me back to the entrance, I never found the dungeons too difficult to conquer. I certainly appreciated the hints found in the guide, though! The last two or three labyrinths are particularly tough with seemingly endless walls that need to be bombed and “red herrings” that lead nowhere. Again, with all the time in the world it’d be fun to discover paths on my own, but as an adult with two kids, a guide was a huge win for me!
Getting a piece of the Triforce at the end of each dungeon is also insanely satisfying in ways that are hard to articulate. It’s fun building the full Triforce of Wisdom on the quest subscreen as the game goes on!
How does Legend of Zelda (NES) hold up?
I consider myself pretty good at Zelda games. I actually have my name in Nintendo Power for beating Ocarina of Time with only 3 hearts without dying. But playing the original Legend of Zelda is a humbling experience-my final “game over” count was well into the teens! I learned you have to play much more meticulously than the more modern games. It takes a lot of time and patience to learn the nuances of combat and exploration, and that could be a make-or-break deal for some folks.
But with a guide like the one from Hand-Drawn, the game becomes much more accessible and enjoyable! (I’d say the same for Majora’s Mask if you find it difficult). It helps give you some direction in the unforgiving open world of Hyrule, and suggests, but doesn’t walk you to, power ups along the way. It made my play through of the game so much more delightful and built some serious nostalgia for me. I think I’ll be making this a yearly tradition now!
To close out thoughts in my Legend of Zelda (NES) review, I’d also love to see a 2D remake of the game! Maybe a similar fashion as Metroid: Zero Mission was a remake of Metroid. Better (but still charming 2D sprite based) graphics, quality of life upgrades like a world map and waypoints, and a few more nuances with enemies and combat. It’d be awesome. And while we’re at it, let’s get an Adventure of Link remake going too, because there’s a stellar game under those clunky mechanics!
What would you say in a Legend of Zelda (NES) review? Does the game have a lot of nostalgia for you? Or did you miss out on it? Let me know in the comments below!