The Zelda games released on the NES present fascinating case studies of games presenting imaginary worlds. It can be said that the current Zelda identity was solidified in the SNES A Link to the Past. After this, Nintendo began to standardize the definition of Zelda. Zelda I & II however, had to establish itself as a newcomer in the early adventure genre.
The Adventure of Link has the most RPG genetics of any Zelda game, and is the only game in the series to feature enemy encounters in a top down overworld. However, most of the game is spent in a side scrolling view. It’s the only Zelda game where this view is prominent, and affords a more complex battle system, where the player control their shield not only in what direction they’re facing, but also hold it high or low. Defeating enemies will earn the player experience points, a mechanic that hasn’t been used in a Zelda game since. When they earn enough points the player can choose to level up their defence, magic consumption efficiency, and attack strength. On top of this, there are upgrades that can be found in the game then increase the maximum capacity for health and magic bars, which was used for most successive Zelda games. Like it’s predecessor, you gain items that help you get further in the game, however additional weapons such as arrows, are missing and you’re limited to a sword. To make up for that you unlock magic spells and new attacks to open up new battle possibilities.
Although The Adventure of Link is the most RPG heavy Zelda title to date, the game’s structure still illustrates Nintendo’s origins as an arcade video game company. Even this game is fairly light with it’s experience points system relative to it’s contemporaries, especially computer games such as Ultima IV. Zelda is Nintendo’s take on a fantasy RPG, and they imprint it with a fast arcade pace, and a unique japanese cartoon style.
Other RPGs of this time are far more complex than Zelda, featuring dozens of stats, static images of characters and haunting music, and elaborate story lines. Zelda simplified and made itself far more accessible to play, reducing stats to just health and magic, and establishing a story to a one page paragraph in the title screen. However it added animated enemies, a lush soundtrack, and bright graphics. The result is a smash hit game that set off a series that is recently celebrating it’s 25th anniversary. You could compare this to the “casual” phenomenon of Wii Sports, which enjoyed even larger success, beating out other sports games that are more complex with simple gameplay and casual appeal.
The Adventure of Link sold 4.3 million copies, just a bit less than A Link to the Past with 4.6 million, and is the fourth best selling Zelda game behind Ocarina of Time (7.6m) and the original Legend of Zelda (6.1m). Despite it’s performance, history paints The Adventure of Link as the “black sheep” of the series, however, it’s important to understand that at one point nobody knew what Zelda was, and the NES games created the phenomenon that many of us accept as the norm today.