Anatomy of a Game: Zelda ~ ALL OF TREASURES ~

So the big deal about The Legend of Zelda was that it had a ton of items to collect. Some were instant consumables, some were weapons, some were simply passive tools. Some dropped randomly from enemy mobs, whereas others appeared in fixed locations, and yet others were deliberately tucked away as key acquisition points to enable quest progression.

Link’s gear covered a broad gamut of abilities and uses. The sword served as a basic straightforward tool for combat: Hit the button and stab straight ahead, firing a piercing beam across the screen should you be fortunate enough to start out with full health. The sword beam is interesting because it’s apparently intrinsic to Link himself; any sword can fire it from the very beginning of the game. Later games tie it to a sword or make it a learned technique further down the road, but not here.

Speaking of swords, Zelda made a nice effort to replicate the structure of an RPG by giving Link a progressive upgrade system with several of his weapons. The sword advances through three degrees of power, with access to each new level contingent upon Link’s health upgrades. Each sword is twice as powerful as the last. Pretty standard stuff now! But not in 1986. DOOM.

Several sub-weapons also have more powerful secondary iterations, too. The boomerang goes from a slow doodad that travels only half the length of the screen to a faster, more powerful version that spans the full screen. The Silver Arrow is more powerful than the basic Arrow. The Red Candle allows infinite uses per screen whereas the Blue Candle can only be used once. The Blue Ring reduces damage by 50%, while the Red Ring cuts it to 25% total.

The weird thing about the color variations is that they’re reversed for Link. Enemies also come in red and blue variants, but in those cases the blue versions are the more powerful ones. For Link, red equipment is more powerful. Even with the Magical Rod: The rod itself is blue (weak), but the Book of Magic (red) upgrades it to leave lingering flames behind and damage enemies.

I’ve always wondered about that. It seems oddly counterintuitive; why would the color scheme be reversed like this? Does red represent things that are more beneficial to Link while blue items are meant less? I can’t believe it wasn’t a deliberate design choice, but I don’t understand the rationale behind it.

All in all, Zelda did a really great job of giving Link tons of cool equipment that made for a hero with unprecedented (at the time) versatility. You’d expect this kind of range from an adventure game protagonist, but here you don’t have to punch in adventure game text prompts. Just point and shoot. And no adventure game lead had this many weapons: A sword, a magical beam, a boomerang that could be thrown with a bit of english on it, arrows, bombs. A bracelet to allow rocks to be shoved aside to reveal secret passages, a flute to summon a tornado for cross-country transit (see also: Simon’s Quest), a key capable of unlocking any door, a stepladder to cross rivers (!?), even food to serve as bait for monsters (or appease grumbling guards).

The only downside to the interface came in the fact that you constantly had to access the subscreen to toggle between objects. But, heck, I can’t think of any other game that used that setup back then. On the rare occasion you had an action game with an inventory mechanic it would work like Karnov, where you’d acquire a bunch of equipment and toggle between items on the fly in the most cumbersome and counterintuitive manner imaginable.

The Zelda toolset still holds up more than a quarter of a century later. Aside from a handful of later additions like the Hookshot, Link’s loadout hasn’t changed much over the years. You can accuse Nintendo of stagnation if you like, but it’s not like Zelda‘s imitators have particularly upped the stakes in the regard, either. Sometimes, a game just gets it right. Zelda was one of those games.

15 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Game: Zelda ~ ALL OF TREASURES ~

  1. The majority of Link’s strongest upgrades are red upgrades of blue tools, but the Silver Arrows and Magic Boomerang are blue upgrades of Link-colored (brown, tan, green/blue grey/red) tools. The swords have all three basic tool groups, with the Link-colored Wooden Sword going to the blue hilted White Sword and then the red hilted Magical Sword.

    It’s still pretty neat how many of Link’s tools started here. While in their earliest form, you have your standard sword and shield, boomerang, bow with special big bad killing arrows, musical instrument, a means of making light and fire, a couple of key items, a rod, armwear for handling heavy objects, life restoring potions, alternate outfits with some beneficial effect, and an item that serves no puropse but to bypass one or two obstacles, all right here.

    While only available at full health the sword beam is pretty much at its strongest in this game, with its 1:1 damage ratio with sword strikes, the same fire rate and screen coverage as the bow and rod, and being capable of hurting anything the sword can. The bow has its uses, with the Pol’s Voice advantage and damage on par with the White Sword, but the rod…You don’t get that until the notoriously difficult sixth dungeon, it’s the weakest of the three since its rate of fire isn’t tied to a resource like money or life, and its upgrade is more like a downgrade because you can’t fire again until the flame it makes in a hit target’s area disappears.

  2. I always wondered about the color disparity myself. It even continues into Zelda II.

    And I love the sword-beams (or throws, according to some art). To me, it is to Link what jumping is to Mario, and I’m always disappointed when a game lacks that, though as MetManMas pointed out, it’s never again as potent as it is here.

    The idea that it’s tied to Link here is fascinating– in light of the aforementioned factors, it seems tied specifically to and strongest with this Link, making him almost a sort of Super Link…

    Well, until Zelda II made them nigh-worthless, anyway.

    …huh, “rupy?” I don’t remember that. Weird.

    Also: I miss the clock.

    I kind of liked the way bombs worked here, too, with Link being invincible to them and that they would go off immediately– handy for stuff like Manhandla and Darknuts.

    • Huh? Link is invincible to bombs? *tests it* Um, mind blown. All these years I’ve been scurrying out of their range. Good grief.

  3. That item scroll is the best – Shane Bettenhausen used to own a tea towel with something like that printed on it, but I never found out where he got grabbed it from.

    Anyway, I just realized the Book of Magic looks like it reads from right-to-left. Maybe it’s really just some manga the Gorons left behind?

  4. ALL OF TREASURES is my favorite bit of Engrish ever. Also, wow, it’s been a while since I’ve played the original Zelda all the way through apparently. I forgot a few of these.

  5. I really wish there were a 3D Zelda that had sword beams just built in like the original. Dammit, that was the best thing about Fierce Deity!

  6. It will forever be called the wooden sword, even through it is plainly just “SWORD” in the game and manual.

  7. Coinspinner: Huh, I thought it was wooden sword in one of those. Nintendo Power or Fun Club News then, maybe?

    Either way, I’m assuming Nintendo adopted it somehow– that’s what I thought the training sword in Twilight Princess was supposed to be a take on, at any rate.

  8. Could it be a matter of visual contrast, to avoid having a red-clad link fighting more and more strong red enemies as he progresses in the game?

  9. @Sarcasmorator Link only gets the Red Ring in the final dungeon, so you spend very little of the game clad in that color.

    @Fritz F. Thanks!

  10. Interesting how the game is so upfront with how it shows you ALL of treasures. Modern games would probably consider that a spoiler, but here it’s a reason to keep playing, and a way to know if you’ve found everything.

  11. My gosh, I didn’t remember it was that late in the game. Was thinking of the blue ring you can buy, I guess.

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