The NES Mini was released one week ago and I was able to try out the device at a retro gaming party, which was fun. But it also made me want to play the NES Zelda Classics yet again, which is why I decided to go at The Legend of Zelda on my Wii U Virtual Console.
I've already replayed The Legend of Zelda on my 3DS earlier this year around the 30th Anniversary, which I personally liked more, because the game looks much sharper on the 3DS screen and the D-Pad of the Wii U GamePad is too stiff. But I want to play all my Virtual Console games on the Wii U next to reduce my backlog. Anyway, since my last playthrough wasn't many years ago, this wasn't a playthrough to refresh my memories of the game. It was more an attempt to harden my memories, because this time I had decided to play completely without the help of any solution maps and without planning ahead. I was still using Save Points for a deathless run, but otherwise I wanted it to be the pure exploration experience of the original, where you have to deal with all the hidden secrets and maze-like dungeons fully on your own.
I first played this game back in the late 90s, where I only had some maps of the Level 1 and 5 dungeons from the infamous Club Nintendo magazine and no internet to help me out, so the rest I had to figure out on my own. Burn all the trees! Bomb all the walls! Find your way through the dungeons! I wanted to replicate this experience, but of course after beating this game several times (including one half a year ago), I was bound to remember some stuff. It's not like I had magically forgotten everything about the game.
For example, I had a rough idea, where the three truly hidden Heart Containers on the overworld are. The two Heart Containers that need the Raft and the Ladder are easy to find, but the others are well hidden and you can get them right at the start of the game (at least in the 1st Quest), which is invaluable.
Some of this stuff is hard to remember, because there are so many different versions of the same world. You have the 2nd Quest, but also the BS The Legend of Zelda game, where most things are in different locations as well, e.g. the Level 2 dungeon is located at a place, where you'd normally find a Heart Container in the 1st Quest of the NES game... So, things can be a little confusing.
There's some additional trial and error with finding all the cave / dungeon entrances on the overworld, if you don't know the exact wall to bomb or the exact tree to burn. Sometimes you have just long rock walls or tree lines over the entire screen and you have to find the one square that holds a secret. You can only use your HUD as an orientation, really, and during that I noticed that the caves at the southeast beach are right below the "x" of the Bomb counter. So, X does mark the spots here, which is a nice little trick, if you want to impress others watching you play.
Since I had a rough idea, where everything is located, it wasn't all that ridiculous. Only in the 2nd Quest there were to things that gave me trouble, where I couldn't help it and looked them up eventually. One was a Heart Container, which is found at the graveyard. In itself it's not too hard to find, because you just have to push the right grave, but trying to move every single tombstone is a deadly endeavor, because they all keep spawning Ghinis, which keeps hurting you. Unless you really like dying, it's best to ingrain the spot, where the Heart Container is found, into your soul. The other lost item was the Magic Book, which is randomly found in a room with "weaker" enemies in Level 4, if you push the right block. If you have an idea, where moving blocks could open a stairway, you automatically start testing and it's often blocks in similar positions. But in that case it didn't even occur to me that the room could hold a secret like that, especially since it's quite early in the dungeon.
Even if you remember the exact locations of all the items, memorizing the dungeons is a different topic. It's not like in later Zelda games, where every room is unique and recognizable. It all very much looks the same and fighting through the hordes of annoying Darknuts, Wizzrobes, Like Likes and Bubbles doesn't really encourage exploration. At least you don't have to test every part of the walls, because if there's a hidden pathway, it's always right in the center. But the aforementioned blocks are a different topic and there will be still many walls to test, where studying the maps is more important than ever here. Bombs became the rarest and most valuable good in the game, because you also might need them for fighting (especially with the many Triple Dodongos in the 2nd Quest) and you're limited to a maximum of 16 of them. This completely changed with A Link to the Past, where you can carry many more and where bombable walls are usually cracked. And even if they aren't, you can use your sword to test them, instead of wildly placing bombs everywhere.
If you use solution maps, you know where all the destructible (and go-through) walls are and you can also plan the most efficient routes through the dungeons, instead of aimlessly wandering through the mazes. This makes the game quite easier and does take away an essential part of the challenge, which is why I didn't want to resort to maps this time. And with the 1st Quest things aren't too bad at first, it's really the Level 9 dungeon that gave me the most trouble. You have to learn this maze part by part and there's no quick way out of it in case you need to recover (and you will need to recover thanks to the constant Wizzrobe spam). But it's arguably the toughest dungeon in the game, not even the Level 9 of the 2nd Quest comes close to it - in fact it's much nicer, because it focuses on a long series of T-junction rooms with a block in the center, where you don't have any enemies. And you can quickly find your way out of the whole thing, in case you want to stock up on potions and/or bombs.
And all that stocking up made me realize how grind heavy The Legend of Zelda actually can be. You need lots of Rupees for the good items early on and always more for Potions later in the game. You also need to refill your Bombs, which aren't dropped by every enemy. I basically follow a circle route along the woods in the east, the shore and the fairy fountain near Level 1. The Blue Tektites and the Leevers at the beach give lots of Rupees, while Moblins and Blue Octoroks potentially leave Bombs behind.
I kept going through that grinding cycle a lot and these guys are mainly at fault:
Blue Wizzrobes and Blue Darknuts. They eat your health away swiftly and even with the Magical Sword they still need multiple hits to be defeated (three for the Blue Wizzrobes and two for the Darknuts). Their movements are erratic and even with the Blue Ring every touch costs you a heart. It's lucky that they never appear alongside each other, the dungeons either feature Darknuts or Wizzrobes, but never both.
Other than the enemies, what annoyed me the most during my latest playthrough were dark rooms. They don't add anything to the gameplay, unless you really have no Candle and have to find your way through the dark. But otherwise it's just the same procedure of going into the menu to equip the candle and use it. All this does is disrupting your game flow and later on I sighed at every dark room that I encountered, because you never really have the Candle equipped already. It's less of an issue, if you have the Magic Rod and Book and like using it, but as I said earlier, I was unable to find the Book at first.
Still, it was overall a fun experience. I'm always amazed, how well this game holds up for something from the NES era. And if you've never played it before, I can only advise to pick it up on the Virtual Console or via the NES Mini console and to avoid all maps or other guides that you can find on the internet. Try to discover all the secrets of this game on your own for the true experience!