Cons: Simple graphics, occasional lack of direction
The land of Hyrule is invaded by an evil army, lead by Gannon, the prince of darkness. In the process he steals the Triforce of Power, one of three powerful triangle artifacts that contain mystical powers. Fearing that he would steal the Triforce of Wisdom as well, Princess Zelda split it into 8 fragments and hid them throughout the land. She then sent her trusted nursemaid Impa in search of a hero to challenge Gannon and retrieve the Triforce of Power. In The Legend of Zelda you play as Link, the young lad found by Impa and the protagonist of the game.
The Legend of Zelda is a simple game at heart. The map is made up of "rooms" that fill up one screen of the game. That's probably not the most accurate term to describe them since many of them are outside in the world, but it's the best I could come up with. Rooms may have openings leading up, down, left and/or right that will take you into the next room. Once you kill all of the enemies in a room they stay gone until you've moved a certain number of rooms away, in which case they respawn. You don't level up or anything, so the only benefit to killing enemies (aside from getting them out of your way so that they don't damage you) is to collect rupies (the game's currency) or bombs.
There are a few items you can spend rupies on such as an improved shield, a candle or some healing water, but mostly they're worthless. You can only accumulate up to 255 of them at a time, and any additional rupies you collect will disappear. The other major items to collect are heart containers. Since you start the game with only 3 hearts, it's really beneficial to collect more. You'll get one from each dungeon boss to increase the damage you can take, but there are also 5 heart containers hidden around the map in various places. Finding them may be tricky if you're not cheesing it up with an online walkthrough, but half the fun is in the search and you're bound to find some other secrets along the way.
The game is rather open and non-linear, to the point that sometimes you'll be wondering where to go next. There's no harm in exploring (in fact that's half the fun), but some type of indication as to where the next dungeon is located would be nice. Not that you have to do them in order for the most part (obviously a dungeon that requires a raft to get to would require obtaining the raft from a previous dungeon first), but it's a little easier to do so.
The whole game takes place in a 2D overhead view where you can only walk in the four cardinal directions (no diagonal movement). You stab your sword one square in front of you to destroy various enemies, or if you have full health you can shoot a projectile from your sword across the screen to make things easier. It's a pretty simple concept, but it's made more interesting by secret areas (by blowing up walls or burning bushes), small puzzles and a large world map to explore.
The graphics are extremely simple but effective, and you have to keep in mind that The Legend of Zelda was made in 1986. The landscape is varied; spattered with deserts, forests, mountains and waterfalls. There are a number of different enemies as well, and each behaves differently so that you actually feel like you're not fighting the same guy over and over but with a different graphic. One may shoot projectiles at you, another will dig underground and pop back up closer to you, one might split into two smaller enemies when defeated and yet another will grab you and drag you through the wall back to the beginning room of a dungeon.
Speaking of dungeons, there are nine in total. The first eight have pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom at the end of them, while the ninth houses the evil Gannon and the Triforce of Power. Each dungeon has a boss at the end guarding the Triforce fragment, and each of the bosses is totally different from one another. None of them are exceptionally hard, and are pretty easy in fact once you figure out the pattern that it uses. Nearly every dungeon also contains an item in it somewhere; such as a bow, boomerang, ladder, etc. There are about a dozen in total and they will help you kill enemies or travel around the world map easier, and most are outright required at one point or another to progress.
Sound effects like the flick, flick of your sword swinging or the poof sound from a bomb exploding are plain but adequate. The music, however, is wonderful! From the adventurous tunes on the world map to the ominous music when entering a dungeon, the music is a huge boon to the game and really helps set the pace. The opening title song in particular is so memorable that it pops into my head any time I think of any Zelda game.
The user interface is simple and easy to use. Your items are on their own screen which comes down from the top of the screen to replace the game window when you hit the start button. From there you can select any single item you want to assign to the B button, while the A button is always used for your sword. Press start again to get back to the game screen and continue playing. Also noteworthy is the fact that The Legend of Zelda was one of the earliest games I can remember to use a battery save feature, so you can create up to 3 separate games and save them to restart later. This is immensely better than entering in some long annoying series of letters and numbers for level selection like most of the early NES games, and multiple people can still play the game and have their progress saved.
The Legend of Zelda is a game iconic to the NES, and a game that was so good that it seemed ahead of it's time. Despite it's simplistic nature it has held up fairly well and still offers a fun experience today; this is one game that should be in every NES collection and I recommend you pick it up. As far as replay value, there are a number of secrets to discover during the game, but even after you beat it there is a second playthrough with harder enemies and relocated dungeons and items. This effectively doubles the length of the game and gives you a reason to keep playing after you finish it.