The Start of a Legend
The Legend of Zelda
Growing up in the 1980s you had to have a Nintendo Entertainment System. Sure, in the hunter/gatherer sense of the term having an NES was not necessary for your survival. You couldn't eat it, it didn't provide water or heat (well, not enough heat to actually heat your home, just residual "80s technology" warmth). But if you were a kid in the 1980s and you didn't have an NES you weren't cool, and, in any era, what kids really want to be is "cool".
That said, I had an NES growing up and I still wasn't cool, but then I currently run a Castlevania webcomic (See: CVRPG) and this geeky blog, so I think "cool" has been off the table for me for quite some time.
If you had an NES, though (cool or not), there were a few essential games you had to have for the system. If it came as part of the Mario series, for example, or one of the many Mega Man games (which, at a certain point, all felt interchangeable), you needed it for your library. That also applied, of course, to the Zelda games, although when it came to the NES era, the two titles released for the system were not equals. The essential title was, certainly, the original game for the series while owning its sequel, the much maligned Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, was a secret shame (which is a pity since, despite its raging difficulty, Zelda II is actually a pretty decent game).
What made the original title for the NES such a must-have instant classic? In short, it's because it was so unlike so many popular titles at the time. If you look at much of what came out for the system, most of the games were platformers, taking their cues from the Mario and Mega Man games. While there were overhead, top-down RPGs, these had their own rules and menus and slow gameplay while the first Legend of Zelda was anything but slow. Although it resembled an RPG in concept, with an overhead display and dungeons to explore, Zelda 1 was its own beast.
Looking back at the game now, the best way to describe The Legend of Zelda to the uninitiated would be "Metroid but from a top-down perspective". When you first start up the game the whole of the world is, essentially, open to you. In classic Nintendo style, a cave is open immediately above your starting position, inviting you to immediately go in and explore. There you'll meet an old man who (after warnings about adventuring alone) gives you your first sword, a simple, wooden blade that you'll be using for a long time to come. After that, where you go and what you do is entirely up to you.
You can immediate start killing enemies (in real time), or go exploring the world. The first and easiest place to reach is first 1st Dungeon, but you'll also have to eventually pick up bombs and candles to blow open (or ignite open) hidden passages, some of which block further progress through the game. Nothing is really told to you so only trial and error will reveal all the game's secrets and get you to the end game.
Part of the difficulty of the game is just how obtuse it can be at times. While Nintendo is now known for hand-holding players through their games, giving constant hints and tutorials, the first Zelda barely explains anything. Once you've managed to get a sword and find that first dungeon, the game goes totally hands off, leaving you to figure out everything. Don't know that bombs can blow open dungeon walls? How about the fact that candles can burn bushes? Or that the magic flute can teleport you around the map? Don't have the original instruction booklet handy? Well then, good luck on your quest because the game isn't going to tell you anything.
Plus, the game's difficult is that classic "Nintendo Hard". Most of the rooms are packed with enemies which can get downright brutal in the later dungeons of the game. Many a gamer will remember making it halfway through a dungeon only to be killed by a pack of knights, their own sword plinking harmlessly off the knight's shields. Finding all the secrets, like tunic (armor) upgrades, better swords, and more health is absolutely essential for a casual gamer if they want to get through the whole game, but even then you'll have to explore every nook and cranny, push every block, ignite every bush, if you want to be equipped well enough to even survive the mid-game. It is, in short, just as difficult as you'd expect an NES-era game to be.
And yet, that challenge only feeds into how good the game is. Finding those hard-to-reach secrets becomes their own reward, and it's not as if there aren't rules to how things are hidden. If you've opened a cave up in one screen you don't have to worry about finding another one there as well -- there's only one cave per screen in this game. Bomb-able walls are also rule-bound (only one entrance per wall), as are the hidden staircases (one of these ach per room, max), so once you have a feel for the overworld and the dungeons, you can pretty quickly learn to navigate the terrain and know what to look for (and where).
Practice makes perfect with the enemies. Learning how they can be killed is the first step, but then mastering how close or far you can be from them, finding the timing on their movements, can help you out a lot. It becomes a complicated dance you play in each room. Once you make it past one of the hard sections, you'll get a burst of elation, the joy of doing it for yourself and conquering yet another challenge. You won't find the game easy, but you will find the challenge manageable... eventually.
The original The Legend of Zelda is considered a classic for all the things it does before any other game. It has a mix of elements -- real-time combat, dungeon exploration, hidden secrets -- that set it apart from many of the more linear entries on the NES. It's just accessible enough to let people into its world, but then difficult enough that only those willing to put in the effort will make it through the game. I don't think it's the best entry in the series (for my money the series certainly improved over time, leading to the stellar A Link to the Past and, much later, the sublime Breath of the Wild. The basic elements that make those games great, though all started off in this first NES title.
2nd Quest and BS Zelda
For those looking for a challenge, Zelda 1 featured a more difficult, bonus quest. Unlocked by either beating the first play-through of the game or entering "Zelda" as your name on the load screen, the 2nd Quest provided its own challenges. Every location on the map (aside from the old man cave at the start) has been mixed up, and many of the bomb-able, flammable areas were hidden in other places. Making matters harder, the dungeons were also remixed with different maps plus new, secret doors that look like normal walls (until you push against them and go through). It's a whole new version of the game that spiked the difficulty further and made you memorize everything a second time.
Later on, Nintendo decided that some people wanted yet another quest to play, at least in Japan. Across the pond, the Super Famicom (their version of the SNES) had the "StellaView" modem system (essentially a version of our Sega Channel but, of course, for the SNES). It allowed players, for a limited window of time, to download exclusive games they could play on their SNES. One of these, BS Zelda was a remixed version of the original game with new dungeons, new hidden locations, and new items as well, all featuring improved, SNES-level graphics. Although a fun lark, the 3rd Quest (as it was called) was actually easier than the previous quests, with some of the new items breaking the game wide open, making our hero, Link, much too powerful. Of course, since the StellaView was never released in the West, most of us had to go without seeing this version of the game (legally, anyway).