The summer of 1987 proved quite the landmark season for a certain gray toaster-shaped home video game console. By the summer of ’87, the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, was wildly outselling both the Sega Master System and the Atari 7800. Their technique of positioning the console as more of a toy (thanks R.O.B., your job is done here) got them in the retailer’s doors but it was the software that kept the system on the shelves throughout 1986 and the first half of 1987.
The buzz for this console had become deafening since it’s test launch in the fall of 1985 and now it was time for Nintendo to eradicate the competition by releasing some of what would become the most iconic games in the console’s lifespan. On top of that, they had several memorable games from third party developers, such as Rygar, Mighty Bomb Jack, Arkanoid and Section-Z ready to go as well.
Nintendo threw down the gauntlet that summer (no, not the actual arcade port of Gauntlet) when they released three games from their Adventure series, The Legend of Zelda, Kid Icarus and Metroid. The Adventure series was a designation that Nintendo stamped on cartridges that had deeper and more complex gameplay, and basically re-wrote the rules of what could be done in a home video game.
Since these games were lengthier and deeper than most contemporaries, Nintendo chose to provide various means to save gameplay, allowing a player to pick up where they left off the very next day, or even months later. This was accomplished either through the use of a complicated and lengthy password system or in the case of The Legend of Zelda, the inclusion of the home video game’s very first battery save option in the cartridge itself! Both options did the trick but the battery save was the most user- friendly and would become the norm until the 32-bit/CD generation. Thankfully, Nintendo’s level of ambition for these titles did not exceed the final quality of the gameplay. All three games should be considered Hall of Fame titles despite what some modern gamers consider serious flaws when looking back at them today.
Kid Icarus is the least heralded of the three, but release this game on the Sega Master System or the Atari 7800 (two consoles I love by the way) and it’s instantly one of the top 10 if not top 5 games available for those systems. Kid Icarus is essentially a Greek mythology fable where you play as the angel Pit, climbing high into the clouds to take on the villainous, stone-gazed, snake-haired Medusa in order to bring peace and harmony back to Angel Land. This is one of those “Nintendo-hard” titles where the level of difficulty exceeds what many gamers consider to be “fair”. At least with “Kid Icarus”, the password system allows for continuing at the beginning of troublesome levels, but most gamers will remember, fondly or not so fondly, the end of world fortresses.
Theses fortresses were super challenging, super complex mazes of rooms that Pit had to traverse in order to find and defeat the end of world bosses and reclaim a stolen piece of Sacred Treasure. It’s in these fortresses that Pit encounters one of the most infuriating aspects of any Nintendo game: the Eggplant Wizard. If Pit enters a room with an Eggplant Wizard present, it begins tossing eggplants into the air and if one touches Pit, the poor angel immediately becomes a helpless, defenseless, walking eggplant himself.
The only cure is to find the one room in the entire labyrinth that can reverse this spell, which will mean doing some serious back-tracking. Needless to say, the Eggplant Wizard’s curse has caused more than one player to rage quit Kid Icarus. Veggie transformation shenanigans aside, the game is filled with action, traditional platforming elements, RPG-like aspects that enable Pit to become stronger and more powerful, strategy elements and even a level where Pit finally gets off the ground and is allowed to use his angel wings to fly! The amount of gameplay variety, the massive scope and sense of adventure, the interesting enemies (Grim Reapers with Grim Reaper Babies, Medusa, Eggplant Wizard) and the Greek mythology theme all make Kid Icarus worth remembering.
If gamers thought that the fortress mazes in Kid Icarus were confusing and complex, they were in for a treat (or a nightmare) when Nintendo released both Metroid and The Legend of Zelda a month later. Both of these titles are well known for their non-linearity, as well as cryptic clues and ambiguous objectives. Making progress in either of these games required quite a bit of luck, the sharing of information among friends on the playground, and the all important Nintendo Power magazine, which didn’t come out until a year after these games had already hit shelves. Its precursor, the Nintendo Fun Club News, a free giveaway to any NES owner that returned their warranty card, had filled in the gap with tips and tricks in the meantime.
As most fans of retro video games know, Metroid and The Legend of Zelda are the original titles in these long running and hugely influential franchises. The genesis of what these games brought to the table in terms of exploration, puzzle solving, item and power-up finding, coupled with compelling stories, characters and superlative gameplay, could all be found in their most basic forms with these 1987 debuts.
While Metroid was a huge hit and personal favorite of mine (the music, the atmosphere, being able to “accidentally” come across one of the mini-bosses, Kraid and Ridley, when you were nowhere near powerful enough to defeat them), the game has somewhat fallen out of favor with modern gamers. I attribute part of this to the release of Super Metroid for the Super Nintendo in 1994, which was such a stellar game it was inevitable that it would make it’s predecessor look flimsy in comparison. However, what I most attribute this revisionist history to, is Metroid‘s high level of difficulty and the need to do a lot of back-tracking and what is now considered “farming”.
Not long after these games were released, in the 16-bit era, it wasn’t uncommon for games to have built-in maps that allowed a player to see where they were relative to the entire world that a game had created. Metroid offers no such relief for gamers, who then must either memorize the layout of the game, which is how I played it, or draw their own maps to identify where items, weapons, bosses, and elevators that took Samus to other sections of the game were located.
The farming gripe, however, is a legitimate one as there are no missile, bomb, or health refill stations like there are in other Metroid games. Gamers soon figured out the most effective areas to camp out and kill re-spawning enemies until Samus’ powers were at full strength. This was especially important for the last section of the game that required multiple Metroids to be frozen then missile blasted to death before facing off with Mother Brain. Regardless, Nintendo owners were treated to a deep and well-designed game and Metroid still holds up in my opinion.
Nintendo’s coup de grâce to their competition would ultimately come wrapped in an awe-inducing gold box and cartridge. The Legend of Zelda was something of a mystery to many gamers when it was first released. Its gold colored cart implied that something special, something…royal, could be found inside. Unfortunately, the bizarre early television commercials that aired in the U.S. featured very little gameplay and only served to confuse gamers (myself included) as to who or what Zelda was. A puzzle game? An action game? An adventure game? A role playing game? The correct answer was all of the above and more.
The Legend of Zelda was the equivalent of a water cooler pop-culture phenomenon for those of us in elementary or middle school back in 1987-1988. Metroid was far from linear and was at times confusing to traverse, but The Legend of Zelda took the award for most vague and unhelpful hints provided by the random old men living in caves and dungeons. “Secret is in the tree at the dead end.” “Eastmost peninsula is the secret.” And the most famous old man line of all time would be “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.” If you don’t know what that’s referring to, then I suggest you find a copy of The Legend of Zelda and play it. Without a map. Without tips or tricks. Maybe use an old Nintendo Power that has been scanned onto the internet if you’re really desperate. Complete game walkthroughs detract from the game’s charm, and, most importantly, make the game seem less impressive than it is.
The Legend of Zelda was a benchmark as to what video games could and should be at the time. It inspired numerous clones, not to mention the direct sequels. It did so by drawing players in through word of mouth, not through advertising hype. Amongst us kids, we spoke of Zelda as if it were the holy grail of video gaming. Each day at school brought with it the chance to learn something new about Zelda from an experienced gamer or receive a hand-drawn map from someone willing to share once they finished it themselves. Recess discussions of bush burning and rock bombing in order to find heart containers, bombs, or rupees wasn’t met with exhaustion and disdain but instead excitement and anticipation for what might be underneath that burned-out tree stump no one had ever burned before (or so we thought). What did Gannon actually look like? Had anyone ever made it that far?
Kid Icarus, Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda quickly established Nintendo as the console to buy and set the stage for innovative, fun and wildly popular games to be released for the system throughout the 80s and early 90s. These were the perfect games released at the perfect time that would cement Nintendo’s legacy amongst burgeoning gamers of my generation.