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The Spirit of Zelda – The Hyrule Fantasy Era

The Spirit of Zelda – The Hyrule Fantasy Era

I don’t remember how it happened or who turned me on to it, but I watched Egoraptor’s Sequelitis series, and the Zelda installment particularly struck me. I’d loved the very first Zelda – hereafter referred to by its Japanese subtitle, Hyrule Fantasy, to avoid confusion – but I don’t think I’d ever truly understood why. It introduced me to my love of swords and sorcery, and it was unlike anything I’d played before, but it wasn’t long before I’d relegated it to obsolescence. What I had forgotten was how it felt playing Hyrule Fantasy for the first time. My whole life, I’ve loved exploring – everything from the forest in which I grew up to the insides of people’s houses – and that feeling was captured very well in Hyrule Fantasy. I loved this video so much that I was inspired to write something along its lines, but had promised myself that I wouldn’t scratch out a single word until I’d had my own perspective; I didn’t want this to be just some lame knockoff in written form.

There is a new Legend of Zelda on the way, and it’s supposed to have a completely open world with dungeons the size of the entirety of Ocarina of Time; this seems as good a time as ever. “Oh, look: another Zelda retrospective right before a major release, and on a milestone anniversary, no less; how original.” Yeah, I know, and I’m sure that you’ve heard others try to define just what a Zelda game is, but I’d also like to stack the series up against its imitators. I’m sure you’ve heard the term “Zelda Clone”, but how often do you hear it validated? How often do people really use that definition of Zelda and use it to look deeper than the surface of these purported clones? My aim is to see not only whether these are better games than their contemporary Zelda, but also whether they’re better Zeldas than Zelda, and I was pretty surprised at the results.

The first set of games will be Hyrule Fantasy and its contemporaries. It seems to me that Hyrule Fantasy is the game that everyone has in mind when they say “Zelda Clone”, even though I didn’t start hearing the term until much later. It is, of course, where the series began, and is closest to its roots, but what are those roots, exactly? What really is Zelda, and how many games truly seek to imitate its very essence? This is what I hope to discern over four separate articles: Hyrule Fantasy, Adventure of Link, A Link to the Past, and The 3D Era.

Warning: I will be paying very little attention to spoilers. I’m not looking to analyze the plots of these games, but if you want to be surprised at what little story these games have, be warned that it might be wise to play them before continuing.  I will be discussing The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule FantasyCrystalisDeadly TowersFariaThe Guardian LegendSpiritual Warfare, both Startropics games, WillowGolvellius: Valley of Doom, and both Neutopia games; you have been warned.

Disclaimer: These are far from the only games that could fit the description; I cut several games for one reason or another, and let’s be real: if I were to tackle all of this game’s imitators, this article would be entirely too long, even by my own loquacious standards.

Legend of Zelda-T

As the man says, Hyrule Fantasy’s very core is built around exploration. It’s a very small game by today’s standards, but it must have taken me months to play through this my first time. It’s the sort of game that you can blaze to cinders in a few hours at most with a walkthrough, but having to figure out every little thing for the first time seems to take an eternity. This might seem like a bad thing – and today, it would be – but you have to treat this discourse like history class and look at it through the lens of the era: if you had this when it was new, there’s a pretty good chance that it was the most incredible game that you had. You didn’t have developers clamoring over each other to get your attention with their own handful of shiny new games; you had this, Super Mario Bros., and not much else, because unless you lived in Europe or Brazil, you probably didn’t have a SEGA Master System. Hyrule Fantasy got away with being cryptic enough to eat months of your life by existing in a time when there weren’t so many alternatives; it practically forced to take your time and enjoy it, a luxury that few of us have, whether we’re old players with jobs, kids, or other things taking much of our time, or young players trying to catch up on decades of great games. Were Hyrule Fantasy to come out today, in our fast-paced, completion-obsessed climate, the Zelda franchise would never have come to be.

Like with Yume Nikki, the best way to enjoy it is to just clear your plate and play it without a walkthrough. There’s a lot to see and do, and while the world is, as I’ve said, small compared to what we’ve seen in this day and age, you explore it hard. You spend a lot of time looking for things, because they’re not inherently obvious; you rarely know which bushes burned and which rocks blown are going to yield little caves with shops or other goodies, so you have to constantly experiment with what you have. You’re not just running through a world, bombing cracks and grappling to obvious tiles; you really have to earn most everything you that you find. This takes up your time, which isn’t inherently good or bad, so what makes it good?

Also like with Yume Nikki, the game would be nothing without a sense of immersion, and it has that in spades. There are little things, like the sounds of the ocean when you’re in the right spot, but I feel that Hyrule Fantasy’s biggest point of allure is how strange it is. There are so many things in the game that you never question while you’re playing it, but haunt you upon reflection. The game is set in the wastelands of Hyrule, after Ganon destroyed what was left of the kingdom (the kingdom as most games know it, anyway), so I get that it’s fairly barren, but what exactly is the western area with the gray soil supposed to be? Why is it that killing certain, unidentifiable enemies will instantly kill every other enemy in the room? How does Link grab items by shooting arrows at them? The sheer number of people who play through and enjoy it speaks to the strength of this game’s immersion, but I’ve never once heard anyone discuss these things.

The game is not without its flaws – no game is – but many of them are derived from this very nature of the exploration of a mystery. I hate when I’m playing a game that lets me explore, but I feel like I’ve rushed through it without even trying, and Hyrule Fantasy remedies that with so many things being extremely hidden. To be quite honest, though, I’m being generous to say that it gets tedious at times. You never know where to go or what to do, and in terms of discovering a world’s wonders, this is a great thing, but if you want to find every Heart Container, expect to waste a lot of bombs, and a lot of time.  That sense of completion is likely what kills it, because this same kind of thing is exactly what I love about Legacy of the Wizard, my second-favorite NES game, and everything that you need to finish the game is almost all that you’ll ever find; it has no real “completion”. The first candle that you get is the Blue Candle, which not only has to be purchased in a game in which money is dropped randomly and in very small quantities, but can also only blow fire once per screen; if there are a lot of bushes to try burning, you have to constantly leave the screen and come back until you find the right one – if there even is one – or wait until you finish Level 7 and find the Red Candle therein. You will shout out loud as you discover the first cave hidden behind an Armos, telling you that you’re going to have to awaken every single one in the game, for fear of missing another. Expect to come close to death trying to find the hidden cave in the graveyard, because every tombstone you touch spawns invincible ghosts. The most defeating moment is when you waste a bomb discovering a cave, only to have an old man take money from you, punishing you for exploring!

Those of you who know me – through my writings or one-on-one conversations – will expect me to start really bashing the game, now, and I would’ve expected you to be right, but it has aged far more gracefully than I’d realized. Ideally, it’s awkward to have to stab at everything, but your tools are so useful, particularly the boomerang, with its ability to stun enemies. I think the main reason that I’d hated this game so much in memory is the Second Quest. The Second Quest, for the uninitiated, is almost like a rom hack of the game, changing the locations of shops and dungeons, as well as adding harder enemies and new “puzzles”. I use the quotation marks, because Hyrule Fantasy doesn’t really have much in the way of puzzles – “kill everything in the room”, “push the one random block out of 20 or so”, and “bomb the wall aren’t really puzzles” – but in the Second Quest, you’re expected to walk through walls. As David Kempe said, it teaches you to realize that this game is, in fact, a game, and as such, it has rules, but the introduction of walking through walls makes you question everything that you know. There are a few clues as to where you can do this, but there are also many instances in which you have to just take a blind guess. There are also enemies that take away your ability to use your sword until you touch their rare blue counterparts or die, as if the final battle with Ganon forcing you to stab blindly at where he used to be, hoping that you’ll hit him, wasn’t bad enough. I’d share my notes on this half of the game, but this is a family site; that kind of language doesn’t fly here. In short, the Second Quest is a good idea taken way too far.

So, just what is it that makes Zelda Zelda? Given the nature of this game, and the fact that Shigeru Miyamoto, series creator, says that the game was inspired by his love of exploration as a child, I’d say it’s just that: exploration. It’s more than just exploration, though: it’s that sense of wonder that you, the player, will experience. It’s hard to break the mindset that all games are to be beaten as efficiently as possible with 100% completion, but if you can somehow just put that aside for a moment, and really get lost in a game, it makes the experience all the more special. This, of course, doesn’t apply to all games, but if you ask me, the most important aspect of what constitutes Zelda is this. It should be something that absorbs you; something that you remember – something that haunts you – and maybe even makes you wonder if it was all just a dream. Is Hyrule Fantasy the perfect example of this? No, but sequels exist for a series to refine itself, and this is only the beginning.

Crystalis-T

Crystalis has long been a favorite of mine, but this most recent playthrough has really changed my opinion. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still a great game, but I think that I hadn’t played it through enough times, and now, its flaws lay bare before me. What makes the game stand out among its peers is a solution to one of Zelda’s old problems: you can still only stab with your sword, but you can also charge up projectiles Mega-Man-style, regardless of your health. Only the biggest attacks cost MP, so you have a limitless supply, just in case you’re up against something with a longer range. Movement is also much smoother, and you have experience levels, so you become progressively stronger. Now, in games like this, RPG elements can be a real drag, but since enemies occur in real-time (i.e. there are no random encounters), the flow remains intact, and grinding is not so much of a chore, especially because every enemy drops money, so buying that shiny new armor has a consistent sense of progress.

The genius of this game is also its downfall, however, because there are 4 different elemental swords, each with their own attack patterns. To add some depth to this, certain enemies are immune to certain elementals, so you have to keep switching your sword, and fight intelligently; the need for money and experience makes this impossible to circumvent. Now, this isn’t a bad thing, but you’ll get clusters of two or more different immunities, so there is no good sword to use, forcing you to constantly go into the menu, equip the new sword, get out, fight the guy while avoiding the other, and repeat until you’re finished… for a brief moment until it happens all over again. You also don’t know which enemies are vulnerable to which elementals, so until you memorize every palette for every monster, it’s a deadly guessing game. Had they been smarter with color-coding or level design, this would have been less of a problem. It would also have been a good idea to use the Select button to cycle through the available swords, but instead, you have two separate menus, one of which is almost useless, and has no reason to be separate from the other menu screen. It’s also very strange that consumables are mapped to the attack button, when they could easily have replaced your spells, and been mapped to the other button.

But how is it as a Zelda Clone? Aside from fixing a lot of the gameplay issues, the experience doesn’t quite match up. I enjoy Crystalis more than I do Hyrule Fantasy, but there’s not much in the way of freedom. There is a beautiful world to discover, and there is an open field near most towns, but you’re really just connecting the dots; following the story breadcrumbs to find out what happens next. By contrast, in Hyrule Fantasy, most everything is open at the beginning; the only thing even attempting to make you finish Level 1 before Level 8 that you’re outgunned. Crystalis does have a worthy, interesting story – if extremely pessimistic; it predicted the total destruction of the world as we know it only 7 years after its release – but a great story only makes the sacrifice of open exploration worthwhile; it doesn’t make it Zelda.

Deadly Towers-T

I’ve already defended this game plenty, but I, too, initially wanted to hate this game. I’d first encountered it while reading Seanbaby’s 20 worst NES games – it made #1 – but I really didn’t see what was so bad about it. It’s nobody’s masterpiece, but if you build up a little money – which can be gathered very quickly from towers of orbs found inside hidden dungeons – and buy some better equipment, your abilities will improve greatly, and that includes the speed of your weapon. The pacing is pretty good, too, with the quality of items that you can purchase being contingent upon how many towers you’ve conquered. You’ll also find that each tower has one great treasure that will greatly upgrade one ability or another, so you can decide by your own playstyle which order is the best for you. It doesn’t tell you where to go or what to do, but the small overworld means that if you give up before finding the towers, you haven’t given it a fair shake… or you got really lost in a particularly hidden large dungeon, but really, having to draw your own map wasn’t that unusual in NES games.

I feel that a lot of the hate that this game gets is because you won’t immediately be an expert at it the moment you pick it up. Like games such as Godzilla: Monster of Monsters, you have to spend some time with it to learn how to play it most effectively. That sounds like an excuse, but it isn’t necessarily the case that a game has bad controls, just because they’re different from what most other games use. Think your swords are too slow? Get closer to your target! Approaching something seems like a bad idea? Use your diagonals! These are the same sorts of things that you had to figure out in Hyrule Fantasy; these are the same sorts of things that you had to figure out when you first picked up a controller.

Of course, that’s not to say that it doesn’t have its flaws and oddities. For one thing, it has a strange obsession with diagonals; boots make you go faster only when traveling diagonally, the level design is practically isometric, and while on ladders, you can only ever shoot diagonally. You have to walk back out of each tower after defeating the boss and acquiring the bell, and worse yet, this is to allow you to grab anything you might’ve missed, because once you leave the tower, it’s gone forever. The Parallel Zones have invisible exits, which are not the same as your point of entry. There are even items that range from useless to detrimental, so you have to really understand the world in order to survive.

For all of its ups and downs, though, Deadly Towers truly captures the spirit of Zelda. The world may appear to be smaller, and perhaps it is, but it is every bit as open as it is in Hyrule Fantasy, perhaps even a little moreso. Better still is that the world that you’re exploring is colorful and beautiful, so discovery is a real joy; the actual towers have a neat aesthetic that reminds me of a bygone era. The bosses are strange and interesting, too, and the final battle is an incredible climax, unlike the frustrating mess that was the battle with Ganon; it’s intense, but fair. Deadly Towers is truly a world of mystery and danger.

Faria-T

But Faria isn’t, no matter what the tagline, subtitle, or whatever it is would have you believe. Like Crystalis, my opinion of this game dropped upon my most recent playthrough, but in this case, the drop was much more significant. I was immediately enchanted by this game’s visuals from the first time I saw it; it looks like Higemaru, Adventures in the Magic Kingdom, and an anime from the ’80s all rolled into one, and the backgrounds and character portraits have the extremely high (by NES standards) quality of one of those old first-person Adventure games, like Princess Tomato in Salad Kingdom. It even has experience levels and random action-based battles, just like Esper Dream 2 or an overhead Adventure of Link, and those are my first- and third-favorite NES games of all time. It sounds great on paper, but so does Communism, and we all know how that turned out.

This game has JRPG envy so severe that you’d think it was made around the turn of the millennium. Unlike with Crystalis, you have to wander around to trigger random battles, in order to fight and grow stronger and richer, which really slows the pace. A slow pace is fine, but not at all appropriate for Action-Adventure; the old “find town, grind money and experience, go to next town/through next dungeon, repeat” formula doesn’t quite work in real-time. They knew they’d screwed up, too, because if you give your character a certain name, you start out at a very high level with lots of money. You lose money when you die, so it’s smart to buy gemstones, which can be sold back at 90% in order to mitigate your losses, like in The 7th Saga. There are tons of one-use items for a game like this, and you even have to explore dark caverns by use of a torch, and for those of you who aren’t British, that was the best dumb joke you’ll read all day. I cannot fathom why this game wasn’t a JRPG, either, because they’re much easier to program, since combat is entirely menu-based.

The thing is that Faria doesn’t even succeed as a JRPG, because it’s missing so many obvious elements. The battlefields are far too large, which makes combat an absolute chore; this is why JRPGs use menus for combat in random encounters. Some enemies are invincible if you’re not at a high enough level, but you can’t always run away, either. After you kill the last enemy, you might be booted to the overworld before you can pick up the spoils, so if earning money was your goal, your time was wasted. You don’t even get a notification when you pick up a treasure chest, so you have no idea what you just found! Oh, and shops only buy back what they sell, so have fun roaming the world until you find somewhere that will buy back your outdated junk. RPGs have good stories, at least, right? Well, the plot twist in this one is that your female swordsman is actually a male under a curse, and when that curse is broken, you can finally enter the final town, and THANK THE GODS, you can finally marry the princess that you just met. Your gender is the final tool; hooray for sexism.

I think it should be fairly obvious that this isn’t Zelda at all; it’s a Dragon Warrior Clone with real-time combat, and a poor one at that! I do think it deserves mention that your bow is part of your basic equipment, so you do find better bows as the adventure progresses. I also feel it worth noting that the puzzles in the dungeons are less tedious than in Hyrule Fantasy. This is just a sad case of identity crisis, and for all of the steps it takes forward, it’s still doing so on the roof of a bullet train speeding in the wrong direction. I don’t entirely dislike the game, but it is carried mostly upon the immeasurably broad shoulders of its audiovisual charm, and that’s just bad design.

Guardian Legend-T(1)

Most don’t think of this as a Zelda Clone, but maybe half of one. If Faria is an outlandish hybrid that doesn’t work, this is one that does, combining an overhead Action-Adventure with a Vertically-Scrolling Shooter. It’s not just a back-and-forth, either; the items that you collect in the labyrinth help you in the Shooter sections, and the Shooter weapons are what you use to fight in the labyrinth sections, making this a true fusion. Strip away the labyrinths, and this is still a magnificent Shooter with an excellent, unique arsenal – as should be no surprise from a Compile Shooter – but it has that extra something that pushes it even higher! It has the action of a Shooter, and the navigation and tools of a Zelda game, and despite its brutal challenge, you’ll be back for more.

On top of everything, the game has mild RPG elements: you have your basic HP and MP, but there’s more to them than that. At certain score intervals, your life increases, but this can also be done by finding certain power-ups. Your Chips are your MP, in a sense, but they serve three purposes: they are the ammunition for your special weapons; at certain intervals, the spread on your main weapon increases, making it more powerful; and they are also used as currency. It adds this intricate dynamic to how you play: do you save up your Chips for new weapons and upgrades, use them to fire your special weapons and defeat powerful enemies, or do you hoard them to keep your main weapon strong? You have a maximum, too, which can be expanded by finding certain power-ups. Come to think of it, Golvellius has items that increase your maximum gold, too; it must be a Compile thing, but we’ll get to that.

The game does have a few elements that weren’t so well thought-out, though. I know that the incredible arsenal is meant to accommodate multiple playstyles, but there is an awful lot of bloat to it. That said, certain weapons do become more or less useful as you acquire upgrades, so at the very least, most are used fairly evenly. There are also very large gaps in Chip totals, with respect to they affect your main weapon, so you’ll find a lot of upgrades to your Chip Max with very little payoff. Another thing that bothers me is that there are shops in which you can buy only one of three possible items, only one of which is not useless. This is just like in Hyrule Fantasy, where the old men give you a choice between a Heart Container and Water of Life; what kind of choice is that!? Perhaps worst of all is the fact that progress is recorded via password, and as can be expected of a game with this much data to remember, it is absurdly long. That said, you can break the password system to place yourself outside of the playable area and enter a sort of Glitch Limbo known as the Lost Frontier; look it up sometime.

I’m ambiguous as to how this fares as a Zelda Clone. On one hand, the RPG elements create a sense of growth, and since this leans heavily upon action – listen to the bosses’ death explosions that rock you right out of your seat and tell me otherwise – this means that there is a set order to your adventure. The different Areas are sealed off, and inaccessible until you beat a certain boss and get the key, and while this is for your own good, it does make the game very linear. The Corridors act as the dungeons, but since they’re just Shooter sections, you have zero puzzle-solving and exploration within them. On the other hand, each Area is reasonably open, and has its own twists and turns. On top of that, both the game’s environments and denizens are bizarre and beautiful, just like you’d expect on an alien planet; the exploration may not be up to par, but the discovery sure is. It also has a great story, but doesn’t dwell on it; in the first room, you can read what happened and why you’re here, but you’re perfectly free to just ignore it and be on your way. In the end, I’d say that it is more of a Zelda Clone than most games that bear the label, but doesn’t quite measure up to the real thing in that regard.

Spiritual Warfare-T

If you’ve never heard of this game, then you’re probably thinking that it’s pretty hardcore, based on the title. It is, but not in the way that you’re thinking; it’s one of those Christian games made by Wisdom Tree. Unlike most of them, though, this one’s actually good, and that’s right from the mouth of a branded heretic. Of course, I don’t like that it’s a recruitment tool, but the theme is actually made to be fairly interesting here. It also pioneers some interesting ideas, a few of which are practically considered mandatory in large games these days.

Your weaponry is great; you throw fruit at the heathens to convert them. I know how stupid that sounds, but so is using a candle to burn shrubbery; each fruit has a different range, strength, and flight pattern, so you’re covered in a number of different situations, and you can buy more to increase your rate of fire. Sometimes, killing converting someone will cause a devil to pop out and attack you, so you always have to be on guard. You collect doves as currency, but you can get quite a lot of them by answering questions asked by angels. Again, I don’t like that it’s a recruitment tool, but it does what it was designed to do by rewarding knowledge of The Bible with a way to skip what might otherwise be tedious grinding; I don’t think that this is the salvation through devotion to Jesus that The Church intended, but it at least gets the point across. Likewise, you can actually lose the plot coupons that you worked to hard to win from bosses if you enter somewhere that you’re not supposed to be, like a bar or casino, forcing you to work harder to earn it back. There’s also a train, which acts as a very early fast travel system, and sometimes, the perspective shifts to a side-view, without changing the game mechanics, which is something that not even my beloved Legacy of the Wizard could completely pull off.

Said plot coupons are both cool and useful: the various pieces of the Armor of God allow you to do things like push rocks, walk over fire, and take less damage. In addition to them, and to your weapons, there are additional tools, as in Zelda, and they function much the same way. The one that acts as your boomerang is a gigantic jawbone, and is used in the final battle. Speaking of the final battle, the whole game goes completely sideways at its end. You spend most of the adventure in cities, forests, parks, beaches, and the like, and despite that, the boss fights are still pretty clever, even moreso than in a lot of actual Zelda games. Once you reach the end of the game, you quite literally descend into Hell to fight against the Prince of Darkness, himself. Yes, you’re standing in Pandemonium, battling Satan by hurling a giant jawbone at him; if it weren’t for the fact that you’re using fruit to finish him off, it might be the most Metal thing I’ve ever seen on the NES, and it’s in a game about spreading the word of Jesus.

This is one of the few Zelda Clones that actually stands up to its accusations fairly well. The areas are sectioned off a little bit, so the game’s not 100% open from the beginning, but each area is fairly large, and obstructions are few. There are plenty of puzzles to solve, including the boss fights, so you’re really using your head. What really hits me is how the game takes something as mundane as our world and makes it so visually interesting, though Hell looks very cool, too. It goes without saying that I had more than a few laughs at the game’s expense, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy it.

Startropics-T

It might not be completely fair to call this a knockoff, since it was actually made by Nintendo. Startropics is a franchise that has been sadly forgotten by time. I don’t know whether or not it should have kept going, though, because it would have had trouble figuring out where it was headed. The first game is about exploring tropical islands, and, like Spiritual Warfare, goes completely sideways at the end, having almost no transition between finding your missing uncle in underground ruins and finding yourself on a spaceship, battling a cloaked alien overlord with an awesome helmet. Where do you go from there? Well, the sequel has you traveling through different eras of history, which is awesome, but what’s next when space and time have both been conquered?

As much as I love traveling through different epochs – my favorite game of all time is Live-A-Live, and I’d been dreaming of playing a game just like it since the day I reached Antiqua in Secret of Evermore – I have to say that I like the first game better. It’s relatively mundane until near the end, but it has this undeniable charm. The boss fights require some thinking, which is good, because the controls in the first game are on the clunky side. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, because the levels are designed in such a way that the clunkiness actually works extremely well. You have to really think about your environment and how the game works, which leads to some really interesting puzzles and setpieces, among my favorites are the anklet that lets you jump 2 spaces, and the asterisk weapon, which is like a ninja star that splits into two on your command.

That’s not to say that everything has thoughtful design, mind you. Most chapters have one or two dungeons, but Chapter 3 has five of them, most of which are completely unnecessary. Then, there’s Chapter 5, which has so many ridiculous traps that you’ll be tearing your hair out before you’re halfway through the dungeon. There are also enemies, and even a boss that can only be harmed by a very specific subweapon, so if you miss it or run out, you have no choice but to die. A minor gripe is that all of the codes that you have to learn and memorize are significant to history in the United States, but at a certain point, you sink a gigantic ship, and a song plays. The song is the national anthem of England, but it has the exact same melody as a patriotic song in the United States, so you’re going to assume that it’s the latter, and it makes the scene a lot sillier than it should be.

The sequel has much looser controls, and combat is much more fluid because of them, but the level design philosophy doesn’t change. It’s not actively bad, but the design doesn’t make much sense, anymore. The designers were at least smart enough to shift the focus more to action, though, so at the very least, the game isn’t completely broken. You now have two main weapons, one of which has different strength levels based upon how many hearts you have filled. The first game’s main weapon does this, as well, but now, if you’re low on health, you’re not completely helpless. The subweapons with finite quantities are more useful here, too, which is nice, but would have been much more helpful in the first game, in which most of them are useless.

Zoda’s Revenge is certainly not without its problems, though. There are a lot of non-action areas that have tons of invisible pitfalls, leading to small dungeons with nothing of real value in them, so they just waste your time. The game is also unquestionably a product of the ’90s; it has so much ‘tude that it replaces much of the story with “blah-blah”, even some of the interesting parts. I get that it’s a lighthearted story, but this seemed unnecessary even back then, especially when Chapter 1 is nothing but one long cutscene. You also have almost no invincibility time, so if you’re stuck in something, expect your life to drain away like money from a fool’s bank account.

So, are they Zelda? Well, they certainly make a lot of references – Mike Jones is left-handed, and there are subtle references to Ghinis and Darknuts – but that doesn’t quite cut it. The chapter format ensures that you’re on a very set path, and aside from a short few, most of them have you on a pretty tight leash. The closest it really gets is Chapter 6 in the first game, in which you have coordinates to find Dr. Jones, and all it does is tell you how far away you are; you have to navigate the submerge points and slip under islands in order to figure out for yourself where to go. The second game has even less room for you to explore; Chapter 7 is just walking down a winding road (not even a particularly long one) and into a mansion. The dungeons have a bit more exploration to them in the second game than in the first, but there’s still very little that’s off the beaten path. These are great games that are definitely worth checking out, but not Zelda by a long shot.

Willow-T

Games based on a license have a bad reputation for being shoddy, rushed, thoughtless abominations, and while that’s not entirely unfair, it’s also not universally true. Willow was made by Capcom, who produced of some of the best licensed games of all time, especially on the NES, and it lives up to that expectation without even blinking. I hadn’t seen the movie until this millennium, and I’d almost say that I hated it, but I played the game when it was new, and still love it to this day, a fine testament to its quality. In fact, aside from a few spots where you have to stop and grind, and one part where the backtracking is nothing short of obtuse, I don’t really have anything bad to say about the game. Willow on the NES – not to be confused with the Arcade and Commodore 64 versions, which were completely different games – is a graphical marvel with revolutionary gameplay.

So, what makes this Medieval-themed Fantasy game with a sword-wielding protagonist so special? For one, you can both slash and thrust; thrusting is much quicker, and better for a single enemy with high HP, but slashing is great for hitting multiple targets, or attacking off-center to avoid counterattacks. Swords also have different weights, too, so if your level isn’t high enough, your attacks will be slower, so you have to balance speed with strength at lower levels. Shields are your main defense, and work as they do in Zelda, but have 2 levels: if your defense is high enough, you’ll just eliminate projectile damage, but if it isn’t, it only cuts it down a bit, and you can tell which happened by the sound it makes. Your tools are magic artifacts, which all produce different effects, but consume MP, and most cannot be used against bosses, so the depth in swordplay is still important. The game remains challenging throughout, and the low level cap means that you aren’t likely to become game-breakingly overpowered.

Willow looks unbelievable for an NES game, especially one that came out in 1989. The sprites are large and incredibly detailed, but not clunky, like most NES games with sprites this size. The monsters are no exception to this; each one is an absolute work of art, and most of them were created just for the game. Even the scenery has incredible detail, and whenever you get into a battle outside of a dungeon, the winds blow, making the entire screen move! The final dungeon, Nockmaar Castle, is especially breathtaking, and the sky bridges it has make for an unforgettable conclusion. Even the music is stellar; Willow boasts what may very well be the best adventuring theme ever. In addition to quite possibly being the best-looking game on the system, Willow comes highly recommended by those who’ve played it.

Is it Zelda, though? Unfortunately, there’s almost no way that it could have been. It’s an adventure that I absolutely adore, but it is based on a movie, and as such, it has a story to tell, so events unfold in a linear fashion. That’s not to say that there isn’t much to explore – the creative use of dead ends makes such a lovely world in which it is an absolute pleasure to spend as much time as possible – but it will always unfold the same way. There are fantastic moments, like when the skies above and the lands below darken as you approach Nockmaar Castle, and there are secrets to find, but the world is not quite open. As much of Zelda’s elements as it improves, it doesn’t quite measure up in the one way that really counts, as far as we’re concerned.

Golvellius - Valley of Doom-T

While Nintendo was absolutely killing the market, there was this little system called the SEGA Master System. The library wasn’t huge, but it did have a Zelda Clone called Golvellius: Valley of Doom, which was developed by Compile, developer of the aforementioned Guardian Legend. It shows, too; the dungeons either scroll horizontally or vertically, and the vertical dungeons scroll automatically, as do most of the Shooters for which they are famous, such as Zanac, Gun Nac, and the Shooter sections in The Guardian Legend. You also continually run into Randar, the round blue creature that serves as a sort of mascot of theirs. It’s a fairly memorable game, or at least, it would be, had enough people played it to remember it.

There is a great emphasis on money in Golvellius, but every single enemy that you kill will always drop a set amount of money right into your pocket; you won’t ever have to pick it up, because it is collected like experience. You can buy most everything in the game, and certain items are restricted at certain times, because you have to expand your maximum, just like in The Guardian Legend, which is strangely done by purchasing Bibles, of all things. This helps to control the pacing; it’s rather slow, because you’ll almost constantly have to stop and grind, but it’s not so terrible, because it is consistent. This consistency in pacing is why games like Dragon Warrior are able to be enjoyed; if you give the player a taste of quicker pacing, he or she will not want to slow back down again.  I know that this seems to contradict what I said about Faria, but here, the battles occur naturally, rather than in random encounters, and that’s what makes the difference. You will periodically find better grind spots, and since enemies respawn infinitely, you can grind to your heart’s content. This might make the game seem overwhelming, but the enemies have a little sparkle that happens before they spawn, and touching that will cancel their spawn; you can keep yourself from becoming overwhelmed by utilizing both this trick and the environment to your advantage. Using the environment is often vital to combat, too, so it’s like Deadly Towers in that you won’t pick it up and be an instantaneous expert.

You do, however, have to pay for the crystals that act as plot coupons, which is stupid, but every boss will max out your cash, so if you spend wisely, it won’t be a huge problem. The actual boss fights have cool monsters, but are more action-oriented than in Hyrule Fantasy, and since it has the same basic controls, they are a bit awkward at times. The dungeons leading up to them are hit-or-miss, too; the horizontal dungeons are mostly okay (even if you move far too quickly), but most of the vertical dungeons have tons of false paths that will instantly boot you outside. It’s a shame, because I feel that the design would have made for a fantastic game, if it had had better mechanics, but as things stand, it isn’t terrible. Most of the other issues are fairly minor; for example, it’s neat that every time you get a new sword or shield, the overworld music changes, and the second song sounds incredible, but after that, most of the overworld music sounds doofy.

While Golvellius isn’t completely Zelda, it more is than it isn’t. Many screens have hidden caves like the ones in Hyrule Fantasy – though the denizens look much better – and are revealed in strange ways, like killing a certain amount of certain monsters, or striking certain objects on the screen. The dungeons don’t really have puzzles, though, and the seven areas are cut off from each other until you destroy the boss of that area. So, on one hand, the areas are big, and the ways to reveal what’s in them can be mysterious, but on the other, it’s not completely open from the beginning. It may or may not be a Zelda at its core, but if not, it would certainly pass for seven miniature Zeldas.

Neutopia_000 (3)

It might seem like cheating to but a 16-bit game on here, but when everyone refers to it as “That Zelda game for the TurboGrafx-16,” I’d be remiss not to mention it. The two games – even though we were promised a third in the second game’s ending – are fairly similar, and oddly, a more natural progression than most any two Zelda games. On a surface level, the first Neutopia mimics Hyrule Fantasy right down to its flaws, and the second improves upon what the first had built. Despite what most will tell you, they do fairly well at striking out and forging their own identity, heavily inspired elsewhere though it may be. They won’t be the best Action-Adventure titles you’ll ever play, but they’re a good addition to any TurboGrafx-16 library, and they have a really awesome, competent villain.

There’s a lot to like about both Neutopia games, and it starts right off with an excellent soundtrack; it eschews Hyrule Fantasy’s orchestral inspiration for a more electronic one, and it does a great job of really getting you pumped up for an adventure, or appreciating the mystery of a dungeon. You have a number of tools, one of which is a Fire Wand, which increases in power the more hearts you have filled. Most importantly, though, this is a projectile weapon for when your sword isn’t quite going to cut it. In the second game, there are three different wands, each of which acts a bit differently. The dungeons are incredible, too; they’re laid out like in Hyrule Fantasy, but they’re quite large, and have a lot in them, often containing new weapons or armor. Having many different swords, shields, and armors is something that I’d like to see in Zelda games, because that sense of progression can be very rewarding.

One main complaint about Hyrule Fantasy is that it offers too little in the way of guidance, but one of my main complaints about the Neutopia games is that they offer entirely too much. Almost every screen in each of the four overworlds has a hidden cave with someone in it, who will offer completely unnecessary advice. It’d seem wise to just skip them, but a few offer upgrades to your hearts, bombs, or a number of other things, so you have to check every one of them; it’s like actively seeking advice from Navi, and it’s about as painful as it sounds. When I said that it copied a lot of flaws, I wasn’t kidding, either; the swordplay is a bit awkward, and the game often breaks its own rules, like when the blocks that erupt in swords stop being a different color from the rest, and start blending in to elicit cheap hits from you. The Boss Key, a feature from future Zelda games, is equally pointless; the Big Key in A Link to the Past serves numerous functions, including allowing you access to the dungeon’s big treasure, but here, and in many future Zelda games, it just acts as an artificial roadblock in front of the boss’s room.

Do the accusations of plaigiarism stand valid, though? Not by a long shot; the first game is broken into four separate overworlds, plus the final battle in – I swear I’m not making this up – Climactic Castle. The second game’s world flows a bit more organically, but progression is still fairly linear. You are exploring the areas to which you have access, and finding secrets, but the only real non-linearity in terms of actual progress is that each overworld in the first game has two dungeons that you can complete in either order. As much as it seems like Hyrule Fantasy on the surface – and the dungeons actually do a decent job of imitating those in Hyrule Fantasy – this isn’t like Zelda in any way that really matters. They’re still good games, and worth your time, if you have a TurboGrafx-16, but their similarities to Zelda are mostly superficial.

Conclusion

Hyrule Fantasy is a bit clunky, and most of its imitators improved greatly upon that, but what they lack is its very soul. Hyrule Fantasy – and, by extension, Zelda, itself – is not about fighting monsters and conquering dungeons with a sword in an overhead perspective; it is about exploration and discovery. It doesn’t tell you a story; you, the player, write your own story by interpreting the events as you perceive them. It is the pursuit of that game-told story that rejects the very essence of the spirit of adventure that Hyrule Fantasy portrays. There’s nothing wrong with having a story told to you, but you’re not having an adventure; you’re reading a book, and that is the important difference that makes the core of the series.  As I’ve said elsewhere, what we’re really missing is that sense of mystery about the world. It is, perhaps, with at least a bit of irony that Spiritual Warfare and Deadly Towers, the most reviled games on this list, are best at imitating what really matters about Zelda.

Hyrule Fantasy

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