So the big deal about The Legend of Zelda was that it had a ton of items to collect. Some were instant consumables, some were weapons, some were simply passive tools. Some dropped randomly from enemy mobs, whereas others appeared in fixed locations, and yet others were deliberately tucked away as key acquisition points to enable quest progression.
Link’s gear covered a broad gamut of abilities and uses. The sword served as a basic straightforward tool for combat: Hit the button and stab straight ahead, firing a piercing beam across the screen should you be fortunate enough to start out with full health. The sword beam is interesting because it’s apparently intrinsic to Link himself; any sword can fire it from the very beginning of the game. Later games tie it to a sword or make it a learned technique further down the road, but not here.
Speaking of swords, Zelda made a nice effort to replicate the structure of an RPG by giving Link a progressive upgrade system with several of his weapons. The sword advances through three degrees of power, with access to each new level contingent upon Link’s health upgrades. Each sword is twice as powerful as the last. Pretty standard stuff now! But not in 1986. DOOM.
Several sub-weapons also have more powerful secondary iterations, too. The boomerang goes from a slow doodad that travels only half the length of the screen to a faster, more powerful version that spans the full screen. The Silver Arrow is more powerful than the basic Arrow. The Red Candle allows infinite uses per screen whereas the Blue Candle can only be used once. The Blue Ring reduces damage by 50%, while the Red Ring cuts it to 25% total.
The weird thing about the color variations is that they’re reversed for Link. Enemies also come in red and blue variants, but in those cases the blue versions are the more powerful ones. For Link, red equipment is more powerful. Even with the Magical Rod: The rod itself is blue (weak), but the Book of Magic (red) upgrades it to leave lingering flames behind and damage enemies.
I’ve always wondered about that. It seems oddly counterintuitive; why would the color scheme be reversed like this? Does red represent things that are more beneficial to Link while blue items are meant less? I can’t believe it wasn’t a deliberate design choice, but I don’t understand the rationale behind it.
All in all, Zelda did a really great job of giving Link tons of cool equipment that made for a hero with unprecedented (at the time) versatility. You’d expect this kind of range from an adventure game protagonist, but here you don’t have to punch in adventure game text prompts. Just point and shoot. And no adventure game lead had this many weapons: A sword, a magical beam, a boomerang that could be thrown with a bit of english on it, arrows, bombs. A bracelet to allow rocks to be shoved aside to reveal secret passages, a flute to summon a tornado for cross-country transit (see also: Simon’s Quest), a key capable of unlocking any door, a stepladder to cross rivers (!?), even food to serve as bait for monsters (or appease grumbling guards).
The only downside to the interface came in the fact that you constantly had to access the subscreen to toggle between objects. But, heck, I can’t think of any other game that used that setup back then. On the rare occasion you had an action game with an inventory mechanic it would work like Karnov, where you’d acquire a bunch of equipment and toggle between items on the fly in the most cumbersome and counterintuitive manner imaginable.
The Zelda toolset still holds up more than a quarter of a century later. Aside from a handful of later additions like the Hookshot, Link’s loadout hasn’t changed much over the years. You can accuse Nintendo of stagnation if you like, but it’s not like Zelda‘s imitators have particularly upped the stakes in the regard, either. Sometimes, a game just gets it right. Zelda was one of those games.