Link attacking Octorok monsters with his sword in the overworld.

The Legend of Zelda incorporates elements of actionadventure, and role-playing genres. The player controls Link from a flip-screen overhead perspective as he travels the overworld, a large outdoor map with various environments.[11] Link begins the game equipped only with a small shield, but can enter a cave and receive a sword from an old man who advises, "It's dangerous to go alone! Take this."[16] Throughout the adventure, Link finds and acquires various items that increase his abilities further, including Heart Containers which increase his life meter; magic rings which decrease the amount of damage Link takes from enemy attacks; and stronger swords which allow Link inflict more damage to enemies. These items are mainly found in caves scattered throughout the land. Some are easily accessible, while others are hidden beneath obstacles such as rocks, trees, and waterfalls.[17] Defeated enemies sometimes drop items including hearts, which refill the life meter, and Rupees, the in-game currency. Rupees can also be found in hidden treasure caves and are used to buy equipment, information, and ability upgrades.

Hidden in the overworld are entrances to eight large dungeons housing the pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom.[18] Each dungeon has a unique maze-like layout of rooms connected by doors and secret passages, often barred by monsters (which must be defeated) or by blocks (which must be moved to gain entrance).[19] Dungeons also contain useful items Link can add to his inventory, such as a boomerang for stunning enemies and retrieving distant items, and a magical recorder that lets Link teleport to the entrance of any dungeon he has previously cleared.[20] Once Link has collected all eight pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom from these dungeons, he gains access to a ninth and final dungeon in order to defeat Ganon and rescue Zelda.[21] The game may be completed by traversing any given dungeon on the overworld and is largely flexible to players, although gameplay steadily increases in difficulty, and some rooms can only be passed by using items gained in previous locations. There are dungeons with secret entrances which must be uncovered while freely wandering the overworld after acquiring useful items. This freedom allows many ways of progressing through the game. It is possible to reach the final boss without receiving the normally vital sword at its outset.[22] The game world contains 600 separate scenes,[23] with the overworld consisting of over 97 scenes and the underworld consisting of nine multi-scene labyrinths.[24]

After initially completing the game, a player can begin a more-difficult version referred to as the "Second Quest" (裏ゼルダUra Zeruda, translated literally to "Other Zelda"),[25][26] which alters many locations, secrets, and includes entirely distinct dungeons and stronger enemies.[27] Although more difficult "replays" were not unique to Zelda, few games offered completely different levels upon the second playthrough.[22] By starting a new file with the name entered as "ZELDA", this mode can instead be accessed without needing to beat the game first.[28]


Within the official Zelda Chronology, The Legend of Zelda takes place in an Era called "The Era of Decline", which exists within an alternative reality. In this era, Hyrule has been reduced to a small kingdom where the residents now live in caves, setting the background for The Legend of Zelda.[29]


The story of The Legend of Zelda is described in the instruction booklet and during the short prologue which plays after the title screen: A small kingdom in the land of Hyrule is engulfed by chaos when an army led by Ganon, the prince of darkness, invaded and stole the Triforce of Power, one part of a magical artifact which alone bestows great strength.[10] In an attempt to prevent him from acquiring the Triforce of Wisdom, Princess Zelda splits it into eight fragments and hides them in secret underground dungeons.[10] Before eventually being kidnapped by Ganon, she commands her nursemaid Impa to find someone courageous enough to save the kingdom.[10] While wandering the land, the old woman is surrounded by Ganon's henchmen, when a young boy named Link appears and rescues her.[10] Upon hearing Impa's plea, he resolves to save Zelda and sets out to reassemble the scattered fragments of the Triforce of Wisdom, with which Ganon can then be defeated.[10]

During the course of the tale, Link locates and braves the eight underworld labyrinths, and beyond their defeated guardian monsters retrieves each fragment. With the completed Triforce of Wisdom, he is able to infiltrate Ganon's hideout in Death Mountain, confronting the prince of darkness and destroying him with the Silver Arrow.[30] Obtaining the Triforce of Power from Ganon's ashes, Link returns it and the restored Triforce of Wisdom to the rescued Princess Zelda, and peace returns to Hyrule.[31]