Let’s take a trip all the way back to the summer of 1987. Dirty Dancing was the most popular movie in the US, a gallon of gas cost less than a buck, and some weird little cartoon called The Simpsons first appeared as a side-act on The Tracey Ullman Show.
Oh yeah… and The Legend of Zelda was first released in the US. And gaming would never be the same.
To be fair, 1987 was one hell of a year for the NES library. Americans got their first taste of Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! and Mega Man. Metroid and The Legend of Zelda were released within a week of each other. It was an absolutely brilliant time to be a gamer and I’m glad to say I remember it pretty well.
But while there was no shortage of excellent games for the NES, there weren’t any that played quite like the original Zelda did. By 1987, there weren’t more than a handful of top-down games. And the ones that existed were pretty much all arcade ports of run & gun games like Commando and Ikari Warriors.
Zelda (and Metroid, for that matter,) was part of a new, focused effort by Nintendo to break away from arcade-style games and develop games that provided more of a slow-burn, console-friendly experience.
Home video games didn’t need to gobble quarters to be fun. With NES consoles spreading like crazy, Nintendo seized the opportunity to create games that would encourage gamers to stay home and play, rather than hit the arcade.
Arcade-style games tended to be shorter and more difficult. They were shallow experiences that weren’t intended to be played for more than a few minutes at a time.
The Legend of Zelda would have made a pretty lousy arcade game. The amount of exploration and trial-and-error progression would have forced gamers to invest a mountain of quarters just to find their way around Hyrule.
Instead of making this game hard and short, the devs at Nintendo rolled back the difficulty and increased the amount of actual game content within Hyrule. Players could take their time and really explore all the secrets the game had to offer. The Legend of Zelda was a true adventure game!
The Zelda Formula
Keep in mind that this was the ONLY Zelda game when it came out, so there was no formula and no pattern. The developers were working from their imaginations. But there were a few characteristics that made The Legend of Zelda unique on the NES. Let’s lay them out:
Top-down perspective – If you look back, you’ll see that there were surprisingly few top-down games for the NES in 1987. And of those few, even fewer were adventure games. Which didn’t really make a lot of sense, since a top-down view would allow players to explore in twice as many directions as a side-scroller. So it’s a great format choice.
Exploration-based – While The Legend of Zelda still has plenty of action, the focus really is on exploring the open-world map and discovering new weapons, dungeons and bosses. Players had to invest a lot of time just finding their way around, mapping the game or memorizing routes.
Tons of items – This game set the precedent for some Zelda staples. The boomerang, bombs, bow, heart containers, armor upgrades, sword upgrades… there was so much to find!
Real-time fighting – Many of the NES exploration-based top-down games with tons of powerups were RPGs with turn-based combat. Zelda was not an RPG (although I would argue Zelda II is!) and the fighting was in real-time. If you ask me, this is much better for short attention spans.
Fantasy theme – While a fantasy setting isn’t totally necessary to invoke a Zelda vibe, it certainly helps.
There is much more to making a good Zelda game than these, but these are the criteria I’ve chosen to feed into our Zeldometer to see how my list of recommendations compares to the original Zelda.
Besides these objective criteria, there’s also the great music and graphics and subtle hints at a deeper story. But how could we really measure that on a Zeldometer for crying out loud? Besides, Zelda with bad music or crappy graphics would still be tons of fun, imo.
So let’s have a look at this list of Zelda-like games and/or recommendations for Zelda NES fans!
NES fans were already mumbling “Crystalis” to themselves when they saw the title of this post. It is a clear and obvious choice and could be Zelda’s actual cousin. Who knows?
Crystalis is a top-down action-RPG with tons of powerups and lots of areas to explore. Being a true RPG, it is much more narrative-driven than Zelda and there are actual towns full of NPCs that will help guide your quest.
That’s a departure from Zelda, which has only a few NPCs, isolated and scattered about. And even those few NPCs are pretty cryptic in the info they share. They don’t give good directions and they don’t do much to deepen the storyline. Crystalis NPCs are quite helpful and chatty by comparison.
You’ll find tons of weapons, armor and other items in Crystalis and the attack system is very much akin to the one in Secret of Mana. Equip a weapon and, as the weapon levels up, you can charge your shots for devastating attacks.
Fans of the original Zelda have likely already played Crystalis. But if you love TLoZ and haven’t played Crystalis, fire up your Switch Online and give it a play. Or go pick it up on eBay while it’s still cheap! It’s really good.
When we plug Crystalis into our Zeldometer, we see that it literally checks every box!
Some claim that StarTropics was intentionally made as a Zelda analogue. Not in a plagiarism way—StarTropics is a first-party release anyway—but in a way very specific to this article. As in like, “Yo, these Americans love The Legend of Zelda, so let’s give them something similar!”
In fact, StarTropics is one of the only NES games ever released in the US but not Japan. The game seems custom-made for Americans, with several nods to American history and pop culture. The hero’s name is Mike Jones for crying out loud. How much more American can you get?
StarTropics gameplay alternates between an overworld map, where you guide Mike or his submarine around different key locations, and more Zelda-esque top-down dungeon segments. There are towns and mazes and other places to explore in the overworld, but the bulk of gameplay happens in the dungeons.
Dungeons are filled with tons of different enemies, including bats and snakes very much like those found in Zelda and the emphasis is on real-time melee combat.
StarTropics was released several years after The Legend of Zelda and the devs were able to take advantage of a more robust memory chipset. (MMC6! Only StarTropics and StarTropics 2 ever used this set.) As a result, StarTropics offers players a massive upgrade in the graphics department.
While StarTropics dungeons feature tile-based movement puzzles that feel very different from Zelda, the attitude and scope are still there, along with that Nintendo charm that makes both games such classics.
And both the overworld map and dungeons are full of secret passages that encourage players to have a look around and spend some time exploring the world of StarTropics. Coincidentally, both StarTropics and its sequel Zoda’s Revenge are still quite cheap on eBay. Go check it out!
How does it stack up?
3. Gremlins 2
Are you surprised to see this here? Well, you shouldn’t be!
Movie-based games were notoriously trash during the 8-bit era. But Gremlins 2 is a Sunsoft game, and Sunsoft knew very well how to make a good game.
Gremlins 2 is an action-adventure game, but it definitely leans more toward action than adventure. Exploration isn’t really the main attraction, but there are many instances of forking paths and places where players are rewarded for their curiosity.
Shops are hidden in each level and while the shopkeeper never says “It’s dangerous to go alone,” you will definitely want to stock up on powerups.
Throughout the game, Gizmo finds many items and and powered-up weapons to battle the game’s numerous enemies and creative bosses. Unlike Zelda, most of the weapons you find are projectile-based and not melee.
One aspect that sets Gremlins 2 far apart from Zelda is Gizmo’s ability to jump. The addition of challenging platforming segments certainly adds a level of difficulty, but the straightforward level design means you’ll spend a lot less time wandering through the game and a lot more time practicing tricky jumps on moving platforms.
At first glance, this one might seem to be quite a departure from the Zelda theme in this article, but look closely and you’ll see that, not only is it a great game in its own right, but the top-down action might just scratch that Zelda itch. At least a little bit. (Grab it on eBay here.)
Once again we have a movie-based game that is surprisingly playable thanks to a competent developer. Capcom was one of the mighty kings of the NES.
While Willow is certainly more akin to a full-on RPG than a Zelda game, it still features real-time action combat from that top-down perspective.
And like Zelda, the screen doesn’t scroll. You just get one screen at a time as you explore Willow’s world.
The graphics and music are top-tier and the controls are responsive and everything is generally hunky-dory with this game. Movie-based games really do get a bad reputation, but if you like top-down adventures then this is definitely one to check out!
This is another cheap one for your collection, too. Here it is on eBay.
Let’s throw this one on the Zeldometer and see if it checks all the boxes… Yep!
Link never rocked a headband so good.
Just hear me out, okay?
Rygar is certainly a very different game from Zelda, but remember the theme of this post is games to try if you like Zelda, not “games that are just like Zelda.” And if you enjoy the original Zelda, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy Rygar, too.
When you first boot it up, you’ll see that much of the gameplay in Rygar happens in the side-scrolling view. Don’t worry though. It also contains significant sequences with top-down action that are a little more Zelda-ish.
Basically, Rygar alternates between a top-down overworld view and side-scrolling dungeon sections. But the whole thing is very much exploration-based and will require players to bravely find their way across a sprawling map to find the right items to progress and open up new parts of the game.
This game doesn’t have quite the same emphasis on finding powerups and weapons as Zelda—the only weapon Rygar uses is his trusty shield called the Diskarmer. But in order to reach new areas you’ll have to find other items like a Hookshot …er I mean grappling hook, crossbow and “wind pulley”.
Story-wise, Rygar has about the same amount of NPC-interaction as Zelda. And like so many other fantasy games of the time, there is a pretty in-depth back story but you’ll have to read the instruction manual to learn about that.
If you enjoy the story, exploration and level progression of Zelda, and you’re not totally married to the top-down perspective, You really ought to give Rygar a go. It can be frustrating at times, especially when you can’t figure out where to go, but hey, so is Zelda if you don’t use a walkthrough. Give it a shot while it’s still super affordable (on eBay here.)
6. The Magic of Scheherazade
This game frequently lands itself on my hidden gems lists. (I’ve got several hidden gems lists. Go look at this list of 25 NES hidden gems.)
The Magic of Scheherazade takes place in a historical Arabian setting that is, as far as I can tell, totally unique on the NES. It’s a fairly deep RPG full of towns and allies, dungeons and magic. This game puts major emphasis on the storyline and if you plan on playing it without a guide, you’ll need to talk to every NPC you come across.
The majority of gameplay takes place in the overworld which uses the familiar top-down view and real-time combat with melee weapons as well as ranged attack magic. But there are also dungeons scattered throughout the game where you’ll find yourself managing a party of allies through turn-based combat.
If you don’t like turn-based combat, this game might not be for you. But the turn-based segments are only a small part of this game. And you’ll recruit a huge variety of allies with interesting sprites and abilities. So it’s not too bad.
Throughout your journey—and it is a very exploration-focused journey—you’ll also acquire an array of weapons, spells and other items to help you along. I was amazed to see how deep and complex The Magic of Scheherazade actually is. The gameplay and controls aren’t as slick as Zelda, but they’re still pretty solid.
If you haven’t played this one (and most people haven’t), I really recommend it. Best of all, this one is still quite inexpensive. For now. Here it is on eBay.
7. Blaster Master
Once again, please remember this article isn’t a Zelda-clone roundup. These are recommendations based on your interest in exploration-based action adventures in a fantasy setting.
And while Blaster Master might be the least Zeldish of all the games on this list, I would still highly recommend it for Zelda fans! Why? Well, first of all it’s just flat out fun! Definitely one of my favorite NES games.
But also, Blaster Master constantly encourages exploration and players often find themselves well-rewarded for their trouble. Sure, sometimes you get yourself killed because you’ve ventured into a dangerous area looking for powerups… but sometimes you get lucky and manage to locate some goods!
Blaster Master is one of the most Metroidvania-ish games on this list. You’ve got to dive into dungeons and defeat the gigantic bosses in order to upgrade your tank and reach new areas. The game world is quite massive and you can get really lost if you aren’t careful.
Like Rygar, this one alternates between top-down and side-scrolling views. And honestly, the gameplay in either mode doesn’t feel much like Zelda at all. But that spirit of exploration and the thrill of uncovering new weapons and items are here in full effect.
Throw in the incredible graphics and top-notch soundtrack and you’ve got one of the best games for the NES.
So yeah… I wouldn’t call Blaster Master a “Zelda-like”, but fans of one are likely to like both. At any rate, it’s an incredible game and you can still get it for around $10, as long as you don’t buy a graded one from a delusional eBay seller.
But really, who am I fooling? If you’re reading this list you’ve pretty much definitely already played both games. So decide for yourself. This is just my opinion. Now let’s throw this one up on the Zeldometer!
8. The Guardian Legend
The Guardian Legend might be my favorite game on this list. And aside from the corridor sequences, this might be the most Zelda-like of all!
Most of the action takes place in the top-down view, where you guide the Guardian through multiple sprawling maps of single-screen combat. Like Zelda, you need to locate the items you need to access new parts of the world and you’ll uncover about a gazillion weapon upgrades along the way.
The biggest factor separating this from Zelda games is the corridor sequences that connect the overworld maps. Once you discover the items necessary to move into new areas, you’ll transform into a flying spaceship and enter a shoot-em-up style level.
As you race down this corridor in your changed form, you’ll enjoy some top-notch shooting action. If you’re like me and you’re kinda bad at shooters, let me allay your fears a bit. These sequences, while still challenging, are a bit more forgiving than certain other shoot-em-ups you might have tried in the past.
Please note: I initially typed that the shmup sequences were “much easier”, but decided that’s an overstatement and went with “a bit more forgiving”. You’ll still be plenty challenged. You’ll still have to earn your victory, but it’s not as hair-rippingly brutal as so many other shmups.
The Guardian Legend used to top my hidden gems lists, but increasingly more light is being shed on it and more retro gamers are discovering (or re-discovering) this spectacular title.
As a result, the price has been creeping higher and higher over the last year or two. Today, a complete-in-box copy costs a bit over $80. But if you’re just looking for a loose cartridge to play, you can find them for under $20. Here they are on eBay.
It’s really a fun game! It might be overwhelming at first, as you start learning your way around the map, but there is an automap feature (rare in the NES days) and the puzzles are still more intuitive than Zelda. I did it without a guide and so can you!
9 and 10. Gauntlet and Gauntlet II
Here’s an arcade classic, adapted for your NES!
The first Gauntlet is addictive in its constant action and fast co-op combat. If it matters to you, you should know that the graphics are pretty primitive. But seriously: the gameplay is on-point and this game is frantic fun, especially with a friend!
Gauntlet II has even more to offer, though. With improved graphics and (amazing but kinda creepy) digitized voice overs narrating the action. And get this! With the NES Four Score, it supports up to four players simultaneously! Not many NES games bothered to implement this, it certainly makes for a good time.
While Gauntlet and its sequel are almost completely devoid of a storyline, and the exploration is limited to one level at a time, and weapon powerups are all temporary, I still believe Zelda fans will enjoy it! Or maybe I’m running out of good Zelda-likes at this point on the list? (Laughs nervously.)
At the very least, Zelda fans should enjoy Gauntlet’s fantasy setting and full dedication to its top-down perspective even if they don’t appreciate the games’ massive departure from a sprawling adventure game to fast and focused arcade action.
Gauntlet and Gauntlet II are fun and cheap. You can pick up either one on eBay for around $10. And when you throw them into the Zeldometer, they actually check most of the boxes! See?
“Yeah, but what about…”
There are at least a few more games that could have gone on this list, but I’m thinking I might save them for a different list. You probably know the ones already. One of them starts with an F and has wingboots.
But let’s just say the Zeldometer isn’t ready for retirement yet. The NES has more than one Zelda, and Zelda II happens to be one of my all-time favorite games. So stay tuned for more of my nonsense, okay? Thanks.