The original Legend of Zelda is frequently hailed as a ground-breaking game. It was, of course, designed by Shigeru Miyamoto and released in 1987 for the NES; I finally got to play it when I received my limited edition Zelda disc of eBay for the Gamecube much, much later.
I have to say I found it frustrating and, for lack of a better word, lacking. Any game where an entrance to a dungeon is hidden under one of many trees with no indication or clues as to why, deserves a certain amount of derision. If you look at the Wikipedia page for the game, the author claims that it defied categorisation when released due to its non-linearity, etc, etc. It seemed to me that exploring, fantasy, RPG and just about everything else in Zelda had been done long before it got onto a console; so I went back through the games I know of prior to the 1987 release of Zelda (or 1986 in Japan) to see if I was could prove it.
To quantify the original Zelda; it was a open map, non-linear exploration arcade/adventure game. There were puzzles, a shop and monsters; the RPG element really only came to items that could be collected for your character. Most of the puzzles and monsters were held in dungeon areas. The graphics were basic and, in my personal opinion, the game was not much fun to play.
I'll skip over the era that had games like The Black Crystal in 1981 (which was a simultaneous release for the ZX81 and ZX Spectrum). Although it was an exploration fantasy game, and to all intents, non-linear; I didn't actually enjoy playing it at the time. Adventure for the Atari VCS2600 released in 1980 will also be skipped as I've never played it and it certainly did not have anything close to the original Zelda game. I'll also skip over Nethack, Moria and Rogue derivations, as that would just be unfair.
So the ground rules have been set; lets begin.
Mazogs (ZX81) - 1982
It may not have all the elements in Zelda, but it was built from low-res graphics and you were freely exploring a generated dungeon, or maze, (so you never had the same map twice) with several sizes available. You could also choose the difficulty of the task at hand influencing the combat, availability of weapons, movement of the titular Mazogs and available help.
The reason I include it here is that you have to plan your actions using the prisoners who can provide directions to your goal temporarily (as they die right after), but you also have to deal with the fact that your swords only last for one fight and you have a 50/50 chance of defeating a Mazog without one. The clincher is getting out of the maze as you may have used all the available prisoners and swords getting to the treasure and if you come across a Mazog, you cannot fight while holding the treasure.
The dungeons in Zelda however, were static and linear in progression.
Ant Attack (ZX Spectrum) - 1983
Not only was this an open exploration game (where you are looking for someone of the opposite sex), it was also in rather impressive isometric 3D, which multiple views. The combat was limited to throwing grenades at ants; but any game where you can blow up the person you're rescuing, or yourself, deserves special mention.
You could also jump, so one-up on Link there alone.
The Oracle's Cave (ZX Spectrum) - 1984
This is closer to the overall theme of a fantasy RPG. As a bonus it also has actual RPG elements in it. The graphics are side-on and while the animation is restricted, it probably still has more overall frames for the main character than Link in Zelda. I have to admit, I still like the look of the game after all these years and it is definitely on the list of possible remakes.
You have 5 days to explore one of four dungeons to collect a certain amount of gold and defeat a nominated boss (although this was years before the term Boss Battle had even been thought of). You have to keep an eye on your character's condition; having to eat, sleep and drink to ensure you can get through the 5 days. Combat wears your down and wounds you, but there are items you can collect in the dungeon to aid you in combat. It plays through the command line, so it doesn't fit directly into the arcade/adventure slot; but it definitely qualifies on the non-linearity, exploring, monsters and RPG elements.
Tir Na Nog - ZX Spectrum (1984)
Now we're getting into the meat of things. Tir Na Nog (Land of Youth) from Gargoyle Games (long may they reside in our memory) is a game based on Celtic mythology where you play as Cuchulainn who is trying to re-unite the fragments of the Seal of Calum (notice any similarities here?).
The graphics are side-on, big and excellently animated; the game allows the view to be taken from four different directions at any time; which can make things a little dis-orientating at first, if you don't keep an eye on your compass. You travel around the paths in a very large map (which you got with the game) and can enter doors into dwellings, caves or tunnels on your journey. This is a game with side quests, character interaction (the people who currently have the fragments need to be persuaded to give them up) and combat - mainly with the Sidhe. Items and weapons are located throughout the world you find yourself in to aid you in your quest; this is truly a game that broke quite a few molds upon release. The ability to save your current position was excellent too.
If your are thinking that the shops in Zelda were part of its ground-breaking originality (and you never played Moria) then read on...
Dun Darach - ZX Spectrum (1985)
If there was a fault with Tir Na Nog, it was the lack of change in the scenery. The sequel Dun Darach came out and changed all that. This was a game of castles and streets, shops and gambling houses. It was full of other people and excellent parallel scrolling. It was about quests, side quests and money management; through working, gambling, buying and selling and stealing.
You have to find your charioteer, Leog. He's got himself kidnapped by a sorceress while you were both having a pint after a battle; herself avenging etc, etc. There is no specified method to completing the game and you can approach it in many different ways. This game really took the elements of Tir Na Nog and pumped it full of steroids to produce a game that had many, properly implemented, firsts. The autonomous people in the city had not, to my knowledge, been implemented before and it lead to it feeling like you were somewhere things were happening around you. The ability to do what you wanted with no direct relation to the quest allowed you to wander around and take in the sights and options open to you.
This is not a game of finding items left around to help you, but a game you have to interact with people and places to obtain them. Like Tir Na Nog, the ability to save and restore the game at any point was a winner.
Avalon - ZX Spectrum (1984)
This is an excellent example of an arcade/adventure - in fact, it was declared to be an Adventure Movie by the publisher. It is an exploration, puzzle and combat game primarily played utilising magic. You have a large map (around 200 rooms) of different areas to explore filled with various creatures, items and puzzles. The overall objective is to defeat the Lord of Chaos by finding new spells and items to increase your power and stamina, then finding him. You build your character, Maroc, from a Lore Apprentice to a Major Mage, or something similar with lots of Ms.
The graphics are an unusual use of 3D, which can make mapping it a bit of a challenge (it was for me anyway), but works very effectively for the gameplay. The presentation is also excellent, with the small intro, the music (unusually good for the Spectrum) and the use of the dragon flame to represent your health. The use of the Servant spell to open chests and pick up items is a nice touch too.
Dragontorc - ZX Spectrum (1985)
The sequel to Avalon to everyone except the publisher who claimed, "It is not a sequel, but a whole new world of experience." While the graphics were similar, the game did up the ante in a lot of ways; friendly, as well as, aggressive creatures, a larger map and access to outside areas. The creatures also use something the developers called 'Sensory Animation', which is a cool term, even today; the creatures can relate to you differently depending on your actions - allowing you to treat them as allies and trade with them. This is still touted as a feature in the games you buy today which is pretty impressive, especially since this game was sold at £7.95 over 20 years ago. It also has the ability to save and restore a game in progress, which is nice.
Master Of Magic - C64 (1985)
This is much more in the vein of D&D in the arcade/adventure realm. I mention the C64 version as the music is pretty good (Rob Hubbard doing his reliably excellent stuff) and it operates well from a joystick. This ticks all of the boxes of exploration, combat with monsters, spell casting and puzzles. I also enjoy a game that does the mapping for you (back to Nethack et al again, sorry).
I do like the layout of the screen and the iconified text selections.
So where does this leave us? If you look at the games listed above, none of the elements that make up the Zelda game are original; it has taken very simplified instances of the mechanisms created in years gone by. It is likely that if Zelda had been released for the Spectrum or C64 at a time when people had been playing games like Fairlight (1985) for two years already, were playing games with innovative user interfaces like those in Kobyashi Naru (1987) and Shadowfire (1985), it is unlikely that it would have been thought of as anything new at all. When complexities had lifted to the level of games like Lords of Midnight (1984) and the freedoms offered within Elite, Skool Daze or Mercenary (all 1985), Zelda would probably have been considered too simplistic.
Sometimes a game can gather it's history from people who have never played what came before it, or are too lazy to look them up. This seems especially true when it comes to games for consoles.
As far as non-linearity goes, the irony is that most early games I can think of were all non-linear. In games like Asteroids, Battle Zone and Elevator Action the world was created, the rules for that world were implemented and off you went. This even applies to games like Manic Miner, but the rules were strict whereas in Jet Set Willy they were very much relaxed. It was only really when the scrolling beat-em-ups and shoot-em-ups came along, that linearity came with them.