I’ll take this from both directions. First, to a gamer born before 1985, the original Zelda has a nostalgic appeal. There are other great plotless games like Legacy of the Wizard (pure puzzle) that come to mind. On the other hand, would you be able to convince today’s 10-year-old to play it? Doubtful. Yes, it was a great game. It’s still fun, especially if you knwo why it’s culturally significant. Still, it’s going to be a hard sell to today’s 10-year-old gamer.
Designing a game in the 1980s was hard in a way that it isn’t now. You had so little in the way of resources (namely, RAM) that you had to use combinatorics to make the game interesting. You couldn’t afford cut scenes. 3D graphics were out of the question. Just as iambic pentameter forced Shakespeare to up his language game– constraint breeds creativity– these factors forced people to design better and harder games.
There are different demands on games. now. It didn’t matter that the princess in Super Mario was “ugly”. It does matter that Final Fantasy VI’s Terra is attractive. This isn’t worse. It’s just different. The 1980s model was a very simple system that created interesting gameplay using combinatoric designs. The 1990s model is an interactive story that rewards us with more detail, for playing the game well and getting further. The drawback is that it makes the game more sequential. The great games of the mid-1990s (e.g. Final Fantasy 4, 5, 6, Chrono Trigger, Terranigma) were still halfway between plot-driven linearity and open-world combinatoriality. For a lot of people who consider themselves serious gamers, that seems to be the sweet spot.
What really killed the old vision of gaming was 3D. We can visualize how 2D shapes fit together, and we can make a sensible world of sprites and maps relatively easily, without actually having to run it (dynamic analysis). We can build our world up front, on paper if need be. We weren’t there yet with the first 3D games, and we’re still probably not there.
Example: if a coin is surrounded by coins of the same size, how many coins are there? The answer is 6. You can show this by moving coins around on a flat surface. They form a hex lattice. Not hard. How about with spheres in 3 dimensions? (The answer is 12, but you almost certainly can’t figure that out in your head.) How about in 4? We didn’t even know the answer until 2003. (It’s 24.) In 5 dimensions? Still unknown.
3D moved graphics from being part of the game to being the game’s main reason for existing. It didn’t rule out open worlds and interesting gameplay, but it made them really expensive. It brought us into the brave new world of 7- and 8-figure budgets where every feature has to be justified to management. And so? We got focus-group-tested, easy games with impressive graphics.