The Legend Of Zelda is the first videogame I loved unconditionally, no matter how badly it treated me. Between the ages of 8 and 13, I was only allowed to play 30 minutes of Nintendo a day, so I would race home from school, head directly to the basement, and start playing. Of course, I was a little kid who loved videogames, so I certainly wasn’t going to be looking at the clock. So my mom made me use a kitchen timer, which was the only way to snap me back to the real world.
Playing videogames, for me, is like entering a sensory-deprivation chamber; the outside world ceases to exist, and all I care about is what the game tells me to care about. This was especially true for The Legend Of Zelda, engineered by gaming mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The basic premise of the game is thus: You’re Link, a pudgy (at least it seems that way in 8-bit) little wood-elf clad in green. Wielding a sword and employing an arsenal of magical artifacts, you must conquer nine dungeons and rescue Princess Zelda from the evil clutches of the pig-faced Ganon. You also must collect eight pieces of the Triforce, a golden triangle that holds the power of the entire kingdom of Hyrule. This means there’s always a new weapon to find, a new boss to beat, a new dungeon to explore, and a new forest to burn down using a magical candle in the hopes of discovering stairs to a secret lair. I distinctly remember thinking that I would stop after finding the whistle, or earning 250 rupees to buy that blue ring. “I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something,” I’d tell myself. But it was always a lie: Each accomplishment would only leave me thinking, “Yeah, that felt great, but it’ll feel even greater if I do this next thing!” This is the textbook definition of addiction: I was hooked on The Legend Of Zelda, and it was slowly rewiring my brain.
I might be the only person in existence who’s broken a copy of The Legend Of Zelda by playing it too much. Those of you who had Nintendo systems at home, do you remember what you did when you put in the game and it didn’t work? You took out the cartridge and blew on the chip-set inside; when it came to hardware diagnostics, “accumulated dust” was the leading cause of my pre-Bar Mitzvah angst. One day, I popped in my copy of The Legend Of Zelda—which was gold, as opposed to the rhino-gray of other games—and the game froze after one note of the opening theme song. I called the Nintendo Power hotline, which cost about a $1.50 a minute for gameplay tips and technical support, and they told me to visit a nearby store and purchase some ingredients to concoct a makeshift cleaning fluid. I think vinegar was one of them. I poured it inside the game, let it sit overnight, and in the morning after barely sleeping, I tried to play it again. The title screen appeared, one note of the song… frozen. And thus, without the cash for a second copy, my days with The Legend Of Zelda came to an unceremonious end.
There have since been countless Zelda titles across multiple Nintendo consoles, each riffing on the gameplay formula established by the original. You’re always Link, Princess Zelda is always in danger, and the villain is always Ganon. (Well, the villain of Majora’s Mask was Skull Kid, but let’s not talk about that one considering it’s the most terrifying game of all time.) There are always items to collect, enemies to defeat, and in some cases, entirely new worlds other than Hyrule to explore. But the bigger the scope, the more the core concept got muddled. Only some, like A Link To The Past and Ocarina Of Time, maintain the original’s singular focus, and let the quest twist and turn of its own accord.
I’ve cut Zelda games a lot of slack over the years, based on the obsession that the first game invoked. But given that 2011 marks the 25th anniversary of The Legend Of Zelda, and a new Zelda title, Skyward Sword, is expected later this year for the Wii, it felt like an appropriate time to revisit the game.
A few important things have changed. I’m now free to play on my (relatively) gigantic television in my living room that receives natural light and is not a basement. I was also able to download the game for a mere five bucks from the Wii store, a bargain even by 1990’s allowance-dictated terms. Otherwise, playing The Legend Of Zelda as an adult is pretty much exactly like how I remember playing The Legend Of Zelda as a kid.
What I hadn’t remembered, though, was how freakin’ hard the game can be.
Over the years, I’ve gotten used to games walking me through the mechanics at the onset, and making it overwhelmingly clear what my next move should be, or at the very least providing me with means to acquire that information. When a modern game simply begins, it’s usually because the developers have made that choice for effect, as when Braid thrusts players in the midst of a developing story. In The Legend Of Zelda, there aren’t really mechanics to speak of—just two buttons and an inventory available by pressing start—and the opening credits reveal the slim backstory before the game even begins. The Legend Of Zelda is much like every other game from around that time, in that there aren’t many steps between picking up the controller and actually playing the game. The first thing you do is walk into a cave, where an old man says, “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this” before handing you a sword. And…you’re off. (The ominously simple intro has inspired some parodies.)
Wracking my brain best I could, I made my way to the first dungeon, and swashbuckled (if you call pushing a sword forward “swashbuckling”) my way past the boss and onto the first piece of the Triforce. Then it came time to find level two, and I froze. I could remember bits and pieces about other dungeons—the one in the mountains, the one across the lake you need the raft to reach—but nothing about this one. It was time to abandon any previous knowledge and attempt to do this on my own, like I was playing the game for the first time. I’ve been playing videogames for year. How hard could it be?
Very. I wandered around for an entire day looking for level two, and I didn’t find squat. At first I killed every enemy I came across, gathering precious rupees for future spending sprees, but eventually I gave up on that approach, settling for wandering the mean streets of Hyrule—with its many lakes and massive graveyard—in desperate search of level two. I’d turn a corner I thought would lead me to a new place, only to discover it was the same screen I’d been on a few minutes earlier, just the other side of it. There were a few times I walked back and forth as if to say, “I’ve gone a little nuts.” Then, just when I thought I’d given up hope, I saw the familiar archway of a dungeon entrance, which I hurriedly ran through and found myself… in level three.
There’s no real map to speak of in the overworld of The Legend Of Zelda; there’s just a gray rectangle in the upper-left-hand corner of the screen, with a flashing dot to indicate where you are. If I want to even vaguely remember the location of that cave I need to reach much later, I have to mark its location in my head. Link is given precious little information about his surroundings; you have to go out and actually experience them in their 8-bit glory in order to keep everything straight. No wonder this game was so immersive. If I wanted to survive, I had to give over 100 percent of my brainspace.
There’s a lot more depth to The Legend Of Zelda than I recalled. I wasn’t just accomplishing tasks as they were laid out in front of me; I was existing in a world where moving backwards and sideways was just as important as moving forwards. If it took me too long to beat one of the later levels, I would leave, search Hyrule for baddies to kick around (enemies in The Legend Of Zelda are variations on octopi, bulldogs, ghosts, and giant demonic bats), and purchase healing potions from a nearby shop. If one of the shield-eaters—they resemble a stack of three jelly donuts—caught me, it was off to that secret store I found where the large shields are cheapest. I was moving right along, conquering little corners of that long grey rectangle, but it rarely felt like progress.
Milestones aren’t consistent in The Legend Of Zelda. It should be cause for celebration, for example, whenever you discover a dungeon’s prized treasure. But while it’s one thing to find a magic wand or an unlimited fire candle, it’s quite another to fight your way to the raft—an item useful in exactly two instances, one of which is simply another dungeon you have to find anyway. Even destroying a level’s ultimate enemy is met with little fanfare. One boss gave me a lot of trouble when my health was low, but when I returned stronger, I was disappointed to find I could take it out with a single shot.
There’s a lot of repetition at the core of The Legend Of Zelda, due to both programming limitations and the need to segment a larger story into manageable chunks. But it’s easy to forget all this once you’re playing. When you’re surrounded by enemies, it doesn’t matter that they’re the same enemies you’ve been fighting this whole time, just a different color; what matters is that you break free and quickly move on.
It’s this momentum that sucked me in as a child, and sucked me right back in as an adult. I’d play for hours, eventually ripping myself away from my controller by sheer force of will, always leaving with a jitteriness that came from a) responding to sporadic, lighting-fast stimuli, and b) the feeling—likely residual from childhood—that I’d just done something I wasn’t supposed to do. Then, I got to the last level and realized the only thing standing between me and a final showdown with Ganon was a locked door, and I was without a key.
At this point, I started writing this article. I figured, “Hey, I’ve played enough of the game; the requisite number of memories have flooded back.” But the more I thought about the game, the more I had a nagging feeling in the back of my mind. I felt incomplete, like I’d spent all day putting an IKEA cabinet together only to realize I’d been shorted one of the drawer handles. Sure, I could probably still use the cabinet, but I wanted that fuckin’ handle.
So I did something that would have cost me $1.50 years before: I went online and saw what I’d missed. Turns out, there’s a key I’d forgotten about that you can find in the second-to-last level that opens any door. I promptly stopped writing, went back for the key, and beat the game. Something else I’d forgotten: After the game ends, you can start over and play through the entire thing again, only this time it’s harder and all the levels are different. This could be bad.
I find few modern games as addictive as The Legend Of Zelda. There isn’t a single thing in the game that distracts from the game itself—no complicated controls to learn or elaborate time-sequencing to master. There’s Link and there’s Hyrule, and the rest is up to you. The best games aren’t chock-full of story. The best games are story. You’re compelled forward, eager to discover the end but not entirely sure when it’s going to happen. It’s in this inexplicable drive that I rediscovered my love of The Legend Of Zelda and for videogames at their most distilled. I played, and continue to play, because I started.