Today I shall relay to you two tales of The Legend of Zelda from my childhood. One, a minor note on the nature of video games, and the other, a tale of triumph of the human spirit.
There aren’t a lot of video games that I remember “when we first met”. Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt, for instance, I know I played over a friend’s house first… but I can’t remember exactly which friend. I know the first time I saw anyone play it and be any good at it, it was watching my best friend’s older brother sail over the top of Level 1-2 and get all the way to Level 4. Can you imagine it? Level 4? He must have been some kind of genius. Additionally, a number of games in my childhood NES collection, in my memory, just appeared one day. I have literally no idea when Mega Man 2 or Friday the 13th came to hang out in my basement, even if, for better or worse, they became staples of my childhood. And Nintendo Power only muddied the waters, as I poured over strategy guides and maps for games like Final Fantasy incessantly seemingly years before I ever touched the A button to actually control Fighter.
But The Legend of Zelda is different, and it’s different because I was wrong.
I suppose another reason I don’t remember my first time with a number of games is that I rented video games almost constantly. Well… once every two weeks. On Tuesday. In retrospect, this was likely when the local video store (note for any younger folks reading this article: you used to be able to go to a store to temporarily “rent” VHS movies and video game cartridges. It was kind of like Playstation Now, if PSN was slightly less predatory) had a coupon of some sort running (my dad was/is very pragmatic), but in my young mind, this was better than getting an allowance. I got to play two new video games a month! Sure, it was only for a scant few days, but back then, half the games contained like five levels, total, so you could get the full experience in a pair of evenings. And, yes, I don’t think I have to point out that whenever I had a rental game to play, I practically didn’t see sunlight until it was returned. Ah, it’s always fun when you remember just how long you’ve been committed to your bad habits.
So, one day, I decided to rent The Legend of Zelda. I don’t recall what grabbed my attention about the game (you weren’t even allowed to see the potentially shiny cartridges at this rental location), and, thinking about it, I’m almost convinced this was before the age of The Legend of Zelda / Super Mario Bros. cartoon shows. I don’t know if that’s accurate, timeline wise, but I’m almost certain I was going into LOZ completely green (I regret nothing). Anyway, my father and I took the game up to the counter, and the clerk (who in my memory was a fully grown, respectable adult… but was probably a 14 year old) asked me an important question.
“Someone lost the instruction book for this game. You gonna be okay without it?”
And my reply, which I can repeat verbatim to this day…
“Sure, A jumps, B shoots. I don’t need instructions.”
Oh, how wrong I was.
Well, half wrong, because I’m forced to remember this encounter every time someone complains about the latest Zelda game being lousy with tutorials. Zelda is, and continues to be, a fairly unique experience. Yes, we now have games like Darksiders vying for the Zelda-alike crown, and you could probably make a decent case for Grand Theft Auto 3 and its descendants having more in common with Zelda than most NES games; but an actual, “true” use-your-tools-and-explore Zelda experience is still a rarity today, even within the Zelda franchise. If you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming you’re the type that already has played through a number of Zelda games, and likely even has a “preferred dungeon order” for your favorite entry, but to the average non-gamer (or child!) the Zelda experience is pretty different from gaming’s traditional “go this way now” design.
And The Legend of Zelda is amazing because you don’t need the instructions, it guides the player without ever saying a word (give or take an old man speaking out against the dangers of loneliness). I admit, the opening of Zelda, coming off a seemingly endless parade of platformers, seemed daunting at first, but I don’t ever remember being “stuck”. In no time, without any previous adventure (or Adventure) experience, I was slaying dragons with heads of indeterminate numbers and reclaiming Triforce chunks like a pro.
Well, actually, “being stuck” brings me to my other story.
Time passed. Now, years later in my mind (but probably really all of six months), The Legend of Zelda is a national phenomenon with a popular video game, cartoon, and even a breakfast cereal that tastes like a squirrel that died on a bed of wheat. The Legend of Zelda is no mere rental anymore; I and everyone I know owns that gleaming golden cartridge… yet none of us have beaten the game. The idea of “beating Zelda” has become something of an urban legend in my peer group: yes, there are those that have claimed they’ve “killed Ganon”… but proof is hard to come by. One kid has a game save with Link holding a sword, obviously a sign that Ganon has been slain, but he named the save file Zelda… why would he do that?
Our biggest hurdle, as one might expect, was the difficulty spike in Level 6, with its army of Wizrobes haunting the halls and ending many a playthrough. From there, Level 7 was a piece of cake, easy to find and easy to complete, assuming you had heard from your friend’s older brother the trick of “feeding” the Moblin. But then… Level 8. Level 8 was a complete mystery to my friends and me. Where was it? We knew there was a piece of the Triforce missing, but where could it be? We were, collectively, stumped (hehe).
And then, hiding in the southern woods, I found it. I had bombed every wall, torched every forest, and even investigated old dungeons and hidden areas thinking that, maybe, there was a tunnel between dungeons somewhere in there. Today, we take for granted the “rules” of Zelda, and even the more rigid guidelines of the original (like how a bombable location will only exist on a facing wall in the overworld), but back then, after the last dungeon was revealed by playing a recorder at a lake, it seemed like anything was possible. So, yes, it took days to find that one tree that happened to hide the penultimate dungeon.
Now, I want to say this tale is one of victory and joy and my friends holding me aloft as we marched into the sunset, now confident that Hyrule would be safe forever… but that’s not this story. Yes, I did share this information with my friends, and yes, they were all quite happy with being able to make progress (even the ones that had claimed they’d already beaten the game… I guess they just forgot), but that’s not the narrative that sticks in my mind.
Confession: I’ve never actually seen It’s a Wonderful Life from start to finish. I never sought it out because, thanks to years and years of parodies, I feel like I’ve seen everything I need to see of that movie. I realize that makes no more sense than claiming you’ve seen the entirety of Citizen Kane thanks to The Simpsons, but, hey, there are only so many hours in the day, and I’ve never been a big fan of black and white. And the thing is, I’ve had the basic plot of It’s a Wonderful Life kicking around my head for years, because I can distinctly remember shortly after beating The Legend of Zelda and thinking back on my life.
For some bizarre reason, I guess I was a very introspective child, because, at an age no greater than eight (and maybe as low as… five?), I was already contemplating what I had accomplished in my life. If I’d never been born, would reality be any different? To be clear, I wasn’t suicidal, I was just, I don’t know, curious about what a world without me would look like, and if it would be any better or worse. This, without question, makes me laugh today, because, what, I was expecting to have won the Nobel Prize for eating macaroni and cheese? I don’t have children, but I’m impressed by any eight year old that has accomplished the amazing feat of not barfing on my lawn (because I know children who haven’t been able to pull that one off). But Wee Goggle Bob thought long and hard about this pending issue, and finally settled on something.
If I had never been born, my friends would never have found Dungeon 8.
My life had meaning.
And it’s stupid (because of course it is), but there’s something there. The Legend of Zelda gave a child the gift of a purpose, and while it is nothing like what would be my life’s pursuit (he said on his video game blog that updates four times a week), it was an accomplishment that was completely my own. I made everyone’s life better through playing this video game and sharing it with my friends. A kingdom was saved, friendships were forged, and an oversized pig monster was banished.
Not bad for a game where you can’t even jump.
FGC #102 The Legend of Zelda
- System: NES to start, but it’s appeared on nearly every Nintendo system since in one way or another. This is as it should be.
- Number of players: One, but that’s only if you’re not think tanking better ways to menace Moblins.
- Favorite Monster: To this day, I still don’t understand Darknuts. Like, they’re just armored dudes that walk around. They barely have AI. I can attack ‘em from three different directions. So why the hell am I so damn afraid of a group of more than two of the creepy buggers? That one room in Dungeon 3? Shivers.
- Video Rental Memories: The distinct store where I rented The Legend of Zelda for the first time was named West Coast Video… but it was not in any way associated with the West Coast Video franchise. They must have eventually received a cease & desist order, and then changed their name to… No Name Video. No Name was still my go to rental location for the next, oh, decade or so, and was responsible for many a “Who’s on First” routine.
- Did you know? I think Aquamentus must have peed on Miyamoto’s leg or something. Despite being the first boss ever in The Legend of Zelda, Aquamentus only ever reappears in Oracle of Seasons, a game that started as a remake of The Legend of Zelda anyway. And while the unicorn-dragon sits on the sidelines, the likes of Digdogger gets an acid-encrusted cousin in A Link to the Past, and Gohma and Manhandla blossom all over the place.
- Would I play again: It’s kind of inevitable. The Legend of Zelda isn’t my favorite video game, or even my favorite Zelda game, but I always wind up replaying it when Nintendo sees fit to rerelease it. Come to think of it, I believe that holds true for any Zelda game… but maybe we’ll get an 8-bit Link amiibo out of the next rerelease.
What’s Next? Random ROB has chosen… Dig Dug Digging Strike for the Nintendo DS. I… seriously don’t even remember that game being released. Huh. Oh well, time to drill and pump all over again. I guess. Please look forward to it!
I seriously wonder why Aquamentus hasn’t shown up in later Zeldas, too. The dehorned triceratops and cyclops spider crab are in like every other game, Manhandla’s got a few more appearances, there’s been plenty of giant eyeball bosses keeping Digdogger alive in spirit, and even the worms that were literally nothing but fireballs have had updated versions.
I guess some people might think “unicorn dragon” is a lazy design, but considering that Gleeok, who’s literally just a dragon with multiple heads, has gotten updates in newer games I don’t understand why Aquamentus hasn’t. If not a boss, it could make for a great alternative mount to Epona.
Man, if Link riding a unicorn-dragon is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
Maybe they left out Aquamentus because he’s a chump.
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