Top 100 Retro Games: Legend of Zelda
Legend of Zelda
Nintendo Entertainment System
Trying to describe how monumental Legend of Zelda was while growing up is very hard. We got an NES at Christmas 1988, which seemed to be a lot later than other friends of mine who already seemed to have had it for a year or more. I grew up with an APPLE IIC in the house and I think my parents were reluctant to put even more money into another system. I had plenty of games from the Apple II, but every time I went to a friend’s house that had an NES, I literally broke down crying from how excited it made me.
I have a memory of playing Micro League Baseball with an aunt. This must have been sometime in the spring or summer of 1988. I remember breathlessly telling her all about Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Brothers and how upset I was that Nintendo games did not come out on the Apple computer we had. It made absolutely no sense to me and it would not be another ten years before I began reading on the World Wide Web about Nintendo’s misadventures with computer gaming.
I would go to school and tell my teachers who listened with enthusiasm. I did not have a lot of friends, so Link became my best friend. My child study team counselor was a bit concerned, in an eighties moral panic kind of way, about how into video games I had become, but I did not have much else. I have copies of my CST records from those days: they are absolutely heartbreaking to read now.
I was terrible about video games at first. Low hand-eye coordination led to me not being so good at gaming at first. I was not allowed to play his games. His mother hated me, and I was so bad at games that I was only allowed to sit and watch. I did learn how to take good notes because of this. As my friend explored and conquered the game, he got stuck on level five. The old man in the cave’s clue “”Go Up, Up the Mountain ahead.” was pretty vague…he had gone up in the lost hills twice, but then went left, which exited the hills.
We stopped playing one afternoon to have lunch. I kept thinking about the clue. On a hunch, I ran back into the living room and unpaused the game. My friend and his sister came behind me and yelled at me, but I said HOLD ON really loudly. I went up the lost hills the requisite four times and uncovered level five. They were pretty stunned I figured that out. I felt really cool.
Once I got my own copy of the game, I slow crawled through it. I had my own guide for the game based on my friend’s play through and hints from various issues of Nintendo Power. I remember getting the Master Sword and freaking out. I have this vivid memory of yelling out a pretty graphic description of what I planned to do to Ganon for kidnapping Zelda. My father came into my bedroom and actually sat down and watched me play for a little bit while I explained to him all the intricacies of the game.
Eventually, I beat the game after getting a map of Death Mountain, seriously how cool a name for a final level is that, from a friend at school. Zelda II was a real let down, and I drifted towards other games as time went by.
There was nothing like Legend of Zelda before it. Even the commercial was so weird and felt extraterrestrial. I loved exploring through the game. In my second play through, I did everything out of order, which felt pretty daring at the time. Finding items and having fun was much more important than the grinding required for success a few years later in games like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy.
The game also scales really well. On our episode about Castlevania III I discussed the choice between going right or left out of the first village in Castlevania II and how one was harder than the other. Legend of Zelda is somewhat set up like that as well. Going right leads to the first few levels, and then you can hug the coast to get a few heart containers if you know where to go. When you loop back right, you run into more difficult enemies.
Going left leads to the confusing lost woods and difficult cemetery. It is a chance you can take with high rewards, but difficult to do. Legend of Zelda is an open world with only a few barriers to exploring almost any aspect of the game at any point. That led me to a lot of creative play throughs and taking on the game in some pretty random orders that felt liberating from the expected linearity of many other games.
Every couple years, I will spend some time do a play through of the Legend of Zelda. My most recent one was on the 3DS’ virtual console. While playing this time, I thought a lot about the first time I just “went for a walk” while playing the game. I had already beaten the game and picked it up one day randomly and just started walking around, picking up items in the wrong order. I did this for a few hours and had beaten a few dungeons out of order with an odd group of items. It felt, as I mentioned earlier, so liberating.
I tried my best to pick up an item and then do as much as I could with it. For example, I would pick up bombs and then run around the over world hitting up as many bombable walls as I could. I did the same with the candle and so forth. That was fun! I am not brave enough to try the game in ways others do, like say without a sword, but 30 years later I can still create a new way to engage with the game on my own terms. That is so cool. When I play this game now, I feel a real connection to the child I once was…in some ways, things have changed, but in plenty of others they have not, so a lot of my feelings when I play this game are raw and familiar.
Trying to describe what this game meant to me growing up is really hard. Link was my hero. I talked nonstop about him. My school records are filled with references to him during counseling meetings. Link was also my imaginary friend for probably a bit longer than most kids had something like that. I remember confessing that to someone in 4th grade and getting beat up on the playground.
In one of the early issues of Nintendo Power there was a short story about a kid who got sucked into Hyrule, Captain N style, and had an adventure with Link. I wanted to be that kid so bad. There was this huge batch of woods, probably an acre or two, besides the house of the friend mentioned earlier this episode. I used to wander around in there, getting cut and scraped and bouncing through the streams that fed through it all the time play acting that I was adventuring with Link through Hyule. I would come out the other side covered in mud and scrapes. These days people would probably call the cops, but back then I was just a weird kid.