Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Legend of Zelda - Out in the Wild
Why traveling the unfamiliar path and getting lost is actually a good thing.

If the NES was my sword and Super Mario Bros. was my shield, then it was time to venture out into the world to begin claiming unexpected treasures. That is, it was time to head to 1051 73rd Street, which was home to my aunt and grandmother. We didn't usually spend Christmas anywhere but home, where my parents would host big yearly get-togethers, but my aunt thought it was time to return the favor after so many years of hospitality. The rewards would be reaped immediately: As we walked through the door, they greeted us with wishes of a merry Christmas and extended their hands out to me, each holding what was a clearly an NES-game-sized gift. I excitedly tore off the wrapping to reveal two contrastingly covered prizes: One was the silver Metroid, with which I was only vaguely familiar, and the other was the golden The Legend of Zelda, which like Super Mario Bros. I had only briefly sampled.

I didn't have too much time to reflect on my wonder of how they knew I'd gotten an NES or how they even understood what it was (since they stereotypically didn't even know how to set the time on the VCR)--not making the obvious connection that my parents could have simply told them--because the hors d'oeuvres were ready and a full day of food, family, and card games was underway. Though I enjoyed the day's activities as always, I couldn't deny those creeping thoughts of an upcoming December 26th, 1988, when I'd finally have all the free time necessary to enjoy my new system and these intriguing new games.

Now that I finally had an NES, a system I could call my own, a whole new world spread out before me, literally and figuratively. It was The Legend of Zelda that truly encapsulated my entry into the console space, acting as both a formal introduction to a new type of game and as a portal into Hyrule's wondrous, mysterious world whose secrets were largely unknown to me. I knew that I liked it much more than Metroid, whose gameplay was oblique and without the context of an established genre; I mean, Zelda at least resembled Adventure (one of my Atari 2600 favorites), with its item-corralling and screen-to-screen movement, while Metroid had no such proxy. Mainly, I didn't understand it, so it made the most sense to stick to Zelda, which had already captured my imagination and was actively nourishing my adventure-game craving. I split my time between both it and Super Mario Bros., two games connected in spirit.

As I removed the contents from the game's box, I was instantly taken by its wonderfully designed manual, a bulky document that detailed the game's backstory; illustrated its large assortment of weapons, items, and creative enemies; and provided a few somewhat-helpful tips as highlighted in the pink boxes that ran across the bottoms of certain pages. I liked reading it so much that I'd break out the eventually tattered manual (which I stored with all other video-game pack-ins in a specially chosen drawer in my room's mirrored dresser) and give it a flip-through anytime I was bored.

While some early parts of the game had been spoiled for me, since I'd seen my friend Dominick tackle at least two of the dungeons and explore a fair portion of the map, I was mostly left on my own to solve the game's many puzzles. My processes for figuring things out were a sign of the times: I had to literally burn every bush, push every rock, and bomb every section of every wall on every screen. I'd even get stuck after seemingly exhausting every possibility, forced to rely on the advice of friends or even the other kids at school (I'm certain that it was Dominick who taught me the methods for successfully escaping the Lost Woods and finding Level 5). I spent countless hours of my Christmas break lost on Zelda's considerably large map, its iconic overworld tune repeating so many times that it became permanently embedded in my brain; I'll never forget the constant sense of discovery, whether it was uncovering a hidden shop because a flat wall looked a bit out of place among those mountainous incurves, a random awakening of an Armos Knight revealing the Power Bracelet, or finding a Heart Container in a cave underneath an unassuming tree that was aligned with several others of its type.

I eventually uncovered all of the game's hidden paths and entrances, which didn't make things any easier. The full exploration of dungeons, that is, often required an equal last-ditch focus on block-pushing and wall-bombing, since I'd usually find myself in situations where I didn't know how to advance while sometimes short on the bombs needed to experiment (it's easy to feel helpless when you're twenty rooms into a dungeon with no bombs and 30-plus potential bombable walls). Where the unforgettable overworld theme stoked my newfound adventurous spirit, the shorter, serious-toned dungeon theme created an air of oppression, as if it was too dangerous to aimlessly wander about these places and wasn't a good idea to stick around too long. I was always mindful of the roars heard from bosses in adjacent rooms; their battle cries exacerbated things, adding on another layer of unease and an increased need to quickly flee from these rooms.

The combination of visual noise and aural foreshadowing is what made the dungeons feel appropriately dangerous. This was most true of the dreaded Level 9, whose enemy clusters (including the exclusive mini-boss Patra and his active swarm of orbiting protectors) and sudden change of music to scary and demonic-sounding only heightened my anxiety. Timely exploration was out of the question, since there didn't seem to be any clear route through Ganon's laybrinthine hellhouse, which had me running in circles for hours; the path to Ganon was one of pure survival, my heart-racing not even calmed by the cathartic silver-arrow shot that reduced the weakened, ripe pig demon to ashes.

While not as tough to figure as the final dungeon, a troubling facet of the game was deciphering its non-playable-characters' clues. How was I supposed to know what the "Grumble Grumble" guy wanted, or that I could walk through the wall on the map's northeast tip? And what were those old men talking about? The secret is "in the arrow"? A "peninsula" holds the secret? What peninsula? And what the hell was a peninsula? What--was I expected to pay attention in school or something? I had my own Double Dare obstacle courses to draw!

Like any other neighborhood in the country, ours had a legend of a video-game savant who "bought the game and finished it in two hours, day one." I could have used his help, really, but I never saw any sign of him. He must have been hiding atop the Dyker Heights waterfall near the tip of the arrow.

I was late to the party on Zelda, which had come out more than a year earlier, but back then there didn't seem to be much discrepancy between periods in the mid- and late-80s. What was hot then was still hot presently, as if time was frozen. I still regret being tardy, since I didn't get to fully experience the game at the same time as friends, with whom I would have liked to compare notes and share that fondly remembered sense of discovery; but it didn't really matter--I still got to share the game with friends in some capacity, even if it was just us watching each other play it. In fact, some of my favorite memories of Zelda were any of those times when we'd play through it together, each taking a dungeon and finishing up the between-level extracurricular before handing the controller over. 

Whenever we'd play, I always liked venturing to the right side of the map, where the woodsy, rocky environment was suddenly dyed an orange-brown hue and a whooshing sound welcomed me to any screen that comprised the eastern seaboard. There was a screen with a heart container positioned on the second of two isolated docks, which required the use of a ladder; any time I'd pass by the similarly designed room adjacent to it and wonder why it was there, Dominick, who was always introducing me to "interesting" ways of thinking, remarked that it was "for decoration," suggesting that the designers were simply reusing assets. Thinking back on it, this was probably how I came to learn about symmetry and became obsessed with always making shapes and figures align perfectly, which isn't nearly as fun as it sounds. Thanks, Dom!

As the years went on--and even as games became larger, prettier, and more complex--it was still Zelda to which I'd return again and again for an adventure fix, each time excited to explore its 128-screens'-worth of forests, valleys, rivers and mountains; I'd do what I could to soak in the atmosphere and stall the act of nervously immersing myself in its 9 oppressive dungeons (particularly any of those featuring Wizrobes and Darknuts colored blue), before which I'd acquire every possible item I could get prior to entering Level 1. It became the first example of what I'd call a "Sunday game," the day when playing it felt most appropriate; it was for me the day we'd always invite my grandfather, and sometimes other company, over for dinner and other fun activities. As the skies began turning dark at about 6:00 p.m., and the adults would converge and settle in for their usual boring conversations, I'd head to my room, where I'd load up Zelda and play it into the night, filled with the spirit of family. Whenever I return to it today, I always make sure the calendar (at least the one on my desktop's toolbar) reads "Sunday."

I've always been good at competently memorizing complex routes and complicated map structures, but I admit that Zelda's many secrets (mainly the dwellings of the friendly Moblins with their unintentionally cryptic line "It's a secret to everybody") sometimes escape my recollection, whence I have to instead rely on muscle memory. It then becomes a matter of setting fire to bushes I might recall having burned years ago; I like to pretend that I solidly remember all of the locations I successfully uncover when it's likely there are cases where I just happened to be correct. Hell--I've been playing this game for 25 years, and I still struggle to find the entrance to Level 2 even though I know it's placed on the map's center-east portion. While I'm disappointed by such lapses, I admit that they always work to make the adventure feel somewhat fresh, each time convincing me that maybe there are treasures I still have yet to find! 

The game's ultimate secret is it what lay beyond the end credits: The much-feared "Second Quest," which shuffles around the secrets and level locations and even offers new dungeon designs. If I was a latecomer to Mega Man 2's "Difficult Mode," then I was a highly resistant straggler to Zelda's Second Quest (which coined the term that from this point forward would be used to identify a second, more-difficult trek through a game). It was one part fear, since I was intimidated by the prospect of facing larger, tougher groups of foes, and I was generally aware of the opaque nature of the experience (mostly that you had to walk through walls and rediscover the locations of caves and dungeons, which meant again burning every bush, bombing every wall, etc.); mostly, though, I had a certain disposition to where I was bored with the idea of challenging rearranged or harder modes, since I was usually satisfied with the game's default content--a mentality to which I long adhered until I realized that I was only robbing myself, if not of an experience then of some of the cash I paid for the entire package. 

I give the second quest a quick play-through, say, once a decade, and I still do so with that same sense of trepidation, which isn't necessarily an oncoming of dread but more a feeling of arousement that shows, much like Zelda silently preaches, that it's sometimes more exciting to venture off the beaten path.

I always make sure to revisit The Legend of Zelda once every three or four years, and not just for its enrapturing gameplay--it's one of those games that always time-travels me back to a point when things were more simple, when a game designer created a world with the intent that his or her audience would explore it with wit and imagination their only devices. As I load up the ambassador copy on my 3DS, I'm reminded of how truly accessible the game is--how easy it is to quickly jump right in--compared to the more-modern series titles, which talk you to death and want to delay the adventure, and even your brandishing of a simple sword, as long as they possibly can. I understand that game design is always improving and that we can't return to the days of random bush-burning and wall-bombing, but maybe obscured in the feedback was the idea that the player wants the sense of discovery to be the "story," their uninhibited exploits to be the "adventure," and their unassisted computations for slaying Ganon to be the "victory."

 It's dangerous to go alone, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

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