It has been a lot, the past few weeks. I find myself feeling just broken-hearted, exhausted, metaphorically out of breath, and incapable of mustering the energy to do any of my usual blogging stuff. So, I am turning to my old, familiar fallback of writing about The Legend of Zelda. This time, I’m going to talk about the very first Legend of Zelda game I ever played. It was a well-received game, lauded by many as the pinnacle of the franchise (though I’d contest that) and a game-changer in terms of what a player could expect from a top-down adventure game, so much so that it is still being used as the gold-standard decades later when people make games in a similar style. For those of you who haven’t guessed it already, I’m talking about A Link to the Past.
This game has a special place in my heart, not just because it was the first Legend of Zelda game I ever played, but because it was the first time I ever felt like I could be good at games. While relatively simple by today’s standards, the plethora of different enemies meant that an inexperienced player would have difficulty adapting to the changing threats. No only did enemies wander the world, dangerous mostly if you came into contact with them, but some would chase you, some would fire projectiles (some of which could be blocked, some of which could not) and others still would fire projectiles while chasing you. All while you had to contend with environmental dangers, enemies that move in unpredictable patterns, and the constant dangers of getting bounced off an enemy into an one of the aforementioned environmental dangers. It was a lot to keep track of, sometimes, especially when you had to remember what items were effective against what enemies.
While I had to look up a guide to find most of the secrets, the pieces of heart, and some of the dungeon puzzle solutions (I was bad at identifying walls that needed to be bombed), I never needed help figuring out how to fight a boss or deal with the many enemies that inhabited the world. As a child of five or six, that meant a lot to me. I had to look up guides for pretty much everything back in those days, mostly on the library computers since it was a while before my family got a personal computer, which is where I developed the close emotional ties to the website known as GameFAQs. I stayed a loyal patron there for years, well into college. Well beyond my need for guides to the games I played (though I’ll still look up the solutions to puzzles I’ve stopped enjoying. After all, the point of these games is to have fun and I’m not going to let a frustrating puzzle stop me for long).
I remember the sense of accomplishment I felt the first time I bet Agahnim. I had watched my brother’s first attempt and saw how disastrously it had gone, but I’d been unable to see how he finally beat that boss who’d kidnapped the princess I had felt so proud of saving from the dungeon of what was supposed to be her castle. I hadn’t even seen the lightning attack until it hit me the first time. But I prevailed on my first try, got warped to the Dark World, and got to enjoy feeling accomplished until I got absolutely wrecked by the bomb-throwing cyclops guys at the bottom of the pyramid. I kept playing and got pretty far, but I was unable to finish the game. My parents had traded in our Super Nintendo when they got us an N64, and I’d stopped playing for a while because I was having trouble with one of the bosses (the eyeball boss in the 6th darkworld dungeon, that I still struggle with today because I hate eye stuff), so I never got a chance to finish. A local video rental store eventually started renting out consoles (Hollywood Video, after they had partnered up with GameCrazy) and I tried to beat it again at that point, but I didn’t have enough time since my parents limited my playtime so severely at that point.
Eventually, when it came out on the Gameboy Advance, I managed to beat it there. I felt like the plot never really lived up to what I had spent all that time imagining. I probably would have appreciated it more when I was younger, but I was playing GameCube games at that point and I was used to a level of storytelling and content most early cartridge games couldn’t keep up with. The storage was just so limited, they couldn’t really fill the game with too much text on top of everything else, you know? Text is generally cheap, but there’s just so much of it in a game with so many NPCs to talk to. Hell, that’s the reason almost all the dialogue in Earthbound feels so emotionally truncated. Every bit and byte counts when your storage space is that small.
I’ve replayed the game a few times since then, and I have to admit most of my continued fascination with it has to do with the environments and the way they conveyed the weight of the world when their toolset was so limited. No other game that starts in a thunderstorm has as much of an impact on me as A Link to the Past. I still remember the guy who sat on his stump, playing music for the creatures of the glade, who eventually faded away as the world was twisted by evil. Or the blacksmith whose brother went missing, who was ever so greatful when you reunited them. Or the way the villagers mostly turned on Link after he was accused of kidnapping the princess by the local authorities. That was probably my first exposure to the idea that an authority figure could be wrong, that people could think things about you that were untrue and not care at all that they might be wrong.
Sure, a lot of this is looking back and assigning significance to what was mostly a bunch of bright colors and mental stimulation to my childish eyes, but everything you are in the present is made up of what you’ve experienced in the past. Even if I wasn’t aware, even if I didn’t really understand, all of those ideas were a part of me this entire time.