The Zelda Of Legend

Aug 22, 2015

11221632_815331561917771_6698548499746704600_nIf I have one single favorite game, it would have to be the original 1987 Legend of Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It amazes me how many gamers I know are surprised by this, and worse yet, have never actually played it.

I still get a chill when I see that box. My head fills with memories of trying to imagine what sort of world lie inside that exotic, golden cartridge. Only a shield with a few cryptic symbols hinted at the secrets within the depths of this cartridge’s rom chips; a heart, a key and a beast. Surely the ingredients for any great adventure.

For me, The Legend of Zelda is most definitely one of the top 5 greatest games of all time. It was a HUGE landmark in both design and gameplay. The sequels that followed never quite captured that feeling again, because by then they were building on the storyline. The first installment stands alone as a far more pure gameplay experience where, rather than try to tell some story about saving the princess (sure, the quest was there, but it was not in the foreground), it focused more on evoking the feeling that Miyamoto got as a child exploring the mysteries of his back yard. It was about the experience, not the storyline. Mood, gameplay, mystery, exploration, hidden treasures, happy surprises and an epic feeling of adventure were the building blocks of the original Zelda.

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Maybe some of my love of this game came from my own experiences exploring the jungle-like world of my back yard bayou in the Houston Heights. I could relate to the excitement of cutting down a tangled web of vines to discover a hidden tunnel. Or bombing the walls of a dead end to find an old lady selling magic potions. (Okay, maybe not that last thing.) But make no mistake, this game was doing a lot more than tapping into our collective imaginations. It was an absolute watershed moment in game development. It was the bridge between the era of the precise, twitchy gameplay of top-down maze classic arcades like Pac-Man, Tutankham and Pengo, and the dawn of a new kind of video game that borrowed from computer RPGs and adventure games, utilizing skill-based, twitchy gameplay mechanics to take you through a sprawling adventure of epic proportions. Just a year earlier, the Atari 2600 had gamers blasting their way through repetitive waves of aliens to beat their last high score. Now, together with Super Mario Brothers, Shigeru Miyamoto had changed the face of gaming forever. Not by throwing away the past, but by building on perfect play mechanics to create whole worlds the likes of which Pitfall Harry could never have imagined.

The music was also mesmerizing. It was incredibly sparse and repetitive and yet somehow, mysteriously, almost magically, manages to avoid becoming tedious. Even our parents were humming the themes. Somehow they never get old, even after hearing them wind on for hours. I don’t know how they did it, but people are still studying soundtracks like Zelda, Mega Man and Castlevania to try and capture this elusive quality.

portable_zelda“It’s Dangerous to go
Alone! Take This.”

As a kid, my friend Jay spent the night one weekend and decided early Saturday morning he would try to see if he could beat it in one day. About half way through, it dawned on him that he hadn’t died yet, and he knew that once he had a full set of heart containers, it wasn’t likely that he would. Sure enough, he beat it that night on one life and made it to the second quest with a big fat “0” next to the number of re-tries on the menu screen. After playing this game for at least a year before being able to discover all its secrets and win the game, he was now able to beat it on one life in the span of a day. Not because it’s an easy game when you know all the secrets, but because he had become so good at playing it. It relies on a balance of gameplay and hidden secrets, and once you master both aspects, you can truly rule it. That’s the mark of a well balanced game. I played through and won it again recently and, for me, it still holds up as an amazing gaming experience.

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The Legend of Zelda is a masterpiece video game if ever there was one. Just like every comic creator has a copy of Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, and ever animator has The Animator’s Survival Kit by Richard Williams, I think every game designer should have this game in their library. Somewhere behind that key, that heart, and that ferocious beast, there’s a wealth of knowledge about game design hidden in that shiny, golden cartridge.

-s

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