So the Zelda series turned 30 (in Japan) this past weekend. In the past I’ve already done a couple significant posts explaining my opinions on the series overall. They’re pretty fitting for this occasion. One thing I never really did on this site though was go over my initial experiences with and introduction to the Zelda games.
The subject fits right in with the second post I linked above, about why I personally like A Link to the Past above any of the other entries in the series. If you don’t want to read the posts above, I basically said it was the most advanced Zelda game made before they started getting over-informative about where things are and what you’re supposed to do. It’s still a beautiful-looking game with great atmosphere where you’re tossed into the world and trusted to find and decipher its secrets largely on your own. I think that atmosphere was enhanced by the nature of my first real experience playing ALTTP.
The first time I really got to dive into Zelda was actually in the summer of 1998 — a few months before Ocarina of Time came out. A devoted subscriber to Nintendo Power at the time, I was in full hype mode but knew little about Zelda games except what was common knowledge among kids (who the principle characters were, etc.) and what was in all those screenshots NP drip-fed readers every few months. Each screenshot was like a tiny window into a world I couldn’t wait to visit. Ocarina in my memory was the first true blockbuster event-based launch in console gaming. These days every year has several games publishers try to get you to pre-order right away because it’s The Most Important Event You Gotta Be A Part Of. I feel like all those games are trying to replicate Ocarina’s hype.
Anyway, I was visiting my grandmother when someone, I think a distant cousin of mine, brought his copy of ALTTP to play on the Super NES another cousin kept around. After he let me play I ended up spending the next couple days or so cooped up in the dimly-lit back room of a trailer on what was probably a 10-inch dial television — the kind that was probably among the first color TVs. Despite playing on the absolute lowest entertainment tech possible, that environment insulated me from pretty much all distractions from the game. Now, try to imagine going through this introductory scene in such a setting.
I must have been visibly entranced with the game because the owner of that cartridge let me keep it — the copy I have on my shelf to this day. I actually didn’t get an instruction booklet for it until a friend gave me his copy after I’d probably shown it more attention than he ever had (nobody over there cared about boxes and manuals, it’s why I think all-digital is eventually gonna take over gaming as soon as North American ISPs stop inhibiting that). You’d think the additional written material from a manual would spoil the mysterious nature of a game like ALTTP, but the way that game’s manual was set up to tell everything like some kind of religious researcher or archaeologist only enhanced it. Very rarely today are manuals written as sincerely as they were in the 90’s but it still happens from time to time.
One aspect of ALTTP that always sticks with me is its portrayal of the Master Sword — a central and recurring of the series thereafter. Never have I been so pumped to find an item in a video game than I was tracking down the Master Sword. It felt like I was legit chasing after a legend locked away somewhere in the game cartridge. Part of it was probably my youth at the time, but I’d like to think there was something special about how ALTTP presented the sword, which in later games is an expected part of the process. ALTTP only introduced it to you through text dialogue and simply described as the most awesome sword in the game. There’s no cut scene for it, no scripted event to give you the sword, no numbers calculating exactly how much better the sword is. You’re just given a simple goal within a wide world, and a few steps to achieving that goal. This was only a little bit after the internet became a public thing but still long before YouTube, social media, and GameFAQs. There were guide books but I didn’t read them.
I think that feeling is why Hello Games is being so mysterious about “what you do” in the upcoming No Man’s Sky. It wants to keep players wondering and guessing for as long as possible before the internet spoils everything (and even it won’t be able to tell you what’s on every single planet). As I described in the linked post about ALTTP, Nintendo used to build the Zelda games around the system of players gradually accumulating shared knowledge. I guess The Witness is trying to do something similar. So was FEZ.
It took me quite a while to finish ALTTP. It may have even happened after I completed Ocarina which illustrates the disparity between the two games. Ocarina was still a quantum leap forward for console action adventure games, but it also represented the start of the shift to less mysterious and more overt games. Maybe it was even the beginning of modern AAA games on consoles.
- Great Warren Spector interview: http://gamasutra.com/view/news/266210/The_Comeback_Why_Warren_Spector_is_making_games_again.php