Happy 25th birthday to you, the greatest video-game franchise of all time!
Twenty-five years ago, your original iteration was unleashed in Japan for the Famicon Disk System on February 21st, 1986, with America’s version for the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) following suit in August 22, 1987. Since then, you have consistently released versions for nearly every Nintendo system, but none more impressive than THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: OCARINA OF TIME for the Nintendo 64.
You’ll always have a special place in my heart, my dear LEGEND OF ZELDA, for being the first video game series I encountered that flawlessly blends a perfect control system with engrossing narratives that rival my favorite feature films and novels for the greatest stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
You may not remember at your advanced age (25 years is very old for a video game), but our paths first crossed in first grade, ZELDA. When I was a very young lad, I had a Game Boy (on which me and Jumpman showed Donkey Kong who’s boss), but it wasn’t the same as my friend’s NES that could be played on a TV screen… and in color!
Besides SUPER MARIO BROS. / DUCK HUNT, the only distraction from the extreme stresses of first-grade life was a little cartridge titled ZELDA II: THE ADVENTURE OF LINK. While I am embarrassed to say the original LEGEND OF ZELDA was not my first Zelda gaming experience, ZELDA II captured my imagination due to the freedom granted by the overhead view of the world, allowing you to travel any direction as opposed to that traditional side view that limits character movement to right or left. In ZELDA II, I could seemingly go anywhere I wanted and talk with any townsperson I wanted (another video-game revelation at the time, there were towns populated with little 8-bit citizens)!
Years later, when I had a Super Nintendo and wanted another game that offered me the freedom of an overhead map with a “go-anywhere-do-anything” feel, a game jumped off the shelf at my local Game Force: THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: A LINK TO THE PAST.
After giving the game a quick whirl to make sure it was worth my hard-earned allowance, I excitingly took it home, unsure when I would be able to play due to my parent’s silly one-hour-a-day video-game limit. Luckily for me, no sooner did my family arrive home than our neighborhood was put under a tornado watch! Huzzah! My whole family was forced into our basement, the same place to which my parents banished my poor Super Nintendo years before (as had all my friends’ parents: growing up in the ’90s as a gamer meant spending time in a series of basements around Denver). It was the perfect excuse to game!
As a possible tornado loomed outside my real-life house, I awoke as the character Link in A LINK TO THE PAST during the middle of a violent thunderstorm. Having just had a strange dream appearing as a telepathic plea for help from a Princess, I caught my Uncle (well, Link’s Uncle) preparing for battle. After telling me to stay in bed, he rushed out into the rain…
What was I supposed to do? Stay in the house? I already had to stay in my real-life basement, so what did Link’s uncle really expect?
I followed Link’s uncle to Hyrule Castle, the most amazing video-game setting I had ever seen to that point. Here was a large structure you could roam freely, built symmetrically to appear like an actual castle even though certain hallways and rooms weren’t necessary for completion of the game. Finding Link’s Uncle mortally wounded, I took up his sword and shield and proceeded to rescue Princess Zelda for the first time. And it wouldn’t be my last. Even though the “complete freedom” offered by the game was simply an illusion, I was hooked by something else, at the time unexpected: the narrative.
Even with this lesson in ZELDA storytelling, nothing could prepare me for my next adventure with Link which followed in middle school, THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: THE OCARINA OF TIME.
OCARINA of time is a prequel for all that came before it, dropping me into the shoes of Link’s ancestor (again named Link); a young boy raised among the young Kokiri forest children who never grow up. After again witnessing a vision of Zelda in peril, Link begins his quest that quickly leads him again to Hyrule Castle. Of course, this time the castle and surrounding Castle Town were represented in full (albeit basic, late ’90s) 3D graphics, bringing the setting and people that populated it to life in a way I never imagined.
Meeting up with the equally young Princess Zelda, Link hears her express her fear of the strange Gerudo King who had come to see her father. My spider-sense also tingled at the sight of the evil-looking man, especially since his name, Ganondorf, had some striking similarities to the giant evil pig-like monster Ganon who I defeated in LINK TO THE PAST. Zelda sent me on a quest to retrieve three precious stones that she feared Ganondorf also was seeking; three stones that would unleash the greatest power anyone had ever known, the Triforce.
Seventh-grade Nick set out on such a quest one spring and he has never been the same since. Having not been gamers themselves (due to what I assume was a lack of video-game systems available in the ’60s) my parents could never understand why their son spent so many hours in the basement, requiring the introduction of the one-hour limit.
They did not understand this new medium for storytelling and the potential it held. OCARINA OF TME offered a far deeper narrative than any film, and with far more interactivity than any novel. When I finally did gather those three stones that unlocked the Triforce, it was me who unleashed an evil upon the world! Upon placing the three stones in their appropriate housing and allowing Link to pull the Master Sword from the stone, I heard maniacal, evil laughter. Unable to acquire the stones himself, Ganondorf used me to unlock the Triforce, which he then used to cast Hyrule under the shadow of evil!
You see, it was I who unwittingly unleashed evil upon this fair, 3D land populated by innocent 3D people whose lives I had now ruined. It was up to me to make everything right, from the required-to-beat-the-game destruction of Ganondorf to the added bonus tasks that helped the digital townspeople get their lives back on track following the destruction of their home.
Those hours of gaming that followed, accompanied by hours of narrative – allowing me delve as deep into the world of Hyrule as I chose – were one of the highlights of my childhood. It was a deep narrative experience unlike any other, one that stays with me today as I pursue storytelling as a career.
Happy 25th Birthday, THE LEGEND OF ZELDA!