An opening scroll of text. A flurry of images suggesting lore. A young man thrust into a world much larger than himself. Thus began the Legend of Zelda and my descent into video games proper from that point on. Sure I had dabbled with the NES incarnations of Legend of Zelda and Adventures of Link, but at the time I was simply too young to understand what they were beyond some green dude running around with a sword that shoots lasers when you have full hearts. When I got my hands on A Link to the Past at a respectable age of like… nine years old, suddenly those stupid mazes and creepy dungeon hands falling from the ceiling were pieces of a larger tapestry that I could look over for days in awe and wonder at the richness woven into it.
It’s funny that before writing this I never realized that every Legend of Zelda game starts off with a wall of words creating the backdrop and assembling a larger lore. That’s what has made them special to me over the years I think. My entire childhood was spent without any kind of stability. We moved constantly, my dad kept losing jobs, my mom kept trying to counter the damage done by my father, and games definitely weren’t an anchor in my early years. The NES provided distractions with games like Battletoads, Rad Racer, or Double Dragon 2. A half hour of play, turn it off, then start all over from the beginning next time I played. Nothing I did never mattered after pressing that power button. They never really created a world for me to inhabit. Quick action romps and just enough story to give context for the immediate situation. A Link to the Past was different from that first screen for me. Hyrule had a timeline spanning a period stretching much further back than I could comprehend, but just as you can appreciate ruins for their history without knowing their age I was enthralled by the implications presented to me.
Yet a great story can’t just drop you into a setting and expect you to have a connection to the world. Thousands of years of lore without a point to bring you in at is lost and meaningless for most. You need to live in a space in order to appreciate what it is, to experience why hundreds of years of events matters. Zelda knew that and brought you into the world gracefully. Once you started up the game you were given small tasks to get yourself familiar with it. Find your uncle? Alright, I can understand the need to find family. Sneak into the castle? What young child doesn’t fantasize about being invisible and going where they were supposed to. Rescue the princess? Anyone raised on stories… whether film, books, games, or oral is right at home with this traditional plot point. What made it different here is introducing the princess Zelda creates that first hook into the world. Sympathizing with her place suddenly you feel for her cause. Once she’s been rescued and you’re instructed to secure three pendants to retrieve a legendary sword to forever protect her lands from evil you don’t bat an eye at the requests. All of these adventures span over a few hours as I crept through terrible labyrinths to retrieve the next piece needed to secure Hyrule’s future.
…and that’s where the magic was for me. Every time I played it built upon the same story I was invested in. This was a stability I never felt in my home life through my childhood. Even the setting was more concrete than I was used to. In the real world all of this would occur when I’d retreat to my aunt’s house for a weekend where she owned the SNES and Zelda I’d play late into the night. Her best friend’s daughter, Angel, who was my age would also spend the weekends there and we’d play through these adventures together talking it through as it unfolded. Between it being away from home and with a dedicate friend that I only saw on these weekends it created something special for me. Those weekends were like a sacred ritual and space. “Try using that magic spell in the desert” or “maybe if you ran into the bookcase real fast you could knock it down?” Angel would encourage me onward constantly during the game. Eventually we’d gotten to draw the legendary sword from the stone in the woods and went to face off against the evil wizard, ready to conclude the longest game I’d ever played. It was exciting trying to figure out how to beat him. Eventually learning to smack back the orbs of magic he flung at us we felt triumph as we would vanquish evil from these lands for good…
Except we didn’t. The game that I thought was super duper big just pushed me into a much larger world by revealing a mirrored world to the lands we had been running around in for hours already. Instead of three pendants, there were now eight trapped sages in crystals in dungeons scattered over this new landscape. Angel and I were surprised that there was so much more to explore and discover still and committed for the long run. We were invested in the game and wanted to see it through, to reinstate balance to the worlds, and to let peace reside again under princess Zelda’s rule.
It’d eventually take us the rest of the summer to crawl through it all. Some weekends only one of us would be at my aunt’s house so we’d hold off playing until we were both there. We had made the journey to that point together and didn’t think it’d be right to let the other miss out on the stories of Hyrule. Link to the Past was the first game that I can remember making time to play. The first game I remember being truly special. The first time I felt like I had someone stick by my side through anything that took longer than an evening. All of this kind of formed the basis for my love of video games going forward. Using them as a communal experience, a means of stability during rocky times, genuine stories that I wanted to keep experiencing, and ultimately something special and worth cherishing and enriching my life. Without those weekends at my aunt’s, with Angel, with Link and Zelda, my love of video games may never have flourished into what it is today. Who knows, maybe I’d gone on to become a chef or football player if I discovered a more traditional hobby? What I do know is I wouldn’t have changed any of it. Over twenty years later and those memories are still some of the best in my childhood.