Widgets Magazine

Mind Games: Dangerous Alone, Part 2–What is ‘Zelda,’ Anyway?

Courtesy of Nintendo

At just two and a half hours into my first honest playthrough of The Legend of Zelda, I’ve died 26 times. I know because the game keeps track. That’s more deaths, I’m sure, than I’ve suffered in 10 runs through Ocarina of Time. When I boot up the game tomorrow, that number will be the first thing I see, a reminder to swallow my pride and strap myself in. (A good use for home gaming’s first save battery, to be sure.)


Zelda has cast me blindly into the wilds more aggressively than any game I’ve played in the last decade. In A Link to the Past, I knew I needed to get to the castle. In Ocarina of Time, the Deku Tree asked for my help. In Zelda, there’s nothing. No internal guidance at all. The title screen comes up, I hit start and off I go. Apart from a bit of grammatically questionable advice from a few old sages hobbling around in caves, I’m on my own.


It starts with a sword, a rusty-looking thing that Link (whose name isn’t given) can only jab straightforward. No side-slashes, no spin attacks. The series’ old staple of energy beams at full health is thankfully present in the first game, but it’s not too helpful with enemies cluttering the screen and a tiny, temperamental shield. I manage to stumble upon the first dungeon: a relief at first, but a bit disconcerting. First, I find a bow and arrow. Cool, yes, and typical first-dungeon material. But then I pick up a boomerang—not in a chest, just right off the ground. Two core items in the same dungeon? It’s like bizarro-Zelda or a bad imposter; all the basics are here, but something’s off. Someone’s tampered with it. I’m not sure I like it, but I keep going.


Maybe things will come together.


A few deaths later, I make it through with enough health to defeat the first boss (a simple, green dragon—how quaintly charming), but after that, I’m once again a stranger in a strange land. When I leave the dungeon, I still have a small key. A simple transgression, but it breaks one of the most basic Zelda rules. If I didn’t need it, perhaps even the dungeons are more open-ended in this game.


Does that lantern have…Blue Fire? Like in Ocarina of Time?


With no sage or fairy leading me on, my first thought is to expand my mental map of the area. I head southwest and stumble into a repeating area of forest—the first iteration of the Lost Woods, I have to assume. My heart warms a bit; now  that’s Zelda. I get jabbed by a moblin spear, die and return to my nameless little starting area. I head north this time, then die again at what seems like Death Mountain, complete with Ocarina-esque rockslides. At this point, I’m feeling a little defeated. I’m waiting for the same warm tinglies I got playing Link’s Awakening on my flight home a few days ago, or when I played around with Wind Waker last month. That’s what Zelda does for me. But they’re not coming. All I want to do is find another dungeon. I would kill to find one. At least then I could focus on something—a puzzle, an enemy, a door. Something besides all this sacrilege; this wandering, bush-burning and dying. Maybe then I could nestle myself back into the Great Lie, seeing only maps, compasses and keys.


I finally head off in the direction of the fabled EASTMOST PENNINSULA of misspellization, but on my way I come across a lonely tree. Burn it, I say. Burn it to hell. Stairs appear. Another moblin, I presume. But no – I step in, the music changes and my map disappears. At last, a dungeon!




I walk through just one door, and a four-headed blue thing rips my head off and riddles my body with laser bolts. Before dying, I notice some text in the corner. “Level-8,” it says.


Well, crap.


That’s another blow to my confidence, on two levels. I don’t have the skill to contend with what I assume is nearly the final dungeon, and more importantly, I’m left questioning my Zelda knowledge even more. Why can I even access this dungeon? It’s like the hook-shot for Ocarina’s Water Temple, or the flippers for Catfish’s Maw in Link’s Awakening.


In my mind, the game and I are now at an impasse. Either it would show me its Zelda-ness, or I’d change my view of what makes up a Zelda game in the first place.


At this point, I have to give in a little. “This isn’t Zelda,” I think. The game showed itself to me across two dungeons, and its basic formula wasn’t about to change. Perhaps I had the wrong idea about this series all along.


Now, I wrestled with that idea for a bit and then came at it from a different angle. I took a step back and tried my best to pretend it was 1986. In other words, I stopped being so picky.


From that approach, the moment-to-moment gameplay is pure Zelda, even compared to the series’ most recent outings. The enemies, controls and aesthetics are all there. Stalfos, keese and moblins crowd dungeons, the boomerang stuns them, Link has two slots for equipping items, the screen scrolls when you reach the end of an area, bombs expose secret areas – the list goes on. Like a kid complaining about a new baseball glove, I was too busy grappling with minor differences to see the infinitude of essential similarities.


Compared to their contemporaries, Zelda games have always been light on exposition. Link is a silent hero with a simple quest; it’s up to us to fill in the details. It’s a winning formula that fosters a personal connection with the series, and I dare to say that the original Zelda does it best. It doesn’t get simpler than this – without a manual, we don’t even know who Link is, let alone what he must accomplish. We don’t know where to go, and we won’t know what to do until we get there. It’s existential, completely dependent on the player’s imagination. In that sense, at least, it’s quintessentially “Zelda” in a way that modern games wouldn’t dare to be.