The start of the affair: Zelda II

[Editor’s note: RJG tells us how Zelda II was the start of his affair. — CTZ]

The game I love most is a game reviled by many, for reasons I could lecture on endlessly. From the thought that it’s not a “real” Zelda game, due to the radically different play style (despite the fact that at two games deep, there was no real Zelda formula). Or that it was too hard, and people are pussies, and that maybe falling in to water and drowning because you’re carrying half a damned kingdom on an invisible tool belt makes people cry because life is unfair.

Anyway, the game that started my love affair is Zelda II, and it taught me some very important lessons about life. Zelda II taught me that less is more. I’m not just talking about the presentation, which, at 8-bit beauty, is simplicity in itself. I’m not talking about the shrill tones of the four-layered MIDI soundtrack, so that the sound effect when you’re on low health or shooting energy from your sword takes up one channel and a quarter of the musical score disappears.

No, I’m talking about the story. It has everything, but it has nothing. It has a boy hero, not yet a man, but already proven on the field of battle. Having saved Hyrule previously Link, now sixteen, gets a strange mark on his hand, signaling his true destiny is about to unfold. As you can see here, Link’s exploits in the original Legend of Zelda only covered so much ground. Now, in Zelda II, there is a lot of land to cover.

As a quick aside, for those of you who don’t know, take a lot at these three maps here.

Here is the map from the original Legend of Zelda.

Here is the map for Zelda II.

Here is a small section at the bottom of the map for Zelda II.

Notice anything? Anyway, back to my affair.

This story has the nameless hero, but yet a hero with a name and a purpose. It has an evil wizard, dead, yet longing for resurrection from beyond the grave. It has a princess, already rescued, and yet another, sleeping inside a palace, never to awaken, and having spawned a legend all her own, and a heritage that explains why every princess is named Zelda. It has dragons, skeletons, evil knights, evil wizard henchmen, the undead, monsters and giant spiders. It has soaring mountain cliffs, dangerous rope bridges, travels through volcanoes, deep mountain caves, fetid swamps and always another palace of evil to cleanse and restore to rights.

It has a hero who must travel the length of the world to recover a power forgotten in these dark times: Courage. It has our final enemy as our own self, our own being the one that, more often than not, keeps us from Courage. Not them, but us, and the fear behind us whenever we look backward while facing the sun.

This journey will take our hero into the very place he should not go: the heart of his enemy’s keep where, if defeated, his own blood will be the resurrection of the demon he cast down only years before. But you wouldn’t know it. Not unless you’d read all the back-story in bits and pieces throughout the manual, and from other sources as yet translated from their native Japanese.

The simplicity in the storytelling makes it not only personal, by allowing the player to fill in their own gaps, but timeless. Innocence confronts evil, finds courage, saves the day against dragons and monsters with a little help from his friends, but ultimately alone, as all heroes are at their most heroic.

I loved this game as a kid. It was a wonderland, not only for the foreign land it gave me to explore with my controller, but the land it gave me to explore with my imagination.

By not telling me explicitly how and why every single event and moment of history unfolded the way it did, Nintendo let me make my own adventure. For example, in the beginning of the game, there is an old lady who has lost a trophy. Link must return the trophy to the old woman, so that he may meet the old man who will teach Link the spell he needs to advance through the next cave.

Why? That is what my six-year-old self wanted to know. I had fought damned hard through the first palace, through a system I did not understand nor enjoyed when I first experienced it.

But I learned something here as well. I learned that working hard to defeat enemies had benefit and that leveling up made me stronger. I learned I could choose what to study, to level up, to get better at. I learned that I didn’t need to, if I was good enough, and that I could get by without extra health or magic or fancy tricks if I just had the skills to survive on my own. I learned that if I played the system, and leveled up right before a boss fight, then the resulting crystal in the stone would automatically get me to my next level, potentially saving me thousands of experience points. I learned not only to work hard, but also to work smart.

Yet here I was, having learned all this, and at an impasse, with no choice but to run errands for old men who was more concerned with material gain (or to regain) than to be of help to the savior of the world.

But maybe I was wrong. Maybe the trophy is important. Maybe the trophy was an artifact, carved from a tree in the monstrous woods to the south, where the Gibdo roam with their gnashing teeth and their barbaric rituals, fighting to death beneath the Father Tree while they wage war with their boomerangs, killing one another for the right to lead to tribe.

And this trophy, carved by a hero of old from a branch of the Father Tree, has been reclaimed by a brave young Gibdo who snuck in to town alone to prove his worth to the clan that all but rejected him for lack of sheer brute strength. Alone, he crept through the desert to the north, so alien to this forest dwelling creature, where he kept the trophy safe upon a shelf of rock beyond the slippery pools of cold, dark water, where he would wait, and train, and return to prove himself to all that he was not only strong and brave, but smart and cunning.

And Link, brave youth, must retrieve that same trophy, lest the brave young Gibdo, with proof of his prowess, reunite the monster clan and march them as one on to Ruto town, where it would surely be destroyed.

That’s the story I came up with. I drew pictures and everything, traced from the manuals. My six-year-old self found a place not only where I could play, but where I could create. The creation was passive, true, but it was mine.

Strangely, it taught me some greater measure of compassion. It taught me that I wanted to do this, I wanted to help. I wanted to make sure that people could live the best lives they could. I didn’t care that I had to go out of my way. I had seen people picked on at school, and I didn’t like it. But I couldn’t stop it. My pragmatic and shy six-year-old self said that standing up to bullies twice my size would help no one.

But I wasn’t half the Gibdo’s size. We met, eye to eye, and I could face him. And I could help the people here that I couldn’t help in real life.

It also gave me something of a Hero Complex, a bizarre need to help even at my own expense, which later also taught me a valuable life lesson beyond this article’s intent.

Zelda II taught me about the birds and the bees. When my six-year-old self questioned my elder brother about why Link went in to the house with the lady in the red dress, I received a blunt retort questioning my knowledge of the world. So I asked my mother, and was informed that I was too young to know about “scarlet women”. My mother didn’t know what, exactly, had prompted the question, but ladies in red must have thrown up a flag that waved her down and brought me short.

My brother, hearing this, explained, in detail, what Link was doing inside that made him feel so much better. This also explained to me why the Ninja Turtles liked April O’Neal so much, despite her being a girl, and girls being icky.

When I questioned him on the matter of the old lady in orange … well, he spared my feelings, and perhaps his own, by explaining the magical regenerative properties of cookies and milk.

But I digress. Zelda II taught me many things and this is only one of them. It taught me that simplicity, at the heart of all things, makes them not only easier, kinder, but also more personal. It taught me that less is more. It’s a lesson we have all, by now, learned.

The biggest example in the history of ever is only the greatest modern myth the world has yet seen. Star Wars told a fantastic tale. Not perfect, but well enough. But the prequels! It was a case of too much information. We all knew Darth Vader was once Anakin, but we didn’t know Anakin, we knew Darth Vader. We knew that Darth was more machine than man, but we didn’t know how he got that way, just that he breathed funny. We knew that Darth betrayed the Jedi and hunted them down, but we didn’t know why he turned to the dark side.

And now we do. And most of us wish we didn’t.

Thank you Nintendo, for not telling me too much. Thank you for giving me just enough to get me on my way. This is where my love affair started. Not just for videogames, but for story telling. I haven’t done much writing lately, but that is neither here nor there.

Zelda II
is where I learned not just to play, but to create. And one day, maybe I’ll get my dream. Maybe I’ll write my very own videogame script and story. I have a course in Communications and Journalism to go, to get that bit of paper that says I know how to hold a pen and sign my own name, but when I get my dream, maybe I’ll write a game that has just enough information.

Just enough to let you play, and just enough to let you find out for yourself why you do the things you do. Or maybe I’m just thinking about things too much. I’m told I do that, sometimes … maybe I’m this guy: