I grew up in a time before all helicopter parenting and the fear of child abductors lurking around every corner seized control of American culture. Back then, kids could go outside, play and wander around completely unsupervised. These days, if you let your kids out by themselves, you’re lucky if you don’t get arrested. The neighborhood I grew up in had a lot of wooded areas all around it, and I used to love finding paths in the woods and following them wherever they went. I don’t know what I ever thought I would find at the end of these trails, but exploring the unknown was still alluring to my young mind.
Growing up, there was one game I remember that really captured that feeling for me: the original Legend of Zelda.
A Tale Of Two Zeldas
I’ve been on a bit of a Zelda kick lately. Right now, I’m making my way through The Minish Cap and the bootleg fan game Zelda: Outlands. It occurred to me that in almost all way, The Minish Cap would be the superior of the two—no surprise that a professionally-made game would be better—but Outlands captures something from the original Zelda game better than virtually all of the “real” sequels.
For those of you unfamiliar with Outlands, it’s done in the style of the original Legend of Zelda, but much harder. Just to give you an idea of how hard, you have to find the first dungeon just to get your sword from Zelda, who’s hanging out there for some reason.
Link Is An Adventurer First, A Hero Second
Most Zelda game plots focus on our hero being chosen by some manner of fate, deity, or Deku Tree to go save the world. I’ve always thought that missed the point of the character and the game series. Link doesn’t go on an adventure because he wants to save the kingdom, he saves the kingdom because he wants to go on an adventure. He doesn’t need to be told to go do these things, he already wants to.
Link works best when he’s a guy who wants to go out, explore caves and fight monsters. The first game starts with the player seeing a cave, going in it, getting a sword, then fighting monsters. No prophecy or destiny pushing you into the role, just “here’s a sword, go kick some ass with it, boy.”
So much of the gorgeous artwork in the original game’s manual captured the game’s spirit of exploring and battling monsters.
Link’s first outing on the Game Boy, Link’s Awakening, also nailed that. The game is a direct sequel to A Link to the Past and starts out with our boy out at sea on a raft when a storm shipwrecks him on a mysterious island. Why was he out to sea? Well, Papa Link was a rolling stone, wherever he laid his Minish Cap was his home. I assume he just got tired of porking the princess and returned to his first love, adventure. Link is the original MGTOW, only he actually does go his own way instead of just talking about it on Reddit.
Even the Zelda cartoon from the late 80’s, for all it’s flaws, nails this about the character. The first episode starts with Link living in the castle—as the show took place more or less after the first two games—lamenting how boring it is there and how he misses the days when he used to wander around fighting monsters. Indeed, it’s only his lusting after the princess that keeps him there. Funny how the desire for a woman can often civilize a young man. Men build civilization, but only because women inspire us to.
Open-Ended Vs. Linear Gameplay
It’s no wonder the feeling of exploration is what drew me to the original Legend of Zelda. Series creator Shigeru Miyamoto said his inspiration for Zelda when he used to explore small caves near his house as a child. But as Zelda’s plots became more intricate and the world and characters became more fleshed out, that original feeling of exploration seemed to fade. Many consider Ocarina of Time to be the best Zelda, and yet it’s incredibly linear: you have to do X before you do Y and do Y before you do Z and so on. Most of the side exploration gets you very little aside from some extra rupees, which you’re likely to max out on in a hurry.
Many people criticize the first Zelda for being too open-ended and obtuse. I’ve often heard people say they waste too much time in it wandering around trying to find things. I guess it’s a matter of preference. I loved that wandering, and it was worth it every time that music played telling you you’d found a secret.
I’m certainly not the only one who misses that original spirit of the series, and it seems like Nintendo has heard those complaints. The upcoming Zelda is supposed to be a massive sandbox style experience. I hope it lives up to that promise and recaptures that feeling of exploring the unknown.