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Gateway to Fantasy: The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda (cover)I was eight years old on August 22, 1987—the day The Legend of Zelda was released in the United States. A month later I turned nine and received a copy of my own and in an instant a world of matte grey was transformed. Remember when Dorothy finally gets to Oz? The sudden switch color, like fireworks bursting before your eyes? It was something like that. Zelda was a shiny golden siren calling to my younger self, demanding my attention and fomenting an obsession that continues to this day.

The Legend of Zelda was, for me anyway, an introduction to the immersive nature of fantasy. Sure, prior to that time I had seen movies like Clash of the Titans or the animated The Hobbit feature. The Last Unicorn and Narnia and Prydain and Roald Dahl were familiar too. But pre-Zelda those were passive experiences. Zelda—with all its secrets, maps and legends, history and lore—jumpstarted my fantasy fandom.

Zelda was a game, sure. But it was serious business. There was treasure to be found and dungeons to be cleared. There was a fully realized world, Hyrule, waiting to be discovered in all its 8-bit glory. There were hidden sages and mysterious obelisks. There were killer insects and centaurs and ghosts and goblins. There was a Big Bad and an ancient relic. And there was a princess that needed my help. This was a game that commanded devotion, not just attention. I mean, if you could save your game and continue later, it had to be special, right? When I wasn’t playing it, I was thinking about it. Just like a good book takes over your thoughts, this game had its claws in me. It was glorious and new and I hope my kids experience that feeling someday.

The Legend of Zelda (start screen)

Zelda introduced me to the community of fandom, and how the shared experience of a piece of art (which The Legend of Zelda undoubtedly is) could unite disparate groups of people. The kids on the playground talking about Zelda were the kids I wanted to know. In the pre-Internet days, finding groups of like-minded people wasn’t easy. And when you’re little, your social pool from which to draw is pretty small. Looking back on it, in elementary school I gravitated toward the kids that liked Zelda and Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. It’s the same mentality that led me to this site, where I’m now lucky enough to be a contributor. Zelda’s impact is dynamic, and far-reaching.

The Legend of Zelda (screenshot)The gameplay itself was a revelation. No handholding and little or no instruction. Here’s a sword, kid. It’s dangerous to go it alone! The thrill that came with every discovery (you get a BOOMERANG?!) and the frustration that waited at every dead end are still palpable feelings for me. And the central concept of the game—normal boy plucked from obscurity to embark on a capital-Q Quest to save the Princess (and maybe the world)? Well, let’s just say when I got to Dragonlance and Eddings shortly thereafter, I was already a sword-and-sorcery devotee without even knowing it.

Being entertained requires a minimal amount of effort. But being a fan? That means going the extra mile, and as a kid I didn’t understand that until Zelda came along. I wasn’t poring over maps of Kung Fu or Super Mario Bros. I was for Zelda. I wasn’t particularly concerned about the narrative and worldbuilding in Mach Rider, but I was mystified by Ganon, Death Mountain and the Graveyard. I wanted more information than the game was giving me, and I sought it out in magazines, lousy cartoons and sequel upon sequel over the next 30 years.

Zelda is the fantasy equivalent of a gateway drug. While things aren’t as fleshed out and overt as they are starting with A Link to the Past on the SNES and moving forward through the series, that first Zelda game was absolutely a sword-and-sorcery tale of the classic variety. It had all the hallmarks—the aforementioned boy with a destiny, the semi-linear quests, the legendary weapons and dastardly enemies. It had dragons to be slayed, wizards to consult, mountain temples and arid deserts. It had a map. Zelda was, for all intents and purposes, my first real fantasy novel. And I was instantly hooked.

The Legend of Zelda (map)

Imagine reading A Song of Ice and Fire or The Malloreon or Dragonlance Chronicles without the maps and appendices. The mind recoils at such a thought! The back matter (to borrow a comic’s term) is as important as the main story. Zelda was my first exposure to that kind of storytelling. The included map and manual were as important to the story and gameplay as that shiny golden cartridge. Without knowing it was happening, Zelda introduced not just to the “what” of fantasy fiction, but the “how.” And when I was buying atlases of Krynn and encyclopedias devoted to Middle-Earth, it didn’t seem weird at all. It was like looking at the map for Zelda, right?

The Legend of Zelda (Link)Most of us weren’t born into the cult of fantasy. We had to search it out. Or it found us. For me, The Legend of Zelda was a big part of that process. It remains, to this day, a major part of my life. It is a personal touchstone. A secret handshake. A litmus test. You can tell a lot about a person by asking them their favorite Zelda game—just like you can tell a lot about a person by their favorite Hogwarts or Westerosi house. These seemingly inane questions provide a frame of reference for me and countless others.

The Legend of Zelda represented a seismic shift in my worldview. It was rich, black earth from which my love of fantasy sprouted. It was an introduction to fandom, to nerdery and to community. And, its most important lesson was found in that very first cave: It is dangerous to go it alone. But when you’re a fantasy fan, you never have to.

The Legend of Zelda (screenshot 2)

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3 Comments

  1. Avatar Jo says:

    Links Awakening on the Game Boy did it for me and I was doomed for ever onwards. But Ocarina of Time will always have the biggest piece of my heart >:

    • Avatar Dan says:

      Awe man Link’s Awakening. That was the game! My first exposure was Ocarina, but Awakening is one of my favs. Also I actually quite liked the charm and simplicity of Wind Waker too.

  2. Avatar Ryan says:

    You and I would have been friends in elementary school…

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