Another blank page bears the responsibility of articulating an idea that came my way in a daydream. I just read a headline about facing “unprecedented dread and despair”. Why not start there?
I was super young when the Nintendo Entertainment System came around. It was definitely before I had basic reading comprehension. But—through trial and error—I learned the basics of platforming by way of Super Mario Bros. and its sequels. And then there was an adventure game, where a green dude could take up a sword and save the world. With no context regarding how these types of games work…I apparently knew enough to advance inside a cave and “take this”. …Here’s a fun anecdote to distract from the underlying dread this piece will purvey! Back then, I thought the hero’s sprites looked a lot like The Chipmunks. I also knew that games could have cheats & secrets like Super Mario Bros. 3 thanks to…my first babysitter, Erin…the original GameFAQs! I actually thought I would unlock a secret code in the game (similar to when you name the hero ZELDA) by making all three save files named ALVIN, SIMON & THEODORE. No such luck.
Anyone I’ve told that story has never let me live it down. What’s life without a little humility?
Beyond that, The Legend of Zelda was far too intimidating for Really Young Me. I ended up sticking with Mario, and eventually Kirby, until a little later on. It’s been about twenty-two years, give or take…but let me try and describe what it felt like when I first started playing Link’s Awakening. As another incarnation of the hero…I woke up. I could read a little better, so I picked up the name “Zelda” and then “Marin” from the opening dialog. Immediately, I switched my game off and saw what happened when you name a file “ZELDA” like in the game that came before. Pretty swanky music, right?
Back in the game’s world, I tried immediately exiting the house to go on my way and look for some old dude with a sword. It’s what I’d been trained to do, after all. I was stopped and asked what my hurry was—then I started out with…a shield? Buh? How the heck was I supposed to kill enemies with this? Shielding was automatic in the NES game, why the heck did this one make it a separate item? What exactly was I supposed to do with it?
I went outside. I followed the line to the beach, not deflecting the enemies there well at all. Until eventually, there was…one of those spiky things from Kirby? What the heck kind of weird Zelda game is this, anyway? I could not, for the life of me, figure out how to advance past it. I didn’t have a sword to poke it with. Look, the sword I needed was just past it! The heck do I do?! Young Me struggled for a long while on how to tackle this obstacle—days, maybe even weeks. The game said I could use the shield to repel enemies, not move them. Right? When you’ve got little to no context as to how to play these games…you kind of just have to…hold the shield button, approach the thing, and hope it works.
Well. Suffice to say I felt really dimwitted when I saw the results. I honestly sat all sullen for a while, wondering if I should tell Mom she wasted her money because I couldn’t get past the first nine screens of the game.
…That’s how my real history with the Zelda series began. Link’s Awakening made me feel inadequate and intimidated when I was probably too little to be playing the dang thing anyway. Through stubbornness and determination, this was the first Zelda game to truly teach me what the series was capable of, some advanced vocabulary like “nostalgia”, and so much more. Because I was having trouble finding all the Rainbow Drops from Kirby’s Dream Land 2, and I wasn’t good enough at Mario to conquer World 8 [yet!]—it was also the first game I ever finished. When I saw the credits roll, it almost felt like a dream.
See this spot right here? It’s the first place in the entire game you can hear the music for Tal Tal Heights/Mt. Tamaranch. Young Jonathan would stay absolutely still in the game and just listen to that melody, irresponsibly draining his Game Boy batteries. Much Older Jonathan flipped out when the Zelda concert series played a very familiar medley. Heck, close to Present-Day Jonathan proposed to his fiancée at a Pokémon Symphony. As it turns out…”Tal Tal Heights” was the beginning of my love for video game music. I swear, there’s some alternate universe out there where I’m composing songs for video games instead of writing about them.
And then there’s the Face Shrine’s secret. To reiterate: this is a game that taught me a great deal about the conventions and capabilities of an entire genre. To say I wasted hours, days, possibly months of my life simply learning its ropes…would be an understatement. I’d grown super attached to the world I “learned to fly” in…and just before Level 6, this stone tablet warned me that everything I’d just experienced…the flora and fauna of Koholint Island…would freaking disappear like a popped bubble if I succeeded in my quest. …WHAT? I was mortified! Are you kidding me? If a bunch of people and animals who seem to be living happy lives [despite the occasional monster]…simply vanish, because of something I caused…does that make me a murderer, indirectly? Hey…the bosses of this game are called “Nightmares”. Was “Link’s Awakening” really just a dream? Am I really gonna have to make this choice?
I probably couldn’t spell or define “existential crisis”, at the age when I first reached the Face Shrine and beyond. But I was definitely having one.
If you’ve read this far, I hope you already know how things end. As I struggled through the sixth dungeon proper, Eagle’s Tower, and Turtle Rock…I began to sense the monsters’ very real fear. My hunch about all the puns in the title—the warning from that tablet—it was all gonna happen. I came to terms, y’all. …I knew I would never be big and tough like some other kids my age as soon as Koholint Island vanished before my eyes. As it turns out, boys do cry.
I came back to the game, again and again. It was repackaged on Game Boy Color and, eventually, the Nintendo 3DS. I know this bad boy inside and out after twenty plus years. I’ve glitched things up. I can get through Eagle’s Tower, which used to take me ages, with just one Small Key. I just tweeted about noteworthy DLC. Concepts I struggled to grasp as a kid are so second nature to me, these days. Nintendo has this funny way of turning newcomers to games into masters, if you endeavor to become one. I guess the joke’s on them, for giving me something to talk about. What started out as a blank page has grown into over a thousand words and a handful of individual memories that helped shape my knowledge of a series, a genre…and how freaking vulnerable these silly blinky games could make me feel sometimes.
To be honest, I’m not through here yet. I’ve thrown out a few choice words for discussing video games—inadequate, intimidating, vulnerable…there is more than one Zelda game out there that ignites these kinds of feelings in me. To truly address the “unprecedented dread and despair” where I started…I’ve got to conquer one last demon or two.
I won’t keep you waiting seven years. But for now: Sea bears foam. Sleep bears dreams. Both end in the same way—just like this piece—CRASSSH!