It’s the Legend of Zelda and it’s really… old!?

I’m not really sure how I feel about the fact that The Legend of Zelda turns 30 years old today. Besides, I suppose, “Oh yes, that’s right — I’m going to die one of these days.” Video games: Secretly morbid!

I did have a lot of fun playing through the entirety of the game for a live audience the other day, though, even if (1) my plan to use the Disk System version fell apart due to bizarre errors and (2) I made some really goofy mistakes. The bit where I died because I thought a health potion would automatically refill my health when I ran out of life points was particularly ridiculous….

Still, I managed to finish the game, relying somewhat on vague memories, very slightly on tips from online and the chat, and quite a lot on luck. Especially in the final dungeon! Lots of people tuned in, too, which was nice, and we’ll do more of these anniversary streams on a regular basis. I might even try to do a similar full playthrough of Final Fantasy IV or Dragon Quest, who knows…

Hosting this stream as a diversion from my current review project gave me some much-needed perspective, too. Sometimes I worry that my love for writing about older games stems from an inability to roll with the times, a mental ossification that threatens to derail my effectiveness as the editor of a mainstream (mostly) gaming site… but now I realize that’s not the case. I still keep up with current releases and industry news, and not simply from a sense of obligation. I enjoy the medium and I’m eager to see where it goes next!

What interests me about games of Zelda‘s vintage, however, is the rapidity with which video games evolved throughout the ’80s and into the ’90s. Zelda, for example, would have been practically impossible had it been released even a day earlier; for the game to work, it needed both the fast visual processing that consoles offered over PCs at the time, but it also needed expansive storage space and rewritable media, which were hard to come by on consoles prior to the Famicom Disk System (for which Zelda was a launch title). Five years prior to Zelda, the best the action RPG could offer was Venture — a fun game, but very arcade-ish. Five years after Zelda, Nintendo gave us A Link to the Past, a game so rich and sophisticated that nearly every action RPG since then has essentially been a variant on its design.

Meanwhile, the game I’m playing for review now looks utterly gorgeous… but in terms of actual mechanics and design, it’s almost completely indistinguishable from games I played seven, eight years ago. Same structure, same systems, same controls, same objectives, same flow. And I’m enjoying it, but I can’t shake the feeling that game design hit a sort of plateau in 2007 and hasn’t really gone much of anywhere since then. There are exceptions, obviously, especially in the indie space, but the sense of breakneck invention has long since disappeared from gaming. And maybe novelty is a finite resource for games; you can, after all, only have the jaw-dropping experience of your first fully polygonal 3D adventure only once. Even if VR turns out not to be a preposterous boondoggle, we’ll only have our first, transformative VR experience once. After that, it’ll settle into a routine, like the rest of modern games.

That’s what keeps me looking back to older games and working on projects like Game Boy World. Not nostalgia, but fascination for the pioneering spirit at play. God knows there was no shortage of trash back then, too — much worse trash than we see today, because the formulas for minimal functional competence weren’t in place yet — but for every few “classic” games that are the experiential equivalent of having a cheese grater run across your nipples, you inevitably come across one that, in the context of its time, really stands apart. Or that in the context of our current times was so marvelously far ahead of its peers that we didn’t appreciate it at the time.

Anyway, I suppose the point is: Frustrated as I can sometimes feel at where games have ended up, I love to better understand how they got there. Playing Zelda at the same time as my current review title has helped me to better appreciate what the newer game is all about… even as it fills me with thoughts of what the new game could have done differently to keep alive the reckless sense of daring that made older games so innovative, sometimes at the expense of playability.

12 thoughts on “It’s the Legend of Zelda and it’s really… old!?

  1. Some of the best jazz musicians to share the stage with are the ones who understand where the art came from. They’re able to improvise / create not only from what they hear, but draw passages from the giants who came before.

  2. The Legend of Zelda:

    Bold and innovative? Yup.
    Filled with frustrating & terrible design decisions that no game designer would repeat today? Also yup.

    Many modern mainstream games:

    Bold and innovative? No.
    Filled with the same frustrating design decisions? No, thanks to the benefits of hindsight and decades of game design.

    I guess it’s a trade-off.

  3. Ah, now I’m kinda curious what your next review is (I really don’t keep up with the month-to-month game release schedule). The thing is, researching and critiquing older games improves your modern reviews. Not just because it’s good practice and you’re building on the same skill sets, but also because they’re informed by the older games, and you understand that better than most. Which is why they sometimes cause commenters to go a little nuts… (at 1up in particular). Now it seems Bob is the resident USGamer lightning rod, and I get the feeling you guys are in on the joke when you hand him another Tales game to review…

    I think there’s still plenty of innovation to be found, not necessarily in indie games, but also in AAA stuff – just that sometimes they’re buried deep beneath the commercialization. Shadow of Mordor comes to mind… one of the most brilliant and unique enemy systems in a modern game, wrapped up in a dull and rather mundane AC clone.

    Ah, but what do I know? As someone who doesn’t do this for a living, I’ll always feel like there are so many old, quality games yet to explore that it’s hard to stay 100% on top of new releases.

  4. Shouldn’t that be a “(mostly) mainstream gaming site”? Or do Mike’s articles about comics make USGamer a less “pure” gaming site?

  5. Hi Jeremy. Just finished reading Gamespite Quarterly #12. At the end, it mentions a #13 coming in 2013. Did that ever come out? If so, where can I buy the PDF? Thanks.

    • Funny story about that: I made GameSpite Journal on my train ride to work every day. That was 45 minutes or so I could tap away at the articles and design, and it was easy to crank them out every few months. Early in 2013, they shut down I started with USgamer soon after and worked from home, losing that compartmentalized writing time. Very sad.

      • Ah, too bad. Well, I recently read through all of them, and they were great, thanks. I’m hoping to see some of them revised and expanded and put into book form, like what you did to create Good Nintentions. A Playstation (PS1) and/or Super Nintendo book would be awesome.

      • Well, actually… your previous comment reminded me that everyone else has contributed pieces for Sega Vol. 2, and I’ve written about half of mine. So yeah, I’m going to finish up those articles and put out a single combined Sega volume later this year. And I would like to expand on the SNES and PS1 books, but it seems I’ve lost the original digital files for them, which could make such a project difficult.

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