She can vote, but she can't drink

So, Zelda turns twenty tomorrow. “Zelda who?” you might ask, because perhaps you know nothing of videogames and have just now stumbled upon this website by way of a freak accident. In that case, sorry! I promise we’re generally good people here. We mean you no harm; please do not be frightened by our curious cult-like behavior and inpenetrable nerd jargon.

Everyone else: yes, that’s right, twenty frickin’ years since Zelda hit the geek scene with megaton force. And white boy rap. This is the kind of thing that makes a person feel old, the sort of realization that makes you imagine that you can feel your bone marrow ossifying, hardening, disintegrating into dust. When the game hit the U.S. a year after its Japanese debut — nineteen years ago! — I was already old enough to be in junior high, an unfortunate state of being in which many people reading this posting currently find themselves trapped. (And for you, a message of mixed hope from a future possibly much like your own: no, the world doesn’t get kinder or easier once you escape, but take heart. Eventually you will no longer have to participate in the diabolical state-sponsored gulag program known as “P.E.”)

We would stand around, my friends and I, in the brisk morning chill of a West Texas spring, waiting for the first bell to issue its command to cram our downtrodden selves into sterile classrooms and painful wooden desks, and pass the time by sharing our latest Zelda discoveries. The misery of each long school day was powerfully mitigated by the prospect of going home and exploring a heretofore unknown corner of Hyrule. The first to stumble upon some vital secret would be met with some disbelief by the rest of us; then as now, gamers loved to take bold liberties with truth, and certain people were known to fabricate implausible and unverifiable claims about our current favorite game. But eventually we would stumble upon a dead end and grudgingly put their suggestion to the test — and lo and behold, going north five times while trapped in the Lost Hills really did work.

In an age before widespread Internet usage, years before GameFAQs, there was a real sense of connectedness that developed around games like Zelda, Zelda II, Metroid, Castlevania II. They were dense, daunting, compelling; it took the collective wisdom of J.T. Hutchinson junior high’s sharpest minds and palest bodies to defeat their poorly-translated and sometimes deliberate obtuseness. And that’s what I think of when I think of Zelda, I guess: a single-player game designed for collaboration. The Four Swords series is a full realization of the sometimes cooperative, sometimes competitive experience that the very first game represented for me and my friends: we’d share vital clues with one another, but we weren’t above a little obfuscation to stay just a bit ahead. Our little crew slowly lost interest in Zelda and drifted away as the Second Quest inflicted its attrition upon our nerves. By the time I polished off Ganon for the second time, no one else cared — they’d all moved along to Zelda II. Still, there’s something to be said for moral victories.

Of course, I couldn’t say all of that in 1UP’s Zelda anniversary tribute, because that would cause the site to drift into the dreaded no-man’s-land known as New Games Journalism. Nevertheless, it remains one of the biggest reasons The Legend of Zelda is one of the greatest games ever created. Sorry if you weren’t there for it — you really missed out.