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.