Thursday, 25 September 2014

Moments in time: The first quest for the sword

See that cartridge above? That's mine, and it's one of the most important video games I have. It was bought for me in the winter of 1992 (along with Mega Man 3) as an early Christmas present. I picked it on the back of a glowing review in issue 2 of the specialist snes magazine, "Super Play" with it's excellent Wil Overton cover art. I took a risk on a genre I had never played before,
the action-adventure game. Up until that point, the only games I played were arcade style games, and the only games I had played for any great amount of time was Parlour Games on the Master System and Super Mario World. But tempted by the review and wanting something to play on my recently bought snes, I grabbed it off the shelf in the long defunct music retailer, Our Price. So why the hell not? So thus began my first experience with the Legend of Zelda series; A Link to the past.

On the car ride back home,  I read the instruction manual ( for the sake of younger readers, an instruction manual is like a PDF, made out of paper and would tell you what the controls were) and  was shocked at the work that had gone into it. Normally, a game manual gave you a paragraph or two about the plot of the game- shoot these aliens, save this woman (although that is the entire plot of most Zelda games), play billiards for hours, and what buttons to press. But I was reading about the history of Hyrule, the legend of the triforce, and the Hylian people with beautiful illustrations to boot!  I was amazed by the sheer scope of the world I was about to inhabit. It may seem hilariously quaint now, but when I inserted Link To The Past (LTTP) in to my snes, the sight of the three component parts of the triforce hurtling towards each other in 3D polygon graphics blew me away. I thought only PCs could that sort of thing. I really was playing with super power!

As par the course for any Zelda game, you start by entering the name you want your  incarnation of Link to be called. For me this was a first, I could use my own name in the actual game? I was ,essentially, the star of the story? Brilliant! As always, you start off completely helpless. You have no powers, no defence, no weapon and, as a newcomer to the series, no idea what to do. You literally start off in the dark...

And it had to be when it was your turn not to sleep on the stool

A telepathic message from princess Zelda wakes you and your uncle, who goes off to answer the distress call, leaving you at home. I hopped out of bed and opened my first chest, and thus heard my first, iconic "DA-DA-DA-DAAAH!" jingle, gifting me a lamp. With no fuel to use it and nothing to light, I step outside into Hyrule for the very first time. It's dark, raining and the foreboding music from the prologue is playing. This wasn't like any Nintendo game I played before. The Super Mario games were bright and upbeat.  This was the opposite of that. Alone, at night, and in a rainstorm, with only a empty lamp and the ability to pick up and throw bushes, I wandered around the restricted (via palace guards) paths around my house and the royal castle. After several failed attempts to find a door or walk past the guards, out of frustration, I pull up every bush around the castle and low and behold, a secret entry!

Obvious path and stone-clad frame? Must be the king's prize bu- OH!

Then I chanced upon my Uncle. He's barely progressed in the the catacombs and he's lying prone. He entrusts you to carry on the quest to rescue the princess, handing his sword and shield to you before his dialogue trails off. Wait, did he just die? How bleak was this? I'm some little kid with pink hair who should of stayed at home, I've fallen down the inner plumbing of a castle to witness my only family die and pass on the burden of saving our monarchy. I've only got a lamp! But nonetheless, I continued on with my newly gifted sword and shield, fighting my way past the world's most adorable and stupid guards and down into the dungeon, where Zelda is being held, take down the mace-wielding guard with frantic pot throwing, and lead Zelda out through the castle's secret escape tunnel and I was hooked on this game.

Then some old sage tells me about the evil wizard, Agahnim, and obtaining 3 pendants will allow me to wield the master sword, a weapon of legend that  will defeat Agahnim and stop him breaking the seal to the Dark World, a corrupted, alternate Hyrule where a great evil has control of the Triforce.

I won't go on about it (because it's been done numerous times by people much better than me) but I have to stress the genius of the  design on  LTTP. Being able to see so much of (or the entry to at the very least) many locations, items and obstacles while not being able to access them yet is the master stroke to this game. Due to my lack of experience and skill, LTTP took me months to finish. I died and got lost often. What kept me coming back to the quest was not just the side quests and rich landscape , but that the master sword was pointed out on the map screen. I tried to see if I could actually cheat and get the sword early. I entered the forest, where it was inserted into a stone pedestal, Excalibur like. It wouldn't budge of course. Not until I got all three pendants. That I could see the end goal, the thing all my effort is going towards, is what kept me coming back.

 As well as the fact it was a damn good game. I'd never been so involved in a game before. In my maths class, I found out the student next to me had LTTP as well and we would exchange tips, tactics and speculation, and in sections where I got totally stuck, I would consult the player guide from Super Play. I had to, this wasn't like other games that had cheat codes to skip levels, instantly unlock weapons. Even with a player guide or advice from a friend, everything I obtained I had to get from my own effort. Every new item would warrant instant backtracking to doors I couldn't previously enter, ledges I couldn't reach, objects I couldn't move and try my luck. Or continue my investigation into the mystery of the ocarina playing boy, that would disappear if you came too close.

This was my DaVinci code...for about four months

For months I struggled across the land of Hyrule. Getting more equipment, finding pieces of heart, learning the trick of keeping a fairy in a bottle during boss battles, and the sheer agony of working my way up the tower of Hera and fighting Moldorm, one of the most nerve wracking bosses ever (I don't care good you are, beating that damn worm is part luck), to get the third and final pendant and thus receive the master sword. This was it, the fruit of my labour. To gain access to a section of Hyrule, you need a translation book to decipher a inscription. The master sword pedestal also has a ancient Hylian inscription;

"The heroes triumph on cataclysm's eve,
wins three symbols of virtue.
The master sword he will then retrieve,
keeping the knight's line true"

And now here it was, the weapon that would defeat Agahnim, and one of the biggest milestones in my gaming lifetime would happen. I walked up to the master sword, press the A button and I hear one of the most important pieces of music in my life, ever.

As a adult, my gaming time has been hugely reduced. My life includes other interests, relationships and obligations. Very rarely can I dedicate almost and entire day (let alone several) to playing a game these days. LTTP was my entire winter and part of spring, when my only obligations were going to school and (not) doing my homework. Even when I got frustrated and rage quit to play something else for a while, or got a new game, I would still go back to LTTP to have another go. And now I was ready for the end game (I know, just wait). I get a telepathic message from Zelda. Would you believe it, she's been kidnapped again!

Regardless, I made a beeline back to the royal castle, thrashing my way through guards with the power of the master sword- it's strength so high, it shoots energy blasts when my lifebar is full. I am pink-haired justice and Agahnim will not enter the Dark World!  I face the evil wizard, and die two, maybe three times. I can feel my anger bubbling over at my constant screw ups, not being quick enough to either dodge the lightning or knock back the energy balls properly. I would make the grave error of trying to go right up to Agahnim and hit with directly with my sword. Next time, I held strong, the bottled fairy trick keeping me in the fight and I finally knocked back the fatal energy ball back at him and the distinctive low murmer that all bosses in LTTP make when they expire. Except, Agahnim doesn't explode and leave a extra heart. "Oh no, the fight isn't finished" I thought, then Agahnim says he's not ready to admit defeat yet "I will draw you into the Dark World" before he starts  violent revolving and the entire screen warps into a blinding white then fades, and I am standing on top of a pyramid-like structure. The old sage I met before speaks to me telepathically; I have been brought to the Dark World to follow Agahnim, where he has imprisoned the 7 girls who he used to break the seal to the Dark World. So now I must release these 7 girls and fight Agahnim again. The game had only just started!

I was amazed and intimidated all at the same time. All that effort and I essentially had to quest across Hyrule again and defeat more than twice as many dungeons. It was like going from primary to high school. It was a long slog. Getting all the equipment and powers, completing the side quests and sub-plots, and the final confrontation with perennial Zelda villain, Ganondorf (who it turned out was, Agahnim was all along). Never before had I been so emotionally invested in a game until this point.
 I'm secure enough to admit that when I vanquished Ganon for the first time ever, before receiving the triforce, some text appears asking you to make a wish. I honestly paused for a moment and thought, "Change everything back to before" and the end credits rolled, showing all the noteworthy locales across Hyrule. Checking back with all the characters you met along the way. The father of the ocarina boy gaining some peace, the sick, insect collector up and well again, the bully makes a friend, and my in-game uncle stands beside me outside our house, alive and well. What a journey.

This is seriously one of my favourite things ever. No idea why

Certainly, there's technically better Zelda games in the canon. And, from a gameplay point of view, Link's Awakening on the Gameboy is my favourite. But LTTP was my first entry into the series, and the first time I felt like completing a game remotely meant anything. In real life, I was a fat kid with less than a handful of friends, a painfully average student and had nothing of  any worth in my life. But in the fictional world of Hyrule, what I did mattered. Via this little elfin avatar with pink hair that shared my name I was the slayer of monsters, the rescuer of maidens, the saviour of a land.

Since then, I've played several games that have better plot and characterisation. That have been more absorbing and, sophisticated. But LTTP was the first time I realised a video game could be more than just "complete this task-game over". That a narrative could be told through gameplay, that a game world could be explored and appreciated. Because of those thinsg, The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past gave me one of my great milestones in gaming. Over 20 years on, I still occasionally revisit that original save file, just to recharge the memory in the cartridge, Just to keep the bloodline of the knights of Hyrule going.

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