The Insight: Coming of Age with The Legend of Zelda

By Steven Petite

 Not just an hour, or a day, or a month. Here’s the author’s take on a full lifetime with the long-running Nintendo series.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time caused me to stay up well past my bedtime. I was seven when what’s arguably the greatest game of all time graced the Nintendo 64. Oddly enough with that distinction, those late nights weren’t because I was personally exploring Hyrule. My older brother Matt played while I sat next to him in pajamas and watched. Matt and I look nothing alike. I am somewhat pale, easily burned, never tanned. His ruddy skin tone makes it seem as if he just returned from a relaxing beach vacation — year ’round. I’ve looked up to Matt my whole life. The old wooden box television in my parents’ basement served as a stand of its own and despite a couch less than ten feet from its screen next to the unfinished stairs, we always sat on the floor, propped on pillows to avoid the cement floor, leaning into the pixelated screen, mesmerized in its glow.

Perhaps more unusual is that my earliest memories with the game franchise that shaped my young videogame life revolved around some of the lesser moments within the seminal title. I distinctly remember one night when Matt swam across Lake Hylia, amidst the howling that signaled darkness, to the wooden door leading to the fishing pond. Luckily, he had just acquired a significant sum of rupees and could afford the 20 rupee admission to rent a fishing rod from the shop owner.

I remember the tranquil music and the ambiance of the enclosed area. Instead of slashing Link’s sword or outstretching his shield for cover from Hyrule’s nighttime foes, the casual reel of the line swung over child Link’s shoulder, proceeding to bob slightly below the surface. The shadow of tiny fish lingered about the bait, and he occasional swiveled the bob by pressing B to lure them in. I was fascinated by the peaceful diversion. I think my anticipation built from the challenge of catching a 10 pounder for a heart piece or the seemingly impossible 15 pound catch for the prestigious Golden Scale.

Of course, Matt’s first few catches were merely a few pounds, and it took numerous trips outside the shop to find more rupees before making any real progress. After dozens of attempts, his technique improved. The shop owner awarded our hero a fair amount of rupees for a loach, a fifty rupee award, prompting a look at the strategy guide for further insight. The strategy guide maintained that a sizable catch was necessary to secure all of the game’s heart pieces. A record setting nab upgraded the silver scale to gold, and that allowed Link to dive under water for longer periods of time. In the pursuit of perfection, spending hours searching for the brawniest fish was worth the sidetrack.

The other thing I remember? The times when I wanted to play so badly that Matt would plug in our second controller, a green to his gray, and I pretended to control Link’s companion, Navi. At seven, I was overjoyed just to be spending time with my cool older brother. Despite not playing through the dungeons myself, finding the hidden treasures or eventually saving Princess Zelda from Ganondorf, I knew that I would remember those watchful, wide-awake nights for the rest of my life.

Seventeen years later and I still recall the look on his face when he caught a sixteen pound fish, when he first held the Goron sword (and broke it just minutes later), when he first entered the Temple of Time and instantly became an adult. I would like to say that I related Link’s miraculous transition from childhood to adulthood to real life, but I was too young, I didn’t quite understand what it meant to grow up. I was interested in playing games and sports, hanging out with friends and just being a kid.

I wasn’t prepared for my brother to leave home for culinary school a few years later, but it seemed to happen as fast as the screen turning white for that moment before Link was all grown up, Master Sword in hand, hightailing it out of the Temple of Time. I didn’t have entry to the hollowed walls, nor was I strong enough to pull the encrusted sword from its slab. If anything, I was still in Kokiri Forest, without even a tiny sword or wooden shield, incapable of gaining entrance to the Deku Tree. I was happy to be Navi for the first play through, and even with the strategy guide and personal experience watching my older brother, when I attempted to play through the game by myself, I found it to be a source of confusion, an unreadable map.

As much as it pains me to admit, I abandoned Ocarina of Time before I reached the Temple of Time, and its cartridge accumulated layers of dust before I eventually blew it off a few years later. It wasn’t that I led Link to his death in combat. Instead, I was confused by the lack of direction. My mother, in an effort to tidy the clutter, participated in a community garage sale at what was then James A. Garfield Park.  She didn’t offer up expensive video games, but what she considered to be specious items like old strategy guides. “You’ve already beat it,” she explained when I protested. Technically not true, but she figured a smart boy like myself had picked up enough from watching my brother that I no longer needed the assistance of a guide. And yes, I did pay close attention as a spectator. I knew the ins and outs of the game, the general flow of the story line. But when it came down to details like progressing through difficult dungeon puzzles, I floundered from indecision. It was as if I needed a wise leader for reassurance. If only the strategy guide hadn’t been sold at a park.

 During that time, I received a Gameboy Color one Christmas morning, and an old copy of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. As much as I tried to transition to the overhead style, I was limited by the age of the cartridge. It was already half a dozen years old, and the internal battery was shot. Every time I flicked off the power, my progress was deleted. Sometimes I left my Game Boy on to avoid this dilemma, but when my mother noticed my habitual battery usage, that workaround was curbed immediately.

Then my parents’ purchased Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons, the first for me and the latter to my older sister, Sarah. My sister is the most motivated person I’ve ever met, and she influences me to reach for new heights constantly. Even as a child, Sarah was an emerging perfectionist. Because of this, I was convinced she would complete her game before I was even close. We both vowed to finish our respective copies and swap. It seemed like a good plan, but I was still under ten years old, and I found the presentation to be lackluster. I was used to watching my brother play OoT and when faced with Link’s Awakening, I learned the first hour or two of the game so well from restarts that I felt extremely skilled in the opening portions, never truly embarking on the lengthy quest. My personal awakening which would include a hands-on love and fascination for Zelda had yet to fully form. I was still a casual observer, a wannabe member of the dedicated fanbase that scoured every nook and cranny of the memorable landscapes implored by the wonderful developers at Nintendo. My sister didn’t share the same passion for Zelda and when she tossed aside OoS, I switched from OoA to know avail. Perhaps I needed a helping hand to jumpstart my playing career.

Despite her brief dabbling in the franchise, Sarah’s role in this story cannot be underestimated. She is two years older, but matured at a much earlier age. She wasn’t afraid of a challenge, but she picked her battles wisely. Her proclivity for hard work has always been suited for dealing with the important matters in life. If it wasn’t for her always setting the bar high, I wouldn’t have started writing seriously at a young age, and these sentences likely wouldn’t have come to life for several more years.

I was a shy, introverted kid. I didn’t have very many friends, but around that same time I had two close neighborhood buddies that were also interested in games. A few years after my initial experience with the franchise, I revisited my starting point with the kid who hid behind his dad at the front door when I came by with mine to introduce ourselves as their new neighbors. Drew lived two houses away, and his shyness is funny given how outgoing he became over the years. He was six months younger and a grade lower in school. I was in kindergarten when we met, and for the better part of a decade, I saw him almost daily. We played football, baseball and basketball with the other neighborhood kids, always on the same team supporting each other. We compared Pokemon collections, had our first childhood sleepover together, and sang Backstreet Boys songs on the top of basement couches. He was my first friend. We asked for the same toys and video games for Christmas, dressed alike, listened to the same music and read the same books. Out of all of the games we enjoyed amongst each other, nothing compared to the times spent in Hyrule. Together we took turns waging war against dungeon enemies and bosses with the stipulation that if our hearts depleted to zero, the controller was passed. Over the course of monthlong after-school sessions, we saved Princess Zelda from Ganondorf’s clutches.

Shortly after, Drew and I convinced our parents to give us early birthday presents: the Gameboy Advance. We played through a game originally released when we were still infants: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.

Again, we propped strategy guides on our laps, and maintained rules on how far we were allowed to progress in order to stay in the same section of the game. It was the first time I truly made progress on my own, but it was still in the company of another person. We helped each other solve tricky puzzles, offered tips to slay bosses, and pointed to locations of vital heart pieces. It was bonding, a close bonding of true friends.

I followed this process for Majora’s Mask alongside my other best friend, Carlo, who moved a block down the street from us when I was in third grade. We were in the same class, and I was his first friend at his new school. He was a mischievous child, and together we got into little bits of trouble at school. Our teacher moved our desks to opposite sides of the room because we had a tendency to make each other laugh for no apparent reason. Despite separating us in the classroom, we were inseparable after school and during ensuing summers. We collected baseball cards and raced across the city pool on hot summer days. We loved wrestling and watched reruns of Steve Austin and The Rock title fights. When we reenacted the moves, Carlo was The Rock and I was Stone Cold. We gravitated towards video games when we were told to quiet down by our parents. He had a copy of Majora’s Mask and we took turns at the reins, offering tips as the other played. Our laughter-filled friendship transcended to a deeper bond when we reached the end of our adventure. We beat a complex game — one of the best — and we did it together. No one could take that away from us.

My latest collaboration helped when voyaging the vast seas of Wind Waker in the company of Drew. The cell-shaded GameCube adventure brought me back to the water in a more sprawling way than within the confines of the small fishing pond. By the time we both reached the credits, we concluded that it was the most expansive Zelda to date. We vowed to experience future Zelda’s in the same fashion.

Yet, like a lot of things in life, things didn’t go as planned.

The gap between Wind Waker and Twilight Princess saw us through the awkward stages of middle school and into the boiling point before adulthood called high school. We gravitated towards different cliques and gradually stopped hanging out after school.

To this day, a sizable portion of my most vibrant memories from childhood are linked to Zelda in some way, and even though my brother was now living in Indiana, Drew and Carlo were on their own separate paths, and my sister was preparing for college, I maintained a connection to the magical world of Hyrule.

I was fifteen when the Nintendo Wii launched with Twilight Princess. I clocked forty hours and beat the game before school started up again after the first of the year. It was more visually realistic than other Zelda games, but it also held a noticeable gloom. The way my life was changing, it fit perfectly. My brother was a living breathing adult, my sister was about to leave home, and my childhood best friends were no longer a daily part of my life. Twilight Princess cast a shadow over that reality, forcing me to wade through the darkness to ascertain answers.

I had transitioned to mainly console games as a teenager, but after finishing Link’s latest adventure, I visited Minish Cap on the Gameboy Advance. I played it on the bottom screen of my Nintendo DS that had been uncharged in months. The gameplay element of shrinking down to surpass obstacles became another reminder of my road through a strategy guide-less adolescence.

Newfound insights led to a trip through history. I traversed every Zelda game before entering college. I still owned the four-game promotional disc that came bundled with the Gamecube at one point. I learned the origins of The Legend of Zelda, then went on to examine it at a flatter angle in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. I knew my adventure was at its early stages just like that of our hero.

Next, I revisited Ocarina of Time without the assistance of a guide, tried on different masks in Majora’s Mask to see which ones fit. I sailed away in Phantom Hourglass accepting wherever the current would take me. I touched down at shore only to quickly travel by train in Spirit Tracks. Arriving at a different body of water, I let the wind wake my soul a second time around.

A love affair with a game world can only take you so far, and two years removed from my new journey through Zelda, I was lost in a different way. Zelda taught me to strive for the best, and if I wasn’t doing things to fill my world with beauty childlike wonderment as it preached, I wasn’t following maintaining the promise to myself. I dropped out of college, and was launched into high altitudes above the clouds in Skyward Sword to garner a regenerated panorama of the ground below. If I leaped, I wasn’t sure where I would land, but motion controls offered interactive control of my life. I was no longer pressing a button for an onscreen response, I was waving my hand like a magic wand casting a wishful spell.

Only a semester removed from college, I returned to a local university, and graduated with honors in a mightily exciting field, anxiously anticipating countless possibilities. During the final stretch of undergraduate studies, Wind Waker was remastered, cascading with prolific color, and crisp visuals that accentuated its already lavish inherent brilliance.

On Nintendo 3DS, Ocarina of Time beamed from the screen with 3D effects, roping me into Hyrule like never before. Then came the return to Link to the Past. Set in the same world but featuring a light and dark story line, A Link Between Worlds valiantly connected my childhood to my blossoming adulthood.

I own every Zelda title either physically or digitally, and occasionally revisit them when I desire clarity or if I just need to get away from the daily trials of the human condition. That’s the real beauty of Zelda, its ability to teach and entertain, undeniably valuable as a Tri-decade piece of moving art while constantly providing an abundance of escapism from the assorted layers of the  portrait of life.

What was originally planned as an analysis of the latest iteration of The Legend of Zelda, turned into a retrospective on how I arrived to this point, and maybe that’s all that really matters. After all, things don’t always go as planned. The recent release of The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes is the reason for my lengthy digression.

Tri Force Heroes isn’t a traditional Zelda game. It’s not an open world adventure, it isn’t a source of large metaphorical commentary. To be honest, it’s rather silly, yet, its charm lies in its absurdity. The plot is zany and relatively nonsensical. The main premise is to restore the imagined world of Hytopia from a fashion crisis.

Besides one main town, the contents are episodic stages of small dungeons. While that may hamper the experience for longtime fans who fell in love with the explorative factions of the adventure series, it does bestow a unique concept.

The game is designed for cooperative play with a trio of gamers, hence Tri being separated from Force for emphasis and clarity. You complete team-oriented puzzles, and defeat familiar enemies and bosses to complete a stage. All three players need to reach the glowing Triforce before moving on. Zelda has been a mainstay as a solo experience, but the implemented mechanics prove to be an compelling experimentation.

Yet, I didn’t feel right embracing the cooperative element since it wasn’t possible to team up with older siblings or old friends, and my early Zelda life is strongly tied to them, fastened too tightly to uncoil the knot to let someone else in. And here’s how it all links to my Zelda life. The alternative to playing alongside my brother and sister or my childhood best friends is to control a hero while the other two become “dopples,” short for dopplegangers, and for all intents and purposes, stationary dummies. You can switch between each hero via the Nintendo 3DS’s touch screen, maneuvering each hero at staggered intervals. It’s a game-changer and a totally different way to enjoy Nintendo’s latest Zelda entry.

I started my life with Zelda by watching my brother play, then briefly alongside my sister before playing cooperatively with my childhood best friends. Over the course of a decade, I mastered the series on my own. Now, Nintendo has returned me to my roots. When I switch between heroes, I’m beside my older brother in my parents’ basement. I’m on the couch next to my sister. I’m in Drew’s room sailing in Wind Waker, in Carlo’s living room riddled by Majora’s Mask.

I’m carrying the weight of my past into the future, but it’s no longer a burden. What I mean is in the game, I reach the glowing Triforce with my companions and we are transported to the next dungeon, its ensuing puzzles and swarms of enemies. There’s no need for an open world now. I’ve already searched its plains on foot, galloped on my trusty steed, pushed against the current on the deck of a red sailboat, along the tracks by steam train, and through the skies by bird. As it is in real life, I’ve fallen on occasions from one too many pings to the heart. I’ve passed and failed tests, been mentally exhausted from tricky puzzles and inconceivable roadblocks. The open world has led me here, and now I’m ready to be in the thick of the dungeons, jumping over any and all obstacles to discover how far these legs will walk.

I still have those early childhood memories to catapult my heart, mind and body through what I hope will be a life of legend, a tale of Hyrulian proportions. Tri Force Heroes embodies so many of my past experiences. I’d like to think I’ve learned from each and every moment, and whenever I seek novel interpretation, I can change heroes with an onscreen tap. In the end, I know I’m the hero of my own story. But Zelda continues to remind me that a hero never goes at it alone.

Steven Petite is a writer from Cleveland, Ohio, the land of the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame and a duck named Howard. He has written for the Huffington Post and Playboy.com

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