Last summer, I decided to treat myself on my birthday and get an NES Classic Edition. This miniature gaming system returns us to the world of the original Nintendo, complete with a couple dozen classic games and — crucially — authentic controllers. I went through a phase of downloading videogame emulators in college, which enabled me to play every single system that ever existed (including the Sega Master System, TurboGrafx-16, and Coleco Vision), but the Nintendo experience never felt right without the original controllers. I was, as they say, between projects, and so I spent a couple afternoons working through old favorites — especially games that I had loved but never finished when I was a kid.
Chief among my targets was Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link. I played that game so long and so hard that the save-game battery actually ran out. It was the first game I had experienced that felt open-ended, as though the next person you talked to or the next square you walked across could hold untold secrets. It was also incredibly demanding for a young child, with enemies that depleted your experience points if they hit you, caves full of monsters you couldn’t even see until you gained a special power-up, bonuses hidden on arbitrary spots on the world map, and complex mazes that often required you to backtrack (at risk to life and limb). I got Zelda 2 prior to the original Zelda, and to me, the latter never fully lived up to its successor — though I realize that I am in the minority here. In fact, when I have mentioned Zelda 2 in social media threads, people have often expressed bafflement that I could even tolerate the game.
After spending an afternoon working through Zelda 1 with the help of an online walk-through, I returned to my old love and have never actually left. I have played it through countless times at this point, normally taking 15-20 minutes on my lunch break on non-class days and often playing it a bit to unwind before My Esteemed Partner gets home after I get back from class. I have every single dungeon absolutely memorized, and every monster mastered. I can beat every boss without suffering damage. Once you get used to the awkwardness of the controls, there is a distinct pleasure to fighting certain enemies — a rhythm that gives it a unique satisfaction. (Any player of Zelda 2 will remember the knights that you can easily defeat by jumping and striking them just above their shields.) I am probably getting close to some theoretical maximum here, as last time I finished the game, I had double-digit extra lives, while the interface only allows for single digits (10 lives is designated as “A”). A few times, I was even worried that I was “done,” having maxed out everything, but I keep coming back somehow.
I did find myself completely satiated with a previous game, namely the original Final Fantasy. I got sucked into it unintentionally. My Esteemed Partner was playing a Dr. Mario rip-off on her phone (and indeed, playing Dr. Mario together has become an important weekend ritual), and I wanted to show off my ability to get the real thing on an emulator. It quickly became apparent that a touch-screen interface was a poor fit for most games, with the exception of Final Fantasy, a role-playing game with no element of hand-eye coordination. I played through it with every possible variation, setting absurd challenges for myself, even considering how to make sense of the backstory and world-building elements (for instance, how is it that the wolves one encounters in the woods are carrying gold?). I ultimately wore it out when I beat the game with an intentionally perverse party that included only “black belts,” which could not use weapons or magic in any meaningful sense. But I suspect I really stopped playing simply because I got a new phone, one which has expressed a certain skepticism of the legitimacy of the emulator I downloaded. I have not played Final Fantasy on the NES Classic Edition, although it is available. Doing it as a primary activity seems somehow wrong — it is a game to play half-attentively, while watching TV, though I did not view it as such at the time.
I wonder about this desire to achieve such absurd levels of mastery over things that baffled me as a child. I did finish Final Fantasy in its original form, though only with the hope of a detailed guidebook. (In fact, I suspect that the game designers expected players to have access to such things — or at least that is what I tell My Esteemed Partner when she chides me for “cheating” by looking at walk-throughs.) But Zelda 2 always escaped me somehow, although I can viscerally remember playing it as a child, down in the un-finished basement where my sister and I spent most of our afternoons and summer days. I remember the specific feel of the power button on the TV down there, the chill of the air, the lumpy couch that had been consigned to the play room, the tile on the floor overlain by a cheap carpet remnant, the dining room table that was living out its retirement as a tableau for my games. I remember that the basement was not immune to my mom’s passion for rearranging the furniture, and so I can even picture exploring certain parts of the game in different parts of the room.
As I have played through repeatedly, I have come to discern a certain logic. My theory that the designers expected you to shell out for the guidebook reflects a certain arbitrarity in these early games. For instance, one crucial power-up requires you to jump on the rooves of houses in a town and then squat down on a chimney in order to enter the house — a move that is never used anywhere else in the game. In the image above, there is also a unique move: “talking” to an empty room, which leads to the single instance of the Link character actually speaking in the first person: “I found a mirror under the table.” And the spell you can exchange for this mirror is indeed the most self-reflexive one, the spell that restores your life points. Similarly, you need to “talk” to a fountain to give a thirsty woman some water — which allows you to gain a fire spell. As I’ve played over and over, the game has become more and more legible, as I discern clues that the designers probably did intend, but that no gamer could reasonably be expected to pick up. Thankfully, I have exceeded reason and so these clues have attained their now of citability.
At times, of course, I wonder about my fascination with these rudimentary games, my insistence on immersing myself in these worlds of childhood. (I could write much more about comic books or Star Trek, both of which I have also returned to in recent years.) What am I looking for here? More than that, why don’t I play new games? There is a new Zelda that is reportedly beautiful and astounding, and many iterations of Final Fantasy that far outstrip the original (while rendering its title increasingly ironic, of course). The answer, I think, is that I’m not interested in video games as such but in what they gave to me at that early stage of my life — a sense of open-ended wonder, of a bigger world that presented challenges and yet had clear rules that I could somehow master. By re-entering those worlds again and again, I can reassure myself that I really have escaped, that I have found my path — a difficult one, filled with arbitrary requirements and absurd expectations — to something like freedom. It is as though I play these games I loved so much as a child as a way of asserting that I have become the person that my childhood self always wanted to be, that I have mastered the game that I found so baffling at that age.
Yet it remains a guilty pleasure, because I know, at bottom, that I am part of a much more desperate game that I am far from mastering. The illusion of control and mastery that I attain from Zelda 2 is fundamentally childish — indeed, it is built upon the muscle memory I developed during childhood. But it is calming and satisfying nonetheless. Perhaps some mirrors can remain under the table.