Once upon a time, I was a young lad instead of an old man. I know, it’s hard to imagine, but bear with me. There are quite a few memories of video games from that time that shape the way I think about games to this day. I think the biggest one was probably my first time playing The Legend of Zelda.
This isn’t some tale of an amazing triumph over a puzzle. Or a story about some difficult boss fight that I managed to scrape by. This is the time that I got completely and utterly lost in the Lost Woods.
My Aunt and Uncle are amazing people. They were those cool relatives, the ones into all the things that I found interesting. They had a Nintendo Entertainment System, and it’s thanks to them that I learned video games existed. It was a damn cool thing to learn as a kid.
My Uncle took Zelda pretty seriously, or at least it seems that way in retrospect. As a kid, I had a hard time imagining that people weren’t as excited about things as I was (ask my wife, I still have a hard time with this one), but looking back on it I’m pretty sure he was really into it. My Uncle was at work, and my Aunt let me sit down with the NES to play some games. I had done the whole Mario thing before, and I recall playing Pro Wrestling a bit. I don’t remember what particularly prompted it, but my Aunt apparently decided it was time to let me try out Zelda.
I don’t remember the title screen or any of that. My first memory of Zelda is the player select screen. Specifically, I remember the save file at the top of the list with the clean, round 0 underneath the name LINK. My Uncle was working on a perfect play through, no deaths. My Aunt made it very clear that I could play on that game and try out all the cool items, but I had to make sure to not die. This didn’t seem like a big deal to me. After all, I had gotten pretty decent at Mario, and unlike that game, you had hearts in this one, meaning multiple hits were okay.
From the moment I started playing, it was a life changing experience. Mario existed in an abstract world (there’s no denying that the game design is brilliant, but the Mushroom Kingdom of Super Mario Bros. does not feel like any sort of real place), but this was nothing like that. For me, the pixels on the screen formed a real place, and I was controlling Link as he moved through it.
It’s important to note that I don’t mean I was imagining a real world place that was simply being portrayed by abstract pixel art. For me, that pixel world was a real place. In retrospect, this might be why I’ve been fine with every single art style in the entire Zelda series – each one is a distinct and real world all its own. It might also explain my intense love of pixel art – each place I see in pixels is real and awesome in its own right.
So, I set out into this wild and foreign world. My Aunt coached me to fill up my hearts so that I’d be well equipped for the journey. And then I wandered. I made my way all over the place, just seeing what there was to see. Eventually, my wandering brought me to the Lost Woods, and a moment that I remember very vividly.
When I entered into the Woods, it seemed like any other section on the map. Then I tried to go anywhere other than the way I came, and that’s when things got odd. No matter what I did, North, South, and West took me nowhere at all. My marker on the map just wouldn’t move. I was determined to find my way through, but no matter what I did, I was always back to the same spot. I was utterly lost in the Lost Woods.
After a few minutes, my Aunt remembered that my Uncle had taken quite a few notes on the game, and pulled them out to see if there was anything about this insane place. That’s when I saw the notes, and I saw the world in a whole new light. Not only was it a place that you could adventure through, it was positively littered with secrets and information. In so far as my mind could understand at the time, it may as well have been just as detailed as the real world. There were as many worthwhile details as far as I was concerned.
The route through the Lost Woods had indeed been discovered by my Uncle. Even now, I can’t say if it was a brute force solution or a labour of love. I’m not sure that the two are different in this case. My Uncle found himself in the Lost Woods, and realizing that it was a puzzle to be solved, he went about trying to understand it. He recognized that there was some combination that would allow progression, and with no surrounding clues, he decided to make his way through with a careful map.
His efforts created a map of a single man’s journey through the Woods, a guide to anyone that came after him so that they could make it through without wandering as he had. At the time, it only represented a solution. The memory stuck with me, but the significance of what he had done didn’t sink in all the way until I played Final Fantasy Adventure. What I saw as a bunch of letters on a page, dozens of single letters (N, S, and W), I see now as a path being forged through an unknown world.
It was about recognizing the puzzle, the potential for solution, and trying out the potential solutions. It prepared me for the future that was various Final Fantasy games and puzzles. It certainly prepared me for my adventures on Myst Island. I didn’t view puzzle as just finding the answer from an NPC (which is actually possible in Zelda, I now know, but I’m glad my Uncle didn’t find them), I saw it as diving into and embracing the world, then seeking out how things work and how to solve them. It’s created a level of immersion that I simply cannot be grateful enough for.
The memory of that death counter has stuck with me as well, and informed my game playing in a much smaller way. I’ve always looked up to my Uncle, and any game that actually tracks death in a visible way, I have to keep my death counter at zero. I’m not amazing at video games, but I want to be at least as big of a badass as he was at Zelda.