The Legend of Zelda
Do you remember the first game you ever beat? That feeling of accomplishment that comes from completing a game is one that can't be matched in other other form of media. No one ever says, "Man, I really beat that episode of Lost last night!" Video games are an interactive media, and that differentiation is why many of us stay up all night adventuring in virtual worlds rather than partaking in other, more passive leisure time pursuits.
For me, the first game I ever beat is one of the first games I ever owned. When I was seven or eight, I was labeled as gifted by the school system, by virtue of my test scores and college-age reading level. However, one glaring weakness that came up in all the testing was my very poor grasp of spatial relationships. I think that the root cause of this is the fact that I was born left-handed, but my superstitious parents forced me to only use my right hand, which I think is the reason I have no sense of direction and no innate ability to tell left from right. Every time I need to figure out if something is to the left or right of me, I have to look at my hands and form an L with my index finger and thumb, and only then do I feel confident in which is which.
When my parents spoke with a school counselor about my test scores, she made a suggestion to them that changed my life. She told my parents that if I was engaged in a pursuit which involved map-making, it would improve my focus in that area. Her recommendation? I should be given a Nintendo Entertainmetn System and a copy of Legend of Zelda.
Perhaps it was my parents guilt at having forced to me switch dominant hands from left to right, thus rendering my left hand useless and my sense of direction in shambles, or perhaps they honestly just wanted what was best for me, but that very day my family made the trip to the local department store. I vaguely remember looking at the rows of boxes of games, thrilled at the vast new expanse opening up to me. I had done a little gaming prior to this - my uncle had a Commodore 64, and I every time my family visited, I would spend hours playing Choplifter - but now I would be able to play video games whenever I wanted!
We ended up taking home a NES action pack, which had the Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt pack-in with the Zapper, and two extra games: Pinball and The Legend of Zelda. I loved all the games, even Pinball, but the one that enraptured me, that captured every ounce of my imagination, was Zelda. I felt as if I was the hero in one of the books I was constantly reading, and the thin veneer of educational endorsement meant I really thought I was improving myself by playing it. In the beginning, I made an effort to use the game to improve my sense of direction by hand-drawing maps for the overworld and each dungeon I made it to. However, since the console or one of the games must have come with a Nintendo Power subscription card, I was soon receiving the magazine and using their maps to make my way through the game.
Video gaming entered my life at exactly the right time. I was awkward and shy, preferring the company of books to other children, and being shifted to "gifted" classes and skipping grades made it even harder for me to make friends. Not only did the NES give me something to talk to other kids at school about, it gave me something else besides reading that I could do to entertain myself. With two parents working full time, there was nothing to prevent me from playing Zelda hours a day. Long before Xboxes were Red-Ringing, I destroyed the AC Adapter that came with the NES with my marathon play sessions. The Nintendo Rep who sent us a replacement told my parents that I should take 15 minutes breaks every hour to give the machine a chance to cool down, and prevent the AC adapter from going out again. Those 15 minutes were interminable, though, so what I did was every hour, I would unplug the AC adapter from the wall and from the NES, and stick it in the freezer for five minutes. (I told you I was a smart kid!)
I know now, as an adult, that the original Legend of Zelda game isn't really that long. It can be beaten rather quickly if you already know what you're doing. My eight-year old self, however, didn't know how to get through every dungeon, and I spent hours a day trying to get to the end. One dungeon in particular gave me a lot of trouble - I could not find the boss. I don't remember which dungeon it was, but I remember spending weeks attempting to get past it. One of the things that set me back was someone at my school telling me how to complete it - I was supposed to summon a fairy from a pool of water who would give me the item I needed to finish. I spent hours in the dungeon room with the water, trying to get the fairy to appear.
It wasn't until much, much later when I was just randomly bombing walls in the dungeon that I found the actual hidden passage that contained the item I needed. I have a clear memory of my elation at that moment, but not of what the item actually was.
The day I beat The Legend of Zelda ranks as one of the greatest moments of my childhood. I was so excited that I ran into my parents room and borrowed their video camera so I could film the ending, and I must have hung onto that tape for 15 years before I either lost it in a move or it was broken. Beating the Legend of Zelda was doubly exciting for me because I usually wasn't able to beat games. I never beat Super Mario Bros. despite playing it almost as much as I played as Zelda, and I certainly didn't have enough skill to beat my other NES games which included Ninja Gaiden, Back to the Future, and TMNT. In fact, Zelda and Mario 3 are the only games I can remember getting to the end of as a child, and it's probably no coincidence that they still both rank as my two favorite games of all time.
Every new Zelda release brings me back to that moment our new NES was first hooked up, the Zelda cartridge was inserted into the slot, the controller was in my hand, and I entered a world of adventure that changed my life forever.
Screenshots courtesy of VGMuseum