A few weeks ago I ordered a treat for myself: the Nintendo Game & Watch: Legend of Zelda. It’s a nifty little device, based on the old Nintendo Game & Watch LCD handheld games. Nintendo revived the concept with handhelds themed around Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda.
The units usually retail for $50, but Amazon had this unit on sale for $42.50 (now it’s around $45, I believe). Amazon was also offering $10 off any order to try their location pickup and locker service, and I used some credit card rewards to whittle the final price down to $25 out-of-pocket for yours portly.
I then promptly forgot about it until nearly a week after it had shipped to the store for pickup. I realized that I was too late, but hoped the pharmacy pickup location had not returned it. I managed to rush over there between lessons one afternoon, and was thrilled to find my purchase still in their storage:
This little unit is packed with goodies: The Legend of Zelda; Zelda II: The Adventure of Link; and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. There’s also an old-school Game & Watch-style game featuring Link, and a full-color clock that emits a quiet electronic “tick” every second, and features Link scurrying around Hyrule, slaying monsters.
Those three Zelda games are my favorites. I still remember getting Zelda II: The Adventure of Link one year for my birthday, and my mom telling me to go ahead and play it before my younger brother woke up, because he would demand the controller (some things never change). The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening was one of my favorite Game Boy titles.
I’m also a huge Zelda fan, and always have been. The series and its focus on exploration, action, and puzzle-solving have always drawn me in, and I used to design my own maps and monsters as a kid. The music has also always been inspiring, and I even arranged the iconic theme song for my old group, Brass to the Future:
I finally cracked the unit open last week, and pretty much lost all of my free time to playing The Legend of Zelda. I realized I had never beaten the game before, so after nearly thirty-five years (the game reached the United States in 1987, and I think we got our Nintendo Entertainment System Christmas of 1988), I decided to sit down and finally defeat Ganon.
First of all, this unit is tiny, but it really feels comfortable—a lot like using an old NES controller, though I think it is slightly smaller. Surprisingly, I have not experienced nearly as much eye strain from the Game & Watch as I have from playing Civilization VI on my Switch Lite, even though the screen is much smaller.
Here are a couple of photographs to demonstrate the size:
I’m a great lover of portable gaming systems, and I love that this little guy can fit conveniently into a pocket, ready for gaming on the go. It also comes with a cool little cardboard display holder, which is a great use of the packaging:
Secondly, my run through The Legend of Zelda really brought back some memories. Growing up, my older and younger brothers would play games the most, and I would watch. Given my quasi-autistic ability to remember lots of useless information, I became the de facto authority on secrets, tips, techniques, etc. While I wasn’t the best at executing them, I knew where to find the good stuff (the beginnings of an academic—useless in real-world situations, but full of knowledge and theories).l
So, as I set about my playthrough, I resolved to rely only on my memory and in-game clues to navigate my way through The Legend of Zelda. If I needed help, I would not go to the Internet, but do it the way we did in the 1990s: ask someone. I only had to resort to that once, when I asked my younger brother how to defeat Ganon, the final boss.
In playing through the first couple of dungeons, I realized the game could be beaten very quickly with a combination of knowledge of secrets and skill. I actually thought I would wrap it all up in a couple of hours based on how I breezed through the first three dungeons. My younger brother told me that the world records for completing the game to various degrees of completion all fall a little over thirty minutes, which I can believe.
Then the gaming gods intervened to show me the folly of my hubris. Zelda is one of those games that ratchets up in difficult quickly. Because of its nonlinear nature, it’s also possible to leapfrog certain dungeons (as a kid, I always delighted in being able to beat the second dungeon before the first dungeon; that freedom seemed so cool to me). That means a player might find himself in a sticky situation fast if he gets too ambitious in his dungeon hopping.
The middle game actually got a bit grindy for me, as I ended up spending a good bit of time slaying random monsters to get enough rupees (the in-game currency) to buy the blue ring, which acts as armor for Link—enemy attacks do less damage. I was at a point in the game where I needed that damage resistance to advance, because my skill level wasn’t good enough and my heart meter was still pretty low. I found that the fourth and fifth dungeons ended up being a slog, but after that mid-game difficulty spike, the difficulty curve declined as I got more health and better items (like the white sword and, ultimately, the Master Sword).
That said, the game really had me hooked. I beat the game Sunday afternoon, but I was playing that morning before church, and ran into a familiar childhood scenario: I was rushing to meet some objective while also rushing to get out the door for church. I’ll never forget when my older brother finally found the Skeleton Key in the eighth dungeon one Sunday morning before church (as I found out, it’s a difficult maze to get to this crucial endgame item). Our dad came in, announced we had to go now, and shut off the Nintendo, to the devastated howls of protest from my brothers and me (while Zelda has a save feature, you have to die in order to save the game). Of course, we could have just turned the television set off, but he made his point—church first, then video games.
What really blew me away was how open-ended and nonlinear the game is. That’s super common in games now (although the trend in big budget games seems to be pushing players back towards linearity, which I dislike), but back in the 1980s, that was huge. Even roleplaying games like Final Fantasy ultimately pushed you towards some certain objective along careful guiderails; exploration might yield a few bonus items, but it’s not necessary or even encouraged.
But in Zelda, exploration is huge, and while the map of Hyrule isn’t massive by today’s standards, it still really sucks you in with all its different biomes and themes. Almost every area is packed with secret caves, burnable trees (containing hidden shops or dungeons), and other little Easter eggs waiting to be found. The game encourages exploration, but also communication—while you can talk to some characters in-game for extremely vague, esoteric tips, Zelda implicitly encourages meta-game communication with other players for help finding secrets and tips.
We used to pore over Nintendo Power to find tips and secrets, and would talk on the bus and at school with friends about the locations of hidden shops and items. That was part of gaming back then—you had to depend upon this informal, unreliable network of friends and family members to get through games. I vaguely recall we had a cousin who had gotten to Ganon and beaten him, and it blew our minds. I think he ended up being a drug addict living on welfare or the like, but we thought he was this super cool video game mystic because he’d unlocked the esoteric knowledge necessary to beat The Legend of Zelda.
That’s where so much of the fun and mystery of the game came into play. I remember being terrified of certain dungeons and enemies, recognizing the real danger they represented to Link. What I discovered on this playthrough is that game rewards courage, as clearing out a room of enemies could reveal secrets that, as a kid, I missed entirely, because I dashed past the hard fights.
Needless to say, I finally defeated Ganon:
I’m currently playing through the notoriously difficult Second Quest. So far, I’ve managed to clear two dungeons and get the blue ring, but I have little idea of where to head next. We did not play much of the Second Quest as kids (you could access it without defeating Ganon by naming your character “ZELDA”), so it’s even more of a challenge as I explore old locations from the original quest in an attempt to find the dungeons for the second quest (I managed to get to the seventh dungeon, and got myself stuck, forcing a reset of the game; because I hadn’t died since beating the second dungeon, I had to replay that sequence—d’oh!).
Thank goodness summer break is coming. I think I’ve got a lot of Zelda ahead of me.