When I was a freshman in college, I was trying to make a point in English Literature class by comparing a character to Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. The teacher of the class casually responded that she didn’t get the comparison because she’d never read The Catcher in the Rye. I remember feeling an all-new-for-me combination of disappointment, condescension, and pity that to this day I hope didn’t show on my face.
To be clear: I wouldn’t have that reaction now. While the book influenced me a ton when I read it1As a teenager, which is exactly when you’re supposed to read it for maximum effect, there’s no reason to suspect it would even appeal to a lot of readers, much less that it would have the same impact for most people that it did on me2If I remember correctly, sobbing at the beginning of Chemistry class for reasons I could not explain. But as a smug seventeen year old, I knew with an unshakeable conviction that the book was a modern classic that should be required reading for anyone who claimed to be at all literate.
I mention all that for two reasons: first, I feel like the “video game community” as a whole, as much as it can agree on anything, would agree that The Legend of Zelda series has a similar position of reverence and importance for video games as an art form.
Second, in all my years of playing video games, I’ve never been able to finish a Zelda game. And I suspect that kind of admission would trigger the same feeling of disappointment and pity in a lot of players.
But! In a new development, I’ve just finished my first entry in the series. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, which was originally for the GameBoy. It’s the one game in the series that I have bought three times: the original, the GameBoy Color version, and the Switch remake3For the record, I played and finished it on the Switch version after my GBC save game got corrupted.
I’ve been told several times over the years that it’s a perfect introduction not just to Zelda but to RPGs in general, since it’s compact compared to the mainline games but still feels like a moderately epic My First Adventure.
I’ve got to object to the idea that this is a Baby Game for Babies, though. The story is quite juvenile, but the puzzles are baffling, and the boss fights are infuriating. Combined with the other Zelda games I’ve played, it makes it clear what really is the defining aspect of this series: instead of being RPGs that have been streamlined and had more arcadey elements added, like I’d always believed, they’re actually arcade4However that’s defined at the time action games that borrow thematic elements from RPGs. I’m sure I’m not the first person to point out that Link’s Awakening is structured more like a Metroid game than like any other RPG I’ve ever seen.
There were several times that I had to consult a walkthrough, and I rarely felt as if the solution was something I would’ve figured out if I’d had more patience. More often than not, it was arbitrary — like the sleeping powder is the only thing that will work against this particular enemy, even though there’s nothing that telegraphs that — and I would need a kid’s patience and endless free time to experiment with solutions until I stumbled onto the right one.
More often than that, though, I had figured out what the solution for a dungeon room or a boss fight was, but I couldn’t execute on it. There are repeated puzzles where you have to drive a moving walkway to fill in a bottomless pit to “solve” the room. It’s extremely clever the first time you encounter it, but by the time you have to do it the third time, it’s asking you to fill up an entire room with extremely fiddly controls with no margin for error.
With the boss fights, it was the Mario-inspired standard, repeated over and over again: it wasn’t enough to figure out the solution, but you had to do the same thing several times. Unlike Mario, it rarely required only three hits, but demanded you keep doing it long past the point it became interesting or satisfying.
Now, my objections to this game are largely the result of being a 52-year-old man (who tends to play (and occasionally make) graphic adventure games) bouncing off of a 30-year-old GameBoy game. But looking back at the other Zelda games that I’ve started with high expectations but have never quite been engaged enough to finish, I can see what they all have in common, regardless of scope, and that’s that they’re not really my thing.
I respect the whole aesthetic a ton. The Legend of Zelda series has some of the best music of any video game. The game loop is so elegant and ingenious that it’s a marvel to anybody interested in game design. I can understand why people love these games. And now I can understand why I always start out eager to love them, but bounce off of them a few hours in.
(And to be clear, I’ve played a ton of these games, trying over and over again to find the one that I can appreciate as much as everyone else seems to. I’ve tried every mainline entry since Ocarina of Time, gone back to A Link to the Past, and tried most of the portable entries. Breath of the Wild‘s weapon durability mechanic annoyed me enough that I wasn’t interested in continuing, and I haven’t bothered with Tears of the Kingdom).
Maybe I’m being overly generous to myself, but this feels like a double victory. Not only did I finally finish a Zelda game — and I hardly ever finish any games these days — but I feel like I can finally ignore the conventional wisdom and acknowledge that even outstanding games might not be suited for everyone who loves video games.
- 1As a teenager, which is exactly when you’re supposed to read it for maximum effect
- 2If I remember correctly, sobbing at the beginning of Chemistry class for reasons I could not explain
- 3For the record, I played and finished it on the Switch version after my GBC save game got corrupted
- 4However that’s defined at the time