My (trite) answer is The Legend of Zelda. Here’s a reprint of why. (Have to try harder this year to get that word count up.)
The Legend of Zelda.
In my office is an enlarged version of the art on the original The Legend of Zelda NES cartridge. Beneath the iconic coat of arms and “The Legend of Zelda” it says “Experience the challenge of endless adventure.” The Legend of Zelda brings you this experience like nothing before or after it. Zelda evokes a sense of danger, wonder, and creates a place to explore that is worth coming back and re-experiencing 20 years later.
The controls are simple. You begin the game with nothing but the ability to move around. You then get a sword. Now you can swing the sword and defend yourself against enemies. As the game progresses the controls scale and before you know it you’re throwing a boomerang, shooting bows and arrows, sailing across seas, causing explosions.
Soon you’re exploring a large world but you find only some of which is accessible. There is no one telling you what to do, you can go anywhere you want, only limited by your abilities, skills, and equipment. Exploration is rewarded, but is also difficult. You experience more as you grow.
You might die. But you’ll probably learn something in the process. And you can try again.
Before Zelda lots of home video games kept the gestalt of arcade gameplay. If you look at Super Mario Brothers, it’s not that different than the Donkey Kong it evolved from but in a longer form. Run, jump, avoid obstacles, get from point to point. It’s fundamentally arcade like in the focus on quick reflexes and reactions - not problem solving or exploration or evoking emotion and experience. Zelda breaks that mold.
Zelda is brilliant in its minimalism combined with depth. And it was all represented on the screen in what we now think are primitive graphics, but the constraints of the hardware actually led to creating beautiful, iconic imagery. When we think of the “video game aesthetic” it’s these 8-bit graphics that stick with us more than the polygons of a decade or two later.
A few pixels leave more to the imagination. Ganon in his 8-bit version at the end of the 9th Labyrinth still seems scarier to me than any incarnation of him that followed, in part because of this.
It may be impossible for a large company to create and release a game as great the original Legend of Zelda now in some of the ways I love it. So much pressure exists to create things that are complex - both graphically and gameplay wise, and yet at the same time make them “accessible.”
Zelda never condescends to the player, and that is part of why exploring it feels different than video games today. I love the beautiful and moving Ocarina of Time, but I’m an adult and I don’t want a fairy following me around and telling me what to do.
For me, Zelda was about having the courage to go and explore and that it was ok to be scared but it provides opportunity to be courageous.
Zelda was also about what it was like to be alone. Unlike successors, it has a quiet loneliness to the quest. (There are no inane townspeople as in other RPGs.)
It’s impossible for me to separate Zelda from nostalgia, but I hope it’s more than that. I played the game for months when I was six years old. I felt like I had accomplished something significant when I finally beat it. It seemed a more complex problem than anything offered to me in school, and I knew that. I know it was important as a formative experience in my life.
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