What was your first intense gaming experience?
Was it the time you spent hours trying to beat the “Turbo Tunnel” in Battletoads or the all-nighter you and your friends pulled when Halo 2 was released? Or maybe it’s the hours and hours you pumped into building the perfect Dark Souls pvp character.
When I think about it, mine’s a bit different. It actually doesn’t involve me playing any games at all. Instead, I watched someone play a video game—The Legend of Zelda.
In December ’87, my family and I visited my cousins in California for Christmas. When we arrived, I saw my uncle, NES controller in hand, sitting in front of a brightly lit television screen, playing The Legend of Zelda. This was my first intense gaming experience. That is, this was my first experience with extreme dedication to a video game. That week I watched my uncle try to burn every bush, blow-up every wall, and push every stone. I had never seen anything like it.
My uncle played The Legend of Zelda like a full-time job. It was astounding. After his day-job, he would immediately kick his kids off the NES and start his night-job, setting off bomb after bomb until eventually finding a secret entrance. He would then pause the game and note his new-found discovery by marking the corresponding spot on his home-made map of Hyrule (That’s right. He had a home-made map of Hyrule.).
The truly amazing part was that all the effort I had witnessed that week in December was for the “Second Quest.” That is, he had already completed the First Quest, found every secret, and made a corresponding map. He had bombed every wall, burned every bush, pushed every stone, and cleared every room once already, and he had the drive to do it all again. If that’s not hardcore gaming, I don’t know what is.
I recently started a new game of The Legend of Zelda on my old NES. About three-quarters of the way through, I found myself asking: “How could anyone have completed every single aspect of this game without a guide or the type of dedication my uncle displayed?” Not only is the LOZ notoriously difficult, but the game offers very little guidance.
As arguably the first, open-world dungeon-crawler, helpful hints regarding where to go next or what items to collect are very sparse. This becomes immediately apparent once the player starts searching for the seventh dungeon. The seventh, eighth, and ninth dungeons are all hidden. So searching for them, as you can imagine, can be an awfully time-consuming task, especially if one is going it alone. Sure, there are some in-game hints here and there, but these are incredibly unclear.
Take, for example, one of The Old Man’s messages concerning the boss of the fifth dungeon: “DIGDOGGER HATES CERTAIN KIND OF SOUND.” Okay. Well, almost every item at Link’s disposal makes a kind of sound. So if you don’t have the right item, which you may have easily missed, you could potentially spend one frustrating hour after another trying to figure out what The Old Man means.
No wonder my uncle spent hour after hour exploring every inch of Hyrule. If he was going to conquer The Legend of Zelda, he had to put in that much time.
But why bother? Why bother spending so much time to find that last heart container? Why bother chasing down every last Moblin with a secret rupee? I don’t know. I never got a chance to ask him before he passed away. Maybe he was simply fascinated with the non-linearity of the experience, or he got sucked into the game’s exploration aspect and was merely enjoying the adventure. Whatever his reason may have been, the dedication and intensity were clearly present.
When I think about that week in December ’87, I wonder why I sat and watched my uncle repeatedly bomb walls and burn bushes. I spent just as much time in front of the television, and I wasn’t even playing the game. Why did I care if he locates the next dungeon? Why did I care about whether or not he saved Princess Zelda?
I wanted to spend time with an uncle I felt like I hardly knew. I grew up in Illinois and rarely got to see my relatives in California. So sitting down and watching him play The Legend of Zelda for hours served as a bonding experience. When he found a hidden heart container I was right there with him, just as excited about the new discovery.
Beyond that I was simply intrigued with the kingdom of Hyrule. I was fascinated with the idea of exploring a new world. And when my uncle discovered a secret passage, I learned some new aspect about Hyrule. In fact, I am still drawn to the adventure/exploration aspect of video games. I often find myself replaying games just to get a clearer understanding of their stories. For example, I’ve played through Dark Souls over a dozen times because I feel like I learn something new about Lordran with each play-through. So it isn’t surprising that my first intense gaming experience involves a game like The Legend of Zelda.
So, I ask, what was your first intense gaming experience?