Sunday, June 29, 2008

Narrative? We don’t need no stinking Narrative - The Legend of Zelda

Where would we be without the Nintendo Entertainment System? Don't answer that. Unfortunately for many of us, video games are a wonderful time waster and one of the pastimes we associate with leisure. Some youngsters remember Playstation 1 fondly, as an archaic dinosaur. Others remember their paddle version of Pong with it's black and white graphics. I fall in the middle. I had an old Atari system. My dad rented Atari games right up to the video game crash of 1983 (I just found out about that. Boy did it explain a bunch of strange memories I had of that time). But for me, the good ol' days of gaming was for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the mid 80's. Wow did this thing change a kid's world or what?

I used to wake up anticipating my favorite cartoons, and go to bed dreaming up new stories for "Star Wars" and "Transformers". When the NES hit, it was a whole new ballgame. Now I woke up with the theme from Super Mario in my head and went to sleep dreaming up new stories for "Metroid". It was all we talked about at school, and even when the cartoons of our favorite games came out, we lapped them up like tasty whipped topping. Yeah, I'm waxing nostalgic, but humor me for a minute.

This mania was really odd, because I didn't get an NES till nearly 1990 or so. When it first came out I had to play the stupid thing at friend or relative's houses. Maybe that is why my imagination was fueled by these 8 bit marvels a bit more. I never got to see a whole game beaten. I never knew what the hell happened when Mario finally got to the princess. I never saw Link defeat Gannon and save Zelda. I never got past level 1 of Metroid for God sakes. Instead, I wrote these expansive stories going far deeper than the video games could have gone. I ran into a few of these silly stories not to long ago and was amused by the insanity and joy of them. This kid was hooked.

When I finally got the NES and started to play through the games, I remembered feeling a bit disappointed. The biggy was "The Legend of Zelda", to me the kingpin of the NES games of my youth. It was epic in a way I couldn't imagine for a video game. It was a whole crazy world to explore (with the help of cheat maps and friend's clues), but I remember seriously getting wrapped up in the whole feel of the game. The music would often pop into my head and I wondered what it would be like of John Williams took a nice adaptation to the title theme.

The crazy thing is that the game itself (not including the stuff in the instruction manual) didn't really have a story per se. You were a little block with some features that wandered around a very blocky world attacked by blocky monsters and picking up rupees which looked like gold versions of the tiles we had in our pool. It didn't matter. In my mind, the story of Link, Zelda and Gannon was huge and powerful. It was good vs. evil. It was the saga of a boy becoming a hero. It discovery of powerful magic and paying the price for making bad decisions (why did I choose the red potion instead of the heart container?).

So when I got to the end of the game, and was presented with some text and a flashing screen, I was annoyed. That was it? I went through he whole damn game for that? No blocky animation of Link and Zelda riding off into the sunset. No massive explosion on skull mountain. No parade for the hero who finally figured out how to get out of the Lost Hills? It wasn't right. I felt good about completing the game, but decided the ending needed work. I wrote a new ending, even leaving room open for a sequel (a better one than the second game turned out to be). It was cathartic. But looking back I guess playing the game, and having all the fun I did have was what I ended up remembering fondly, not really the disappointment of the ending.

I'm still a gamer, but a casual one at best. I've got my Playstation 2, and I'm looking into getting Playstation 3 for "Final Fantasy XIII" or "God of War III", but the Nintendo Wii holds a powerful allure. I could play "Legend of Zelda" again. I'm afraid to revisit that old memory and find the 8 bit glory sad and outdated. Or will I find some joy making that little square move around the screen. Who knows?

Do you have any fond memories of early video games? Were you a fellow NES kid, or did you actually have a life? Were video games better without a narrative, or do you think that everything needs a story (even Tetris)?

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