I was fourteen, currently in the third year of my hiatus from videogames. The experience that drove me away? Moonwalker, on the Sega Genesis. In case you never had the pleasure, go ahead and Wikipedia this little pop-coated gem, in which the player “follows Michael Jackson, using various music and dance related abilities, on a quest to save kidnapped children from the hands of the evil Mr. Big.”
Curiously, it’s still a popular game with the NAMBLA crowd. I’d tell you to google who that wholesome group is, but you probably don’t want the FBI checking out every porn file your IP address has accidentally gone to. From when that cat jumped on your keyboard. Ten minutes
Anyway, Moonwalker was already an old game by then, not exactly in the top tier of offerings. But with the bitter, world-weary cynicism that comes from entering middle-school, I judged an entire medium based on its worst example and proceeded to shun it. A skill I would later use as an adult when dealing with minorities, and women. But videogames deserved better.
Then, on an early Saturday in December three years later, a friend brought over something called a Nintendo 64. I had a Nintendo once, I thought. What a child’s toy. I was fourteen now. I was in Advanced Algebra. I worked at Big Lots for TEN HOURS A WEEK AFTER SCHOOL.
I played the fucking trumpet.
I was a man.
And men did not spend their weekends bouncing little racial stereotypes off floating bricks and riding around on enslaved dinosaur babies. But my friend was over, and we had hours to kill until Event Horizon came on HBO (I miss you, appointment-only premium cable packaging. You’re like the valedictorian with high aspirations who gets knocked up when she’s nineteen and dedicates her entire life to her child. And that child grows up to be Netflix). So, we connected my friend’s Nintendo 64 to my thirteen-inch Philips Magnavox with the garbled speakers and he slotted in a fat, golden cartridge. Why is it gold, I thought? That’s stupid.
Then the heavens opened up, the unencumbered and unlimited glories of the divine poured forth, and Link and Epona galloped across Hyrule while the words “Press Start” blinked in cheerful, Christmas red. Also, the controller shook when you got hit. Which was nothing new by then, but it was a first for me. It’s probably a good idea they didn’t have a rumble-pack option with Moonwalker.
Over the next eight hours, my friend and I careened through a world that felt as fresh and awe-inspiring as the first time I read The Hobbit when I was seven. You didn’t just mash buttons. You didn’t have just two minutes to complete a level before moving on to another level that looked identical save for a slightly different color and a few more random objects floating in the background. You didn’t just run to the fucking right side of the screen. You explored. You talked to people at will. You could raise your head and watch the moon speed through its orbit. And the first time that child-Link fumbles open a treasure chest and triumphantly thrusts the Kokiri Sword to the sky? Well, I can only imagine that’s the feeling that junkies are chasing after when they tie rubber tubing around increasingly sensitive and private areas of their bodies and jam them full of heroin.
I’m well aware of the other innovative games I’d missed out on up to that point. Three dimensional gaming had been going strong for a while by then. But this was my first foray into that world, and there was no better vehicle to access it than a tiny forest boy who was mercilessly derided by his neighbors for not having his own fairy.
Even by the institutionally-high expectations of the Zelda franchise, Ocarina of Time stands well above its brethren. Don’t misunderstand: despite the gaming naivety of my fourteen-year-old-self, once I donned the green tunic in OOT, I backtracked each and every single console Zelda game and have experienced each new game upon its debut (I’ve never played the handheld games because I’ve never had a handheld gaming device. Because when I’m riding on the bus downtown, I’m looking to buy hookers, not heart potions). So I’m not just speaking fondly of the game that broke my 64-bit hymen. I’ve been with Link through it all. And nothing before or after OOT was such an evolutionary lunge forward.
The praise and adoration it receives to this day are a testament to its staying power, to that indefinable something that makes it transcend a mass of pixels and coding. There’s a feeling of awe in OOT that is a tough feat to pull off even by today’s games. Skyrim, for example. Now, I love Skyrim. It truly is the shape of things to come in terms of artificial worlds and entertainment. And it certainly doesn’t lack graphically. I recently drove twenty-five hundred miles across the country, from California to Michigan, without taking a single photograph. I detoured past the Grand Canyon because I was on a strict schedule determined by the battery life in my iPod. But in my hotel one night, I immediately clicked on a Yahoo! article that listed the ten most scenic places to visit in Skyrim. And the gameplay is more than enticing. During my time in that Nordic paradise, I’ve fought a continent-wide civil war, plumbed the depths of physical reality at the College of Winterhold, cursed and then cured myself of a psychotically powerful werewolf form, ascended into the heavens and slain the God of Destruction, and knocked dragons out of the sky with MY FUCKING VOICE and ripped their souls out of their still-cooling corpses. Also, I’ve collected several varieties of butterflies and purchased very tasteful bedroom sets for my property in Solitude.
But for all that, it still pales slightly in comparison to the memory of entering the Temple of Time and seeing the Master Sword ready to be drawn, with the gregorian chant on the soundtrack. You knew something special was about to happen, and it does — you travel forward in time seven years, gaining the body of an adult and the ability to wield that sword like a pointy-eared pimp. The moment preceding this is empty of conflict; it just lets you look around, enjoy the badass vibes, and then step forward and claim your destiny. In Skyrim, such moments seem to be constantly interrupted by a polar bear looking to maul you, or a skooma-pushing Orc looking to shank you in the ribs for not buying his product, or yet another spider or cave-dwelling beastie that jumps on you when you just want to look around and admire that waterfall in 1080p. Also, I’m concerned about how enthusiastic Skyrim has made me to loot the recently deceased. In Ocarina, when you kill the final incarnation of Ganondorf and save the realm, you don’t immediately lay him out and strip his corpse for the gold in his fillings. Skyrim has made me ready to cut the pacemaker out of my grandfather’s chest and melt it down for the scrap.
It just seems like the Legend of Zelda makers enjoy a feeling of reverence and awe in their storytelling, and know how to translate that to a videogame. And nowhere was this better exemplified than in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. What other game has led to grown men posting youtube videos of themselves playing Ocarina songs on their iPhone app?