Though Mario remains the more beloved character, Zelda is the more enduring title, because it was a progenitor of what video games have become over the last 25 years. Consider that it was the first game that:
- Allowed you to save your progress, without the need of any codes or add-ons. Games like Metroid and Kid Icarus had made you input codes to get sort-of near where you last played, but only Zelda let you pick up exactly where you left off, with exactly as much stuff as you had when you left off.
- Required an enormous amount of time to complete.
- Had tons of secrets and extras you had to figure out yourself. Unlike most video games of the era, it was solvable not by repetition, but creative problem solving.
Zelda wasn't meant to be a game you played for a little bit and then put down. It was meant to be a universe you immersed yourself in, one that you had to discover for yourself. That's why it came with a map with huge portions of it missing. (I filled in my copy as I went along, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.)
These were all revolutionary ideas for the time, and technology had just advanced to the point where such a game was possible. The original game contained a small lithium battery that allowed you to save your game (as long as you remembered to reset before turning off the NES). It brought video games out of the scrolling, Flintstone-ian universe of Super Mario Brothers and into the world we know now.
My first encounter with Zelda was this bizarre ad. I can't say this made me want to play the game, but it did grab my attention and intrigue me, mostly because I had no idea what was going on in it. The game itself is not so much the focus as the weird antics/voice of the man in the black unitard. (The man's name is John Kassir, best known for being the voice of The Cryptkeeper. So, yeah.)
The first time I actually played the game was at my cousin's house, which was where I probably played every new game--be it video, board, or other--for the first time. This detail would be unremarkable except that the reason I was at my cousin's house at this time was because we all had to go to a family funeral.
The kids were not happy about having to abandon the gaming when it was time to go to the funeral home, so we brought along Zelda's enormous instruction manual to examine at length, trying to learn its secrets and occasionally saying the names of the enemies in the same weird voices we heard in the ad above. We were doing this at a wake as people wept and grieved, completely oblivious. I do remember feeling the occasional pang of guilt but then, ooh look, Dodongos dislike smoke!
I've played almost every Zelda game ever for each system Nintendo's put out over the years. (I think of myself as a Nintendo man the way some people think of themselves as Ford or Chevy men.) And while I've enjoyed many of them--particularly the ones put out for Nintendo 64 like The Ocarina of Time--the original remains my favorite, and I think not just for nostalgic reasons.
Zelda is one of those rare instances where subsequent advances in graphics and technology didn't make the fun of the original pale in comparison. In retrospect, it seems not simplistic or cartoonish, but minimalist--if you can call something that requires to much time to play minimalist. It had exactly as much detail and complication as it needed, no more, no less.
I spent hundreds of hours playing the original NES games, but Zelda is the only one of them I can imagine myself wasting so much time on now. It's one of the few I can imagine kids nowadays playing, too, because it is one of the few that wouldn't look paleolithic to the gamer of today.
I am also sure that when I shuffle off this mortal coil, there will be a bunch of kids saying TEKTITES at my wake. Clearly, karma demands it.