I grew up in a house with an NES and two significantly older brothers, which means that I have had the map from The Legend of Zelda imprinted on me since before my long-term memories even begin.
From the time I was old enough to hold a controller, I’ve known which tree to burn down to get an easy heart container, where to obtain the cheapest shield, and which dungeons to buy food before attempting. I don’t know where they learned it all – I have almost no clear memories of watching them play – but I was the beneficiary of whatever combination of trial and error and knowledge gleaned from old Nintendo Power magazines and playground word of mouth.
I can’t draw the dungeons from memory, but upon entering and seeing that particular level’s colour palette I’d find that more often than not I know which direction to go. All this was still true the last time I played The Legend of Zelda, occupying the long, slow pandemic days with my three-year-old by making our way through the series in 20-minute bursts. But it wasn’t until we tried the series’ original entry shortly after savouring the slow-build exploration of Breath of the Wild that I realised I had been doing it wrong my entire life.
For a game that’s about discovery – that was ostensibly inspired by Shigeru Miyamoto’s expeditions into the forests and caves near his childhood home – playing it with this internal GPS felt for the first time like cheating. So, I attempted something I had been putting off my whole life: playing The Legend of Zelda’s Second Quest, the rearranged, far more difficult adventure.
Included as a secret bonus on the cartridge, I always put it off, saying I’d come back another time. I think I was scared of it, that it would expose me as some kind of fraud, dependent on the home field advantage my mental map gave me. What would happen if I tried it and shattered the illusion that I was any good at this?
What I did know about Second Quest only fuelled these fears; I must have watched one of my siblings try it at least once. I remembered that one of the dungeons continued past the point where you got the Triforce. I remembered a dungeon that was accessed by bombing a wall across a river, but not which one or exactly where. I knew enough to anticipate rooms swarming with Darknuts and Wizzrobes. I was ready for everything to be different, that I would know next to nothing. Instead of navigating via turn-by-turn directions, what I had to go on was the diary Indiana Jones’ dad leaves behind in The Last Crusade, all scattered clues and cryptic secrets.
Still, I hadn’t expected it to be so surreal, like visiting your hometown and discovering all its landmarks had been rearranged. Something was off. This was wrong. The first dungeon may have been in the same place, but all the nooks and crannies I’d stop by on the way to it were gone. Even being prepared for differences didn’t stop me from bombing the same spot on the rock or trying to set fire to the same tree multiple times, looking for the old standbys.
As I progressed through Second Quest, this disorientation grew more deep-seated, an assault on some base level of my memories akin to Proust pulling his hand from his mouth and finding he was really nibbling on a Dorito. This was a sensation of a ruined world far greater than those provided by The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Final Fantasy VI because it was happening entirely in my head. Starting the Second Quest collapsed all the times I had played the First into one another. It felt as though I had been gone for decades, and the changes I was finding were something that had happened in the interim. It felt as though the ownership I had once claimed had been taken away.
And I wanted it back. I wanted to be from there again. We drew a map, because my kid loves maps and because I couldn’t find the sixth or the seventh or the eighth dungeon levels. We charted a grid and marked which square contained which secret, looking for empty quarters in which the next one might be found, as if we were firing ranging shots in a game of Battleship. I scoured the map looking for the letter that would allow me to buy health-refilling potions. I stumbled upon the final level before I had found the fourth one. I climbed every mountain, forded every stream, bombed every cliff face, burned every tree. I was determined not to look at a guide, but the one concession to the cheats of modern technology was to rewind after my failed attempts at carpet bombing an entire screen’s worth of rock wall so I didn’t have to go harvest more bombs from the blue Moblins each time.
I grew obsessive with filling in the gaps in my knowledge. My kid grew bored, even if he appreciated that my obsession led to us playing far beyond the agreed upon time limits. I don’t think I would have reacted so strongly if you had rearranged everything in the place where I grew up. That’s already happened; everything has moved, and I can recognise it only because I go back every year or two to visit my parents. But I never felt this kind of ownership over that map. As a kid, it was something I was spirited through, sitting in the back seat reading those same Nintendo Powers as they were passed down to me. My hometown was a constellation of destinations, while the Hyrule of The Legend of Zelda was a web of possible paths and journeys. Even as a child, it was something I had agency, even a kind of mastery, over. Is it any surprise that this fictional place lodged itself more deeply in my psyche than the real world? Is it any surprise that I wanted to reclaim that feeling?
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When I did, it wasn’t how I expected. Somewhere in the course of my wanderings, scouring dungeons I had already completed looking for an item that might allow me to proceed, I got good. I developed an intuition for which walls were going to be bomb-able and which held invisible passages into the next room. I could chart a path through swirling eddies of enemies as if they were a bunkered defence for Link to dribble through, and if I had to defeat them all to open the next door, then the process would just take a little longer than running did. The knowledge I had always brought to the First Quest had been a crutch, because I anticipated every dangerous situation and entered well-equipped to tackle them. Here I had to improvise, to get into trouble and play my way out of it. It was hard, until it wasn’t.
It took an inordinate amount of time for me to find the simple secret to opening Level 6, but when I did, I yelped for joy. The jolt of finally getting unstuck, the lifting of that frustration, gave me the momentum to sail through the endgame. Attempted discovery no longer felt like a chore. The map paid off big time. With all the practice I already had, the remaining dungeons, their bosses, even Ganon himself proved relatively easy. The grind of exploration I had always missed out on made me, for the first time, play The Legend of Zelda as an adult would. It took me beyond nostalgia, to a place where I could make the game my own.