The Legend of Zelda and The Beginning of the End

More than much has been written about the seminal 1987 NES video game The Legend Of Zelda. And more than much should be written about it; it truly was a landmark game in a multitude of ways. For me, though, it was a landmark game in a personal way. The Legend Of Zelda quite simply revolutionized my understanding of video games, and it so revolutionized my understanding of video games because it ended, because it had an ending.

Prior to the arrival of the Nintendo Entertainment System in the fall of 1987 (which was when it arrived in my neighborhood, at least), I was an avid Atari player. I had an Atari 2600 and (thanks to creative bartering and trading with my friends) most of (what would become) the classic 2600 games. I also played as regularly as I could afford at the local arcades (we had two: Aladdin’s Castle in the Westland Mall and Putt Putt Golf and Games). And I truly enjoyed both the 2600 games and the arcade games, enjoyed them so much that I was at first ambivalent about the newcomer Nintendo; I didn’t revile it (as we all distinctly reviled almost anything we didn’t want back then), but I wasn’t immediately attracted to it, either. Eventually, though, I became somewhat interested in the Nintendo (probably more for the novelty factor than any other; I liked the idea of being the first and only kid who had it) and put it on my Christmas list. Knowing I needed some games to go with it, I put The Legend Of Zelda on that list as well. I did so purely because I thought the name Zelda was funny and because I liked the commercial with the quirky guy yelling, “Zelda! Zelda?” I hadn’t really even considered what kind of game or how good a game it might be; in fact, other than the brief shots shown on the commercial, I hadn’t even seen the game. When Christmas came, both the Nintendo and The Legend Of Zelda were under the tree. Soon, I had the Nintendo hooked up, and after messing around a little with Super Mario Brothers (which is what I wanted to play more than anything), I slid The Legend Of Zelda in. Now I knew that the game had to be something special, because it had a huge manual, a fold-out map, and was gold rather than the standard gray. I also knew it had to be something special because I couldn’t immediately figure how to play it or what to do in it as I could most Atari games. And I further knew it had to be special because I didn’t see a score bar anywhere on the screen. It wasn’t until I was about six screens in, though, that the revolution occurred. Somehow, I immediately worked my way up to the hollow tree on the island (I can’t remember now if I did this using the map or not, but it is somewhat impressive either way, especially considering that some of my friends went through twenty or so screens without even getting the sword in the cave on the first screen). Knowing that the hollow tree had to be something good, I entered it and found myself in the first dungeon. And at that moment, it happened; at that moment, the revolution both began and concluded, leaving me changed forever; at that moment, I realized, “Holy Cow! This game ends! This game has a goal! This game can be completed!” Unfortunately, my mother called for me to get into the car at this exact same moment; it was time to go to Grandma’s house, and so I wouldn’t get to work on this goal for another eight hours.

Now this idea of a game having an ending, of a game having a goal or being able to be completed, might not seem so revolutionary to gamers today, but it was unbelievably revolutionary to me and to my friends. We had never really seen a game that ended before (that is not to say that such a game didn’t exist before Zelda or that Zelda was the first; it is just to say that we had had never seen such a game). Most Atari games couldn’t be completed in this way; they didn’t have any goal other than the scoring of points (a goal The Legend Of Zelda did not have, as I mentioned before). The only purpose in playing these games (besides having fun) was to get the highest score you could before you lost all your lives and the game ended (which was inevitable). Even those Atari games that did have some sort of goal (like Adventure or, to a lesser extent, Vanguard) didn’t have the same kind of goal that The Legend Of Zelda did; reaching the goal of those games was more like winning a game of chess than it was completing a quest; you may have won the round but you didn’t end the game. And while there were other games in the arcade that could be completed (such as Kung Fu and even the previously-named Super Mario Brothers) nobody knew they could be completed because nobody had enough money to or was good enough to play them long enough to complete them. So even if it The Legend Of Zelda was not the first game to have such an end (and I’m not certain that it isn’t; I think the fact that it did not keep score, as Kung Fu and Super Mario Brothers and the others did, indicates that it was in a completely different class and was quite possibly the first in that class), it was the first to us and so revolutionized us. It changed the way we played; I very rarely if ever played a game for points after The Legend Of Zelda, and even looked down at the idea of playing for points. It also gave us a new vocabulary; we talked about “beating” a game (my preferred term) or “finishing” a game (a term I’ve heard frequently) or “mastering” a game (a term used by the gaming father of a friend). Nothing was the same after The Legend Of Zelda, at least not for me; that game truly revolutionized the way I played and regarded video games forever; it was the beginning of “The End”.


Doug is a child of the 80s who was raised in Ohio and is now living the life of oblivion in the bay area of California.

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