I’ve had Zelda on the brain for a while now (AKA my entire life), and while playing Breath of the Wild one day, I thought about how confusing it can be. It feels like the 30-year sequel to the first Zelda, the original open-world masterpiece. The Legend of Zelda for NES could be confusing too, and this is a common criticism in the face of all the praise it gets. But Zelda‘s wild-west design resounded to present day through online gaming communities. How, though?
1986 Zelda wasn’t ruthless, but its players were mostly hung out to dry. Aside from the general point of the game, it had no long-term direction. There were eight dungeons in the world…somewhere. And there were secrets, hearts, and items hidden…someplace. You could save your progress and keep these things when you found them, a major bonus. But just when you’d made it somewhere new, the game starts you at square one with each new session.
Looking at the “map” tells you nothing about its layout or terrain. You only saw which screen you were on relative to all the other screens. If you weren’t paying attention to where you found that nifty heart piece in the ocean, it was on you. There were secrets around every corner, but the only way to find them was through your own intuition.
If you’re wondering how this ties into gaming online, it’s coming. See, Zelda was one of the earliest games to take advantage of its community aspect. I’m not looking to read the designers’ minds, but I think the game’s simplicity plays into this idea. The most famous anecdote about Zelda‘s inspiration comes from lead designer Shigeru Miyamoto. He wanted to recreate the feeling of pure, unpredictable exploration that he had exploring the woods near his home during childhood. By making a virtual world, he saw the opportunity to create new terrain for people to explore.
Keep in mind, also, that in 1986, games mostly appealed to kids. Furthermore, there was no Internet to help people congregate and talk about games. The closest we got to “tips and tricks” was Nintendo Power (R.I.P). This meant that if an 8-year-old was looking for secrets in Zelda, his best tools were himself and any friends who played it.
When the New World was being discovered by European explorers, what did we see? It wasn’t all obvious where things were. They had to scout, experiment, and exchange information. There were often gaps in their understanding. The geography of the territory they were exploring wasn’t clear-cut the way it is now. Co-operation was the key to progress.
Same thing with Zelda. Maybe one kid was great at finding dungeons while his friend could find his way to the far edges of the map to look for secrets. These two could help each other out to create a bigger picture. The game not only became more fun and interesting, it also brought people together.
With the mass popularization of the web, this community aspect of gaming has changed a lot. I could look up a 100% completion guide to The Legend of Zelda and get all the information at my fingertips from a dozen different sources. But just as there are more ways of talking about games, games themselves have gotten bigger.
MMORPGs like Guild Wars, WoW, and so on have massive communities that constantly put out information to help newcomers. Open-world franchises like Final Fantasy, the Elder Scrolls, and to a certain extent Zelda have expanded to the point where its huge communities can still bond over them.
Although it started small, the vision of exploration from games like Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, and The Legend of Zelda have reached their full potential after three decades. And what potential it is — the energy of a community of virtual explorers is so infectious and widespread that people have now made careers out of it. From the kid next door to thousands of YouTube users, sharing is still caring in the world of video games.