So we imagine ourselves to be, what, the heroes of our own stories? The protagonists of whatever story we think it is that’s being told? Or worse, some sort of god with the privilege of directing the protagonist; a consciousness that’s been put in charge of a body in the world, tasked with saving it, redeeming it, making it so that there was a purpose all along.
The bulk of our task is to find soft places in the world. Places where we pass from the seen Overworld to the hidden Underworld, and plumb the depths of dungeons to excise monsters that lurk beneath the surface of all things. This, at least, is classic Zelda, but A Link to the Past introduces a second sort of soft place in the form of portals to its bespoke gimmick, a shadow world with its own dungeons and monsters.
The portal to faerie is a common enough image; the eccentric space where the border of the world frays. That space when you push through the bushes at the back of your yard, or the room in the basement of the school, or the corner of the store where the Nintendo used to be. The dungeon is one example, certainly – a space that opens up into a vast interior whose dimensions are utterly unsuggested by its mere gateway. But this is a different sort of example – not a cave carved into the world, but the world’s shadow; the Dark World; the second quest. The place that is not here, where we are not ourselves.
As such, we are the only person there. The only one who knows our sins and our triumphs. Only us, our arms stretched outwards, amputated stumps grasping desperately for some means of controlling the world. All of this is predicated, of course, on the idea that some means of controlling the world exists, as opposed to the likely reality that we are in fact just the chaotic after-images of a sufficiently complex algorithm.
It’s a matter of curious existential fact that the childhood of the Legend of Zelda series is, in Zelda canon, a discarded dystopia caused by a failure to beat the 1998 release The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. A game I have never beaten because, ultimately, I was pissed off that it’s possible to blow the Skulltula quest before you actually get the quest. I played through that hell in 93 with the bonding plant in Return to Zork, thank you. Which means, I suppose, that this really is my world. The truth of who I am, created by my own later gaming inadequacy.
Certainly it’s a memorable game. A fundamental aspect of my childhood, so essential to my sense of self that it is difficult to quite believe in the possibility of a human consciousness that has not played this game. How can you be truly human if you are not shaped by the precise cultural influences that produced me, after all?
More than that, however, it’s just straight up a good game. The move into the Dark World is a phenomenal twist, expanding on the logic of the second quest from the original Legend of Zelda, turning it from an ultra-high difficulty replay for the most dedicated of fans into a breathtaking twist at once perfectly set up by the acquisition of the Moon Pearl in the third dungeon and played ruthlessly straight by the fact that the game goes to Death Mountain so early on, when that is, following from the NES, the agreed signifier for the endgame of Zelda.
More broadly, the game’s sense of expansion is meticulous and well-done, running on rails for long enough to introduce the mechanics, then widening to the corners of the world, and finally plunging into the Dark World. The eleven proper dungeons are mostly spectacular – you can argue that the final one-two punch of Turtle Rock and the Tower of Ganon is a bit wearying, and I admit to finding the Skull Woods and Thieves’ Town stretch a slog, but this is really the introduction of what is now the defining characteristic of the Zelda series, the dungeon whose mechanics are defined by the specific weapon you get within it. This isn’t 100% consistent – several dungeons use mechanics divorced from their weapons (most obviously the ice dungeon, which gives you an armor upgrade), while others use their weapons as only minor parts (Thieves’ Town just blocks a key path with a stone you can’t move until you get the glove), but in these cases the dungeons still have distinct gimmicks and flavors, which keeps things lively.
The Dark World, we are told, reflects our true nature, which is of course what dark worlds always do. It is a libidinal space of displaced desires; the world we want to avoid having to admit that we want. As with much of the time, the forbidden and libidinous turns out to be a ruined and post-apocalyptic world, although there are some interesting nuances to this. First, of course, is that this is an apocalypse that emerges from a high fantasy milieu, and so is not primarily a bombed out and burnt one. Instead, at its core, it is an overgrown one – a world that has been swallowed up by the ground.
This tracks with an overall shift in our eschatology, away from the lifeless nuclear winter of the 1980s and towards something that is in some key regards more terrifying. Nuclear winter, at least, offers a lifeless planet – a non-world. But this new eschaton is not lifeless, but humanless – a planet that has simply carried on without us. Nuclear winter at least allows us to retain the delusion that we are a protagonist within the narrative, denying the possibility of a world in which we do not feature. The dark world denies us that, forcing us to confront a world that functions without us.
But, of course, Hyrule is hardly a world without fundamental conceptual challenges either. It’s always a bit too easy to deconstruct video game economies, but a kingdom consisting of a castle, a single village, and some outlying and solitary settlements is an odd one; it seems fair to ask, for instance, where the seven kidnapped maidens actually come from within Hyrule. But more to the point, Hyrule in A Link to the Past is portrayed as an already fallen world, plagued by the consequences of the sundering of the Golden Land.
In one sense this would seem to lead inexorably to Ocarina of Time and the subsequent relegation of the initial strand of Zelda games into a dystopian backwater. And it is significant that, for its first three major platforms, the Zelda series consciously moved backwards, with A Link to the Past wearing its prequel status on its sleeve, and Ocarina of Time always being presented as a prequel to this. As originally conceived, in other words, Hyrule is always a fallen world, with Link always attempting to heal the intrinsic damage caused by some previous, half-told version of his own story.
Put another way, each generation of players is tasked with bringing about the world that the previous generation played in – a lineage in reverse, where the future brings about the past. From the perspective of the Super Nintendo Project, of course, there are few possibilities more dystopic. It is, in many ways, the exact opposite of what we try to do, which is to suggest that there is in the past some secret history that can be used to explain a different world than the one we live in. Not that everything we are was already shaped by the generation of gamers who came after us.
And yet there is a secret history. Two, in fact – cases where this structure of eternal regression breaks down. The first is an idiosyncrasy of material history. Even though The Legend of Zelda, the 1987-released game for the Nintendo Entertainment System, is unambiguously the classic and most influential game in the series simply by dint of having influenced all of its influential sequels, by all appearances the 1998-released The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on the Nintendo 64 was the best-selling, despite the fact that Nintendo as a whole had a much smaller overall cultural influence than it had eleven years earlier. The result was that the series re-anchored its own mythology, much as Jumpman did with Super Mario Bros following Donkey Kong. Accordingly, as mentioned, the cycle of regression broke in 2003 when The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker for the largely failed Nintendo Gamecube positioned itself as a sequel to Ocarina of Time, integrating specific and material objects from that game into its own iconography as a secret, buried history.
The second, of course, is The Legend of Zelda itself. This is materially true in terms of game design, where the top-down perspective, sequential dungeon structure, and accumulating arsenal and lifebar all originate, but it’s also true in terms of the scant but oddly tantalizing cosmology – the tripartite force of Power, Courage, and Wisdom that finds its embodiment in Ganon, Link, and Zelda respectively.
There is, of course, an inherent sexism in dividing the mystical force of creation into three parts and then giving two to men and one to a woman, a sexism not entirely separate from the damsel in distress cliche that animates the plot. But under this all there’s something that can be, I think, salvaged and used as a fragile shield against the rocks and arrows of the onrushing future, which is the fact that the masculine is divided between the oppressive and in practice always destructive Power and the heroic Courage. In other words, strength directed outwards is destructive, whereas strength directed inwards is productive.
It’s a small thing, but as the world closes in on the carefully walled digital utopias of childhood, eroding their foundations, it is an important one. For me, A Link to the Past was a case of form following function – a rabbit hole descended in isolation and understood on my own terms. It was a necessary object of culture – a duty I had because of who I was. Its fundamental relationship to my self-identity exists precisely because the actual encounter of self and game was a matter of the utmost privacy. It predated my actual libidinous desires, but all the same, I consumed it alone, in my basement, with nobody watching, and my relationship with it was still fundamentally one of perversity.
It is perhaps wishful thinking to imagine that the best offense is a good defense; that this sort of full retreat from the onrushing future and into our private Dark Worlds might accomplish anything. Worse, there is the real risk that becoming a demiurge in a world defined entirely by ourselves is a fundamentally self-defeating process that brings about the very logic of “exclude the Other” we are ultimately trying to rip out of the psychic landscape.
But the fantasy of the demiurge is a misunderstanding of this process; it is the corruption offered by Power. The path of Courage is ultimately one of the quest – an act of submission to the sequence of dungeons to plumb. It is not the act of becoming a hero, but the act of accepting the sword and the duties it encompasses. The sword is not a means of exerting power over the world, no matter how much it appears otherwise. No, it is, in the end, just another controller; a tool for accepting an identity from somewhere else masquerading as an instrument of divine power.
Of course, isn’t that the definition of an instrument of divine power?