Culture on My Mind
May 7, 2021
This week, I have The Legend of Zelda on my mind.
We joined the Nintendo Switch crowd last Christmas and I finally got the chance to dive into the experience of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. That game has simply blown me away. Embracing an open-world approach to gameplay, Breath of the Wild tells a grand story that is completely up to the player to structure as they see fit.
After the tutorial phase is completed, the player could easily take Link into the heart of evil and confront Ganon. Such an approach would be foolhardy of course, but the point is that conquering the dungeons is not a requirement this time around. On the other hand, the depth of the story, from the main quests to the various side quests and treasure hunts, is spectacular. There are a ton of stories across the Kingdom of Hyrule, and that’s what has kept me from finishing the game after nearly half a year of playing it.
I mean, yes, I feel bad leaving Princess Zelda in the lurch against the awesome power of Ganon while I gather crickets, buy a house, and broaden my wardrobe of armors, but the rich tableau is just that addictive.
One of the aspects I love is the music. Manaka Kataoka, Yasuaki Iwata, and Hajime Wakai have composed a beautiful score that couples new themes with re-orchestrated tributes to the now 35-year-old history of the franchise. If you’re familiar with Zelda‘s musical history, there’s no finer example than the two Hyrule Castle themes in Breath of the Wild.
Among those tributes, however, was a theme that took me back to my childhood with a just a tiny bit of the nerves.
Welcome back to Death Mountain, it said.
The original Legend of Zelda was a (pun intended) game-changer in 1986 because it offered the possibility of preserving your progress with dedicated save files. Being able to pick up an adventure right where you left off is a standard now, but it was quite the novelty then. Over quite a long period, I fought my way across Hyrule and gathered the eight pieces of the Triforce of Wisdom, but then sat the game down for a while.
During that time, my brother Nick was living in Washington and we wrote each other on a semi-regular basis. I sent him a letter that talked about school and life and my plans to storm Death Mountain. He had told me before about how difficult the dungeon was, but when he wrote back, he included a hand-drawn map of the level.
The map is lost to time now, but it still remains one of my treasured memories. It was photocopied from the original with custom artwork in the corner of Link rushing to the rescue. The maze of rooms and passages was coded by number and provided an easy to follow guide to the endgame. He even provided a suggested path that included the big treasures and simplest road to victory.
The battle itself, of course, was completely up to me.
I remember that it was a Sunday morning when I decided to tackle the level. All through the game, the music had been the same mix of the Overworld and the Dungeon themes, so I really had no idea what to expect in the final dungeon. The first step into the labyrinth brought the dark beats of the Death Mountain theme and I had to take a few minutes before leaving the opening room just to let it sink in.
The theme faded into the atmosphere as I ground my way through the level. I picked up the Red Ring to boost my defenses. I found the Silver Arrow, which is the only weapon that can kill Ganon. I meticulously tracked my progress and ended up at the room before the big battle.
This is where I lost it.
The Legend of Zelda was the first Nintendo game I had ever finished. When I reached that penultimate room, I knew that I was close to that milestone and my nerves hit me hard. Without even pausing the game, I sat the controller down and closed my eyes. While I centered myself, the music kept playing. After a few minutes, I picked up the controller again and walked into Ganon’s chamber.
The room was pitch black. Link held up the Triforce. Ganon snarled in the light. The fight was a blur but I distinctly remember firing the Silver Arrow and turning Ganon into dust, revealing the Triforce of Power.
I knew I had done it. I had beat the game. I entered the last chamber, met Princess Zelda, and watched the credits roll in a state of euphoria. It was amazing.
Looping back to Breath of the Wild, part of the story takes Link to Death Mountain. The game’s tribute to that theme caught me off guard. As I was climbing around the rocks those familiar notes took me right back to that feeling of nervous euphoria. I stopped for a moment and listened, remembering the story I recounted today, before smiling and climbing onward.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild could rest as a wonderful capstone to the franchise but we already know that it’s not the end of the line. It could easily be the basis for the oft-requested Zelda live-action or animated adaptation. So much of that is the story and the setting and the music and the artistry, but a big slice of it is personal. It’s my adoration of the mythology and the adventure.
It is the memories of working hard on something and reaching the payoff. It is the connection I share with my brother in a simple map to help me along the way.
It’s probably why The Legend of Zelda is my favorite video game franchise of all time.
I guess, in a way, I owe it to Death Mountain.
Culture on My Mind is inspired by the weekly Can’t Let It Go segment on the NPR Politics Podcast where each host brings one thing to the table that they just can’t stop thinking about.
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