In 1899, Kate Chopin published a short novel called The Awakening. Considered controversial at the time for its feminist themes and the candid way in which it deals with female sexuality, it has gone on to become a major headache for unsuspecting high-school and college literature students everywhere.
Thankfully, this essay has nothing to do with it.
The “awakening” I’m referring to was—for lack of a better term—an event that took place during my freshman year of high school, though it was not related to school itself. In June of 1988, I celebrated my fourteenth birthday. One of the gifts I received was a Nintendo game called The Legend of Zelda. Since then, it has spawned numerous sequels across numerous systems, has been featured in cartoons and comic books, and has appeared on t-shirts, tote bags, and even cereal boxes, but at the time it was a brand-new thing. I had gotten a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) the previous Christmas, and, having grown weary of Super Mario Bros., the game that came with it and of which I had at one time been a rabid fan, and Elevator Action, the second title I had picked up, I was eager to get into something else. I had no idea what Zelda was all about. At that time, the Internet as we know it today didn’t exist, of course, so you could only get information about NES games from Nintendo Fun Club News (the precursor to Nintendo Power), to which I did not have a subscription, or from word of mouth. I didn’t know anyone who had played the game, but I had seen a lot of commercials for it, so I decided to give it a shot. After all, Nintendo had cultivated a reputation for quality, so the odds of its being a letdown were slim.
I imagine that for many players Zelda was a revolutionary game, as it was for me. Up to that point, most console games lacked an adventure component. The aforementioned Super Mario Bros., for example, only allowed you to go in a predetermined direction, and backtracking was not permitted. If you missed something, you had no choice but to suck it up and keep going. Zelda was different. Its world was open and, for the time, vast. You could revisit areas again and again. In fact, one of the chief elements of the game was exploration. You were not told what to do or how to do it. You had to figure everything out through trial and error, to traverse deadly forests and spooky graveyards to find the entrances to the game’s various levels. You had to determine how weapons and items worked and when they should be used. A map and instruction manual were included, but they only told you so much. Every now and then a wise old man in a cave would give you a clue, but it was often cryptic. For the most part, you were on your own.
Computer-game players were already familiar with this kind of thing. Games like Ultima, Wizardry, and Bard’s Tale worked this way. The difference was that while these games required exploration and puzzle solving, they lacked action. The outcomes of battles were resolved by the computer, in a fashion similar to tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs). In a sense, the computer rolled the dice for you during an encounter and told you the outcome. In many of these games, the player controlled an entire party of characters rather than just one. The reason for this is that tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) are designed to be played by a group rather than an individual, with each player having a specific function within the party (a fighter for combat, a wizard for magic, a cleric for healing, et cetera).
Zelda, by contrast, was an action game through and through. It required fast reflexes and could be terribly frustrating at times, particularly if you wandered into an area filled with monsters you were not prepared to fight. Like computer adventure games, it had an overhead view rather than a side-scrolling one. Its closest antecedent was the Atari 2600’s Adventure, but while this game required exploration and experimentation and featured rudimentary action sequences (mostly running from dragons or trying to stab them), it was much smaller in scope, did not allow you to carry more than one item at a time, and had primitive graphics due to the system’s limitations. No one had seen anything like Zelda before.
As I recall, it took me about a month to conquer it. For those four weeks, it was pretty much all I thought about. I even took the map with me when we went on vacation. It was the most immersive game I had ever encountered. But the experience of playing the game, while rewarding, was not the most important thing. I got something much greater out of it. It was my introduction to fantasy.
As an avid collector of Masters of the Universe (MoTU) action figures and a devoted fan of the tie-in cartoon during my younger years, I had been exposed to the concept of fantasy, but I had never really thought of it as a genre. I didn't even know what “genre” meant. I just found it cool that the warriors fought with swords and axes and that there were magic and monsters involved. D&D had become huge by the early 1980s, and many toy lines reflected its influence. I was a fan of many of the MoTU knockoffs, as well, including Thundercats, Blackstar, and The Other World, the first two of which also had their own cartoons. There was even a toy line actually based on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which was the preeminent version of the game at the time. The most memorable figure was probably Warduke, who was later made into a miniature as part of the D&D Miniatures set “War Drums.” Of course, there was also the D&D cartoon (the “Advanced” was likely removed to prevent confusion, although that didn't stop DC Comics from using it in the title of its early-'90s comic book series), which was fairly controversial due to the absurd allegations that the game was linked to suicide, antisocial behavior, and devil worship. I can remember watching it standing up so I could keep an eye on the door of my parents' bedroom. Not even kidding.
By the time Zelda came along I hadn't given fantasy much thought in several years, having become instead interested in Garbage Pail Kids, Madballs, and horror films like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Soon after I began playing it, I became intrigued by Zelda's fantasy setting, and when I had finished the game I began looking for others in a similar vein. When school started, I met a guy named John (with whom I remain friends to this day), who was a computer- and console-game enthusiast, an RPG player, and a fan of speculative fiction. He was the first full-on nerd I had ever met, and I mean that as an enormous compliment. He introduced me to D&D, Commodore 64 adventure games (with their cloth maps and copy-protection wheels), and Dragonlance novels. (I subsequently turned him onto Forgotten Realms novels, thus returning the favor.) It didn't take long to realize that I was onto something big. At the start of 1989, I began collecting comic books. I had grown up enjoying Superfriends, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, and The Incredible Hulk on Saturday mornings, but I was a reluctant reader, so I had never bought many comics. Even though most comic books are not fantasy in the strictest sense, they feature speculative tales of a similar nature and borrow elements from fantasy, so there are, therefore, a lot of crossover fans. There's a reason that many comic-book shops also carry RPG books and accessories.
The “awakening” was, hence, my discovery of fantasy fandom. In the span of just a few months, I had found my niche, and I have remained there ever since. Today, I have a comic-book and magazine collection that would have made fourteen-year-old me lose control of his bodily functions. I have well over 700 miniatures, a plethora of dice (especially d20s, my favorites), and a number of publications related to fantasy games going back to the 1970s, which are just engaging to read. I have used my writing ability as a means of sharing my passion, contributing to the hobby, and “giving back” to the community. I have found incalculable joy in the books and games I have picked up during the last 28 years.
I cannot imagine what my life would have been like if I had never slid The Legend of Zelda into my Nintendo Entertainment System in the summer of 1988. Traversing the environs of the fictional world of Hyrule helped me discover myself.