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Growing Up Zelda

LinkThe gang over at the rllmukforum is having a bit of a love-in for The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, discussing some of the game's finer points and sharing their experiences on playing the game.  It's an enjoyable read and reminded me of a lot of little character and scene moments that I'd forgotten, and that in turn led me to thinking about my own experiences with the Zelda franchise.  The Super Mario games have always been my first gaming love, but there's something about The Legend of Zelda that demands respect.  This is probably because in recent years the Zelda franchise has helped me through a difficult time in my life.

My first exposure to the Zelda legend was in 1988 at the age of seven when my parents gave me Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.  I liked it, didn't really know what I was doing half the time in it, and ended up lost on Death Mountain just about every time in search of the hammer.  The game was popular in the neighborhood though, so the game pak was frequently loaned out in exchange for other games.  I had my own file on the Zelda game pak, but I also created a second file called FRIENDS for others on the game trade to use.  By the time the game came back to me, the FRIENDS file had been completed and my own little MATTHEW file was still stuck on Death Mountain.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was another gift from my parents, this time coming during a particularly rainy time of year.  Day after day of rain kept me indoors and glued to the television as I tried to discover the secrets behind the sorcerer Agahnim and gather the pendants.  This was the first Zelda game that I actually played from start to finish, as something about it just kept me coming back for more.  I bought the Game Boy Link's Awakening for myself just prior to a massive thunderstorm knocking down a power poll near my home, so journeys through Koholint kept me occupied for the several days we were without power.

It wasn't until Ocarina of Time rolled around that the Zelda trap firmly ensnared me.  Like many gamers out there, I'm sure, the early preview pictures and rumors that circulated on the Internet demanded I buy the game, as the prospect of a full massive 3D adventure quest was too promising to ignore.  Unfortunately my hometown of Titusville, Florida was a video game wasteland.  The only stores that sold games at the time were Wal-Mart and K-Mart, both of which had pitiful selections of older titles.  I made the one hour drive to nearby Merritt Island and preordered the game (the first time I'd ever preordered anything) weeks ahead of release.  When I received the call in early November 1998 that the game was ready for pickup, I skipped a day of high school to drive out to the Waldensoftware to claim the game and bring it home.  I spent the rest of the day and the weekend after wrapped up in Ocarina and, weeks later, completed the quest.

The whining and retching of the Internet community upon the revelation of Wind Waker's cel-shaded graphics are infamous now, but at the time I was almost swayed to skip this chapter in the Zelda saga.  It wasn't until I saw the Japanese version of the game in action during an office tour of game developer N-Space that I was captured by it.  I preordered the very next weekend, snagging the Master Quest bonus disc in the process.

It was around this time that my health began to fail.  Ever since the age of thirteen I have dealt with Crohn's Disease, an inflammation of the digestive tract that restricts what I am able to eat and how much physical activity I can handle.  It is also very painful, and as my illness flared up I was forced to withdraw from my college classes and take a leave of absence from my job.  By February 2003 I was spending most every painful day in bed, living off a combination of painkillers and water.  Family and friends would check in on me several times a week to run errands as I waited for my physician to assemble a surgical team to remove sections of my damaged intestine.  The day of Wind Waker's release I sent my grandfather to the store with my claim ticket.

Even today you'll hear gamers bash Wind Waker's visuals or gameplay.  You'll never hear that from me though.  You'll also hear that a twenty-something man should not play a Nintendo video game, as they're "just for kids".  Again, you'll never hear that from me.  Even though I was trapped in my apartment by my continually deteriorating health, I spent nearly two months going to Hyrule each day.  Whenever I wasn't asleep I'd sail and seas and explore the dungeons, confined to bed yet free to roam the world.  Wind Waker gave me a purpose during this difficult time; since I was physically unable to do anything besides watch television, write, and sleep, it provided me with a goal to meet while the rest of the world continued on without me.

Two days before I went in for surgery I completed Wind Waker.  I rushed to finish the game, as I wanted to see how the story ended in case the surgery failed and I wouldn't be coming home.  The operation was a success, thank goodness, and after a period of recovery I am in much better health these days.  I haven't returned to Wind Waker, however.  There's a whole second quest to explore now that I've finished the first quest, but I just can't get myself to go back.  The game is so intertwined with the dreadful memories and painful feelings of the time that, two years later, I'm not ready to go back just yet.

Someday I'll sail the seas again, but not today.