Wednesday, November 26, 2008

For Miyamoto and Company

Yesterday's session of the class I teach started bizarrely. Before the passing period ended, I overheard several of my students talking about, of all things, Mario Kart 64, with one student speaking passionately about the game's sublimity. I never can stay out of these things, so I said, "Wait. I thought Mario Kart DS was the best one! That seems to be the consensus..."

One student responded that in fact, Mario Kart is best experienced in front of a large TV with a small crowd of jostling friends and lots of noise--not huddled over a DS. I was impressed with if not totally convinced by this answer, because I do think that context is important for the way we experience video games, and maybe it's a topic for another time, but I would go so far as to say that the way we experience games can exert a strong influence on our understanding of their meaning. One of my other students suggested that the best possible experience is playing with Nintendo 64 controllers, and I said that I absolutely disagreed, though I admitted to having a soft spot for those awful things.

Most of the participants in this ridiculous conversation had a firm opinion on which game in the series was the best (though none of my nineteen-year-old charges has experienced the original Super Mario Kart), and it was while things were being shouted across the room about whether Double Dash or 64 was the better game that I said, "Hey, it's been ten years since Ocarina of Time came out. Ten years this week--ten years almost to the day since I played that for the first time."

This didn't shift the conversation; it still wasn't time to start class, so I didn't have everyone's attention, and there was too much momentum on the Mario Kart question, and the all-important issue of how much Mario Kart Wii let humanity down was under discussion. But one student did turn to me and say, "Happy anniversary." I said I appreciated the sentiment, but it wasn't really my anniversary.

Then again, it sort of is. Tomorrow marks ten years to the very day since I boughtThe Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and that game meant so much to me that it would be a little sad to let the occasion slip by unremarked. Tomorrow's Thanksgiving, and I'll have a lot going on, so I thought I'd better get this off my chest today.

Black Friday 1998. Against my better judgment, I started the engine of my maroon 1988 Mazda 626 and drove up Amarillo's interminable western edge from the southern end of "town" to the northern end. "Town" here no longer calls for scare quotes, because Amarillo has expanded outwards a great deal in the decade since I left home, and those southern wastes are now booming residential developments. Still, I can see that flat, featureless stretch as clearly in my mind as if I were driving along it right now. It looks like Antarctica, only instead of being white with snow and ice, it's yellow with dead grass. And just incidentally, if I were driving along it now, I'd be doing seventy-five, tacking on the extra five MPH that an old high school friend once asserted was the sweet spot for driving in Amarillo.

My destination was Target, and even as I write this, it's immediately obvious why. Target was the lucky store for Black Fridays, because two years before my mom had miraculously pulled off a late-evening purchase of a rare Nintendo 64 console there. So no Toys 'R Us or Best Buy for me, thanks, even though they were within a few hundred feet each of Target. Nope, Target it was.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released on November 23, 1998, a Monday, and by the end of 1998 it had sold more copies than any other game released that year. To this day, it's one of the high points, or maybe the very acme, of the Legend of Zelda series. One of its distinguishing characteristics was its incorporation of different songs as an integral part of the game. Musical instruments had been useful items in every previous Zelda game, but Ocarina of Time, as its title suggests, had an expanded focus on music. A magical ocarina allowed the player to alter the game world significantly by changing night to day or summoning storms, and one song the player learned gave Link, the game character, special access to some areas in his "official" capacity as an emissary of the game world's royal family. Each dungeon in the latter half of the game also had a particular tune associated with it that would allow the player to teleport around the game world quickly. One song even opened the inner sanctum of a temple and allowed Link to travel ahead seven years in time.

What seems pertinent right now is the way memories of playing through Ocarina of Time are woven into my memories of other experiences from that late fall/early winter. So I remember driving home from Target and playing straight through the Deku Tree level. By the end of the weekend I'd gotten through the Goron Mines. Two weekends later--and here you'll have to give me a break, because I was taking four AP classes and working afternoons--I was competing in Domestic Extemporaneous Speaking and Impromptu at an Amarillo High speech tournament, and I was also learning to hate Jabu-Jabu's Belly.

Two weeks after that my mom, grandmother, grandfather and I were in Lubbock with my aunt/uncle/cousins, and I'd packed along my N64 in hopes of getting a bit further, and that weekend, with some help from my then eight-year-old cousin, I polished off the Forest Temple, the Fire Temple, and, through the magic of online walkthroughs, the god-forsaken Water Temple.

I really did hate the chore of working through the Water Temple, but one of the few times a game has really sucked me in came in that level. There's a brief encounter in the middle of the Water Temple where Link enters a room that seems to be an outdoor oasis, a serene shallow lake with a small island and a lone, leafless tree. It's impossible to appreciate now that video game graphics are so much more detailed, but at the time it was a striking and beautiful sight, and what a contrast to the dismal, dank blue walls of the Water Temple! It was magical. But the moment's enchantment is dashed when Link approaches the island, because out of nowhere appears a shadowy doppelganger of himself that begins attacking relentlessly. The fight with "Dark Link," as he's usually called, is a tough one, because Dark Link anticipates most of the moves Link makes, but when it's over, perhaps the strangest event in the game transpires. The bright sunlight fades, and the endless view is cut off, and the oasis fades away, replaced by, yes, the ugly blue walls of any other Water Temple chamber. To this day I can't quite parse what Shigeru Miyamoto or Eiji Aonuma intended with this strange section. Was it supposed to be a dream? An illusion? In retrospect, I've tried to look at it as a gift. The illusion of unlimited space, and the beauty of that oasis, still stick in my mind--in a game with an amazingly rendered world, this was the high point for me, this quiet area. It's one of the few truly beautiful passages in video games.

Click and see for yourself.

Without getting too sentimental about it, I have to say that that school year was a magical time for me. I'd only just begun dating my (now) wife, and I guess the whole experience opened my heart. It helps that I'm a hopeless romantic, and I have a predilection for reminiscence and foolish nostalgia, but being in the first really significant romantic relationship of my life, really falling in love for the first time, altered my view of everything.

Obviously my relationship with Carrie was the really important thing at the time, but I think that relationship really affected my experience of Ocarina, or maybe Ocarina was just the perfect game to play at a time like that.

I shouldn't spoil the ending, but I'm assuming that ten years on, you've either played the game already, or perhaps my testimony may persuade you to try it. It's downloadable on the Wii nowadays, incidentally :) The ending of the game has Princess Zelda making the difficult choice of sending Link back to his own time, seven years in the past, where the childhood he's passed over awaits. Once he's back, that's it. It's never made clear whether the eight- or nine-year-old Princess Zelda has any mystical connection to her future self that makes her aware of the events that have transpired, and we never learn how Link copes with the experience of living in two different times, of having seen his world in a darker, dystopian version of itself. The genius of several of the last few Zelda games is their emphasis on central dichotomies, so that Link to the Past has a "Light" World and its dark, twisted alternate version, and Twilight Princess has a physical realm and a spirit realm. But no other Zelda game created such a moving scenario as Ocarina, where Link finds himself living what amounts to two separate lives in two different versions of the same world. The game ends with the child Link traveling back to Princess Zelda's castle and meeting her "again" for "the first time," and she responds with surprise. This last image of the two small children shoehorned into the bizarre situation the game's events have created remains a poignant one for me, and I guess finishing up Ocarina and seeing the way emotion and intellect are stimulated and challenged in the game made me realize for the first time that some video games are works of art.


  1. This is my favorite article yet. I haven't played OOT in probably 7 or 8 years, but I felt like I was sitting in front of my old 80's Zenith TV again (one with wood casing!) and hooking up the 64 through my RF adapter and listening to that opening sequence all over again...

  2. Thanks Brock! Just the words "RF adapter" and "Zenith TV" take me back. The best thing about writing this stuff is sort of existing on the threshold between past and present, sometimes teetering and falling all the way back into my childhood. Or teenhood, in this case.

    I actually considered putting up a link to the opening sequence, but I decided the post had enough media as it was. Here's a good one, though:

    So calming! Unless you slow it down: