I was as late to the party on the Super NES as I really ever have been on a video game system. It came out in the US in 1991, and while we’d rented one several times and played a fair share of Super Mario World and F-Zero, it was not until my brother got one for his birthday in the summer of 1994 that it became ours. (For a point of reference, we got a Sega CD before we got the SNES. That was, for lack of a better word, a blunder.)
That lateness on the SNES meant that I was also late to the party on one of the greatest games ever: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
My friend Allen was as much a gamer as I was (maybe more; he got the 32X, which surpassed “blunder” by quite a lot). I looked to him often for guidance, and while he was not always right in his judgments, he was spot on when he told me to stop fucking around and play Link to the Past.
That might not have been his exact phrasing.
In the fall of 1994, I was in sixth grade. My brother and I had acquired the game one way or another; I don’t remember if it was rented, borrowed, or bought. I guess that is not really important. What is important is that I came down with a fever, or something similar: LttP Syndrome.
Probably almost anyone who has ever really loved a book or gotten so obsessed with a song that they couldn’t wait until the next time they could listen to it knows what I am talking about. (It most likely happens much less when it comes to movies; they’re in a space where many, if not most, are able to be satisfied in one go with a film.) For me, it was video games. Well, game. That one, specifically.
LttP Syndrome is when, for whatever reason and no matter what you are doing, you want to be through with it so that you can get back to your fucking game. The wave hit me hard when I was sitting in my last class of the day, Mrs. Thompson’s Reading class. I don’t know why I was in Reading, other than because I had to be. I was already a voracious reader.
Anyway: it was my last class, and it was one of those glorious fall days when any well-adjusted red-blooded American kid can’t wait to get outside and run around like a spastic sociopath.
I’ve never been well-adjusted. All I wanted to do is shut myself up with the SNES and play Link to the Past some more, or at least watch my brother play. When I met up with him after school, I found he’d been feeling the same. It drove me to distraction in a way that I would come to appreciate often in my life.
I’ve had several dozen similar experiences, from games like Chrono Trigger or Super Mario 64 or Mirror’s Edge to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to my current obsession with Neko Case’s “People Got a Lotta Nerve”. It is not like everything that has grabbed me and ceased to let go was a timeless classic; Final Fantasy VII is a game that I could not get out of my head; I played it to a level of completion that only a psychopath and/or obsessive-compulsive would top. It is also, if I am being generous, mediocre.
Link to the Past, the start of all that for me, is well beyond mediocre. I can’t say for sure what else, or even if something else, would have grabbed me in that way. What I am sure of is that it needed to be something on a level of greatness that has only been reached a handful of times.
One could argue fairly persuasively that Link to the Past was the highest point of the Legend of Zelda series; I would not necessarily agree as such, but I would not try to disabuse the notion. Every game in the series to follow, and pretty much every game in the Action RPG genre, more or less wouldn’t exist without the innovations of Link to the Past. That is a pretty good way to ensure your place in history.
A Link to the Past did not change the world on the level of, to use a random and not-at-all-relevant-specifically-because-Steele-just-wrote-about-it example, Tetris. Probably no video game has, as he ably noted. But Link to the Past did permanently alter my world. It changed the way I appreciate art. It gave me a permanent and personal insight into the idea of obsession. It altered my perceptions.
The differences between myself at 12 and myself nearing 30 are obviously vast. When I was 12, doing well in school was practically a foregone conclusion, and that was my only real responsibility. If I had an obsession then, it was allowed to grow unchecked. Transitioning into my own arrested version of adulthood has shifted that. I have come to realize that there is simply, and literally, not enough time for me to experience everything I want to experience. I have continued to play games for what I just realized exceeds 80% of my life. I have prioritized games when it comes to how I spend my time.
When I was a kid I got maybe a game every couple of months, not including rentals. Now (excepting when my employment situation is, ah, dire) I can more or less get whatever games I want. That means picking and choosing how to spend my time, and one of the most important criteria for me choosing if I will buy a game is if it is likely to give me LttP Syndrome. Nintendo-made Mario games? Check. The new Zelda? Obviously. Fucking amazing Batman game? Yeah.
The obsession begets a need for completion. When I buy a game, I don’t want to pop it in the system and find out that I am unhappy by my purchase. Perhaps because of this, I have historically given games a lot more rope than the less patient, more reactionary types that seem to populate the internet. That means that when a game doesn’t meet my criteria, the disappointment is… more.
When I was younger, I played the games I got. That has never changed, but what it means now is something completely different. A Link to the Past unquestionably has a large share of responsibility for which games I play as well as how and why I play them.
That means that one of the most influential people in my life is a little elfin weirdo with pink hair, a sword, and a tendency to turn into a bunny when he falls into to the dark world. That definitely says something about me. What, precisely, I couldn’t comfortably say, but it has to be relevant.