A few nights ago, sleepless, I decided to settle down by tree light and lose myself in a video game. Current favorites Amped 2 and Manhunt beckoned. But instead, out of curiosity, I chose The Legend of Zelda Collector's Edition, which is being bundled with new GameCubes. Given that the GameCube now costs $100, and the games included in the set -- Legend of Zelda, Zelda 2, Ocarina of Time, and Majora's Mask -- would have totaled more than $200 if bought new, the disc was already worth the money.
But the original Legend of Zelda was released in 1987, so I was curious to see how it stood up. Immediately, I was struck by the simplicity of the graphics. These aren't even good by cell phone standards. But they conveyed the story and setting of the games without distracting me. There was the squat elfin hero, Link, poking his sword at giant hopping spiders and nefarious burrowing tubes. But as I continued to play, guiding Link from screen to screen, paving my way across a magic kingdom, I remembered why Zelda had been so great when it was released. What sustained it then, as now, is its originality. Nobody had ever set out on a console system to tell an epic, mythical story. But using basic images and pared-down text, The Legend of Zelda does just that. Of course, in this era of 60-hour games, Zelda is a quick diversion. But back when Bush I was taking office, it signified months of spare time. Knowing the secrets to solving a puzzle meant you had playground cachet. Suddenly, there was a vast world to explore on our television sets; none of us had played anything like it. It was a video game to take as seriously as art.
Of course, Zelda looks dated now (although the sequels get progressively better). And I have to question Nintendo's usage of the 'start' button (it's historically accurate but irritating). But playing through most of the game reminded me of how long it's been since something new happened in video games. It made me long for the time when we bought games because they surprised and challenged us, not because they gave us more of what we already had. I hope that, like other great pop-cultural fantasias (The Lord of the Rings films, the Harry Potter books), Zelda will persevere. After wasting the early hours of the morning, I know that it's lasted this long.