Hey there fellow Ogeeku. It’s been a little while since I’ve written, hasn’t it?
Sorry about that. It’s just, I ran into a little roadblock in life. Something that snuck up on me and drained my will to go on until I finally surmounted it.
I call it Dark Souls.
Dear lord, Dark Souls.
I mean, I missed Demon’s Souls due to a kerfuffle with my PS3 ownership (had one, didn’t, shared one, don’t again, thinking about getting another) so all I knew about it really was that it was hard. But you know, that’s coming from today’s audience of supposed “gamers” weaned on auto-saves and regenerating health who I sometimes hear complaining about games like Viva Pinata, so I was a bit incredulous about how hard it could actually be. Especially from the PS3 audience, which I remember bitching about my beloved Bionic Commando Rearmed being so hard that they actually patched it to make it easier just for them.
So yeah, picking up the game I was a bit, shall we say, cynical?
But that sure got shoved back in my face and fast.
The game is brutal, and in every way imaginable. Archers snipe you when you try to fight off warriors who can easily kill you as is. Subhumans push you off shaky wooden platforms into deathdrops over a swamp of vile infection. You’ll get poisoned and die seconds before you reach a bonfire, multiple times. Assassins appear from blind corners to stab you in the back. Frogs curse you to half health for some reason. Ghosts kill you with impunity while laughing after you swing your sword through their intangible bodies. Bosses with 20 foot wide sweep attacks appear in rooms fifteen feet wide. There’s a TON of grinding. Treasure chests turn into monsters and eat you. Players occasionally show up just to commit acts of assholery and jet. You can’t pause. And you’ll lose tons of time dying on your way back to your bloodstain. Oh, and the ending? BULLSHIT.
It handed my ass back to me so many times, took so long to conquer, and generally forced me to start acting like a horrible asshole who uses the cheapest tactics available to succeed rather than how I preferred to play that I think it actually broke me a bit. When it came time to write my review I think it ended up more a dazed therapy session, me purging myself from this damnable evil the game had wrought upon my psyche than any form of objective criticism.
But, and here’s the thing, this is EXACTLY what I wanted out of the game. For it to be this unforgiving, for it to be this callous with my feelings and my time. For as long as a game is fair (and Dark Souls is fair), I WANT it to punish the hell out of me. To eschew all the molly-coddling conventions and hand holding traditions that games have been delivering in the past decade or so.
To smack me in the face when I make a mistake, so that when I finally master it and claw its eyes out of its sockets in our final Pyrrhic sortie, I get that crazy adrenaline rush that can only come with having bested a foe better than yourself, and bathing in their blood while you scream a howl of glory over their vanquished damnable carcass!
I mean, really. Why? Unless you’re playing L.A. Noire all games provide some sense of accomplishment, and without nearly the level of frustration, anguish and soul crushing. Am I, as one friend of mine likes to claim, some sort of “gaming masochist?”
Well, yeah. Perhaps in part. I think most of us who grew up in the 8-bit generation are to some degree or another. Back then, the big games were the ones in the arcades, and the guys making the games knew that to maximize profits, a game better kill you a lot so you’d keep putting in more quarters, while the console guys knew that in order to emulate the “arcade experience”, they had to likewise make games that basically gave you a map that led to Murdertown.
But for me, it’s not just that. I think like plenty of others, and obviously plenty of folks making lots of games, I would have moved beyond the occasional need for these digital hazings. Except for my experience with one game. A game that left such a strong impression on my still developing mind that it became THE gold standard for all others to beat, and in every area, from graphics, sound design, combat mechanics, level design, puzzle implementation, music, everything.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
You see, kiddoes, like the guy in this commercial, I’ve been down with Zelda from the very start. I started with the first game, The Legend of Zelda (obviously), on my NES and played the ever loving hell out of it. It was a glorious adventure, and in my recollection, the very first game I actually managed to beat. Though in all likelihood that probably had something to do with the game’s miraculous invention of saving your progress without the need for an easily lost password more than my actual skill.
I followed that up with Link’s next adventure, the aptly titled Zelda II: Adventure of Link. And though it took some doing, and perhaps a smidge of help from NINTENDO POWER, it too was defeated. This was a series I knew and loved right from the beginning, and it was helped along by the fact that it was tied in with the greatest cross promotion ever that no self respecting Nintendo fan could live without!
Oh wait did you think I was referring to that cartoon? The one that aired every Friday during the Super Mario Super Show? The other thing that no serious Rad Awesome Nintendo fan couldn’t skip?
Well . . .
Yeah, I was TOTALLY down with Zelda, and Nintendo and everything they did or could do since I was but a wee lad. And why the hell not? Back in the late eighties, games were pretty much exactly as they were shown in the advertising: Awesome, Intense, and your parents helped you hook it up. All this crazy love for video games of course being bolstered by that beautiful propaganda machine that was NINTENDO POWER. I was a good little child soldier in the console wars!
When I first heard (through NINTENDO POWER of course) of the third installment in what was my first favorite series (though I’ll admit it had a lot of competition from Mega Man and Bionic Commando for that spot), and on this glorious new system coming out, the SUPER Nintendo, I could not be anymore excited. I’m pretty sure all I wrote in my Christmas List that year were the words “Super Nintendo” and “Zelda” over and over and over in increasingly bizarre combinations with each other, like “Super Zeldendo” and “Zelper Nintenda”. I knew what I wanted, and begged and pleaded, and prayed with Santa to deliver unto me this second (or I guess third) coming of Link.
So it’s Christmas Day, 1991, and my seven year old self was stoked.
I woke up bright and early, ready to open that obviously console sized box up, stick in some sweet, sweet, Link to the Past since there was also that obviously game pak sized box next to it, and get down to some . . .
My parents – or more specifically – my father, proudly exclaimed that Santa had brought me the “New Nintendo”, and I kid you fucking not: THIS WAS HOW I KNEW FOR SURE SANTA WASN’T REAL.
I mean, I had begun to have some doubts by then, but I had managed to hold onto some form of blind faith. But this?
Santa couldn’t fuck this shit up this badly if he had been drunk on the ‘nog and blinded by chimney soot while he ran his rounds! This was the ANTI-Nintendo, and the only man with facial hair that I knew who could have blundered this badly, was good old dad (he sported a mean Burt Reynolds ‘stache back then).
Oh and the other game? The one I had hoped was LttP? It was the OTHER reason I was beginning to question everything I believed in that Christmas morn. It reeked of poor parental perception even worse than the “New Nindendo” did.
At first I think my dad’s take on the stunned silence was that I was too joyous to talk. Man, I wish I could say I could contain my first combination of over-entitlement rage, disappointment, and shock, said “Thanks a lot!” and continued with a Christmas without incident. But I was seven. With my emotional skill set, that simply wasn’t in the cards.
Instead, I think what happened, cause it gets a bit fuzzy here, is a tantrum tirade so terrible that I might have passed out, and not because I held my breath on purpose, but because I thought walls were things I could break with my head. Swiftly followed by a series of punishments over my ungracious and ungrateful behavior that I won’t get into because I’m not entirely sure what the statute of limitations are for certain laws.
Which frankly, I totally deserved. I mean a Sega Genesis was nothing to sneeze at. I had even played it before at a friend’s house and thought it was as sick nasty as it was claiming in all the EGM ads. Strider was the business. Altered Beast was fu- OK, Altered Beast was never fun, but Golden Axe was killer. It’s just I had bought into the obviously inspired by the Hitler Youth propaganda Nintendo had been putting out so hard that I might as well have worn a Mario armband.
Point was, though I eventually got over it and learned to enjoy him (and my Genesis), Sonic The Hedeghog (and freaking Bimimi Run) stole my glorious Zelda triumph from me.
Because for the first time in my memory, I now had a serious goddamn goal to work toward. My parents (rightfully) wouldn’t get me a Super Nintendo after I explained their little error. In fact, after my lousy behavior at Christmas over this, I was promised that they’d never buy me another video game, ever. And they never did again, actually.
But I knew how fucking money worked. I learned that shit in school! And I was at the top of my class, since, well, obviously I was a huge nerd who played video games.
So I began saving. I calculated how much it would cost me to buy a core Super Nintendo sans Super Mario World and the extra controller and whatever else the more popular bundle pack came with, and a copy of Link to the Past. I didn’t spend a dime of any Christmas money I had, and made a rough projection of what my birthday money might be, if I asked for nothing but money, and even then it wouldn’t be enough.
So I saved anything I could get my hands on. I didn’t buy comic books, or other gaming magazines, or toys, or any of the other random stuff kids squandered whatever cash they could grab on, mostly anyways (self control over candy is pretty hard at that age). In the meantime, I learned to enjoy as much as I could of this enemy console, and actually found the “Blast Processing” to be just that, a blast.
Still, I kept on it. I washed neighborhood cars for a buck or two at a time. I sometimes skipped eating lunches so I could pocket the lunch money. I was as determined as I would ever be for any future project, cause, job, or group I’d join later in life.
Come my birthday, though I still received lots of socks and a few gifts from friends, I got JUST enough cold hard cash from distant relatives well wishing cards to claim victory. Which I did only hours after the cake crumbs had been cleaned up as I begged with my mother to take me to the nearest store that had a video game section.
Coming home from Target’s electronics section directly, I immediately set up my hard won prize, popped in that beautiful cartridge and moved that power switch forward, cause it was time to get my Link to go back . . . to the past!
Unfortunately though, the story doesn’t end here. Oh no, there’s a bit more.
You see, there was a problem I was having after stomping around Hyrule and the Dark World in my Pegasus boots for a couple of months. This problem had a name too, and it was GANON.
The problem simply was: I couldn’t beat him.
See, though it might be hard to believe after later games like Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, the original trio of Zelda games, like almost all games back then, were friggin’ hard. Each of them in their own unique ways too.
The first had been tough, mainly due to how confusing it could be to navigate. A lot of it was basically, “Wander around aimlessly until a crazy old man gives you a vague, poorly translated clue about smoke and how dodongos dislike them” and then keep wandering until you eventually figured out where everything was and what everything did. It wasn’t reflex hard, it was mentally challenging.
The Adventure of Link on the other hand, WAS reflex hard, but the hints were a lot better and the leveling system and magic helped you get through most other obstacles. It was the battle system, which I consider the best “dueling” system on the NES, and it formed the basis of some of the better fights of the later 3D games, that made this game both interesting and challenging. Carefully blocking incoming high and low attacks at a split second of notice when fighting Ironknuckles while looking for openings to get your attacks in, often while dodging a bunch of other crap in a room always proved grueling.
But Link to the Past? I mean, sure, it wasn’t exactly easy. It had a couple of brain-stumper puzzles, a few incredibly obscure things to find, and wasn’t afraid to throw a nasty boss or two at you; but it wasn’t either ludicrously taxing on your reflexes, nor that hard to figure out. If anything the most common method of death was from attrition: it would throw a ton of enemies at you for the duration of a dungeon, slowly whittling away your reserves of fairies and potions and hearts, so that by the time you got to the boss you were probably low on supplies and they would become legitimate threats. But even this wasn’t too bad, mostly.
No, the really dangerous thing in this game was when enemies booted your elfen butt into pits. Not because the pits would instantly kill you, oh no. But because it forced you to do everything over again, while keeping your status the same as when Link would fall screaming into the blackened depths! Thus amplifying the attrition factor!
And this is what made Ganon such a humongous bastard. Cause once you do enough damage to him during the final confrontation, he stops the fight, says a little speech and does a floor stomp – which erodes all the edges of the arena!
He then turns completely invisible, which in LttP also means invulnerable, and starts slide teleporting around the room, only pausing to shoot fire bats at you!
In order to make him visible, you need to shoot your fire rod at the two torches in the bottom corners of the now edge-filled arena. If one’s lit it let’s you see where he is, but you still can’t touch him, so both need to be lit in order to hurt him, and the two torches will go out rather quickly, AND the fire rod is going to drain your magic so you’re probably going to want to bring in some magic refilling potions. All the while, if you’re near an edge and get hit by one of the bats, or Ganon himself (both of which do solid damage even with fully upgraded armor), it’s GANON-BOOT! Off ya go! AND YOU HAVE TO RESTART THE ENTIRE FIGHT.
While he’s vulnerable, you have to temporarily stun him with your sword, then nail him with a silver arrow while he’s stunned. If you blow the timing and take to long to switch from your fire rod to arrows, he often charges right at you again and GANON-BOOT! YOU HAVE TO RESTART THE ENTIRE FIGHT!
Or maybe you’ve got the shot off – but a torch goes out while the arrow is flying at him, and when you move to the edge to re-light it he tosses that bat and GANON-BOOT! YOU HAVE TO RESTART THE ENTIRE FIGHT!
And each time you have to restart this fight, it either means rushing right back in with your missing hearts, potions, arrows, magic etc. Or spending time to restock and recover! When you do rush in, you’re now peeved from the last cheap knock-out that you attack blindly and GANON-BOOT! YOU HAVE TO RESTART THE ENTIRE FIGHT!
So you try to take the calm path, being careful around the edges but taking other hits so you don’t fall and THIS TIME you actually DIE die! Which at this point is just another form of GANONBOOT! YOU HAVE TO RESTART THE ENTIRE FUCKING FIGHT!!!!!
This, as far as I’m concerned, is the original Gannon-Ban. It’s just done with his boot, Link’s face, and a pit of do-over purgatory. A purgatory, I’m going to add, that I was stuck in once I had reached this ultimate conclusion to the game . . .
. . . FOR TWO YEARS.
That’s right, I got stuck with the freaking GANONBOOT for two. Whole. Years.
I’d play other games of course, got on with my life, went to school, did all the normal stuff. But at least once a week, and sometimes once (or more) a day, for TWO YEARS, I’d give Ganon another shot. But I would just get too frustrated, and my sense of timing on multiple factors wasn’t fully developed then. I couldn’t deal with the timing of the torches, the timing of the stun, and the timing of the attacks all at the same time! and then it was GANONBOOT! Aaaaaaarrrggh!!!!! *Shut off SNES in rage*
I just couldn’t do it. I’d give up for weeks, sometimes a month, simply knowing that somehow, this ONE boss would defeat me every time. I felt like a total failure – which didn’t help my emotional state when I then moved to a new town and a new school.
But eventually, something finally clicked. Sometime around when I was discovering AKIRA, I finally managed to pull it off.
In a grueling, twenty minute battle some time after school one day, I dodged enough attacks, hit enough times and got the timing right to gauge when I needed to move exactly where I needed to move and . . . that was it.
Ganon was dead.
GANON WAS DEAD.
GANON WAS FINALLY DEAD!!!!
I had done it! I was triumphant! The Triforce was mine!
I watched every sweet moment of that beautiful ending sequence in such rapt awe that I then truly knew I had been misappropriating the word my entire life. The slowly joyous credits music that filled my ears as pastoral Hyrule passed by my eyes was the sweetest sound I had ever heard. The final shot, of the Master Sword being placed back into its stone, left an indelible impression on my still young eyes.
It was complete and utter JOY. How could I do anything but Dance around like a loon for the next hour or so? Before finally collapsing in a mad, giggling heap on the couch moments before my mom got home from work.
Here was a game. One that I had anticipated highly, and been denied. One that I had to actively strive to get in real life, learning valuable lessons about setting goals and saving money along the way. One that had denied me finality for even longer once I had it, and for quite a long time at that . . . and I had done it.
No game since has even even come close to the sense of triumph and satisfaction that I beheld that day. Except, of course, the ones that have come close to recreating such continual resounding defeat.
So that’s it. It’s not the punishment that I like in a game like Dark Souls, or I Wanna Be The Guy. That just NEEDS to exist in order to create the sense of hopelessness that’s required in order to THEN create a true sense of accomplishment afterward. When you stop giving up on yourself, say “No More!”, and just man up and master the thing already.
It’s really hard to not want that from a game once you’ve had it, but unfortunately it gets harder to find as you get better, especially if games get easier at the same time. This is why I think the slow turn the gaming industry made toward easier to finish games last decade was so disheartening to me; others might not get to feel this sense of accomplishment if the rewards were handed out too freely. Thankfully it seems that trend is reversing somewhat these days, or at least evening out.
Oh, and believe me, I am aware now that it was my skill level at the time, and not really the game itself that made Ganon so damned hard; these days he is merely a trifle, and I’ve faced far worse with less sense of accomplishment gained. But for me he was just hard enough at just the right time to instill in me an concept.
It’s the romantic ideal of the hardest chase bequeathing the greatest reward. I learned of this ideal early on in my life. Not through books, not through movies, not through poetry; but through Zelda. It’s this ideal that led me to find the beauty in other things, other people, music, poetry, art.
In a very fundamental way this game changed how I perceived the world for years to come, while at the same time providing me with a moment I’ll never forget until the day I die.
So yeah, that’s why beating Ganon was better than losing my virginity (in case you were wondering about the title). I mean, come on! Your first time’s always really awkward . . . and usually involves at least one person freaking out and/or crying. Heck, usually your second go isn’t that great either, and there’s all that pressure . . .
It’s like, the third, or fourth time you have sex, that’s when you can place it behind the digital pig-wizard wielding a trident.