The lights are on
“Good morning. I’m wondering if you have the Legend of Zelda for Nintendo in stock.”
“Do you know when you might be getting it?”
“No. The games come in when they come in. They don’t tell us what’s coming ahead of time.”
This telephone exchange, between my 13-year-old self and whatever unfortunate clerk happened to answer the phone at my local department store, was part of my morning ritual for most of the summer of 1987. Occasionally, the person on the other end of the line would make a critical mistake and tell me that they hadn’t received the day’s shipment. I took that as an invitation to bother them again in the afternoon.
I was completely obsessed with the Legend of Zelda, and I hadn’t yet even seen a single pixel from the game.
Like a lot of kids who grew up with Nintendo, I was a member of the Nintendo Fun Club. It wasn’t an exclusive organization; anyone who sent in a postcard that came inside the Nintendo Entertainment System’s box could join. In addition to getting a completely useless wallet-sized membership card, members also received issues of Nintendo Fun Club News, a valuable lifeline to upcoming Nintendo games before the Internet era.
The second issue, simply dated Summer 1987, introduced me to Link, Zelda, Ganon, and the magical land of Hyrule. In nine short paragraphs, I was hopelessly sold. I’d long envied the kids who played games like Gemstone Warrior and Ultima III in the school’s computer lab. These adventures took hours upon hours to absorb, and I didn’t have a PC at home – and not for lack of trying. The idea that I could play something that rich and exciting on my NES was completely mind-blowing. Even some of the minor details in that story were too much for me to fully comprehend. Secret passages? A battery backed-up memory? It was even so special that Nintendo packed it in gold, whatever that meant. And so the calls began.
If you look online, you’ll read that the Legend of Zelda was released in North America on August 22, 1987. That’s a half truth, at best. Sure, that could very well be the day that the boxes were shipped across the country, ripped open by indifferent retail workers, and flung onto shelves, but it wasn’t much of an event. Maybe the clerks put it on the shelf that day. Maybe they didn’t. Game releases weren’t anticipated in the same way, at least not in any official capacity.
It must have been near the end of August when my family went on a trip to Anchorage. It was the big city to us, so it seemed only fitting that Zelda would be there. When I spied it behind the counter at a Kay Bee Toys store, I was stunned. It was strange to finally hold the box in my hand and stare at the shiny gold Game Pak visible through a slit in the cardboard box. After paying the then-outrageous price of $53, that part of my quest had ended. I spent the rest of that trip poring over the fold-out map, hoping to glean some secrets from a game that I still hadn’t played.
That summer and fall were devoted to exploring every inch of Hyrule and rescuing fair Zelda. When I wasn’t in school or doing homework, it was almost a guarantee that I’d be parked on the floor in front of our television gazing up at the screen, lost in another world.
As other kids in my school got their own copies, we hoarded and exchanged tips and secrets. “Did you know that you could push that tombstone?” “If you have a candle, try burning some trees.” “When that guy says ‘Grumble grumble,’ he’s actually asking for something.” There was a collaborative spirit surrounding the game and its mysteries that’s impossible to recapture.
I really wish I could go back and play it again for the first time. Happy birthday, Zelda.
Check out our Zelda feed for more memories from the Game Informer staff.
This essay originally appeared in Game Informer issue #222.
Email the author Jeff Cork, or follow on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and Game Informer.