“Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly late last night
Now they blew up his house too”
– Bruce Springsteen
Some days, I’m fine.
Other days, I listen to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska over and over again, and play video games from the 1980s.
Zelda, like Laura Palmer, had secrets. Move the block, get the dopamine rush of the tingle-jingle chime (the ‘official lyrics’ to this iconic piece, I learned, are apparently something along the lines of ‘ho-ot sau-uce’ in Japan. I don’t hear it, or get it, and don’t quote me on that, but there you go).
But I’m starting to wonder if she, or they, didn’t have other kinds of secrets, too. Bomb a wall, you might find a secret shop, or even an old man asking you to pay for repairs on the door you just blew through; that’s fine, that makes enough sense. You just destroyed his god damn house, even if he’s inexplicably living in a cave, coordinates 36°45’13.63”N & 3°50’4.57”W from the nearest 7/11 with the old lady who sells potions and kinda looks funny at you if you keep buying the blue one, like are you hooked on this stuff kid? behind a sheer cliff of solid rock, with only two completely exposed balls of flame to his name… it’s still his house.
But some of these caves contain monsters. And they are not hostile. Not friendly, but… under some kind of treaty, perhaps, both sides observing a kind of wartime diplomacy in these select meeting rooms, maybe because these aren’t foot soldiers, they’re accountants, moneylenders, specialized units, etc. Kind of like a medic is supposed to heal both sides in a war. They’re willing to talk, to deal.
But why? If we take these games as fact, which is about the only thing we can take, every monster in the game is an embodiment of evil; this being why every Zelda game ends with crushing, I-wanna-go-back finality, and you cannot continue on, because to continue on would be to adventure in peace, every monster exorcised from the land. Presumably, this is how the citizens of Hyrule et al. experience the place most of the time. Even the outside-the-box, throw the box away, get on top of the box and sail it across the water Breath of the Wild doesn’t let you go on… it would be defeating everything Zelda has ever stood for and the main story that runs through each and every game. Evil is gone, and, well… good just ain’t that interesting without it.
That means, as far as I can see, that we cannot treat these beings as wild animals. They are Evil, Ganon’s Evil, down to the last Octorok, the last Gel, the last Tektite, even though they don’t really attack you; they generally mind their own business jumping around in the mountains. They are part of Ganon’s Army and thus scorched from the Earth when the game is finished. No sympathy is allowed, and no-one in this game has a choice.
Which leaves me with, as I see it, a couple of explanations here. The first is mundane: Ganon’s creatures surely can’t be domesticated, beings of pure evil that they are, but can they defect?
It seems improbable. They are, of course, extensions of Ganon himself, spawned to protect him and block the way, thru labyrinth after labyrinth, FBI men at Death Mountain surrounding & protecting the President on the Grassy Knoll… trying to protect the president… how many Arrows of Light? Just one, or… rerun the tape, reset the machine… find Miyamoto’s original Zapruder scrolls of A4 paper, the whole game laid out on it in squares, for real & not a Kerouac self-myth… find that secret sheet of A3 with the rest, & the Second Quest on the other side of the ROM… might tell us who truly shot Liberty Valance… and Miyamoto will always print the legend…
The second option is much more sinister, as it implies underhanded dealings with the Enemy and perhaps even conspiracy on behalf of the Hyrule government, which I believe to be some sort of monarchy.
If Hyrule, or the King of Hyrule (who is never seen) is in fact working with the enemy, it utterly shatters the presumed reason for the mission. Link’s just following orders, sure, but he’s 12 years old, a real child soldier… and sure, the Princess had to be saved, but was that rookie, green, the best agent they had? (Did she want to be saved?)
Again, this place is supposedly used to peace, so maybe they didn’t train too many pitched fighters. There was no Achilles by the beaked ships to call upon when it was time to go and get back Helen… there was only you.
“Through the badlands of Wyoming
I killed everything in my path”
– Bruce Springsteen
Every time the boulders roll down the cliffs of Death Mountain, I think it’s Shigeru Miyamoto doing it. I don’t think of him, or the other designers (Tezuka-san deserves his own article, but who really knows who did what…) overmuch while playing the rest of the game, but every time I walk those cliff sides suddenly He’s there, the clearest sign of the Hand of God in the game, Zeus throwing rubble off of Olympus or maybe just Mount Ida to screw with Herc or some young upstart…
So maybe, like Herc’s famous trials, this whole thing is a controlled scenario to get a man into fighting shape… ah, but now I’m just describing the game, and all games. A dead end. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a way around it…
This game, the first one, is Zelda, or rather Hyrule, before it turned into Twin Peaks. This game is part of a lineage of Cosmic Joke stories, Seinfeld’s NYC where everybody but you is crazy to the point of outright hostility for no apparent reason at all, Scorsese’s After Hours (screaming ambulances chasing you ‘round every corner of that black wet night-street, bloodred Octoroks with no rhyme or reason), maybe even A Confederacy of Dunces, depending on how much of a reasonable person you think this Link kid really is… & did his mother or grandmother approach the archaic printing press and say “you gotta hear what my son did, what he did before, you know, before he passed…”
It’s 3 miles of, no, it’s many more than 3 miles of bad road… it’s all bad road. It’s a never-ending trek thru the baddest of the Badlands, and one day you’re gonna spit in the face of ‘em, maybe throw an arrow of light in for good measure…
“There’s no love in your violence”
– Ichi the Killer , dir. Takashi Miike
It’s a game of unspeakable violence, your only chance at getting through this sun-baked, hostile environment… they say Zelda is about exploration and adventure, and it is, but I think this game is really about survival. You’re your only friend. Your only friend. I don’t trust those old men, those old women, not really. Do you? They are distant, cold, you will not break bread with them. They dispense their advice—”good luck out there kid, you’re gonna need it”—and then sometimes, quite literally, fuck off completely and disappear, leaving only darkness, if that, or a pair of uncontrolled fires that do not sooth your bones, standalone Burning Bushes without the bush, empty balls of red that do not quite brighten up the corners.
The only thing you can trust completely, besides your wits & violence, is the fairy. And even she’s skittish, turning up at complete random, sometimes in that white-hot split second you find yourself burning the candle at both ends, walking that tunnel, and she’s the sudden burst of light, and you offer your praises, but you know it was just luck, not something you can count on… unless you visit her where she lives, introduce yourself properly.
Even then… as an immortal, does she take some kind of twisted pleasure in reviving this kid over and over again, as many hearts as he can take, full to bursting, right thru the IV… maybe she gets a rush out of it. Considering later fairies in these games and their suggestive eccentricities, proclivities, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Nowhere is safe. The safest place in this game, to me, is in one of the labyrinths, which features four, maybe five of these big jelly guys. This is the safest place in the game because the walls are mental-hospital slate grey and I am in a position of power. They are slow, and I am fast. With a powered up sword, they are just about the easiest enemy in the game. I feel safe here, because even though, in their tiny, Ganon-possessed brains they don’t know it, I can kill them any time I want. And, ya know? Sometimes I like just having them around. For company. Better than that old man again, who I can’t even kill if he gets on my nerves.
And yeah, the second game (Zelda 2), is pretty harsh too. Pretty hostile. But even that pointed towards the Twin Peaks future of the series—not quite the idyllic towns full of decent folks, farmers and tradesmen and friends, along with, of course, a mixture of sinister and bent folk, Outside and Unknown weirdness and Fear, and the necessity of fighting—but there are actual towns in that game, barebones as they are, and women on the street will actually say “Hello!” to you, if you chat them up. I don’t know about you, but that cheers me up.
Men will invite you into their houses, and sure, their hints are still cryptic and strange, but they’re actually trying to communicate, to help you, to give you a roof over your head, even if only for a moment. There are women who will stand in front of their houses like Bob Dylan on the Street-Legal sleeve, and let you in… come to think of it, they must be related to those questionable fairies…
Which brings me, finally, back to the first one. To the, let’s say, Hyrulian psyop that might be going on in the shadows…
Could someone, a 007-like agent, have snuck in and turned these money-giving monsters, inserting a little help along the way to our unwitting friend, about to run this hellish gauntlet to rescue the princess? Does Hyrule have that kind of power? Are the Gods involved? How high up does this go?
There’s no way to know. Could these monsters, really, not be monsters at all? Maybe they are in fact Hyrulians, waiting in caves in their Nixon-masks, government stipends for the hero, write-offs… a secret war economy operating underground in case of an event like this, a red alert, an APB suddenly put out on a giant pig up on Death Mountain by the King, maybe that’s why taxes went up, think the good citizens, after this is all over (after having thought oh, it couldn’t happen here)… It’s a Secret to Everybody.
But of course, this is the legend. They say that once a great hero saved the princess, and it’s taken as fact. This would, incidentally, happen over and over again, but that comes later… or before.
Perhaps it really happened the way they said it did. Maybe this young man was officially supported by the King (unless Link, en-route, was somehow captured by the Enemy, in which case I’m sure they’d have had to Deny All Knowledge, not that there’d be any knowledge left to deny), and perhaps the Princess really was terrified, up there in that cold, cobblestone room, hearing the breathing, pawing of that invisible monster just outside the door, hoping but never really believing the hero would come… or maybe she laid there, open eyes, going over the plan in her head, getting up occasionally to shoot the shit with the man in the pig mask next-door, wondering idly whether that little kid in green was still alive, gambling on his odds… wondering if this little stratagem would work out, if they’d have a Plan they could put into operation against this happening again in the Future, or if it could be made to happen again, improving & complicating it each time like a well oiled machine, a machine that prints legends…
“There’s a white diamond gloom on the dark side of this room
and a pathway that leads up to the stars
if you don’t believe there’s a price for this sweet paradise
just remind me to show you the scars”
– Bob Dylan
The talking monsters remain unexplained, unexplainable. I never promised you an answer that doesn’t exist. Why am I so obsessed by them? Well, it’s one of those nights… tomorrow will be different. Maybe. But one more thing:
Shigeru Miyamoto, director and producer of The Legend of Zelda, has said, time and time again, that he was inspired to make a game based on his experiences in Kyoto, as a boy, wandering around and adventuring through fields, rivers, caves, forests.
Now, when little Shigeru was traipsing about, having the time of his life, fantasizing that he was on an adventure, not dreaming of video games and code but of those things every boy dreams of, pretending, telling brand-new stories in real time, projecting a better world on top of the real one in a way we somehow forget how to do… then needing a rest, maybe sitting in one of those little caves for awhile, a little scared, a little excited…
Did he talk to the monsters?