The Legend of Zelda Cold Run

Wherein I describe the cold run project

I never owned The Legend of Zelda. When your parents are in charge of your game library, it tends to remain small. I think I had ten games at most; they all fit in a slotted, plastic carrying case: Super Mario / Duck Hunt, Major League Baseball, Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior (free with Nintendo Power subscription!), Mega Man 2/3, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, Duck Tales, Super Mario Bros. 2, and one or two others I can’t remember.

Like most other elementary school kids, I relied on my friends for game circulation. My family wasn’t wealthy, but I went to a nice Christian private school and later, an upper-class private middle school (thanks to a scholarship), so some of my friends had rich parents and a seemingly endless stock of new NES games. I either borrowed games from friends or played them at their houses when I stayed over. Many of my favorites–Contra, Super Mario Bros. 3, Super C–I never owned until I was in my twenties.

I borrowed The Legend of Zelda from a friend. By the time I had an NES (circa ’88) and prised that coveted gold cart from my classmate’s collection, I was already familiar with the game. At the time, Nintendo Power was like the holy book of NES information. We traded issues like games; there was so much to pore over each month, I eventually had to have my own subscription. Zelda was an older game, even by issue 1, but it still featured prominently in the players’ lists and Classified Information section. The latter was particularly noteworthy, because I had read about many of Zelda’s secrets prior to ever actually playing the game.

In the end, my foreknowledge would ruin my virgin Zelda experience. The first day I took the cartridge home after school, I immediately ran to the NES, fired up the game, and entered ‘ZELDA’ as my name. This was the ‘cheat code’ I’d learned in Nintendo Power, one that I thought would grant me early power-ups so I could beat the game easier. Of course, using ZELDA as your name starts you in the more difficult second quest, with rearranged dungeons and deviously hidden entrances. I played a few days, got lost and frustrated, and never really picked it up again.

Since then, I’ve regretted never giving it a proper shot. Through cultural osmosis, I feel as though I’ve played the game several times. I’ve studied speedruns, watched YouTube commentaries, and played several sequels (and countless games inspired by Zelda), but I’ve never given the original a fair shot.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been studying the game in-depth for my chapter on the Famicom Disk System and the various in-cart mappers that augmented the NES’s abilities. In the evenings, I’ve been obsessively playing The Binding of Isaac, a fantastic game that combines the top-down dungeon-crawling style of Zelda with the brutal randomness of so-called ‘Rogue-likes.’ This serendipitous convergence of interests has once again piqued my interest in tackling the NES classic.

So this post will mark the first in a series of Zelda ‘cold runs.’ I’m giving myself the (slightly unrealistic) challenge of playing the game in its original context, free from online FAQs, maps, or other outside guides. I want to play the game cold, with no outside help beyond the original manual and my own brain, and see how well I can do. Unfortunately, I can’t come in completely fresh. I, like most videogame players my age, know the basics of the game. I know how many of the items function. I’m familiar with many enemies and their weaknesses. I know a few walls to bomb and trees (bushes?) to burn. And, inexplicably, I still remember the direct route to the first dungeon.

To keep it authentic, I’ll be playing on the original console with a five-screw, gold cart edition of the game. I’m also capturing a direct video feed as I go. I’ll mainly use the video to review my play and write up the experience, but I may post a video excerpt now and again. Otherwise, I’ll drop in a few relevant screenshots to illustrate my progress.

And this time, I’ll be using my own name.