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Zelda's Influence on Mystic Searches

If you’re reading this, you probably have a well-worn memory of your first adventure through Hyrule. You were probably moved in some significant way that was nothing short of profound. The experience, and all that blossomed from it, may have even shaped your identity to some degree, not so dissimilar from past generations listening to that evocative album, seeing that mind blowing film, or reading that pivotal novel. In celebration of the release of Tears of the Kingdom, I thought I would share how the original golden cartridge (and its immediate sequel) radically impacted the trajectory of my young life, and how it impacted my upcoming NES game Mystic Searches.

I know that it was 1987, though I couldn’t tell you the month or even season. I was seven years old, and had somehow earned some significant good will in the eyes of my parents. As a reward, my father brought me to the stacked-to-the-ceiling aisle of endless adventures at the local Toys R Us (may it rest in peace). There, in an end cap display, was something provocative. The box did not sport the branded, black-box treatment, nor did it have an illustrative depiction of its game characters in some dramatic pose. Instead, its minimal fantasy iconography against the notable gold tint teased something new and different. It was, of course, the most expensive of the games (at half the cost of the system itself!), but apparently, I had done something worthy of this reward.

By the time we got home, it was night. I didn’t bother turning on the lights. I tore open the box. Pulling out the gold cartridge was excavating a hidden treasure. For a moment, I just admired the way the TV’s static shimmered off the reflective surface in that dark room, causing its subtle texture to come to life in a supernatural manner. I put the cartridge in my NES, pushed it down into position, and pressed the power button. For those that grew up with the NES as their formative gaming experience, you may recall that half-second of anticipation between hitting the power button and a new game’s title screen appearing. Most often, the player was met with a static image of some sort set against a mostly black background, some game choices (1 player / 2 player or the words “Press Start”) on the bottom two thirds, and a copyright line encroaching the border outside the title safe area at the bottom. I had played enough games that this is what my mind expected.

Instead, radiating from the small CRT, the entire room filled with a peach glow. The sun was setting over an animated waterfall pouring over monolith mountains, accompanied by a haunting, somber sonata that set the tone of what was to come. I remember being hypnotized as the sun finally set, the screen faded into darkness of night, and the music pushed with intent into the scrawl of minimalist lore that was just dense enough to allow my imagination to drip down into every crevice.

Before I had even pressed the start button, the direction of my life was altered. Even more than the enthusiasm for adventure upon which I was about to embark, the seed of something was planted that would come to define the next 35 years and counting. And maybe if you’d asked me at that moment, I could not have properly articulated it (I was only 7 after all), but the first ten seconds of the Legend of Zelda was all it took to flip a proverbial switch that converted me from passive player to aspiring, active creator.

From that moment forward, I wanted to create something that had that same profound effect on someone else. It became a dragon to chase. It became a fundamental purpose of life.

That sentiment only grew as I played through the game, and as I look back, it’s easy to understand why. Had we ever played a game before that point that was so large in narrative scope that it needed a method of saving progress? Had we ever played a game before that so deeply conjured varied biomes? Had we ever played a game before with such a diverse bestiary, as mechanically interesting as they were unique and iconic? Had we ever played a game before that rewarded us for exploration and experimentation rather than being so focused on the shortest distance to the end goal (who here bombed every wall and burned every bush in Hyrule)? So many of these attributes became core tenets of games going forward that it’s hard to imagine a time without them, but there is certainly a reason that so many who experienced this evolution of video games in real time hold this game in such high regard. I’d imagine it’s comparable to a memory of seeing The Wizard of Oz in color on opening night. If you only ever experienced the game after having played thousands of hours of its descendants (which would be the majority of games in your library), it may be hard to appreciate the radical steps. But for us who experienced it first hand, it was nothing short of magic.

I could run down a comprehensive list of things that still strike me as clever or brilliant even by today’s standards, but the list would likely be a common one that you’ve read a thousand times before. One subtle one that always stuck with me that I never see discussed was how much world the minimalist narrative could suggested. Considering the grand scope of three decades of memorable moments in the greater Zelda pantheon, one of my favorites is still a subtle, often ignored moment of narrative from the original that still resonates as brilliant to me. I remember walking into caves, meeting NPCs and shopkeepers, and getting lulled into the flow of that expectation. And then there was that one cave with the old woman, subverting all I’d come to know. She said nothing. She offered nothing. She just stood there, silent. Was it a glitch? Was it a puzzle? It was such a punctuation point that I remembered it for days as I grinded my way through the vast world. And then I happened upon a man who offered me a letter. “Show this to the old woman,” he said. And that strange cave encounter had been pronounced enough that I knew exactly what it meant. I returned to the silent woman and gave her the letter, at which time, she opened a potion shop. It was a simple trigger mechanic, but its implications set my seven-year-old’s imagination ablaze. Suddenly, six words and strategic use of a single 16x16 pixel sprite conjured volumes of potential narratives about the paranoid, desperate underground rebellion; a network of survivalist hiding in caves and communicating in code across the kingdom, mounting some last futile attempt to combat the overwhelming legion of Gannon (no, that’s not a spelling mistake, that’s the name of the antagonists as referenced in the opening crawl of Zelda 1). What was the old woman’s role in this? What was her relationship to the man with the letter? What did the letter say that would compel her trust? In my mind, I answered all of these questions with sweeping fanfiction.

Time spent playing Zelda on the NES was more than engaging with a game, it was a constant creative workout. There was just enough framework there to serve as a skeleton for my own adventure. Link wasn’t the hero, he was the avatar; I was the hero. Link wasn’t saving the day; these were my personal accomplishments. Hyrule wasn’t the world I saw on my screen, that was just a symbolic reference like language in literature; the world was in my mind.

Not long after came Adventure of Link. There are very few who played this game in real time that have the same perception of it as those who only know these games in a retrospective manner. In 1987, it was brilliant. It was unique. It broadened the world and the lore. Entire towns had stories all their own. It was an RPG, but the battles weren’t random. You navigated a top-down map, but were pulled into vignettes of side-scrolling adventure. The physics and mechanics of actual swordplay against Iron Knuckles was exciting. Battling the Barba was intimidating. The downthrust attack was original and gratifying. Squaring off against your own dark shadow was thematic. It certainly was a different sort of affair, and by this point so many games had been released to compare it to that it didn’t seem as revolutionary as its predecessor, but I still consider it to be a great and important installment.

I never beat Adventure of Link as a kid. I’m sure I got close. But the creative seed that these games had planted soon became a budding vision for a game that took the best of both and combined it all into a NES masterpiece called Mystic Searches. While my young mind had no capacity to understand the logistics involved, I wanted to create a top-down adventure game in the style of The Legend of Zelda, but with the added platforming mechanics of Adventure of Link (2.5d gameplay). I wanted open world exploration like The Legend of Zelda, but sub-quests that helped you meet characters and earn rewards like Adventure of Link. Essentially, my underdeveloped creative mind wanted to synthesize two of my favorite games into a derivative hybrid that may as well have been The Legend of Zelda 3 on the NES, but with wholly original characters.

Some of you may know the story from there. That ambitious little 7-year-old kid and a friend dummied up all of their clever ideas, stuffed a bunch of illustrations in a box, sent them to the address they found in the back of Nintendo Power, and begged Nintendo to send them the stuff they needed to make the game. It was sent back with a form letter and lost to time, only to be found by a much more capable adult me who was feeling nostalgic for my old Zelda cartridge. And thus launched my adult mission to build that game for the NES almost 30 years later, culminating in the documentary The New 8-bit Heroes, and ultimately being responsible for hundreds of new homebrew games due to the NESmaker tools that were inadvertently created as part of our building process (read: Nintendo never sent us the stuff to make our NES game in 1987, so 30 years later we built the stuff ourselves…).

Mystic Searches, the moniker that was buried with those old childhood illustrations, has been a creative project for a decade now. I’ve worked on it through marriage, the purchase of my first house, birth of two kids, two major hurricanes, a 1500 mile move, two major career changes, a global pandemic, the deaths of friends and loved ones…a lot of life has gone into it. And all of the modern creative sensibilities that come from creating against the backdrop of adult life have visible roots in those formative experiences playing The Legend of Zelda.

I get asked often how close the game is to those drawings. Obviously, there was a creative challenge inherent in translating concepts from the mind of a child through the eyes of an adult (not to mention, 30 years of gaming vernacular and experience with storytelling). But there were certain aspects that were so pivotal, I could not abandon them. Mystic Searches is a 2.5d adventure game as I always imagined it to be; a top-down perspective with a z-coordinate jumping mechanic as first conceptualized. Mystic Searches does have an incredibly rich lore (complete with supplemental novelization, art book, and comic series), exploring vignettes in an open world to help create a real sense of a living world. It has a broad bestiary with large and ominous boss battles. And of course, it would never satisfy the ambition of that 7-year-old kid if it didn’t run on a cartridge on real hardware. The influence is clear. While Mystic Searches has developed an unfathomable amount since its inception, there is no doubt that it owes its existence to those experiences playing The Legend of Zelda, and I reflect on that as I get ready to celebrate a return to Hyrule in Tears of the Kingdom. While it’s far from a clone, it is perfectly fair to call Mystic Searches a love letter. With release of the cart scheduled for the fall and a Switch port coming not long after, I hope that once players are finished exploring the new Hyrule adventure, they’ll take their first step into Myrinda in Mystic Searches, and I hope that for those who had similar transformative experience with that original gold cartridge, our wooden special edition cartridge can make them feel like a kid again with a fraction of the same transformative effect. At that point, even if it’s just a few people, and those people also go on to be compelled to create something awesome because of it, I’ll consider the years spent working on this project a complete success.

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