Truth be told, if I had to boil it down to one clearly definable moment, there was a scene towards the beginning of Arachnophobia that made me not only leave the room, but the whole damn house. But what happened to me with Zelda II: The Adventure of Link was much deeper than that. This game unsettled me to a level that nothing else has before or since.
To say I was a fan of the original Legend of Zelda on NES would be a vast understatement. I was enthralled by the world of Hyrule, and I played it backwards and forwards. I don’t remember the exact circumstances that brought Zelda II into my life, but I know I was young, and the game had a profound effect on me. The best I can figure, it was 1989 when I finally got my own copy of Zelda II, meaning I was about 8 years old. Having been such a fan of the first game, I could not wait to see what the sequel had to offer. The first thing I did was crack open the instruction manual and read the story. I was gripped. But what I didn’t realize at the time was that this was where the pervading sense of fear began. Look at this.
In this NES game, the bright and colorful world of Hyrule, I was being told that monsters were not out to “get me,” they were out to murder me and use my blood to revive Ganon. Then I started the game itself, and it was weird. Very weird. But more than that, it was 2 things: extremely difficult, and very unsettling. Me, not really being in to scary stuff, but VERY much into Zelda, kept playing, not even realizing the effect the game was having on me. I played every chance I got, and I made it all the way to the second to last palace in the game. But just before I made it there, I had visited a town called Kasuto.
It was there that I actually started to feel the fear that had been building up in me for weeks. Kasuto was a ruined town. It had been completely destroyed and abandoned. What’s more, it was haunted by invisible ghosts that hit you unexpectedly as you walked. The sky was darker than in any other town, and instead of playing the regular town music, or even something more obviously creepy, the game played the music that was used when you were inside a house. Throughout the entire game, this music meant you were safe. But in Kasuto, you were in constant danger from an invisible enemy. I don’t know if it was just the music or what, but some combination of these elements together filled me with genuine fear and dread. Nothing had ever unsettled me so much in my life. But I pressed on. I had to finish the game. I knew I was getting close to the end. There was only one more palace before I went to the Valley of Death. I carefully saved my game, and went to bed.
The next morning, I woke up and got ready for school as quickly as I could. I was trying to leave enough time to take a swing at that palace before I had to go, but when I turned on the game, my save data was gone. Now, I was a subconsciously terrified, Zelda-obsessed 8-year old. I had worked very, very hard to get where I was. And all that work was gone. I was destroyed. That moment right there, broke me. I didn’t sleep well for days. I would wake up in the middle of the night from having nightmares about finding items in Zelda II, and apparently I had gotten so scared one night that I wandered in my parents room half-awake, muttering something about getting the hammer. My parents took away my Nintendo for a while (much to my frustration, but it was probably the right thing to do) until I was able to get my wits back about me.
I eventually beat Zelda II, but that game broke me on a very deep level. The slow unsettling of my subconsciousness combined with the soul-crushing devastation of having lost all my hard work was just too much for my 8-year-old mind to bear, and the game has always held a strange place in my heart because of it. It’s fitting that it’s about finding the Triforce of Courage, because I honestly needed courage to face down this game again. The catharsis I felt when I finally defeated my own shadow was really something special. But even today, when I take the time to play through Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, it gives me the creeps. That’s one hell of a game.
Kris is the Editor-in-Chief of Geekade.com. He is on several podcasts, has video series called Into the Vault, and writes all sorts of stuff on the site, as well as Stone Age Gamer.com and Nintendo Force Magazine.