Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past: lock and key

, | Game diaries

We resume Link’s quest in the middle of the game’s fifth dungeon, the Palace of Darkness. Something about it must have pissed me off, because I am in a sub-basement with no inkling of how to progress. Zelda games are nothing like bikes — they’re nearly impossible to pick up again. Each dungeon requires the player to assemble a mental map and the few skills necessary to solving its puzzles. After not playing for a year, I remember none of these tricks. I’m stuck in a room with a locked door and three giant, bipedal rats — two green and one red. Experience with the series tells me that if I clear the enemies from the room, that door will slide open.

After the jump, easier said than done

These rats are mimics. If you move left, they move left. If you move forward, they move forward, etc. The green variety are harmless. While they play Simon Says, Link can walk right up and slash them to death. But the red variety spits fire, and this fireball outpaces any projectile Link has. Which means I have to devise some oblique angle of attack. I try my boomerang — nothing. I plant a bomb, then maneuver the rat onto it — nothing. I charge my sword, sneak around behind the guy, and unleash a whirlwhind — it is ineffective. (The greens did die to sword attacks, remember.) I fling a pot and it shatters over its head like I’m fighting the terminator.

Trying to crawl out of the solution space’s local maxima through this kind of trial and error is not exactly fun. But it is deeply compelling.

Because Link to the Past recognizes the psychological value of a locked door. They fascinate us. Even if we don’t know what’s behind them — it could be a broom closet — the simple fact that they’re locked suggests there is some valuable secret just behind them. A locked door is its own motivation. At times, Link to the Past is less a game than a Skinner experiment about this impulse. Like rats, they run us through mazes, relying on our automatic urge to discover what’s behind that door. Sound cues reward us when we open one. I can’t hear that jingle without a rush of endorphins. Only a rarefied class of games can induce this kind of compulsion. Civilization gooses your brain stem with a similar question: “I wonder what’s under this fog?” But as appealing as it is to solve puzzles and open locked doors, it’s equally repelling to be unable to open them.

There are no degrees of success with a locked door. You either have the solution or you don’t. That means there’s no gradient between success and failure, only frustration preceding epiphany. That’s why I’ve abandoned so many Zeldas mid-stream: that ratio of frustration to satisfaction became slightly skewed.

The frustration of locked doors isn’t just a problem for the dungeons. It applies to the overworld as well. Though it’s an expansive, ostensibly open space, the overworld is a macrocosm of the dungeons: lots of locked doors. These take the form of cordons made of boulders or fences. It’s an elegant way to direct play while maintaining an illusion of openness, but it can seem contrived. The idea that Link — who apparently has the agility of a vacuum cleaner — is stymied by wooden pegs until he acquires a giant mallet is a little silly. A locked door’s meant to be an obstruction, but there are fun obstructions and spiteful obstructions. With these inexorable mirror mice, I feel like my key to my own front door isn’t working. Come on, Miyamoto: I just detonated a cherry bomb the size of a bowling ball under that thing’s feet! How is it alive?!

Wait, have I tried my arrows yet? That does it: the appropriate strategy is to line up just barely offset with the red terminator mouse. Fire your arrow, and while the projectile is midflight, dash to the left. The terminator will move to his left as well, directly into the arrow’s path. The door rumbles open — a new room awaits. Forget everything I said about frustration.

Up next, secrets…
Click here for the previous Link to the Past entry.

Erik Germani is 23 and has a pretty sparse CV. You may recognize him from such pieces as the one you just read.