Header image for Walking Zelda


I spent the last half of 2021 and the first half of 2022 walking Hyrule. The new Hyrule, of course, the one in Breath of the Wild, in 3D, full of snowy mountain passes and velvet sunsets and stunning coastal views. Walking this place was in part somnambulistic — I wanted to hypnotize myself. I wanted to slot myself back into who I was thirty-six years ago, when I first played the original. The past was on my mind.

Zelda in 1987 (1986 in Japan) felt as if a universe had collapsed into a single cartridge — the past, the future, mythology, pixels. It was the grandest small thing I had ever held. Video games were an escape for us, me and my friends. This is obvious in hindsight. I mean, they were fun, but they were also a way out of where we were and what was around us. We were too young to compare our town to the towns of others, but I believe we felt in our bones some kind of deficiency, something lacking. This would be confirmed painfully and empirically decades later. But here, in our tiny hands were those square NES controllers, and before us on fuzzy television sets (so fuzzy, such low resolution, bulbous), were worlds as good as any — the Zelda we bought would be the Zelda any other schmuck bought, rich or poor, and in that we had our first taste of honesty.

So we played. We walked that 2D landscape which even in its primitive blockiness felt vast and impossible to know fully. I carried the official map of Hyrule folded in my back pocket. I opened and closed it so many times that my mom had to laminate the folds with scotch tape. It accrued that pleasing patina of a well-used and well-loved thing. The map, a totem of potential. I unfolded it on the bus to school, held tiny sermons in those greasy pleather seats to those who wanted to know where some item was hidden or the way through the enchanted forest. Blue ballpoint pen scribbles marked the precise blocks to bomb, the right waterfall to pass through.

These are some of my earliest happy memories — the bus, the morning light, Aerosmith + Run-DMC playing on the speakers (the bus driver had either rigged a stereo throughout the bus, or had commandeered the one that was there, and took requests; I love this image and love it more in how foreign it now feels — no elementary school bus in Japan would ever take tape requests, never mind play Run-DMC), unfolding this increasingly ratty map and sharing knowledge with anyone who cared to listen.

And the cartridge itself — that crazy golden cart that held a battery (and with that, the ability to save the game). Wild stuff. I handled that thing with more care than I’d handle our cat, Peaches (though I loved Peaches in the way little kids love things without realizing they’d be gone someday; I still remember coming home from school, being told she was going to be put down — the topography of the home at that moment (breezeway, late afternoon, t-shirt weather, running through the tiny kitchen, the den, into the living room, kicking a chair and swearing (“performing” what I thought devastation should look like — swears, violence) (and now thinking back — the house was relatively small, maybe 900 sq ft for three generations living together (single mom, etc etc)), though that same home no longer exists in the world).

Zelda was tough but not impossible, and I’m sure I divined some sense of self-confidence from playing and progressing.

The strangest thing about passing 40 hasn’t been anything explicitly physical (if anything I’m more inspired than ever to abuse my body on mega-long walks), but rather the more pleasing (and it is strangely pleasing, not terrifying as it’s often made out to seem) sense of time having finally passed. Undeniably, distance has been bridged, and whether you like it or not, you are no longer who you once were. Or, rather, you are exactly who you once were, but hopefully with a better understanding of how not to let your lesser demons get the best of you. You can then, as a 40-year-old grown-ass adult, decide to buy an OLED Switch and install Zelda: Breath of the Wild and commit a silly amount of time to not just beating the game (of course) but to walking and exploring and communing with that other self, that on-the-school-bus self, that surrounded-by-fear (so much fear, violence, nearby) self.

Back then, I wanted a gun. A colt .45. I wanted a laser sight for the gun. And I wanted a dirt bike. I remember sitting on the bus in the winter, doing basic math on the fogged windows, calculating the number of years between then and owning those things and how crestfallen I felt realizing how long I had to wait. A gun … A laser sight … A dirt bike. My mom’s boyfriend lived in a trailer park. Who did I want to shoot so precisely? Not him, he was as close to a dad as anything I knew. No, those objects represented power, technology, mobility. Three things we had none of. We couldn’t afford a real computer until much later (until they dropped in price significantly in the ‘90s) but the NES and Zelda got me most of the way there. Here was a single cartridge that contained it all, and believe me, that feeling nearly knocked me out.

I got better at Zelda and that became my power. And I got better at Metroid and Kid Icarus and just like that my entire life revolved around video games because they pointed a way to that place more vast and healthy than any I had known. My neighbor got a computer. He was divorced and living alone, had lost custody of his son (everyone seemed to be divorced, losing custody, alcoholic, trying to commit suicide). He gave me a key and I went over daily. Must have drove him nuts. He was a Vietnam vet, had a wall of guns in his garage. By then I cared less about the guns, more about the computer. The pull: A computer meant better video games. I learned DOS, learned Basic, got on Prodigy (he installed a phone line for me; truly a saint), Game Genie forums, installed Windows 3.11, emulated a PPP connection, got online-online, on IRC — this is how I left that town psychically, if not physically. Made connections with anonymous punks, learned Pascal, learned Assembly, ran a BBS, read programming books over summer break. Everything I learned became a foothold leading out, away — power, technology, mobility. This was better than a Colt .45, laser sight, and dirt bike. That was plainly obvious.

But it all began, in a way, in Hyrule. And for that I’m grateful — for the fact that Shigeru Miyamoto designed and produced this strange place, a place constructed whole cloth out of minds of Takashi Tezuka and Keiji Terui and others in an place far, far away, called Kyoto.

I suppose there’s a way to look at all of my walking in Japan: A rendering of gratitude to a place for having made the thing that set me on a better path. I want to say thanks to a thing that is un-thankable (my neighbor, sadly, died of a heart attack before I could really thank him years later once I understood his gift). I want to elevate all those I encounter along the road because a long time ago I felt elevated by Link and his shields and swords and the Triforce. This sounds so simple, so dumb, but this is what’s so heartbreaking about this world of ours — it doesn’t take much to shift a child in ways that change their life for the better.

So I bought a Switch and bought Zelda and started playing. These things have come so far. The controls — bonkers. So many buttons. So much depth of interaction. I love it. I played with someone in my life who is like a step-daughter. Together we solved the shrine puzzles and I happily killed the monsters (they are uniquely creepy, far creepier than anything in the original, and she wanted nothing to do with murder (me, I’ve never shed that adolescent delight for virtual gore)) and we talked about physics and hand-eye coordination and I like to think that these were hours that meant something to her, for they certainly meant something to me. Most of the time we just walked. We’d see a mountain on the horizon and go climb it – projected on the wall in a dark room, us sitting on beanbags on the floor. In the game we’d build a fire, marvel at the stars, sleep our character until dawn, wake to catch the sunrise. It was always a walk worth taking.

There is a small outcropping called Minami Dani halfway up Mt. Haguro in the Dewa Sanzan cluster of mountains in Yamagata Prefecture.

It was here I finally realized that the land of Hyrule in Zelda was not invented, it was simply plucked from the mountains of Japan.

The moment I stepped into Minami Dani, alone, I felt an intense triptych of experience splayed before me. There was the reality of Minami Dani itself, but then there was the reality of so many scenes projected on that wall in that dark room, her by my side. Instantly I understood the provenance of the game’s color and light, textures and creatures. All of it pentimenti to what I stood before: The flitting dragonflies, the glancing sunbeams, the lush quality of green, the small ponds and once old — now dilapidated — stone bridges. But then, also, there was the memory of me as that child, playing that first Zelda in two-dimensional overhead simplicity. In a flash these three experiences overlapped. I sensed an eerie parallelism. There were many lives to be lived, and here was this one, unfurling uniquely. Propelled by no small dollop of luck. It was as if I had been waiting to arrive at Minami Dani for over three decades, as if the childhood version of myself had found true love in the mystery and adventure of that schoolbus map and secretly set some far off marker. Suddenly, I had arrived, without knowing I had even been searching for this very place.

I told her about this place, this place that was just like the game. (We’d later visit together.) In telling her I was telling myself on the bus the same thing: This map you hold in your hands is out there, is a place to be walked, and this work — scrutinizing the landscape, sensing in your bones the goodness of knowing a thing in totality, sharing that knowledge, building, repeating, moving forward, believing in all these feelings — work that feels so small, in the end, gets you out, keeps you going, cracks it all open.

Power, technology, mobility. Video games, when done well (and I believe Zelda in its many incarnations is one of the best-done ones of all time), are miraculous tools that can elevate the mind and, eventually, the body. A kid walking trailer parks dreaming of guns can wake up one day to find himself walking mountains on the other side of the world, inspired by a golden cartridge. I bought a Switch and Zelda, and I’m glad I did. I know a new Zelda is coming out soon. I don’t even know the name, and I don’t care. Whatever it’s called, you can bet I’m going to walk the hell out of that place.



Not subscribed to Ridgeline?
(A weekly letter on walking in Japan)