When Play is Too Much Work

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One of the things I loved the most about classic console video games was the “second quest” feature that many of the best games had. The original Super Mario Bros., after you beat it for the first time, then proceeded to offer you the chance to go through the game all over again, and even though the levels were laid out in the exact same way, the enemies were changed to make the game even harder to get through. Back when programming space was extremely limited, this was a very effective way to lengthen games out efficiently, especially if it was done in an artful way. (When a game forced you to play through it twice in a row just to get any kind of ending, especially when the game was ridiculously difficult to start with — yes, I’m thinking about that one series by Capcom — that just felt cheap.)

I don’t think I loved any second quest more than the one in the original Legend of Zelda. Going through a side-scroller like Super Mario Bros. a second time was fun, but in both quests you were basically just racing to get to the end of a level. Because the gameplay of the Legend of Zelda forced you to explore in a non-linear way, its second quest enabled you to discover all new secrets, even if programming limitations meant that a lot of those secrets were in the same locations where you found things in the first quest (but at least what you found was different). The joy of discovering all those secrets on your own was nothing short of intoxicating.

Back then, I daydreamed a lot about a Legend of Zelda game that would create a random quest for you, so you’d have all new things to discover and find out every time you played the game. I’d been programming computers since I was five years old, but I lacked the skills (not to mention the computer hardware) to even attempt something like that, but I knew that it had to be, at the very least, possible. When the next generation of consoles came, and Nintendo started remaking older games like Super Mario Bros. for the 16-bit era, I hoped that the new systems would give game designers the power they needed to create exploration-style games that had built-in randomizers to create new quests every time you played them.

There were other kinds of games that had randomizers in that era — Toejam & Earl for the Sega Genesis, and Dragon Crystal for the Game Gear, just to name two — but none of them had the same high-quality gameplay as the original Legend of Zelda. More than just being well-designed and easy to control, the Legend of Zelda, like pretty much all the games designed by Shigeru Miyamoto at Nintendo, just has an incredibly high level of fun that makes it a lot easier to work through those frustrating moments when you can’t figure out what to do next, or how to get past one particularly tricky section. When other companies started blatantly ripping off the original Legend of Zelda’s mechanics — Sega’s Golden Axe Warrior for the Master System, and NEC’s Neutopia games for the TurboGrafx-16, to name the two most obvious examples — I hoped that they would at least insert a randomizer into later iterations of those franchises, but they all died out before such an evolution could happen.

In the meantime, of course, video games continued to get better, and it was hard to complain about not getting a randomizer feature for the original Legend of Zelda when Nintendo kept churning out high-quality sequel after high-quality sequel in the franchise, complete with all the trappings that contemporary consoles could offer in terms of graphical and musical improvements. Even if the in-game worlds were different, those new Zelda games were incredible quests of their own, and I kind of forgot about the whole randomizer thing, especially when I got deeper into college and pretty much had to hang up my programmer’s hat.

When YouTube debuted, and videos of people playing classic games that had been reprogrammed to be stupidly hard (like Kaizo Mario) started becoming popular, I might have given some brief thoughts to my old dreams of infinite quests in the original Legend of Zelda. I even remember a friend on Twitter saying something about a randomizer being developed for the Legend of Zelda that he was trying out, but I didn’t think about it that much, mainly because I had so many other things I was trying to get done at that time. It never even registered to me that a childhood dream of mine had come true, and that I should probably check it out to see if it lived up to all the hype I’d built in my head decades earlier.

I can’t remember the YouTube rabbit hole that led me to it, but a couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon a video of two people playing a game that was not only a randomizer feature grafted onto The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, but also Super Metroid, at the same time. The game starts the player out in Super Metroid, but the locations of items in both that game and A Link to the Past are randomized, so it’s possible to get items from one game in the other. Gates have also been created in both games so a player can walk into them and immediately switch games. Needless to say, the programming also includes very heavy-duty logic to make sure that items are distributed in a way that makes both games beatable, instead of putting an item in a location that can’t be reached unless the player already has that particular item.

This is the kind of thing that would have made a younger me pass out from joy. Just getting a randomizer in any Legend of Zelda or Metroid game would have been enough to keep me occupied for months, but to add the gateways allowing players to switch between two different games, let alone two of the best games of all time, is nothing short of incredible. On the surface, this seems like the kind of thing that should eat up all of my spare time for the rest of the year, if not longer.

The thing is, I’ve seen videos of people playing this epic mashup, and as wonderful as it is, I can tell that playing it requires a tremendous amount of brainpower, since the random nature of the games means that anyone who plays them needs to not only have the physical layout of each game memorized (and as much as I played both games back in the nineties, my memories of them now are kind of hazy), but also understand every little trick and glitch that can be used to reach places and do things that weren’t intended to be part of a normal player’s experience with each game.

It’s bad enough that I simply don’t have the time to invest in regaining that experience here, but the worst part is that even if I did, I don’t think that I would. For all that I dreamed about being able to play these games over and over again when I was younger, I failed to take into account the level of skill that would be required to really enjoy such an experience (and, as I’ve been saying a lot lately, I’ve never been all that good at video games), and especially now that video gaming is so low on my list of priorities, and I have so little time for it, I feel like there’s basically no way I could enjoy randomizers for even the simplest games I used to play.

I always feel weird recommending classic video games to my students, especially now that I’m dealing with a generation that was born after systems like the Playstation 2 and Dreamcast were already out. Maybe I can find ways to tell them about these randomizers this coming semester, and they can discover the joys of these older games, and appreciate the randomizers a lot more than I’ll probably ever be able to. At least then I’ll kind of be able to feel like I got something out of living long enough to see the randomizers I dreamed of when I was younger finally come to life.

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