It was the spring of 2007, and I was in a small local game store looking for broken copies of The Legend of Zelda. My plan was to find a game that looked nice on the outside but had a fried board, and to replace its guts with a harmonica. Give people a good reason to blow on the cartridge, y'know? The store's owner (whose name was Thomas, as I recall) was amused by the idea, but the only copies in stock had been tested and worked properly. I didn't want to dismantle a game that someone could still play, so was preparing to leave empty-handed and look to eBay.
"Actually, something pretty neat came in the other day," Thomas said, nodding toward the door behind him. "Some weird Zelda cart I've never seen before. Wanna take a look?"
As he disappeared into the back room, I could only wonder what is was. The first two Zelda games had been released on shiny gold cartridges, and around 1990 were re-released in the standard NES gray. While these weren't exactly common, someone who handled old games for a living probably wouldn't give them a second glance.There was also a version of the first game used by Nintendo Repair Centers to test consoles. Like all games designed specifically for the centers, they were housed in bright yellow plastic. These didn't crop up very often, but when they did, they usually sold for a few hundred dollars. Then there was the incredibly rare black cartridge; only a couple had ever been found, and quickly disappeared into the collections of anonymous buyers. These were essentially the same as the common gold version, but due to a manufacturing error the black base plastic hadn't received the gold coating. I didn't know why collectors were always so keen on defective items, but my head was swimming with possibilities.
Thomas returned a moment later, holding the game straight out in front of him and grinning. My disappointment must have shown, because his face immediately fell. "What?" he asked simply, looking down at the game. It was indeed a gray cartridge, but made of a much smoother plastic than the typical NES game, and only about half the size. Attached to the bottom was a green circuit board, the gold teeth of the contacts that connect the game to the console out in the open. A scrap of lined notebook paper was taped to the cartridge section, with "Zelda" written in black ink.
"It's a Famicom cartridge", I said, gesturing for him to hand it to me. "Someone's modded it to work on an NES. You can probably look it up on your computer."
As he went back behind the counter, I turned the cartridge over in my hands. The makeshift label was taped on fairly loosely, and could probably be removed by hand. I set the game on the glass counter top and joined Thomas, pointing out the relevant pages and explaining what had probably happened.
The Legend of Zelda had originally been released as a Famicom Disk System game, in a format similar to a floppy disk. Similar to the US version getting a re-release in 1990, the Japanese version got a cartridge release in 1992, which seemed to be what we were dealing with. The connector attached to the bottom of the cartridge was also fairly easy to get, as some of the earliest NES games contained the original Japanese circuit boards with these connectors on them. All you had to do was find one of these games and crack it open.
As disappointed as Thomas was by how mundane the game turned out to be, he was impressed by my knowledge. "So, are you some kind of modder? Is that why you want to make an NES game into a harmonica?"
I shook my head. "No, I have a friend who does this kind of thing. The harmonica is going to be a gift for him."
"Ah, gotcha... So how much do you think this thing could sell for?" he asked, again picking up the cartridge. "It's not as cool as a Zelda harmonica, but your friend would probably like it."
I couldn't help but smile; he WAS trying to make a living, after all, and I liked to help out small local businesses. "How about fifteen bucks?"
It had been over a week since I bought the game, not even bothering to take it out of the generic "have a nice day :)" shopping bag. I was sitting, bored to tears waiting for a Windows Update to finish installing, when I caught the bag out of the corner of my eye. My NES was connected to a CRT tv along with all of my other old consoles and only needed to be plugged in, so I decided that I may as well give the game a try.
Giving the cartridge another once-over, I decided to remove the taped-on label to make sure that it didn't somehow get stuck in my system. Under the notebook paper was a much more official-looking label, set into a shallow recess in the cartridge and covered in a half-dozen lines of Japanese text. Strangely, there were no logos of any kind.
After several minutes of fiddling with the system and the game, I was surprised when I finally got it to boot to a black screen, white Japanese text appearing along the left side. I stared blankly as the text scrolled, only realizing it had stopped when a selector arrow appeared. I carefully looked over the on-screen text for any hint as to what the available options might mean, and a bit of English text near the top caught my eye: Zelda 3.
I reeled. Zelda 3! Fans had long theorized that a third Zelda game had been in development for the Famicom; while Zelda 2 was released in Japan just eleven months after the first game, the third game in the series didn't come out until nearly five years later, on Nintendo's next console. Excitement began to bubble up inside of me. Was this really the lost Zelda 3 prototype?
Unable to read what any of the five options said, I chose the first one. The game held on a black screen for several seconds before loading. Link was standing in what appeared to be a house, an empty fireplace in the north wall and a chest to the right. This was definitely unlike anything I had seen before; Link's sprite looked to be slightly larger than the one used in Zelda 2, but the game was viewed from a top-down perspective. Everything was drawn with a black outline around it, similar to Mario 3 or the Megaman games.
Taking control of Link, I walked over to the chest and opened it. Link held a shield above his head in the classic "I got an item!" pose, and it was only then that I realized I'd yet to hear any sound from the game. This did seem to be a pretty early version of the game, I reasoned, and had probably only been put on a cartridge to test how the console handled the graphics or something.
Walking through the door in the south wall, I found myself in a field or town, with bright green grass stretching in all directions. A path lead from the house I had come out of, heading left before branching off in several different directions. The layout was very plain, with the paths made up entirely of straight lines and right angles. To the right was nothing but more grass.I followed the path downward, and quickly found an old man standing next to some kind of pool or fountain. Talking to him, I was greeted with... a bunch of Japanese text. I don't know why I had been expecting anything different, but made a mental note to return later with translation tools.
Exploring further, I found a few more houses and NPCs, and a fenced-off area that I couldn't get into. There was nothing meaningful to interact with here, so I followed the path out of town. Almost immediately, the path lead to a gigantic dead tree with a doorway at its base, which took up most of the screen. I went through the door and heard the game make a noise for the first time, a "descending the stairs" type of sound that a lot of NES games used.
The screen went black, and Japanese text began to scroll across it. At first I thought it was the dungeon's name, but more and more text appeared, with punctuation implying that it was dialogue or some kind of narration. As the message rolled on, an eerie digital wailing sound began to play, and was shortly joined by music. It instantly sounded familiar to me, and I struggled to identify it. It had a strong fantasy vibe to it, and almost reminded me of the original Zelda's title theme. More than anything, it was an incredibly sad tune, and combined with the ghostly wailing sounds, I could only guess that the on-screen text related to some kind of tragedy. (I would later realize that the music was an 8-bit version of the Sanctuary track from A Link to the Past)
As Link appeared on-screen, the stair sound playing again, the text and music both faded out. The wailing sound played once, and then a second time, then after several seconds, a third. The screen remained black, the only things visible being Link at the bottom and his heart meter in the upper-left, as the occasional wail punctuated the blackness. The first two games had also featured dark rooms, requiring you to use a candle or press a switch or defeat enemies to light it up. If there was anything else in the room, it was hidden in the dark.
I started walking around. Link would occasionally stop, apparently having walked into a wall or other solid object. Sometimes the wailing sound would play when this happened, even when the sound was already playing on its normal random cycle. I silently apologized to whatever phantom's toes I was stepping on and continued to bump my way through the dungeon.
After a few minutes of finding nothing to fight or interact with, I decided that I wasn't making any progress, and started to work my way back toward the entrance. I had only taken a few steps when a white, clawed hand shot out of the darkness and grabbed Link, wailing loudly. I actually jumped, and nearly dropped the controller; that was unexpected!
The Wallmaster slowly pulled a struggling Link into the wall, the wailing sounds coming more often now. The initial shock of it wearing off, I couldn't help but grin. Wallmasters were giant hand-shaped monsters from the first Zelda, which appeared from the walls and carried you to the beginning of the dungeon. Whoever designed this wanted to make sure that, no matter how far you blindly plunged ahead, there would be an easy route out. As Link disappeared into the darkness, the wailing ceased, and the sanctuary music began to play again. A single English word spelled out on the black screen: END.I sat there, staring. I'd apparently been wrong; the Wallmasters seemed to be instant death. Something caught my eye, the only bit of color on the otherwise black and white screen: Link's health meter, still at full in the upper-left. It's an unfinished game, I reminded myself, and pressed the Start button.
Link was back in the house where he had started, without his shield. I checked my computer: installing update 5 of 18. This was going to take a while. Settling back into the game, I steered Link to the chest by the east wall, opening it to find... a sword? I didn't know why it had changed, but felt a lot more confident with an actual weapon. Not bothering to talk to any of the NPCs, I decided to go south this time, and almost immediately found the way barred.
A river stretched across the screen, the single bridge crossing it blocked by an NPC. I tried talking to him, but it seemed that I wasn't allowed to go this way at the moment. Annoyed, I stabbed him with my newly-acquired sword. His sprite flashed, then crumpled into a heap on the ground. I was taken aback; I hadn't actually expected it to do anything! Link, meanwhile, had closed his eyes as text played out across the screen. After a moment, the text faded and music began to play. This one I instantly recognized, a low-tempo variation of the palace theme from Zelda 2. Link opened his eyes and crossed the bridge, sword in hand.
I stared blankly, barely registering that Link was now in a dark forest area. Had Link really just killed a man? For all I knew he was a minion of the game's antagonist, or a monster merely disguised as a human... but why had his body just dropped instead of disappearing, and why did Link seem to give him a moment of silence? What had the text read? With no way to find the answers to these questions, I decided to press on.
Despite it being a slower, gloomier version, the palace music didn't fit the forest very well. It was a relief to have it playing, though, as I realized that sitting and playing the game in silence had been unnerving. It even started to feel more like a Zelda game with the introduction of enemies, snakes that moved in grid-like patterns and ugly yellow spiders that dropped from above and chased Link until killed. As I ventured deeper into the woods, the trees became larger, darker, and closer together.
I only realized that it had been a while since I'd last seen an enemy when a spider unexpectedly dropped down right behind me, forcing me to get some distance between us before I could turn around and attack. I didn't get the chance, as a ghostly white hand burst from a nearby tree, grabbing the spider and wailing as the music abruptly ceased. I stopped moving, both in and outside of the game, almost holding my breath as the spider was carried back into the dark tree. I took in Link's surroundings. Huge, nearly black trees were everywhere, each potentially holding a Wallmaster. I would have to tread carefully.
It was only a matter of seconds before it happened again, a Wallmaster lunging for me from an evil-looking tree. Panicking, I jammed on the B button as hard as I could, the monster wailing as I stabbed it over and over. I don't know how many hits it took to kill, because I was still frantically pressing the button long after it was dead. Panting, I set the controller down and took a deep breath. Calm down, calm down I told myself, closing my eyes. Even if it was just a video game, the sudden rush of adrenaline was real.
I opened my eyes and took another deep breath, then picked up the controller, determined to keep going. This was content that few people outside of Nintendo had ever seen, and I would be the first to break it to the public. I made a mental note to get my camera when I was in a better-looking locale and pressed on. I was attacked by more Wallmasters as I went, shooting out of the trees and wailing, but now that I knew they could be killed I was much more confident.
The trees grew closer and closer together, with more and more Wallmasters reaching out for me. They became so dense that I was sure I would be unable to react to the next Wallmaster quickly enough. Just when I was resigned to my fate and ready to give up, a ring of light appeared at the edge of the screen. I quickly made my way toward it, praying that nothing came at me as I squeezed through the one-tile-wide gaps between the trees.
I came out into a small clearing in the trees, light shining down. After getting a safe distance from the tree line, I dropped the controller, gasping. I hadn't even realized that I had been holding my breath. As my breathing and heart rate returned to normal, I resumed control of Link and walked toward the center of the clearing. There, sitting on a tree stump with an odd looking 8-bit beam of light shining on it, was a candle. I walked up to the stump and pressed the A button, and Link held the candle above his head in another silent victory pose. The screen went black, and the "walking down stairs" sound played.
Well THAT was weird, I thought. Most Zelda games featured overworld exploration or dungeons full of monsters and puzzles, not things like huge forests containing single items. Then again, Zelda 2 had the Death Mountain area, which saw you traveling from cave to cave like an odd labyrinth, all to get a hammer.
I regained control of Link at the edge of the forest, just below the bridge. As I walked into town, I noticed that the body of the NPC I had accidentally killed was no longer there. Were you meant to kill him to proceed, or would some event or item allow you to pass by without conflict? I considered the possibility of it just being something stupid the programmers had added as a joke in this early version of the game, but with the dark tone I had seen so far, I somehow doubted it.
Making my way through town, I noticed that the old man was no longer standing by the fountain or well or whatever it was. Had getting the candle triggered some kind of change in town? Thinking about the candle, I realized that I could probably explore the dungeon in the west without constantly walking into the walls, and hurried in that direction, ignoring the missing old man.
Entering the dungeon, I was greeted by the same thing as before. That slow scroll of expository text, that hauntingly tragic music, the occasional wail. When Link appeared, he was holding the unlit candle rather than his sword. I felt a little uneasy, realizing that I could only equip one or the other, but there was nothing I could do about it. I walked forward, into what I thought was the center of the room, Link bumping into something along the way. I took a deep breath, steeled my nerves, and pressed the B buttons.
The room was flooded with light, and the wailing sound began to play over and over. I stared, shocked and horrified; the walls were made up entirely of ghastly white bodies, writhing and clawing at the air as they wailed. A Wallmaster shot out of the wall Link was standing against, and every head in the room turned in his direction. They all stopped moving and the wailing died down as he was dragged, struggling, into the wall. I leaned forward to get a closer look at one of the bodies. Only its upper torso and head were visible, the rest of it obscured by the pixelated wall of white. It was clearly meant to be a corpse, unnaturally thin with crooked arms and bedraggled hair.
Link had disappeared into the mass of bodies. Another body turned its head in his direction, and let out a wail of its own. One by one, they all turned to look at him on the tv screen. There came another wail, then another. They started moving again, flailing whatever parts of their bodies stuck out of the walls as their cries fills the air, all of them staring directly at him. A Wallmaster appeared, orienting its fingers in his direction.
I immediately pressed the power button on the NES, then pulled the game out for good measure. I ran into the well-lit kitchen, rubbing my eyes and wringing my hands. It's just a game, I told myself, pacing across the tiled floor. I knew it was only a game, and that it had been programmed nearly twenty years ago, by some ordinary game designers. Why was it never finished? a part of me asked. I stopped, trying to calm myself, trying to reason with myself... when out of the corner of my eye, I saw something white moving toward me.