January is a hard time for me. Seasonal depression can zap a lot of energy from folks — doubly so for those of us who struggle with depression year round. And despite video games not requiring much energy, my own motivation to play tends to plummet in the winter months. The fall always brings a flood of new video games, and I can never seem to finish all the ones I want before the next year’s games start coming out.
Even as I play games I’m really enjoying, like Yakuza: Like a Dragon or Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, my eyes start to glaze over. I spend so much time in my own head that suddenly I’m losing the thread in last year’s greatest hits. And so, every January, I turn to a series I already know well: The Legend of Zelda.
The need for something old
January has been my retro month for years now. After days of trying to muster joy for anything new, I fall back on Zelda, Banjo-Kazooie, Ratchet & Clank, Kingdom Hearts, Metal Gear, or a number of other franchises I know well. These retro games vary in age and complexity, but none of them come close to the open-world, system-laded extravaganzas of 2020. I love a complex game — I spend most of my workweek writing about Destiny 2 and other MMOs — but they’re too much for me when I’m too depressed to even sit on my couch without taking a nap.
Games like Banjo-Kazooie work for me because I know them backwards and forwards. I don’t have to think much when I replay, so it doesn’t matter if my mind wanders or my focus dims. Any form of progress is an achievement over falling asleep again, and my auto-pilot helps keep me on track. I don’t have to spend my time figuring out which skills I want to unlock for Banjo or which pair of shorts I want to equip to upgrade his stats. I take bear and bird for a spin and keep going until I’ve collected everything.
I love Banjo-Kazooie, but I’ve been playing it since it came out in 1998 — I’ve discovered all there is to discover. When it comes to exercising my brain, that’s a bit of a problem. But the Legend of Zelda series is relatively new to me, having skipped the franchise entirely until 2013 when I first beat A Link Between Worlds. I’ve since gone back numerous times to replay the Zelda series, but my memory of each individual game isn’t as clear as Banjo. And it’s that elusive mastery — however small — that makes Zelda perfect for clearing my head.
Why Zelda works for me
I’ve fallen for each Zelda game for its unique charms, but nothing helps me refocus my love of games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D.
Ocarina of Time is an intricate puzzle, and while I improve every time I play, I still forget the exact order of operations. I always misremember how to light the first flame in Death Mountain and I’m always missing a key in the water temple. Those moments of forgetfulness blend with moments of triumph.
It took me reading a guide to get the fire arrows the first time, but now I remember exactly where I need to stand when I shoot the sun in Lake Hylia.
Replays of Ocarina of Time are now 80% auto-pilot and 20% puzzle solving for me. That first 80% helps me push through the in-between dungeon sections with muscle memory, but that leftover puzzle solving helps me refocus my mushy depression brain. Every time I fall through the floor in the Bottom of the Well, I curse to myself, swearing that I know this — like a dad who drove by somewhere five years ago so he refuses to ask for directions. It’s a jolt of frustration — the good kind — that helps resuscitate my lifelong passion for games.
When the winter depression hits, I always find just the right amount of discovery hidden in the corners of a game I know very well. Ocarina of Time is my go-to game for that kind of discovery, but the Zelda series shares enough DNA that Majora’s Mask, Twilight Princess, and A Link Between Worlds fill a similar void.
The Legend of Zelda games have straddled the line of comfortable and stimulating for me since I first started playing them in college. They’re here for me now, coming off a difficult year for all of us, and they’ll be here for me again in 2022.