When I pulled up to the parking lot of my local GameStop to pick up Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom last night, I was expecting to see a fledgling crowd just sizable enough to make the tiny store feel busy, but not crowded. I thought there'd be a couple of Zelda shirts, maybe a pair of elf ears, and a Triforce tattoo at the very most. Holy Hyrule was I wrong.
See, this particular store lives in a suburb on the far-north edge of Phoenix, Arizona, in a slightly older community of working class families, retirees, and as I've since learned, a shit ton of Zelda fans. They were everywhere! When instead I saw a shambling, disorganized multi-line throng of literally hundreds wrapped around the store and encroaching on the nearby grocery store, I couldn't believe my eyes.
It wasn't as if I doubted the thundering momentum of a new Zelda game's big launch day, but let's be real, it's 2023. If physical media wasn't already dying a slow and painful death, I figured three years of Covid-19 had nailed that coffin shut and buried it under six feet of concrete.
I can probably count the number of midnight launches I've been to on two hands, but it's been enough to see a steady decline in the crowds they attract over the last decade and a half. Modern Warfare 2's in 2009 was a rager, but when I went to pick up the original Destiny in 2014, I remember wondering where the party had gone. It was Bungie's new game and its first new IP since birthing the legendary Halo series, and yet it couldn't draw more than a couple dozen people to its early launch.
The last midnight launch I went to was in 2019, and I sincerely reckon there were six people there. Granted, it was for Luigi's Mansion 3, but even for a relatively niche game like that, I remember viewing the sad turnout as a grim harbinger for the future of physical media events. The digital age had arrived, and my memories of jam-packed, smelly, wonderful launch events were just those now. Memories.
The flow of time isn't always cruel
Last night, however, was rivaled only by the 2006 midnight release for Twilight Princess, the follow-up to the iconic Ocarina of Time, a launch game for the Nintendo Wii, and my second favorite Zelda game right behind Breath of the Wild.
I'll never forget that night; there was an infectious energy, a bustling community of strangers meeting, sharing stories, and posing for pictures like they were old friends, all bound together by a mutual love for the Zelda franchise. Minute by minute, jubilant fans - often with tears in their eyes - trickled out of the store with their shiny, plastic-wrapped copies of the game, while those with less fortunate positions in line cheered them on. As a 16-year-old who'd just moved to a new area, that sense of community was big, and in retrospect, might've even contributed to my enduring fondness for Twilight Princess.
I remember not feeling ready to say goodbye to the spirit and passion of the night, but knowing that the whole reason for it all was in my hands, and I felt exactly the same way as I walked out of that same GameStop holding Tears of the Kingdom, now a 32-year-old man with a mortgage and a full-time job. I made friends I'll probably never see again but will remember, most likely, for the rest of my life.
Wake up, Link!
To be irresponsibly frank, I was struggling to really get into the Tears of the Kingdom pre-launch hype. Even though, as I mentioned, Breath of the Wild is my favorite game of all time, I just wasn't as excited as I felt I should've been.
Chalk it up to the dulling effects of writing about games for a living, or the ever-expanding backlog side-eyeing my new game with a cynical leer, or the fact that Tears of the Kingdom looks aesthetically similar to Breath of the Wild, or even the stack of major life events and responsibilities weighing heavy on my mind the last few months. Whatever the reason, I remember thinking, 'If this is going to be too much of a hassle, I'll just go home and play something else'.
That feeling of apathy faded almost immediately. There were a few moments of internal eye-rolling while I sized up the crowd from my car and tried to calculate just how long it would take to get through it, but as I approached the store the sounds and sights sparked memories from that fateful night 17 years ago, and I couldn't help but smile.
It's dangerous to go alone
I shuffled my way through groups of fans talking loudly over each other, applauded some impressive cosplayers dressed up as Links and Zeldas from different eras, briefly eaves-dropped on a conversation about this being someone's first new Zelda game since Ocarina of Time, and then found my place in my loosely wrangled pre-order group.
We quickly waved and nodded at each other before a probably exhausted store employee waltzed out the door, cuffing their hands into a make-shift microphone. "Is everyone ready for The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom?!" they boomed with an impressive power. The audience of at least 200 roared, and casual observers were stopped in their tracks as they investigated from a safe distance.
In the however long it was that I waited outside the store, I got to know a group of about 10 people. We started by sharing our histories with the Zelda series, our favorite entries - like always, I took an undeserved amount of shit for ranking Twilight Princess so high - and how much we couldn't wait to play Tears of the Kingdom. But we also talked about our lives, our favorite bands, our plans for the summer, and a bunch of other stuff I'd usually only talk about with my friends and family.
We were eventually called in to pick up our pre-orders, and as each one of us was waved up to the register, we turned and issued a silent goodbye to the people just behind, and when it was my turn I became a little emotional. Not only because I knew this goodbye was permanent, but because in the short time I'd spent with them, they'd single-handedly reawakened my passion for my favorite series. I couldn't wait to get home and boot up the game, and at that point it was as much about the people I had just met - and even those from that far-gone midnight launch in 2006 - as it was about the game itself.
Here's a before and after showing my enthusiasm just as I was showing up versus after I secured my copy:
"Nintendo presents," read a black screen as I watched cross-legged on the floor to be as close to the TV as possible. I remembered the faces of my new and old friends, and imagined them doing exactly the same thing. "The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom."
And so a new adventure begins.