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Legends of Zelda, Part One:
The Legend of Zelda

A few weeks ago I came to the end of Twilight Princess, and it kind of made me think back to the Legend of Zelda series as a whole. I decided that I would write a series of retrospective articles about the console games (I have admittedly limited experience of the handhelds)—and, in order to prepare myself, I would play them each of them through again, from beginning to end. Then I realized that that would take forever, and also, as I’ve already logged hundreds of hours of playtime with them, it’d also be kind of pointless. I know my way around the games. I was a Nintendo baby. And then I grew up and became a Nintendo adult. To this day, no other company’s controllers feel natural in my hands; it’s always an exercise in frustration to get used to them. With Nintendo, every time, it’s like coming home to old friends.

And of those old friends, I’m probably the most fond of Link…which is maybe kind of strange since he never says anything and usually goes by anything other than Link in-game—unless you happen to leave the name entry box blank. It’s almost unfathomable, actually, that this nameless, personality-free collection of elf-pixels could end up carrying one of the biggest, most recognizable game series in the world. But, hey, he did grow up a bit along the way. And so did the games. And so did the audience. Which is why I thought it might be nice to take a trip backward, and examine each of these games in sequence.

So grab your ocarina and play the Song of Time loudly enough that it takes you all the way back to 1987. I’m six years old in 1987, in case any time-traveling pedophiles are thinking of looking me up. And what’s that golden cartridge my friend Randy is holding?

This is more-or-less how adventure looked twenty years ago.
Link and some Octorocks

I never actually owned The Legend of Zelda. Well, not until many years later, anyway, when I went through a sort of reliving-my-childhood crisis mid-college. So most of my memories of the game involve me, under ten, lying on the living room floor with a bottle of Coke and some goldfish crackers, watching my friend Randy play the game. He’d bring it over, pop it in, and sit much too close to the television. I’d grab a pillow, turn the lights out, and enjoy the action from a few feet away.

What was it about The Legend of Zelda that made it such an entertaining game to watch? After all, I didn’t sit around watching people play Super Mario Bros. Or Donkey Kong or Bubble Bobble. While those games were in use I wanted to play them. Watching was only acceptable if you were waiting in line to take over for someone. They were games, after all. They were meant to be played. And yet what I am I doing at that age? I’m finding myself illuminated by the glow of Hyrule without being too much concerned that I’m not the one exploring it. Why is that?

At ten I wouldn’t have been able to answer you. Today…maybe I know a little better. The Legend of Zelda seemed like more of an adventure to me. You didn’t have to press the buttons yourself to enjoy the journey. It was about exploration. It was about the excitement of discovering a new area. It was about the triumph of locating a hidden item or secret room. And, yes, it was about the danger of encountering an enemy far too powerful if you ventured too far.

Mario’s adventures were a lot different. They were linear. You reached the end of one level and started off at the beginning of the next. There wasn’t really a sense of exploration, and triumph was limited pretty much to wiping your brow and saying, “Wow, that was a tough one!” You couldn’t get lost in Super Mario Bros. You encountered all of the enemies in a preordained sequence. It was a brilliant game (and continues to be so), but it was a different type of game entirely. The Mushroom Kingdom was a break from the real world. Hyrule, however, was an alternate world of its own. I never felt any danger of not coming back from the Mushroom Kingdom alive. But damned if Zelda’s “one heart remaining” chime doesn’t still seriously cause my pulse-rate to spike.

Worst. Salesman. Ever.
Link and a Salesman

And, speaking of which, isn’t it amazing what this game was able to do with such a small palette of sound? Considering how limited the NES’ audio capabilities were, you have to give it genuine credit for such cool effects as the swipe of your sword through open air, and the satisfying thhwmp when you connect with an enemy. Sure, the long-distance sword-firing sound makes your weapon sound more like it’s made of tin foil than steel, and the Link’s-dead sound owes more than a little to a dying Pacman, but on the whole it’s one of the more aurally-impressive experiences you can have with an NES game.

And, well, I can’t really go much further without discussing the actual music in the game, which is (simultaneously surprising and unsurprising) globally recognizable, even among non-gamers. Composer Koji Kondo was a truly gifted man, and it’s a huge testament to him that he was able to take a repeating figure of around 45-seconds or so and have it loop endlessly on the overworld without driving anyone crazy. The overworld theme seems continuously appropriate—it may not develop over time, but neither does it grate. (And the underworld theme, equally short, does an excellent job of strengthening the tension…it’s a creepy, chilly sort of musical shiver that resonates endlessly through every room of every dungeon. It gives your fears an impressive cohesion.)

Of course whenever anybody mentions classic video game music, we all turn and look in Mario’s direction. And, hey, rightly so—it’s another Kondo masterpiece. But for my money, Zelda is the grand champion of the category, hands down. The Mario theme is great in its own way, and certainly just as remarkable in its non-iritatingness over the course of the game. But it’s hindsight that really allows these themes to be heard properly.

In subsequent Mario games, the original theme is usually present, in some capacity, jazzed up or reorchestrated or something…but it still sounds like the original theme through a new filter. The Zelda theme, however, each time it grows with the technology, just feels more and more like we are hearing what Kondo meant us to hear all along. Those tinny, repeating notes from the original game? Why, they’ve always sounded grand…we just never knew how grand until the technology caught up with the music in Kondo’s head. (And you know what? That’s the music we heard in our heads, too, as children playing the game. It really was a grand and exciting theme. We heard soaring strings and crashing cymbals where there were none—we knew where they were supposed to be and filled them in ourselves.)

And just where, exactly, do you plan on stashing that thing?
Link and a Ladder

A similar resourcefulness is also to be found, somewhat obviously, in the game’s control scheme. Back when video games could conceivably be controlled by two buttons and a D-pad (oh, how primitive we all were back then…) the actions any given character could perform were…somewhat limited. The good thing about this was that you could sit down with nearly any game and immediately count on the A-button to jump and the B-button to fire. The bad thing was that comparatively few games (barring racing or puzzle games, obviously) made any attempt to liven up this basic control scheme.

The Legend of Zelda, darn surprisingly for its time, managed to replace jump/fire with a whole ream of weapons and abilities. The brilliant inventory system was by no means a Zelda innovation in itself, but the game certainly did popularize it and set a precedent for console adventure games to come. The fact that you could use so many items and weapons with just two buttons (and the fact that these items and weapons actually felt different to use, each coming with its own particular—and recognizable—strengths and weaknesses) made the game that much more immersive. It also heightened the feeling of progress…every time you discovered a new item to master it made you that much more dangerous to your enemies, and brought you a little bit closer to being safe in every corner of the map.

Remember, too, that we’ve leapt back in time to the first Legend of Zelda game, before there was a pattern to the weapons and obtaining them. We were unable to walk into a dungeon, take a quick look around at the obstacles, and say something like, “Oh, so this must be where I get the bow.” We never knew what we were going to get. We were excited every time we found something new. Sometimes we just wanted to rush back up to the overworld and try that item out everywhere, on everything, to see what worked, what didn’t, and what—if anything—would be revealed. Every Nintendo game made use of the B-button, but nowhere else did pressing it feel so satisfying.

We also have to say at least a small amount about the save feature. This was back when…well…there weren’t any save features. Zelda allowed up to three different people to pick up from their individual games without sacrificing their progress (if they didn’t mind losing some hearts and being returned to the first screen of the game). It might have been kind of clunky (you had to hold down the reset button while you powered down the console) and it might have been unreliable (a lot of people would lose their data for seemingly no reason whatsoever—a problem well-documented but one I fortunately never had to contend with) but it was a save feature, by jiggledy. And what other Nintendo game had that? All of this helped the game feel that much larger. Every time you visited a new area of Hyrule, the Mushroom Kingdom seemed to shrink a little more in your imagination. How big could the old MK be, after all? You didn’t even need a save feature to make it all the way through. (Mario, you pansy.)

Now that I’ve gotten all of the—admittedly well-earned—praise out of the way, we should take a moment to appraise the game itself for what it actually is: a two-decades-old adventure game. Stripping it of its place in time and its date-specific innovations, how does it hold up today? If I were ten years old right now, would I still be content to lay on a pillow and explore Hyrule secondhand?

Obviously there’s no way to say for sure, but with the distance of time it’s easier to see the game’s flaws. I report them not because I think we should dwell upon them, but because it’s useful for us (as game players and as students of our own nostalgia) to understand how a game like this might have taken a few mis-steps. I also hasten to add that every one of these shortcomings—yes, every single one—have by now been addressed and rectified by later games.

The first complaint is that the world is…well…kind of barren. While this was obviously a limitation of the technology itself (and while recoloring rocks white and trees brown went a long way toward embiggening Hyrule), there’s still the sense that it’s just a really large, empty platform upon which to battle creatures. Non-player characters would play a significant role in every Zelda game after this one, but for now Hyrule is pretty empty. (Is Hyrule even in a populated area of the globe? Why does every screen feel like a desert?) You almost get the feeling that Link is the last survivor of some kind of elfin holocaust, or that Zelda was originally meant to be a video game adaptation of The Omega Man.

Link takes a short break from Triforce Collecting Game.
Link and some old man

What NPCs there are are notoriously unhelpful. A lot of them are there to sell you things—which is handy and which certainly set a precedent for later Zelda games—but none of them really have any character or personality, and visiting them is no different than visiting a bearded vending machine.

The exception? Well, you know him already. He’s the famous Old Man, a wizened red-robed gentleman who stands alone in dark rooms waiting for heroes to appear, so that he can utter one line of unhelpful nonsense—and then, presumably, return to another decade or two of mute isolation. A conversation with the Old Man is sort of like a one-line exchange with Grandpa Simpson. Nothing he tells you is really helpful and most of the time it doesn’t make any sense at all—until after you solve the puzzle the hint was meant to guide you through.

Which leads me cleanly into another thing definitely lacking in this game: direction on where to go. The Legend of Zelda’s “hint system” consists entirely of the Old Man (whom you only encounter periodically) who will blurt something like EYES OF SKULL HAS A SECRET and leave you from there to fend for yourself. Even his more lucid hints, like SPECTACLE ROCK IS AN ENTRANCE TO DEATH, are rendered pointless by the fact that there’s nobody in the game to tell you what Spectacle Rock even is, or where to find it, or why you’d want to go there. There are no signs or helpful navigational tools. You learn by walking, memorizing, venturing too far, and getting quickly murdered by creatures much too powerful for you to battle at that time.

And where are the dungeons, anyway? Well, walk around enough and you’ll find them. But will you find them in order? That’s another story. They are scattered around the map and there’s no guarantee you’ll enter them in the intended order of increasing difficulty. In fact, odds are that you won’t. There’s no way of knowing where you’re supposed to be headed next—not even in terms of a general compass direction—and you can only figure it out by trying absolutely everything.

Of course some people will say that this is the better way for a game to be made. It encourages exploration, after all. Right? Wrong. It doesn’t encourage exploration at all…it forces it. A game that encourages exploration would give you an idea of where you’re supposed to go next, but allow you to venture elsewhere instead—by choice—because you’ve decided that’s what you’d rather do. (See Majora’s Mask for a prime example of how to do this exactly right.) In this case, everybody is exploring…wandering aimlessly…because there’s no real way to progress through the game without doing otherwise. (Suddenly those linear side-scrolling vistas of the Mushroom Kingdom seem much more inviting, don’t they?)

One great byproduct of the very, very, very loose direction of the game, though, is that the entire map can be scrambled up without the gameplay suffering at all…which is why The Legend of Zelda, and no later game in the series, can include a second quest. (For those of you who don’t know, the second quest begins after you complete the game…or after you enter ZELDA—a password of sorts—as your name on the character select screen.) In the second quest you play the exact same game with the exact same items and the exact same goal, but all of the dungeon locations have changed, and so have some of the items. Enemies are also more powerful and differently distributed. It’s an extra layer to the game, and one that’s only possible because the first quest itself plays so loosely to begin with.

Laugh if you must, but I used to have nightmares about this shit.
Link and some blobs

This is also what allows people to create their own rules, and win the game in interesting ways, such as the famous No Sword Quest. Would I ever want to play the game without a sword? Nah. It just wouldn’t be that much fun to me. But the fact that you can make it all the way up to the final villain without one…hey…that’s kind of cool, and it suddenly does render the game that much more pliant. (Not to mention providing it with an unintentionally-extended shelf-life.)

Back to the shortcomings…where’s Zelda? I mean, the game is about her, right? Or at least about her legend. But she doesn’t seem to have the same “presence” here as even Princess Toadstood had in Super Mario Bros. This game is very much Link’s…which isn’t a problem…but it’s interesting to me that when I hear the name Zelda I picture a little elf guy stabbing away at centaurs and not Zelda herself. She plays a much larger role in later games, but in this first installment, you never actually see her unless you finish the game…and even then you just end up with a standard “Hey, well done! You won the thing, whatever it was! Have a good night!” screen…hugely anti-climactic considering just how much time and effort the game takes to complete.

There’s also the fact that enemy behavior is randomized…and so you can end up being killed easily by enemies whom you can only attack from a certain angle. If they just happen to turn in your direction, you take damage. It has nothing to do with your strategy and everything to do with luck. This would be addressed soon enough in the series, but it’s pretty frustrating to always have to use the same stab-and-quickly-retreat-just-in-case-Darknut-happens-to-turn-in-your-direction strategy. Bah.

You realize what I’m doing here, though, right? I’m being spectacularly critical of one of the most influential—and still one of the best—console games of all time. Does that mean I don’t enjoy it? No. Of course not. I have more fond memories of the Zelda series—both as a participant and as a spectator—than maybe any other, but it’s interesting to me to go back and pick up on all the things that I’d probably be less forgiving about at this point in my life. (It says a lot that all of these complaints were addressed fairly quickly in the series…that means that the developers were aware of them, too, and acknowledged them before most gamers did.)

It’s a brilliant start to a brilliant series, and only shaky when compared to its younger brothers.

Would a newcomer to the series today have the patience to sit down with it? Maybe. I don’t know; I can’t speak for them. But one thing’s for sure: if they start with a more recent Zelda title and then decide to jump backward to where it all began, they’re still going to have fun, and probably be at least a little impressed by how much that game managed to squeeze out of two repeating songs, hordes of palette-swapped enemies, and a two-button control scheme.

About this entry


I was never a Nintendo guy growing up - our family couldn’t afford a console, and if I’d got one I probably would have got a Megadrive anyway - and the very first console I owned was a Playstation. But the Wii has awakened a previously unknown streak of Nintendo fanboy in me. (I got one on launch day. The low price for a new console excited me into wanting a new console from the very beginning that cheaply - and then I realised how fucking amazing Nintendo were once I started playing the games!)

So yeah, I never played the original Zelda growing up either. But after finishing the amazing Twilight Princess (and it’s one of the very few games that I *have* ever finished), I bought this on the Virtual Console. And much as I hate to say it… I’ve hardly played it. I couldn’t get into it at all.

Which is odd, because I always slag off people who can’t get into something just because it’s old. I think it’s a really stupid attitude. And believe me, I play enough other old games, so it’s not a hatred of them. (I still play Sonic 1,2 and 3, and I still play shitloads of BBC Micro games - some of which I grew up with (I didn’t have a console, but I did have a BBC Micro), but some of which I didn’t.)

But when it came down to it, as you talk about in the article - the lack of direction as to what to do put me off. It’s not the graphics, or the gameplay as such - it’s the fact that you’re dumped there with nary a hint of what to do. Just the equivalent of Navi from Ocarina would have helped. (I’m presuming part of the reason there isn’t something like that is because of cartridge space.) I honestly don’t know what I would have made of the game at the time - would I have had the same issues? Or have modern games spoilt me in terms of the help they give in guiding you through the game? I can’t answer that one.

But this article has made me want to try it out again. I’m sure it does get really good - it’s just the initial impression put me off. I’ll have another crack.

John Hoare's picture

By John Hoare
August 07, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

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>I bought this on the Virtual Console.

If you want to play a “classic” Zelda game on th VC, definitely grab A Link to the Past. It’s hugely similar to the original Zelda in terms of the basic shape of the adventure, but it’s so much more advanced…and, it has to be said, fun.

>(I’m presuming part of the reason there isn’t something like that is because of cartridge space.)

There’s that,certainly, but also—I have to assume—the developers just didn’t realize how helpful it would be. Maybe they figured an Old Man every so often would be enough to guide you along. (And, for all I know, he could be extremely helpful when he speaks Japanese.)

My guess would be that it’s only their reappraisal of the original game that led to things like Navi.

Zelda II rectified this, on the whole. There were NPCs to give you better advice than you could ever get in this game, and the map layout itself meant you couldn’t actually get anywhere else until you found whatever item was necessary to move on.

But…that’s for another article.

Phil Reed's picture

By Phil Reed
August 07, 2008 @ 3:07 pm

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**gasp of joy**

I think the first game that could remotely be called an RPG that I ever played (on my Super Nintendo) was LoZ: A Link to the Past. I still have the game, too, although I don’t know if my SNES works with my current TV yet. (It’s also been on my mind of late ‘cos I’ve been writing a text hack for it. Shame on me, I know.) So this whole series of articles sounds like it’s going to be quite an enjoyable read—like this one was ^_^ . Keep it up!

Meg's picture

By Meg
August 07, 2008 @ 4:40 pm

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Also, I bet a certain amount of the Old Man’s incomprehensibility was due to translation issues—aren’t games from this era famous for Engrishisms?

On the other hand, I think it was the Old Man who gave us the line “If all else fails, use fire”. (Wasn’t it?) And those are truly words to live by.

Meg's picture

By Meg
August 07, 2008 @ 4:47 pm

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>this whole series of articles sounds like it’s going to be quite an enjoyable read—like this one was

Thanks. They already seem like they’ll be fun to write, as well. I can’t wait to get to the less-beloved entries in the series, like Wind Waker or Majora’s Mask. They deserve some love.

>I bet a certain amount of the Old Man’s incomprehensibility was due to translation issues

Yeah, I have no way of knowing for sure, but I’m sure the Old Man was victimized at least a little by hasty translation and a habit of speaking in all caps. (PAY ME FOR THE DOOR REPAIR CHARGE)

But the “use fire” advice came somewhere in Zelda II…which itself had some interesting ideas about the English language. Stay tuned.

Phil Reed's picture

By Phil Reed
August 07, 2008 @ 5:18 pm

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Well, I was a Game Boy kid - I had a SNES, but never got LttP at the time, and never had a NES - so the first Zelda game I played was Link’s Awakening, and the freedom to use both buttons for stuff other than swords has bugged me since I went back to play TLoZ and LttP (The only other Zelda game I’ve had in-release was Ocarina).

…actually, I have no idea in retrospect, looking at the above, how I got through TLoZ. Maybe I looked up a guide or something, because I don’t recall going off-track with respect to dungeon order.

BTW, ever seen ZQuest? It allows you to make your own quests based on TLoZ if you’re patient enough (I’m not, but I’ve played a couple other people have made)

*has The Zelda Theme as his main mobile ringtone, and has done since his first Nokia 3310 turned out to have a “customise ringtone” feature where you could type out a ringtone for yourself, years back….*

Somebody's picture

By Somebody
August 08, 2008 @ 5:33 am

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Yeah, Link’s Awakening, without any question, was great. I won’t be covering it though because a) I haven’t played it in many, many years and b) it’s the only hand-held Zelda game I’ve played…so covering that and not any of the others is kind of inconsistent.

>Maybe I looked up a guide or something, because I don’t recall going off-track with respect to dungeon order.

I remember watching my friend play, and he seemed to be more or less on track…but then again we both subscribed to Nintendo Power, which no doubt was full of maps and tips, and it’s not unlikely we had one close by. Playing by myself, years later (when I should have been BETTER at games!) was when I realized how easy it was to go off track, and, dovetailing that, how difficult it was to stay on track.

>BTW, ever seen ZQuest?

I came across it at some point. At that time at least they didn’t have a Mac version and so I didn’t spend too much time investigating. But, yeah, I can imagine that’s a lot of fun. There’s a Mario Bros. one out there, as well.

Phil Reed's picture

By Phil Reed
August 08, 2008 @ 2:06 pm

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I think with a game of this vintage, it’s acceptable to play with a guide to hand. After all, it doesn’t take away from the challenge of just getting from one side of the map to the other without losing all your hearts.

Zelda 2, on the other hand, is just plain torture even with an FAQ.

Philip Alderman's picture

By Philip Alderman
August 08, 2008 @ 4:30 pm

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By Error
August 10, 2008 @ 3:45 am

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> the first Zelda game I played was Link’s Awakening, and the freedom to use both buttons for stuff other than swords has bugged me since I went back to play TLoZ and LttP

Technically, I don’t think it’s incorrect, but the way I phrased that may give the wrong impression - just to clarify, I preferred having free choice in LA than being limited to “Sword Plus…” in TLoZ & LttP.

Somebody's picture

By Somebody
August 10, 2008 @ 10:13 am

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Link’s Awakening on the Gameboy was the best. Black and white but still a step on from the first NES game.

By Zantarra
August 10, 2008 @ 12:32 pm

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>Link’s Awakening on the Gameboy was the best.

Link’s Awakening is the sole reason I’d wish them to release Game Boy games on the Virtual Console.

Of course, the graphics would look like shit blown up to the size of a modern television screen, but I’d be fine with that, and as long as the Game Boy games were sold with a disclaimer to that effect, people really wouldn’t have much reason to complain…

Phil Reed's picture

By Phil Reed
August 10, 2008 @ 3:33 pm

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Wish they’d do a DS version - that’d be the ideal place for it.

John Hoare's picture

By John Hoare
August 10, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

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If GB games were released on Virtual Console they could do it the same way they utilised the Super Game Boy (for the SNES): screen in the middle with a border image.

By Ridley
August 10, 2008 @ 9:26 pm

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> I can’t wait to get to the less-beloved entries in the series, like Wind Waker or Majora’s Mask.

I’d say they’re my two favourites of the series. I love the dark and edgy feeling you get (or at least I get) when playing MM, a lot of that maybe coming from the fact that you could so easily lose your progress, but we’ll go into that more with the MM article which I’m looking forward to immensely!

I came to the original Zelda way after Alttp and Ocarina and I never got into it as much. Playing it felt too restrictive. I did finish it but since then I’ve not touched it, that’s at least 8 years ago! Never felt like playing it on the VC.

By performingmonkey
August 11, 2008 @ 3:14 am

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So will you be including the three Zelda CD-I games in this?

By Ridley
August 11, 2008 @ 11:30 pm

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If I can get a CD-i emulator working here, then I’ll be doing a piece on those, yes.

John Hoare's picture

By John Hoare
August 11, 2008 @ 11:38 pm

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In that case, John, best of luck; I’ve heard the Zelda CD-i games were absolute shit.

Meg's picture

By Meg
August 12, 2008 @ 7:23 am

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Oh, yes, so have I! I’ve never played them before - I want to go into them and give them *absolutely* a far chance.

But if they really are shit, obviously I’ll l lay into them like there’s no tomorrow. And the screengrabs don’t inspire confidence…

John Hoare's picture

By John Hoare
August 12, 2008 @ 9:31 am

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