Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way
-Pink Floyd, Time
A Link to the Past is only the third title in the Zelda franchise yet its smooth refinement of the original blueprints laid down by the first Legend of Zelda ensured the future direction of a majority of its successors.
In a lot of ways, A Link to the Past seems to me like a course correction. It lifts only a little from Zelda II: the Adventure of Link, the likes of which we’ve not seen much of since. Notably gone are the side-scrolling elements and a lot of the gameplay that leans heavily toward RPGishness. Rather, Link to the Past feels like the true heir of the original Zelda, regardless of how respected or disrespected the Castlevania-esque Zelda II remains. In refining the original, A Link to the Past established a gameplay and presentation structure for the adventure game genre which emphasizes a balance of overworld progression, dungeon exploration, secret hunting, and item acquisition used in every single Zelda game since. It’s contributions to the series cannot be overstated.
Further, Link’s now iconic Master Sword, the familiar top-down perspective, the emphasis on exploration and experimentation, the jumping between two worlds, the earliest seeds of a complex timeline, the inclusion of a sword-swing rather than a sword-stab, the staple of quirky, lovable characters, the familiar musical jangles, all of these were either introduced for the first time or put to polish by Link to the Past. As if these weren’t enough to make this game a piece of gaming history, it is also widely considered to be one of the greatest games on the Super Nintendo, if not one of the greatest games ever and the definitive Zelda title.
Now that all of that has been said, maybe we can attempt to dispense with the perpetual lauding that this game gets and rightfully deserves. A Link to the Past is phenomenally memorialized in many a gaming heart but if we’re to have any sensible discussions of its merits and even its
failings missed opportunities then we must get critical. And sometimes, a thing is more beautiful for its flaws than if it were flawless.
Attempting to cut through the legendary aura that has built up around this game is nearly impossible. In reviewing retro games, especially ones of this caliber, it’s consistently a challenge to try to circumnavigate things like nostalgia and widespread opinion.
But what do I honestly think of Link to the Past? I think it’s a seminal Zelda game that established the direction its franchise was to take, yes, but three detracting elements present themselves to my mind. I think its comparatively sparse storytelling, repetitive music, constant backtracking/getting lost take away from the ultimate experience. I think that in spite of these things, however, that this is perhaps the best example of classic Zelda, representing what the series’ top-down games offer and what drawbacks they bear.
After the glimmering 3D triangles of the Triforce teeter across the screen and the triumphant music blasts over the title card, we’re presenting with an opening cutscene. Firmly reminding us that Nintendo has founded an entire mythos with the Zelda series, A Link to the Past begins with this introductory cinematic explaining a small sliver of this great legend.
In a distant hidden land in ancient times, a golden power dwelt. Many sought to take up this omnipotent, omniscient golden power for themselves and war wracked the kingdom. Those who departed to the hidden land in search of this arcane power never returned. Then one day evil began to flow from the hidden land until the King of Hyrule enlisted seven wise men to lock away the land and its power forever. Their seal remained for many years until their deeds became but a myth.
Enter Agahnim, a Jafar-like figure, a wizard who usurped the authority of the King of Hyrule and purposed to release the seal on the hidden land. The evil sorcerer imprisoned the Princess Zelda and magically disposed of the seven maidens, descendants of the wise men.
A young boy named Link is awoken one stormy night by a voice in his head. It is Zelda, calling out to him from her dungeon across the void via telepathy. She implores him to help her. Link’s uncle demands the boy stay in the house on such a night but after he leaves, Link jumps out of bed and heads out into the darkness after the princess’ voice.
He soon reaches Hyrule castle, now overrun with the servants of Agahnim. Link finds his uncle there. Mortally wounded, his uncle gives him his sword and shield, saying he wishes Link hadn’t gotten involved. With his dying breath, he assures Link that he can do it, that he can save the princess, for Zelda is his… … …
Now this is all a step up from the previous two games in terms of story. We’ve had an opening cinematic and a definitive goal, not to mention dialogue. Compare that to the original two games which drop players into Link’s boots in the middle of nowhere with no explanation on what to do. This Link has at least some direction.
But note, we’re never told exactly what Zelda is in relation to Link. Nobody fills in the missing words of Link’s dead uncle. Apparently, in the Japanese version that bit of text reads “You are the princess’ … … “, the opposite of the translation into English. “Destiny” or “only hope” come to mind rather than any biological relation. At least one hopes so.
Anyway, after rescuing Zelda from the dungeon of Hyrule castle, she tells Link they can sneak away through a secret passage to Sanctuary. There we learn from the old man that Zelda was captured by the wizard as the final piece he needed to open the seal of the wise men. If that happens, the pent up evil in the hidden land will overwhelm Hyrule. Link must seek out the legendary Master Sword if he hopes to confront Agahnim and save the day.
And THEN you’re dropped into the big open world that is A Link to the Past.
This map is incredibly detailed for the era and represents all of the overworld locales pretty well. It feels like a sprawling fantasy kingdom, albeit with greater order and organization than the original Zelda’s map. I distinctly remember thinking, after exploring it for the first time for some hours, that it still seemed a little small. I didn’t think that was the case specifically in comparison to the first game. It was just some kind of intuition that there was more to this game then met my youthful eye.
Then I found out that Link had to gather three treasures from three dungeons (only three?) in order to wield the might of the Master Sword, but once he took up the mythic weapon, that’s when the game really took off. A Link to the Past features not one but two overworlds, a parallel universe known as the Dark World is a place Link is abruptly cast into but he can make use of a Magic Mirror to travel back to the Light World. In this way, the game has two worlds to explore and there are all kinds of interesting interactions between them to seek out. Furthermore, jumping between the two worlds can allow Link to bypass obstacles in one world by going to another and then returning to the other to grab a secret treasure.
This one mechanic turns the whole game on its head, defies expectations and makes A Link to the Past a landmark in adventure gaming. No wonder later games in the series played around with the idea of two “worlds”, as in the tiny world of Minish Cap, the future world of Ocarina of Time, and so on. The idea is ingenious. It allows the game to feel much, much bigger and it accommodates some very intriguing puzzles and level-design.
In the Dark World, armed with the Master Sword, Link must rescue the seven maidens of the lineage of the wise men, as well as Zelda who is recaptured by the wizard’s forces. But things won’t be easy. Awaiting him after many more dungeons is the evil Ganon himself, whom the wizard Agahnim has been working to release from his seal.
The resemblances between the Light and Dark Worlds are uncanny but so are their disparities. The Light World features a lush and verdant Hyrule with people and forest creatures, fresh water, and green forests. The Dark World is populated by monsters, skulls lying in the dirt, with stretches of desert and swamps. This also brought the series’ characteristic darkness into play.
Some of the creatures in the Dark World are members of the Light World who came in search of the golden power, but they were transformed by the magic of the parallel universe into twisted shapes resembling their true selves deep in their hearts.
It sounds like philosophical torture up there with the punishment of Prometheus by Zeus to be transformed into a ball and be kicked around by a frustrated goblin for the rest of your existence. Other people were turned into weird, twisted tree-like creatures. That’d be straight up body horror if this game had realistic graphics. But the thing is it’s never too dark. It’s borderline frightening but there’s always that cute, lovable character sprite to remind you this is at heart still a Nintendo game, and that balance was the spark that started this trend in the spirit of the Legend of Zelda.
It is undeniable that the Zelda series would not be what it is today without A Link to the Past. There could be no Breath of the Wild without the innovation and pioneering done in this SNES title. It takes the blue ribbon for the game that best represents what this series is all about and I therefore recommend it as a great starting place for anyone new to the Legend of Zelda.
The 8-bit Review
When A Link to the Past was released, the Super Nintendo was only one year old, yet this Zelda game put the capabilities of the 16-bit system on full display. It’s pseudo-3D rendering was apparent in the title screen’s Triforce and the scrolling map. The transition and travel between two worlds was astounding. The sheer size of the game with two worlds with their two different appearances was mindblowing. The game’s use of lighting and darkness in dungeons and caves, as well as the weather effects during the intro, dappled sunlight, and mist, made this a world which felt tangible and vivid in this whole new generation of gaming.
The graphics remain appealing in their uniquely defined and round-around-the-edges way. These trees and mountains and gates, all of the game’s bushes and hedges and fences and walls, look unlike anything else before or since. They look stylized, miniaturized. It’s hard to describe with exactitude. It’s distinctly Super Nintendo and it appears as if the developers took great care in crafting even what the trees would look like. I always thought the environs resembled candy. Even the houses look like perfect little figurines.
The characters themselves are also much more articulate than in the NES games. Link’s iconic hat bobs up and down as he runs. The NPCs and enemies are far more detailed as well. Even the enemy soldiers turn their heads back and forth to look for our hero in green.
One complaint and one question, though. The complaint: Those text boxes have some really tough to read text with that bright, vibrant blue-white and no background. The question: Why on Earth is Link’s hair pink? (spoiler: highlight to reveal) It’s because of palette limitations with normal Link and Bunny Link combined.
All in all, however, there aren’t too many other 16-bit games with this level of polish, without the visual noise of the pixelated eras. A Link to the Past does a splendid job of representing some of the best graphics of the SNES.
Adventurous, bold, orchestral, sweeping, A Link to the Past has a good soundtrack with great tunes that are somewhat overused, keeping the music from reaching perfection. Koji Kondo returns and he brings his big guns for an OST that sounds bigger than ever before, breathing depth and gravity into the songs he established in the original Legend of Zelda. The title screen music sets the tone for the entire game.
I noticed this time around playing the game that there’s a lot of mood and menace to the music. The track which plays over the opening cinematic and again when Link leaves his home in search of the princess features music that’s frantic, panicky almost. It sounds stressful and tense. Kondo clearly was aiming for an adventure sound that wasn’t all fun and fanfare. The result is a soundtrack with variable personality.
Fans of the series, young and old, will recognize the Hyrule Overture, the main theme of the franchise and here as the theme of the Light World. It’s much broader in sound than the original game’s Overture, what with its cymbals and horns. It’s a great song and all but it is the only song that you’ll hear while exploring the entire Light World so it is going to become wearisome, nostalgia-glasses or no.
Other recurring tunes you may recognize are some of these below. A Link to the Past established tracks like “Zelda’ Lullaby” as series staples.
The occasional story-related or scene-related track is a welcome deviation from the game’s otherwise fairly repetitive musical presentation. Take the examples below. The first appears in Sanctuary, which immediately attains an air of austerity and religiosity for the sound of its music, but then there’s the second track, a tiring, jarring, monotone song which plays in a whole lot of caves. And there are a lot of caves.
Even with how good a lot of this soundtrack is, I found myself reaching for the remote to turn down the volume if a song got too tiresome on repeat. This might be the weakest element of the entire game, but even then, it’s not like we’re talking downright awful. We’re talking great but too repetitive.
A Link to the Past takes every facet of the first Zelda’s gameplay and works to refine it. The gameplay is a text-book example of smoothness, based around a structure of exploring the overworld for the next dungeon, finding the dungeon’s special item, defeating the boss with said item, then using it to find and unlock the next dungeon. In this way, the game cannot truly be played out of order, no matter how much its open-endedness appears to allow it. In 2017, we’re entirely familiar with this basic quasi-linear structure of exploration and acquisition but here is where it became the standard. Dungeons are now designed to heavily feature the special items found in them, barring you access to the dungeon boss until you find the item and learn how to use it.
Using items strategically is another thing which sets A Link to the Past apart. Enemies and bosses and dungeons can no longer be defeated merely by swinging your sword headlong into the fray, willy-nilly. Yes you can now swing your sword in an arc rather than merely stab straight forward, an innovation which makes for much more fluid combat. But from very early on, the game presents you with enemies that cannot be defeated (or defeated easily) through conventional means, all but forcing you to either retreat or observe your surroundings and arsenal for strategic assault. This will inevitably render some of Link’s weapons and tools more useful than others, and others almost obsolete, but it makes each encounter with even basic enemies a much more varied experience. A Link to the Past also includes many more items and item upgrades than its predecessors, ensuring that the variation in gameplay is that much broader.
Not all items need to be found/upgraded in order to beat the game, either. This resolves one of my fundamental grips with the Legend of Zelda series. Well, one of the very few that I have. It is this: generally, there’s a lot of exploration to be done in a Legend of Zelda game but it sometimes feels like there’s ultimately little point to it. It’s hard to feel excited finding every little secret, even end-game secrets, when it’s something like a bunch of rupees or a box of twenty bombs, or even just another heart container. But A Link to the Past avoids that by including optional items as secrets, making besting some of its puzzles a truly rewarding experience.
A few more pros and then some cons.
The Dark World. Jumping back and forth between worlds, as mentioned, is an incredible mechanic that makes exploration all the more compelling. It starts to tap into having to memorize locales and layouts of the landscape in order to find everything.
However, the magic meter seems superfluous at best and indulgent at worst, forcing you to backtrack for restorative potions when you really need it. Also, pegasus boot spamming gets old fast. These boots are an item which Link can use to momentarily build up speed and then charge like a locomotive across the land at high speeds. This effect stops when you enter the next screen though and you can’t change directions when dashing. You’ll also stop if you bump into a wall or obstacle and stagger backward (though you plow through enemies). It’s cumbersome but it’s the only way to get around the world quickly by foot.
There are some teleporting features, such as being able to pick your starting location if you die or restart the game, but the tedium of backtracking also gets old fast, especially if you don’t know where you’re going. And you won’t, especially if its either your first time playing or you can’t remember what you’re supposed to do next. There’s little in-game guidance immediately available to you, as well. That means you’ll be hoofing it slowly around Hyrule looking for your next item or dungeon, often through trial and error, until you break down and consult a guide or just push through and put in some real hours
Finally, there’s switching items in the main menu screen. This could’ve been easily ironed out if they’d allowed you to cycle through items with the shoulder buttons, instead of having to open up your menu every time you had to switch items, which can be quite often in the case of some boss fights.
Each new Zelda game further fleshes out the history of this grand fantasy world. A Link to the Past does so in its own small way. One could ask why it gets such a high score for Narrative when it doesn’t have things like an intricate plot, developed characters, or even much dialogue. But I think that the scanty narrative, intentional or not, actually serves to heighten the mystery of this mythos. The other option would’ve been to explain (read: over-explain) and drown this little game in the modern textual obsession with commentary. As it is, this basic tale of good vs. evil, purity vs. greed, the underdog vs. the prince of darkness in A Link to the Past very much resembles an actual legend, without much detail, without strict time-keeping and the like.
Those who’ve played the first two games noted that Link to the Past doesn’t seem to follow the story of the original games. Whereas Zelda II was a sequel to the original, this one seems out of sorts. Bear in mind that Nintendo had to smooth out the wrinkles in what’s become a convoluted set of timelines with an entire hardcover compendium, but it’s worth noting that playing around with a vast Zelda timeline began here.
What does the title mean? Good question. It’s one of those things, like Link’s relationship to Zelda, that’s never explained directly by the game. I’m going to lay down the conjecture that it’s referring to Link’s quest to save the seven maidens and prevent the seal from being broken. The seal itself is ancient and the maidens are descendants of the legendary wise men, so in this respect Link is dealing with concepts directly relating to the past. There’s also the possibility that this game takes place far back in the Zelda timeline so it is itself a reference to the past of this universe’s history.
In Japan, though, the title of the game is “Triforce of the Gods”. Changing the name for the North American release is typical Nintendo. It’s an exercise in censorship removing any religious symbolism from pretty much all of their games released in the West.
Next question. Why is Link a compelling hero, at all? I’ve been playing a lot of Zelda games lately and it seems like people don’t get tired of the hero in green. But why? What makes him special? I’ve even heard him called a Gary Stu, but gamers love him. He’s an icon. He’ll never fall out of favor, it seems.
He’s sort of like Golden Age Superman, and to a lesser extent his Silver Age counterpart. Link, too, is symbolic, iconic, archetypal, exemplary. Aside from destruction of private property looking for rupees and harassing cucoos, he’s pure. Does the appearance of a Dark Link persona in the mythos even go so far as to suggest that he’s incorruptible, compartmentalizing his inner moral evil as an entirely separate entity? Remember they did the same thing with Reeve in Superman III?
Link will never die because he represents a true hero, an icon. He doesn’t need to have flaws we can empathize with. He doesn’t need to become this well-rounded and developed character. He doesn’t need to become more human. Please, don’t try to make him relatable. He does’t need to be. He’s pure courage, noble, marching off to save the world without a second thought.
We need heroes like these, heroes such as the world told stories of for millennia before the advent and dominance of the “flawed hero”. We’ve tricked ourselves into thinking that more dirt on a protagonist automatically makes them a better character. Link flies in the face of that. We need heroes like Link in our stories because they represent pure standards to look up to. They represent aspirations we can aspire to, immersing ourselves in the character. Link is no one, therefore he can be anyone. Again, with Superman, remember when he used to be perfect? Before they so humanized him that they made him as unexceptional as the rest of us? No wonder people complained about a recent Supes too moody and too depressed.
I could use more courage and Link is emblematic of courage. He’s like a force of nature or a timeless virtue. Heroes don’t need problems like alcoholism, addiction, or asinine personalities to be compelling. Heroes do not have to share our guilt and vices, or be gritty, mopey, conceited, or insecure in order to be worth our adoration. Let’s just take a step back and remember that.
Okay so I had some trouble getting through this game and I place the blame entirely on the awful GameCube controller, which I never truly appreciated and which I disliked all the more for its wacky button placement while playing A Link to the Past. I’ll need to buy the Classic Controller for this and other Wii Virtual Console games. I found myself dying a lot, mostly because I couldn’t wrap my mind around the controls this way. I’d been trained for too long on the original SNES setup.
Some things which actually do make the game difficult, GameCube controller aside, are the limited amount of hearts you start the game with and the slow going to collect more. Considering the game isn’t isometric either, it’s very easy to line up your attacks wrong and get hit into oblivion. This is the single biggest challenge, getting hit too much, as the dungeons themselves aren’t overtly complex in their layouts. But with no save point in front of the boss room, you’ve got to save up your hearts well and ensure you take down the boss in one go, otherwise… well, remember that ol’ word we love so much: backtracking?
All this being said, A Link to the Past is a smidge less difficult than the original game but it’s certainly harder than most of the 3D Zeldas that came after it. Those people that said Breath of the Wild is the hardest Zelda game to date need to go back and play the first three Zelda games.
With so much to do and so much to find, this game feels like a carefully cultivated version of a modern open-world game, though with tons more focus. There are secrets everywhere and some of them take a lot of doing to uncover. As previously mentioned, the game has more to reward you with than the odd stash of rupees or arrows, so there’s value to its replayability.
This third Zelda game was a return to form for the fledgling series but it ended up being the definitive classic Zelda. It feels so much like the original but it took that first concept to a whole new level. Today, it still feels like the polished, expansive, busy, secretive, enchanting game it was in the early 90’s.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
A Link to the Past represents to me a great personal sorrow. In middle school, I owned the cartridge for this game. That was back before any concept of Virtual Consoles or digital downloads so if you wanted to play the game you had to have the system and the cart. I made a deal with a classmate to temporarily trade this game for two PlayStation games. He had to bribe me with two of them because I was unwilling to trust anyone with A Link to the Past. we both knew how good it was. We did end up trading… and then that classmate never came back to school. I didn’t even know his last name or phone number. I ended up with MediEvil and some kind of space racer I can’t even remember the name of. Lame deal. I never saw that cart again. And yeah, you bet that’s why my personal grade is a flat out 10. Well that and the fact that this is one of the best games ever.
If you’re looking for more retrospection for the Legend of Zelda series, check out our other Zelda reviews and posts. Thanks for reading!
Aggregated Score: 9.3
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Categories: Game Review