The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, more than being relevant for defining the franchise’s gameplay, is essential for its wonderful pace, well-rounded gameplay, and flawless balance between complete freedom and sensible guidance
It is hard to find a gaming franchise that is as unanimously beloved and admired as The Legend of Zelda. And in order to fully understand the immeasurable importance its third installment, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, had for the establishment of Nintendo’s grandest adventure series as the untouchable powerhouse of the genre, as well as a central player both in the development and growth of the entertainment medium it belongs to, all one has to do is to look back on what was, at that point, its past. Because the release, in 1991, of the Super Nintendo classic clearly stands as a major turning point in Link’s endless quest to keep the forces of evil at bay. The efforts that came before it feel, in comparison, like experiments that were either clumsy or that failed to reach their potential thanks to lack of maturity on the developers’ part and technological limitations that trampled ambitions. Meanwhile, all entries that followed were, for more than one decade, constructed over the framework that was laid down by it. Its greatness, however, is not solely limited to that historic role, because – as its far-reaching influence indicates – A Link to the Past delivers spectacularly on the gameplay front.
The original The Legend of Zelda, set in an open-world that allowed Link to travel wherever he wished to go and tackle Hyrule’s dungeons in whatever order he wanted, offered gamers a top-down perspective from which they explored the devastated empty land, found the entrance to the mazes, and collected eight Triforce Shards on the way to beating Ganon. Due to the lack of an in-game map, the absence of any sort of direction, the absurdly obscure actions that were required to find and clear some of the dungeons, and the simplicity of Link’s arsenal, which led to combat-centered gameplay, the game, though an achievement for its time, failed to be entirely enjoyable, as it tried to do too much with too little. Its sequel, Adventure of Link, meanwhile, looking for a new angle, turned the overworld into a mere hub, added RPG elements such as a level system and random battles, and set most of its gameplay in sidescrolling segments that happened when the hero went into towns or dungeons.
Given the colder reception given by fans and critics towards the latter when compared to the former, and armed with new hardware that opened up a myriad of possibilities, Nintendo chose to transport the franchise to the Super Nintendo by revisiting the gameplay style of the first installment. Consequently, A Link to the Past is, five years later, a trip back to the format of the original The Legend of Zelda, and it features the organic improvements one expects from a series when it moves on to better hardware. The scenarios, which originally presented thematic changes via mere palette swaps, are given far more room to breathe. Therefore, the Hyrule portrayed in A Link to the Past has, besides a castle and a town, a mountain, a desert, a swamp, a forest, various caves, and more, and all of them are built with great visual assets. At the same time, characters, bosses, and enemies are represented with great-looking well-animated sprites that add life to the land and tension to the game’s darkest moments. Finally, the great yet limited soundtrack of The Legend of Zelda goes into mythical territory as Koji Kondo conveys, via quite a deck of tunes, feelings of adventure and danger with astonishing effectiveness.
That extra boost is equally felt in the storytelling department, for it is A Link to the Past that sets into stone much of the mythology that supports the franchise’s universe. The game’s lore says that after descending from the heavens and creating Hyrule, the goddesses of power, wisdom, and courage left behind a symbol of their strength: the Triforce. The artifact was kept in a realm known as the Golden Land, and since numerous Hylian texts stated it had the power to grant the wishes of those who touched it, many sought its hiding place, as the knowledge of its exact location had disappeared as time went by. It was a band of thieves, led by Ganondorf Dragmire that first stumbled upon the entrance to the Golden Land; after killing his followers, he touched the sacred object and made a terrible wish. Disasters began to happen in Hyrule and a dark power started to emanate from the Golden Land, so the king ordered the Seven Wise Men and the Knights of Hyrule to wage war against the evil armies, and the people of Hyrule forged the Master Sword, which had the power to banish the threat for good.
Many died in the conflict. Nonetheless, those sacrifices gave the wise men just enough time to seal the entrance to the Golden Land. The Master Sword was laid to rest and, as a peaceful era went by, tales of the Imprisoning War were slowly forgotten. That tranquility, though, was eventually shattered when pestilence and drought crawled back into Hyrule. Suspecting the seal to the Golden Land had weakened, the king asks the sages to check it, but nothing of note is discovered. Desperately seeking salvation, the citizens of Hyrule find it in the arrival of Agahnim, a wizard that uses his magic to put an end to the disasters. With the return of peace, he is rewarded with a position as the court’s most esteemed counselor and soon gains so much influence that dark rumors spreading among a fearful population say he, not the king, rules over Hyrule. Such dread materializes when turmoil strikes the kingdom once more, for, on a rainy night, a desperate Princess Zelda telepathically calls out from the castle asking for help. Link, a young boy who lives nearby, hears the message and wakes up from his bed. His uncle – who is putting on his armor, grabbing his sword, and walking out – tells him to stay home. He, however, chooses to follow his steps into the castle. And under lightning, thunder, and darkness the wheels of the Super Nintendo’s greatest adventure start turning with an unquestionably iconic introduction.
It does not take long, naturally, for Link to come across a locked up Princess Zelda, who tells him of Agahnim’s intention to break the seal to the Golden Land. As a consequence, and for the first time ever, the hero is sent on a quest whose format is that of pretty much all modern The Legend of Zelda games. In other words, it is in A Link to the Past where countless of the franchise’s staples make their debut. There is the concept of making each dungeon center around the finding and using of a specific item that gives Link a unique ability. There are the many – in this case, twenty-four of them – pieces of heart, which serve as the game’s main piece of extra content and that, scattered across the land, invite players to devote themselves to the exploration of the overworld, as the collection of four of them means the addition of a new heart to the hero’s life meter. There is the absolute need to locate the legendary Master Sword and use it against the adventure’s big boss. And there is the blatant division of the game into two distinct parts (each featuring a group of dungeons) that are set apart by the happening of a major world-changing event midway through the plot.
Even under the light of countless future releases that, helped by more powerful technology, used that mold as its central pillar, A Link to the Past still, for many reasons, stands out significantly. The first of its highlights is its map. The version of Hyrule that is shown here is by no means big: one can travel between any of its most distant corners within less than ten minutes quite easily. What is truly impressive about it, though, perhaps even more than the variety of landscapes it contains, is how incredibly dense it is. In a marvelous display of game design, Nintendo was able to populate the land with enough points of interest to make every one of its inches yield value. There is an abundance of shops, mini-games, fairy fountains, caves, puzzles, and secret locations that hide either heart pieces or useful pieces of equipment waiting to be found, and all players have to do to unearth them is explore. That activity is particularly enjoyable not just because it invariably produces results, but also due to how A Link to the Past is gifted with a splendorous map system, as the overworld is reproduced on the map with such an absurd degree of detail that even houses, cave entrances, and trees are represented, marking not just a gigantic step forward in relation to the original, which had no map at all, but also a high point within the saga.
As yet another statement on how A Link to the Past is able to revisit and vastly improve the gameplay coined by The Legend of Zelda by filtering out its problems and pushing forward in the areas where it succeeded, the game’s progression carries a wonderfully pleasant degree of freedom. On both parts of the game, there is a certain level of guidance; after all, the dungeons that must be visited are marked on the map and the optimal order through them – which can be approached differently if players wish to be extra adventurous – is blatantly broadcast. Yet, the world of A Link to the Past holds almost no physical or plot-related barriers; gamers can go pretty much anywhere they want to as, for instance, it is possible to bump into the Master Sword hours before Link has the three amulets that will let him take it out of its pedestal and one can walk by the doorstep of Ganon’s fortress, the game’s final challenge, without knowing what it is exactly or what needs to be done to get in there.
Naturally, and brilliantly, that freedom heavily translates into how the main adventure is set up. Although getting to most dungeons is fairly easy and much more straightforward than how it tends to be in the majority of Zelda games, many of the mazes present roadblocks, sometimes right by their entrances and on other occasions within the depths of their bowels, that cannot be cleared without items that can only be found out in the overworld. The Swamp Palace, for example, the game’s sixth dungeon, features – in its first room – a waterway that requires Link to have the ability to swim, which is acquired by purchasing a pair of flippers from a relatively hidden Zora. True to the hands-off approach of the franchise’s NES debut, though, on no point does A Link to the Past spoon-feed that information to players; they are, instead, expected to either infer that need or find out about it by actively exploring the map. The adventure has a few of those moments, which may frustrate players that are used to the more guided experience found in games of the series that would appear later. Nonetheless, truth is, that implementation, which finds a middle ground between the total lack of clues of The Legend of Zelda and the occasionally exaggerated presence of directions of the modern installments is perfect not just for the world design of A Link to the Past but also for the franchise itself.
A Link to the Past gains an added layer of identity, and its strong and inviting exploration component acquires even more excellence, thanks to what is possibly the game’s defining feature: the Dark World. Following the first portion of the quest, Link gains full access to it, as he is tasked with rescuing seven maidens that have been imprisoned in the land’s seven dungeons. Essentially, the Dark World – which is nothing but the Golden Land, ravaged by Ganon’s power and ambition – is a perfect reflection of Hyrule, as all of its houses, major geographic features, and areas are reproduced, albeit in a much somber tone and with intriguing thematic shifts too (the desert, for instance, becomes a bog). Other than marking quite a sinister turn in the adventure, its greatest contribution to the gameplay is that Link is capable of seamlessly traveling between these two versions of the kingdom. To go into the Dark World, he must locate one of nine portals that are scattered through the land and that, sadly, are not marked on the map. Meanwhile, to go back to normal Hyrule, he can – at any time – use a magic mirror. The greatness of that mechanic is that the solving of numerous environmental puzzles of the game’s second half as well as the finding of many of its secrets, dungeons, and items, requires that players use that skill, as slight changes in obstacles or geography are employed by game designers to create extremely smart riddles.
Once inside one of the game’s twelve dungeons, the focus strongly shifts from exploration to puzzle solving. Those puzzles are, however, relatively light and simple when compared to those of future efforts in the saga, as they involve a lot of block-pushing and switch-triggering. In fact, similarly to what happened in The Legend of Zelda, most rooms within the dungeons concentrate on dealing with a bunch of dangerous enemies and trying to either: kill them all to open the way forward, find the one that is carrying the key that will allow Link to proceed, or simply deal with the onslaught of attacks while trying to find the button that needs to be pressed to unlock the door. The real brilliancy of the mazes of A Link to the Past often lies elsewhere: in their structure. And it is from there that most puzzles stem, because – many times – making one’s way to new rooms, even with the place’s map and compass in hand, is tough yet entirely engaging. As such adventurers must frequently think outside the box and scour the buildings to discover how to move on, and it is in doing so that they will encounter the game’s most masterful moments of level design.
Grounded by the limitations imposed by 2-D environments, Nintendo is nevertheless able to extract a fantastic amount of surprises from the set of dungeons of A Link to the Past. Many are the mazes that have multiple entrances, and – at various points – the game takes advantage of the fact that for the first time ever they have multiple floors, building puzzles that explore that particularity. Still, the greatest feature of the dungeons is certainly the collection of items they house. From the traditional bow, bombs, and boomerang, to newcomers such as the fire rod, the magic hammer, Pegasus shoes, and the Cane of Somaria, the adventure packs an excellent equipment set that paves the way to flexible gameplay. Truthfully, other 2-D entries of the saga offer items that are more interesting and go on to employ them with greater consistency and in more creative ways. However, that does not mean A Link to the Past wastes any potential; on the other hand, it explores all options quite well.
As incredible as they may be, it is from the dungeons and items that a few of the light shortcomings of the title emerge. First of all, only one button is assigned to the use of most pieces of equipment. Therefore, in situations when it is necessary to use a few of them in sequence, players have to pause the action way too frequently to switch the item they are using; some of those occasions, in fact, include some epic boss battles that would have been far more exciting without those interruptions. Secondly, many of the items consume Link’s magic meter and, once it runs out, players have to look for refills by killing enemies, cutting bushes, or breaking pots. To be fair, not only does the game have an optional upgrade that cuts the usage of the meter in half, but it is also possible to fill up bottles with magic potion by purchasing it at a shop. Independently of the existence of those options, and although it is understandable some more powerful tools required a limitation, imposing such restrictions on items such as the Cane of Somaria, the lantern, and the fire rod feels unnecessary, especially because a couple of the game’s bosses require the use of some of them and, once players run out of magic, they might as well use the magic mirror to go back to the dungeon’s entrance, because those big bad guys do not produce refills.
A dose of frustration, but one that is far higher, can also be found in the dungeons themselves. The fact many of the rooms center around taking down or avoiding enemies is problematic because, as soon as Link gets out of them, they reset to their initial state. As such, when one is backtracking through the place in order to find a way forward, those rooms have to be cleared multiple times, which will get progressively more annoying the longer one spends in a dungeon. Additionally, when defeated by a boss, Link is automatically transported to the maze’s first room with only a portion of his health meter filled up. Therefore, besides being forced to deal with a bunch of foes again to get to the battle, players will have to do so while avoiding big hits and looking for hearts, a task that becomes even more complicated because of how – after they have been shattered once – the chance that a broken pot produces a heart, or any item at all, seems to go down quite a bit. Once more, players can always go around that issue altogether by buying health-regenerating potions, which are quite inexpensive compared to the abundance of rupees found in A Link to the Past. The best solution, though, would have been the inclusion of warp tiles that lead directly to the boss room.
The last problem found in A Link to the Past is the quality of its character development. Although the fantastic straightforwardness with which it treats its progression does the adventure a whole lot of good, that specific aspect of the game falls victim to it. The game is very successful in creating a rich backstory for its universe, but its characters are overlooked. Nowhere is that clearer than in the seven maidens Link must rescue during the game’s second half. Instead of receiving a background of some sort, which would have given gamers extra motivation to free them, those girls are hollow vessels that differ very little from the powerful artifacts the hero is usually tasked with recovering. The game’s lack of long dialogues does wonders for the freedom it so heavily bets on, and it is hard to wish for a different approach. A handful of extra scenes showing desperate relatives, sudden disappearances, or even a few optional conversations would, however, have gone a long way towards lending A Link to the Past more heart, as these maidens, as well as other major characters that go underdeveloped such as Link himself, his uncle, Zelda, and the king, would have a defined personality.
In the few areas in which it falls short from sheer excellence, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past may have been improved upon by some of the installments that would follow it. Everywhere else, though, it is extremely hard to find an entry in the saga that is more well-rounded, has a better pace, and presents such a dazzling – and utterly flawless – balance between complete freedom and sensible guidance. A Link to the Past, after two irregular games that did not achieve everything they intended to, was the title that defined the franchise’s gameplay as the world would come to know it and, in turn, transformed it into one of gaming’s greatest properties. Yet, with its strengths in mind, it is easy to see its relevance and quality are not purely related to that fact. On the contrary, it is a game that must be thoroughly experienced by all players, because much of what it does is so utterly remarkable that Nintendo itself has been unable to consistently top it or even replicate it.