Legends of Zelda, Part Three:
A Link to the Past
If you would ever like to illustrate for somebody the difference between a classic and a masterpiece, here’s a perfect example: the first Legend of Zelda game is a classic; A Link to the Past is a masterpiece.
This third major installment is exactly what the franchise needed to both get it back on track and provide it with an exciting direction for the future. Appropriately for its debatable (see below) status as a prequel, A Link to the Past is one of those rare occasions where a step back also represents a huge leap forward.
In the spirit of this game, let’s look backward a bit. It was released in 1992 (in my country, anyway) to what felt—at the time—like enormous fanfare. I was 11, and an avid reader of Nintendo Power magazine. I remember when the first pictures of A Link to the Past were published. They looked beautiful. They looked like something we could never have expected to see in a video game. (Those 16-bit systems sure felt liberating, eh?) Super Mario World had assuaged any fears I might have had that gameplay might suffer at the hands of more impressive visuals. When this game came out, there was nothing that could have prevented me from owning it. No…not even the still-lingering (to this very day!) aftertaste of The Adventure of Link.
I had a good feeling about this game. It was going to be the greatest, most awesome thing I had ever played in my life.
And damned if it wasn’t.
However large and beautiful this game became in my imagination, the actual product still managed to blow me away. This was the real thing. This was what video games were for.
As much as I liked it, I have to confess a somewhat embarrassing fact: this game scared the crap out of me. As a child, I never got very far after I entered the Dark World. I was petrified of that place. Petrified. I had numerous saved games going at any time in the first Light World section of the game, and when I got to the Dark World I’d delete them and start again. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the game…it’s that the colors changed. The music changed. The enemies changed. Everything felt colder…it was terrifying. If this was the Hell through which I’d have to play the rest of the game, maybe it’d just be safer to ride me some Yoshi.
Only recently (very, very recently) did I sit down and finish the game. In my teenage years (I call this “Childhood II”) I made respectable progress in the game, but until this week I had never finished it. As a result, I’m more enthusiastic than ever to write this review.
You play as Link (or your own name, if you choose to enter that…or BOOBS if you choose to enter that), and it’s up to you to save Hyrule from that pig-bastard Ganon. You do this by exploring the overworld, discovering and mastering items, and periodically conquering monster-infested dungeons. The core of this game isn’t much different from the original Zelda, as you can tell. Instead of collecting fragments of the Triforce you collect pendants and crystals, but, as far as your main objective goes, that’s about as different as the games get.
And yet what an enormous advancement this game represents. It’s as though relying on the largely-unchanged plot from the first game allowed the designers to concentrate more on making it fun. Despite the unmissable similarities, you would never have heard anybody accusing A Link to the Past of not having its own distinct personality. And furthermore, only a fool wouldn’t recognize it as immediately superior.
First of all, the graphics are just perfect. Far from being only impressive for their time, the visuals of A Link to the Past remain both simple and elegant. Anybody who was irritated by the cartoon nature of The Wind Waker mustn’t have been paying attention, because starting here (and all the way up to, but excluding, Twilight Princess) the games have always been cartoony. It suits the series, and, more importantly, the specific degree of cartoonishness suits the individual games themselves.
The animation is smooth and fluid in most cases (though a few shopkeepers seem to be cursed with eternal spasm), and the simple fact that Link slashes from side to side (rather than his previous thrusting outward from-the-chest) makes the fighting sequences both more complex and less frustrating. A few visual choices are puzzling—for instance, why does Link prefer to fall spine-down during a long drop?—but any fault you can find is nitpicking. Great new monsters and bosses are introduced for this game, and plenty of classic ones turn up as well to benefit from the 16-bit makeover.
Hyrule itself contains varied and distinct landscapes. There’s a desert, a swamp, a lake, a mountain, a forest, a town…and none of them really feel the same. The various regions provide moods of their own, and there’s a definite sense of increasing danger and isolation the further you venture from civilized areas.
We don’t have as many towns to explore as we did in The Adventure of Link—a mere one, in fact. While that is numerically disappointing, we should be quick to remember that Zelda II’s towns were all essentially the same. Everybody looked alike, and with a few humorous exceptions (I AM ERROR) nobody really has fond memories of those places anyway.
The town that we do have, which serves as the hub of our game-world humanity, is Kakariko Village. Players today will have a sense of forward nostalgia thanks to Ocarina of Time, and it’s right that Kakariko was immortalized by later games as Hyrule’s main residential area. After all, it represented the first time that towns were actually helpful to the player, and fun to explore. Gone (at last) are the days of one-sentence NPCs. The characters here, on some level, have personality. They have distinct appearances. They have hints for you, items to sell or to lend out, errands to ask you to run. Some of them will even ask you to play mini-games.
Mini-games! Granted, they aren’t much more than shooting galleries (necessarily simplified by the top-down perspective) and random treasure-chest selections, but a few of them (the digging game, the fence-maze race) suggest, accurately, that the series is becoming increasingly interested in offering its players fresh and varied gameplay.
At the time of its release, we were asked to accept A Link to the Past as a prequel to the NES games, which we did. And why wouldn’t we? Zelda herself didn’t seem to remember Link (then again, does she ever?), Nintendo was telling us it came first in the series chronologically, and the title seemed to strongly suggest time-travel. Yet in much more recent interviews, Shigeru Miyamoto stated that A Link to the Past actually comes last in the timeline of the series.
Whether we accept that claim or not, its status as “prequel” is certainly up for debate when we do some research and find that the Japanese title for the game translates into something closer to Triforce of the Gods. (In other words, nothing even close, in any conceivable way, to A Link to the Past.) This title was obviously not used in English-speaking markets and all other elements of religious imagery and references were either dropped or reworked as well. No, it doesn’t actually seem to me that the game was designed to serve specifically as a prequel. More likely it was designed as a standalone installment taking place at some indeterminate point in time; the English title of the game was just an easy way of both obscuring the game’s religious overtones, and a coy assurance to the world that Zelda II would remain an aberration. (It also kind of indirectly assured us that the timeline really wasn’t worth getting worried about.)
This game introduced so many things that would become important aspects of the franchise it’s amazing. The pieces of heart are certainly notable. As a kid I was frustrated that you now needed to find four of these to increase your maximum health level, but once I got used to it I realized that it was a way of further expanding the quest…leaving a few of them in tantalizingly easy places to reach, and hiding others at the end of long and complicated puzzles.
Bottles—yes, those hugely valuable, much sought-after bottles—were introduced here as well. The fact that you could find several of them (or none of them, if you weren’t looking hard enough) meant that you pretty much got to decide how difficult the game would be. Keeping a potion inside one of them could be all that stood between you and having to redo an entire dungeon, and bottling a fairy was as good as carrying an extra life. Finding bottles and using them wisely continues to be one of the most quietly strategic elements of the Zelda franchise, and it all started here.
The mirror shield also made its first appearance (sadly underused, for now)…as did the perpetually awesome hookshot. And the “flute” item might be a throwback from the first Zelda game, but its graphical representation here is—drumroll please—a blue ocarina. Hmm. I wonder if we’ll be seeing that again…
Granted, the use of the “flute” is far removed from its importance to Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask, but this marks the first appearance of the series’ second-most-iconic image, and it’s a tiny little gateway through which we are introduced to the deeply musical worlds of each of the following games.
Some other great advancements to the series come in the form of multi-leveled dungeons, switch-based puzzles, the ability to swim, pots containing items and health, a story that develops as the game progresses (no more “here’s the setup now go seek an ending…”), and—best of all—a serviceable hint system. It’s true that the telepathic communications you receive from Sahasrahla are either too late or too vague to help (he’s a descendent or ancestor of the Old Man, I’m sure…), but the simple addition of flashing icons on the overworld map means you can never get too far off track. You may not know how to get there, but you know where you need to be next. Oddly enough, this also frees you up for leisurely exploration: when you know where you need to go, you can make the decision to explore other areas in the meantime. You can set your own pace, and it’s amazing how much less frustrating the game becomes because of that.
The crowning achievement of A Link to the Past, though, has got to be the music. I’d argue that this game was more important than any other in shaping the soundtrack of the series overall. The original Zelda pretty much gave us only two songs, and one of them—the very emotive dungeon theme—was never used again. Zelda II gave us a wealth of new audio, but most of it was forgettable at best, and outside of a Smash Bros. remix it, too, has vanished.
A Link to the Past, however, gave us a stellar, triumphant reworking of the main title theme, and also gave us a whole slew of other tunes we’d be hearing in some capacity for many games to come. Specifically there’s Zelda’s lullaby (you’ll learn it on the ocarina in the next game), the song that plays when you enter a fairy spring, the castle theme, and—my personal favorite—the Kakariko Village theme, which is almost heartbreakingly beautiful when reprised in Ocarina of Time. In fact, all that the next game could really add in terms of unforgettable music would be the upbeat shop theme and the brilliant new overworld score. Barring those two songs (and the ranch theme, I guess, if only for its sheer beauty), all of the series’ “important” tunes are represented in this game. This soundtrack is a genuine achievement for Koji Kondo, and it was wisely used as a template from here on out.
The fact that the player is required to travel between two worlds is also something that would become important to later games. Here the alternate universe is The Dark World—Ganon’s evil corruption of The Sacred Realm. While it scared the pants off of me as a kid it does go a long, long way toward extending gameplay, and it manages to at least double the number of puzzles and challenges on what is, essentially, the same map. It made the game feel much bigger than it really was, and the fact that a whole alternate reality was aligned against you gave you a greater feeling of urgency than we’ve ever had before. (Also, the first time you go there you’re transformed into a fluffy pink bunny, because that’s what’s in your heart. Say it with me now…Link. Is. A gay.)
The alternate universe mechanism became a defining feature of the series from this point on. It was adapted brilliantly into two different time periods in Ocarina of Time, the entire game took place in an alternate reality in Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker made great—if limited—use of an underwater Hyrule frozen in time, and Twilight Princess…well…ran out of ideas and lifted the Light World/Dark World thing wholesale from A Link to the Past. Ah well; I guess every well runs dry eventually.
When you play A Link to the Past (and it’s a required Virtual Console buy for anyone who doesn’t have it, by the way…I’m serious…) you are playing one of the best games ever made.
Yet…it wouldn’t be much fun if we didn’t get to pick on it a little bit. For instance, there are lots of new items in this game, but many of them have very, very limited uses—and at least two of them (the Cane of Byrna and the Medallion of Bombos) have no real use at all. Similarly, you find the Book of Mudora early in the game and use it to translate Hylian text that you can’t otherwise read. Why this has to be equipped and used as an item each time something needs translating is beyond me. You have it. You don’t need to press a sequence of buttons to slip into the Power Glove every time you need to move a stone, so the game should pretty much just take it as read that you have the damn book and not force you to dig it out every time.
Equipping the book wouldn’t be so bad if you could have several items equipped at once—and surely the Super Nintendo’s controllers provided the opportunity. Considering how rarely we have to do it, do we really need a button just to run? Can’t the map be accessed by pressing one of the shoulder buttons instead? I understand that the ability to equip multiple items at once wasn’t yet established, but, theoretically at least, we could have three items and a sword mapped to one button apiece in this game. Instead we have one sword, one item, and two buttons being woefully underused, which leads in turn to a lot of frustrating item-swapping.
Another problem is the fucking land mines. (Italicized profanity very much necessary.) This game establishes the Master Gardener aspect of the Zelda series, meaning that Link can count on finding rupees, hearts, bombs, arrows and all sorts of things if he just helps keep Hyrule beautiful by trimming the weeds. Sadly, the designers decided to hide traps in the bushes as well. All fine and good, except that gamers are not actually used to avoiding items they find hidden. It’s comparatively rare that you’ll find a power-down in a game, and until now this series has never had one.
Yet go do some trimming, and you’re bound to find that little blue oval representing a buried mine. Step on it and you lose a heart. Fair? No! Even if you see it, your first impulse is to collect it as an item. I can’t tell you how many times I saw a mine, identified it as a mine, and still walked over it. It’s just habit. Zelda is a game of collection. The mines punish you for having the appropriate impulse for the game!
Furthermore, sometimes you can’t see the mine because you’re standing in front of it. You think the path is clear, and you blow Link’s little elfin legs off. Even better is the fact that the mine appears randomly, meaning that it can sometimes appear where you need to walk. They can’t be deactivated or destroyed, either. If a mine appears where you need to tread, guess what? Link’s going kaboom.
The mines are supremely frustrating. As if cutting the grass for one rupee at a time wasn’t tedious enough, the mines ensure you can’t do it quickly or without concentrating. Why are you punishing me for wanting to play your game?
The boss fights, also, can bring to light some pretty unfair aspects of gameplay. The bosses flash and groan when you injure them, which is good, but one boss hides behind a powerful mask. You need to use the hammer to smash the mask, which makes sense…except that the hammer is hard to use, and the game gives you no indication as to whether or not you’ve connected, and, if you did, whether or not it’s doing any damage. Eventually, after several hits, the mask will crack. But before then you’re in a panic because you’re so close to the boss you are taking damage, and you have no way of knowing if you’re even using the right item or plan of attack.
Another boss…some hairy worm thing…lives on a small floating platform. If he knocks you off, you fall to the floor below, and have to work your way back up to him. Again, not totally unfair. Except that he regains all of his energy when you fall, no matter how close he was to death. And you don’t regain any energy. And also, any pots that had hearts in them before are empty now. And also his movements are randomized, so that every single time you get close enough to swipe at him you are in equal danger of being knocked off the platform. And also if you hit him anywhere but on the very tip of his tail, you are forced backward—and likely into a pit—by the force of your own swing!
Jesus fuck, they really wanted to piss me off with that boss, didn’t they? You can imagine how absolutely thrilled I was that the same whirlpool of unfair circumstances was applied to the final boss in the game, who was already difficult enough on his own!
But small niggles aside, A Link to the Past is just about as good as the series (or any series) ever got. It’s full of heart, it’s beautiful, it’s loads of fun, and it has far and away the best ending of the top-down games. (And to think, until this past week I always thought Link’s uncle had died…)
Big things were in store for the series…we knew that. But back in 1992, nobody could have guessed how big.