a review of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
a videogame developed by nintendo ead
and published by nintendo
for the nintendo gameboy advance, the nintendo super famicom (super nintendo entertainment system) and the nintendo wii virtual console
text by Andrew Toups
Well, let me clarify. Like every tucked-in-Aerosmith-t-shirt-wearing youth in the US in 1991, I owned a Super NES, and I begged my parents to buy me the new Zelda game, which I consumed like an 8-year-old consumes Pixy Stix (which is to say: effortlessly, joyously, in a single moment and without a second thought). I completed the game countless times, memorized all the puzzles, and even recorded the ending theme on a tape recorder for part of an imaginary videogame music radio show I made with some of my friends (Jake Millet, if you’re out there reading this: hi! I hope you’re a successful comic book illustrator by now!) From those days, I still remember the game as being great.
But soon after that, the N64 appeared, and a new Zelda with it, which I endured like a 15-year-old endures watching scrambled late-night cable porn (which is to say: eagerly, with great frustration, and with a nagging sense of guilt, ultimately culminating with disappointment). Following this, I largely lost interest in videogames, as the only games which could satisfy my then pulsing adolescent urges (read: Final Fantasy vii/viii) were exclusive to another console which my parents could not be convinced to purchase. In this time I did not play many videogames, but when I did, I was reliving the great games of my youth: Final Fantasy II (as I knew it back then), Chrono Trigger, Soul Blazer, and, of course, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. And it was at this period in my life when I realized that many of these games were meant to be consumed like an ear of corn: the first time around it’s delicious; the second time around, you’re just scraping for those last few kernels.
A Link to the Past is considerably more contrived than either of its predecessors. The original Legend of Zelda (still one of my all-time favorites) was ultimately about exploration and survival. Yes, you could buy items, upgrade abilities, and occasionally you were asked to solve rudimentary puzzles to proceed. Yet even in the dungeons, the challenge was not so much figuring how to get out of the room you were stuck in (hi Twilight Princess!), but merely making sense of where you are, where you want to go, and how to get there, and then actually doing it without dying. The overworld was laid out to encourage an order of playing the dungeons without forcing one. The idea of gaining new abilities which then “unlocked” other areas of the gameworld did not exist so concretely in the minds of game developers in that era.
The Legend of Zelda, like many early NES games, is not very fair. You are often thrown into situations that, thanks to unpolished controls, would inevitably rob you of a few hearts, regardless of your valiance. And so it is: once you know the route, you must buckle down, maybe buy a potion, and hope to survive the gauntlet between you and that precious, glowing triangle hiding in the dungeon’s bowels. Those desperate moments, lost deep within the maze, with nothing but your sword, boomerang, and wits, down to your last heart, are still among the most cathartic found in any videogame made since.
Link to the Past is a game of revision. Unlike Zelda II, it largely retains the framework of first game. It polishes what needs polishing, and expands upon what needs expanding upon. The controls are smooth and the combat is fair. Instead of Zelda‘s barren, abandoned overworld, the Hyrule of Link to the Past is a place where people live and things happen. There is a village, and there are country homes, and occasional scenes of dialogue. In the place of Zelda‘s winding, war-of-attrition dungeons are dungeons which are self-consciously puzzles. There is a much wider variety of switches, keys, and trap doors; often the layout of the dungeon is itself a puzzle.
These are the things that I pondered when other people my age were busy experimenting with booze and loose women. The problem was, my 17 year old self reasoned, once you knew how to kill each enemy, and once you know the secret to each dungeon, there’s no thrill left. If the first playthrough is rote memorization, subsequent ones are rote repetition. Why bother?
I decided to start a band, myself.
Well, now, fifteen years after the game’s release, seven after the birth of my ill-fated music career, and (perhaps more importantly), three major Zelda installments later, I play the game with a bit more perspective. My 17-year-old self’s criticisms are perfectly valid, but they overlook some important virtues.
For one, this is a dramatic game. While The Legend of Zelda begins with a man warning you to use a sword or face your death, Link to the Past opens with a lengthy, atmospheric sequence in which you hear a captured princess speak to you in your dreams, witness the death your uncle, and sneak your way into a well-guarded castle as rain falls from the midnight sky; by the time this sequence is over, you will have valiantly fought through those guards, rescued the princess, and led to her to safety, only to find yourself faced with the task of clearing your name for being her kidnapper. Thanks, however, to Dark Forces At Work, this can never be, and only by unraveling and fulfilling a Great Legend can things be set right.
On the one hand, yes this is obnoxious. Shouldn’t playing the game be motivation unto itself? After all, unless you actually had the patience to wait for the less-than-inspirational introductory scrolling text on the title screen, the original Zelda doesn’t even tell you where you are or what you are doing, and yet we still found it within ourselves to face that game’s challenges. On the other hand, though, the way Link to the Past drops you in the middle of a compelling dramatic situation is infinitely preferable to the way the subsequent games have started. Following the mysterious telepathic commands of a damsel in distress is indescribably more compelling than farting around a village for two hours wondering whose arbitrary whims you’ll have to satisfy just to progress the plot. That Link to the Past manages to maintain this kind of motivation throughout the game is simply because its inhabitants rarely, if ever, assume you have nothing better to do than perform an inane favor for them. Yes, heart containers are broken into pieces here, but at least they are tucked away in caved-in caverns and forgotten forest groves, where they belong.
While the game is indeed easy, it’s not that easy. There’s a lot of nuance and trickiness to killing the enemies. This is important: if you stop paying close attention, you will die. Thanks to fairies, bottles, and a bug catching net, you are granted a bit more leeway. But successful combat is thankfully not solely a matter of holding Z and bashing A. In the game’s lengthier, more convoluted dungeons, those few slip ups you occasionally make start to add up.
Here’s another hidden virtue cast into sharp relief by the Church of Latter Day Zelda: the game’s overworld design is really, really great. I understand, of course, that Ocarina of Time‘s wide open fields are perhaps closer to Miyamoto’s original vision than the screen-by-screen setpieces of the original games. But honestly: once you get past the “whoa” factor of seeing Hyrule Field for the first time, what, really, do you have? A big empty space that’s confusing to navigate without giving you anything to sink your teeth into in the meantime. The screen by screen layout of the first game is more mechanical, yet it’s also more memorable; and then Link to the Past outdoes even it by not only having screens which are, in fact, larger than the screen, but by having two alternate versions of the overworld with subtle (but often crucial) differences.
The layout of Link to the Past‘s Hyrule is open yet populated with enough landscape and locales to keep things interesting. Between any two points you have a variety of routes, divided by river, lake, forest, and rock structures; as you gain equipment, it generally only means new paths are opened up instead of new areas. Exploring the world, then, is not determined by how much the designer wants to you see at that given time, but instead by how motivated you are to find it. As you progress, new abilities subtly redefine the layout. The light/dark world mechanic, in addition to injecting the game with some much-needed atmosphere (as well as a heckin’ badass musical theme), deepens your methods of exploration. It’s possible to switch from dark world to light at will, and if you’re observant enough, you’ll take advantage of that trick to find even more shortcuts and hidden places.
All the little things this game does well make it seem so elegant compared to the beast the series has become since then. While it’s more talkative and assertive than the original classic, it’s ultimately an understated game. What’s more, the basic compelling elements are still intact: you’ve still got those white-knuckle moments when you’re down to your last few hits, and every encounter is a matter of life and death, and if only you could survive a few more screens you might find a fairy or at least a few hearts; they just come a little later in the game. You’ve still got that sense of wonder and exploration, and the satisfying feeling of finding a new shortcut or realizing the ways different areas connect; they’re just stretched over a greater period of time. What the game loses in intensity it gains in subtlety, all while maintaining the essential flavor of the original. While Link to the Past is still low on my own personal ranked list of Zelda games (I still prefer the rawness of the NES original, the gloomy atmosphere of the sequel, and the dreamlike goofiness of the Gameboy iteration), it succeeds in being epic in scope without ever ceasing to be compelling moment-to-moment. In light of where the series has gone since, this achievement is more praise-worthy than ever.