GameSpite Journal 10 | The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past | Dev.: Nintendo | Pub: Nintendo | Genre: Action RPG | Release: June 1992

The band Marillion was formed in the late í70s, a progressive-rock-inspired outfit in an era where punk had made prog as unfashionable as disco. Under the guidance of lyricist and singer Derek W. Dick, AKA Fish, the band signed a contract and released four excellent cult-hit albums throughout the first half of the í80s. Eventually, Fish went his own separate way, so Marillion recruited one Steve Hogarth to replace the fan-favorite frontman, bringing to the band both a softer sound and far less cynical lyrics. Many fans were put off by the change and felt Hogarth a poor replacement, regarding Fishís seven-year tenure with the band as the ďtrueĒ Marillion.

That was 1989. At this point, Hogarth has been with the band three times as long as Fish, producing more than twice as many albums as the original front man. And yet some diehards still cling to the assertion that the Fish-led line-up is the only ďrealĒ version of Marillion, despite the fact that Hogarthís era is several times more authentic by any tangible measure. I donít share their perspective, but at the same time I canít simply dismiss that particular point of view, either. You see, I feel more or less the same way about The Legend of Zelda.

Thereís a hard demarcation in the Zelda games, one thatís as much spiritual as it is technological. The series changed when it made the jump into 3D, and not just because of the more convoluted controls or expanded combat options. Itís a self-evident change. 1998ís Ocarina of Time is essentially the quest from its Super NES predecessor, A Link to the Past, reworked into the shape of a grand polygonal epic. And it is grand indeedóa groundbreaking work that defined the shape of games to come. And yet, brilliant as it is, I find far more satisfaction in the more modest rendition of those same concepts as theyíre seen in A Link to the Past.

Linkís sole 16-bit outing is every bit as substantial an adventure as his later journeys, but it manages to be fast-paced and uncomplicated in a way that subsequent chapters abandoned in the move to the third dimension. The game looks simpler than Ocarina or Twilight Princess, but those works arenít particularly more complex than A Link to the Past. And while it does feature less intricate combat mechanics, most of the advantages its successors offer are generally superficial: A sense of grandeur, vaster spaces, more impressive presentation.

But is there really a meaningful difference between the Hookshot as seen in A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time? Not really; itís just as useful in the former as in the latter. No, actually itís more versatile in A Link to the Past, as it can be put to use without the need to stand helplessly in first-person mode or juggle a fussy lock-on reticule. You also never need to spend time spinning around in search of a Hookshot-friendly hot spot, whereas Ocarinaís attempt at immersive design frequently forces you to stand stock-still as you examine a room in search of a small ledge or convenient grappling point.

The Ocarina approach isnít inherently flawed; itís just the victim of certain compromises that are necessary to transform a work on Zeldaís scale into the third dimension. It creates a visual form of immersion, but in doing so it also creates an obfuscatory veil between the player and the game -- a compromise of interactive immersion. A Link to the Past offers a satisfying directness at all times, whether in swordplay or dungeon design. But it doesnít lack for technique. Link may not have Z-targeting to allow him to dance gracefully around a foe, but his distinct way of wielding a sword (left-handed, always swung in an outward arc) has a definite impact on how players approach enemies. Itís a thorough realization of the swordplay mechanics seen in games like Ys, and perhaps as a nod to Falcomís Zelda-esque action-RPG, Link can even walk around with his sword brandished straight ahead to take a poke a foes by walking into them (a decidedly weak poke, at that).

A Link to the Past wastes no time with tutorials or drawn-out introductions. Link awakens in response to a psychic cry for help and finds his uncle already setting out into a dark and rainy night to heed the same call. Players are free to wander around the environs of Linkís home, but eventually the path leads forward to the castle, where Link finds his uncle mortally wounded. He takes up his guardianís weapons and mission, and the adventure begins.

Even accounting for pokey players like me, who insist on exploring every nook and cranny before moving on, the time to sword acquisition is less than five minutes. Thatís considerably slower than in the original Legend of Zelda (walk ten paces, enter cave, grab sword), but vastly snappier than in more recent Zelda games or even the upcoming Skyward Sword, which apparently forces players to suffer through a tedious bird race before their quest begins properly.

This no-nonsense approach to advancement characterizes A Link to the Past from start to finish. Dungeonís donít lack for traps and hazards and puzzles, yet each one can be completed fairly efficiently. Even the trickiest labyrinth (the slippy-slidey Ice Palace) zips by in no time at all compared to Ocarinaís Forest or Ice Temples or Twilight Princessí later dungeons. Yet despite their seeming brevity, thereís no shortage of challenge to be found. Enemies pack more of a punch than in any 3D Zelda, and many dungeons feature the same intricate puzzles as in the sequels: Multi-floor layouts and special items and powers wound into convoluted knots and spirals. Yet they seem to breeze past because of the no-nonsense visual design of the game. Thereís no pausing to get a sense of space, no searching around for key interactive points in the environment, no trudging back and forth between multiple locations. A Link to the Past works on the same principles as great information design. Thereís a clarity of purpose and a straightforwardness of presentation that minimizes confusion and makes every moment of the game feel like itís laser-focused on maximizing player enjoyment.

That precision-targeted fun was diminished in subsequent Zelda games; itís an inherent result of the move to 3D visuals. This isnít some neo-Luddite screed against 3D visuals, because they offer as many benefits as detriments. Wind Waker remains a stunning game a decade later, and its excellent visual design causes its most potent moments to be far more memorable than anything that played out in A Link to the Pastís humble sprite-puppet theatre. And itís not just the passive, cinematic sequences that resonate in that game; powerful as Ganonís final demise was, few Super NES games even began to dream of offering moments as arresting as the playerís exploration of an underwater palace frozen in time. The Zelda seriesí turn for the polygonal has led to moments of brilliance.

Still, the modern games lack a certain something, and I donít think the technology is entirely to blame. Oracle of Ages and The Minish Cap demonstrate the quirks of modern Zelda despite sharing the same basic technology and interface as A Link to the Past. No, the seriesí move to 3D simply amplified the issue, which is that the template for Zelda games was established in 1992 and Nintendo has trouble moving beyond it. Since the Super NES, every chapter of the Zelda franchise has been an variation on a theme.

A Link to the Past, on the other hand, was pure creative synthesis. The first two games, The Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link, didnít feel much like a series. They were bound more by superficial elements and themes than by core mechanics and design; we accepted Zelda II as a sequel because it came in a classy gold box and starred a sword-swinging elf in green, not because it played at all like The Legend of Zelda. With A Link to the Past, Nintendo brought the disparate inspirations of 8-bit Zelda together into a perfectly unified whole. The interface and visual perspective were rolled back to resemble the original game, but the complexity and role-playing feel of Zelda II became integral to the action. Link gained a respectable array of swordplay techniques, a magic meter, a succession of usable items integral to navigating each new dungeon and battling its master, and an increased reliance on the aid and input of his fellow Hylians.

This design made for an extraordinarily compelling game, one that offered a delicate balance of action and adventure. Unfortunately, itís so delicately balanced that its sequels have seemed loath to change the general structure and flow of A Link to the Pastís blueprint for fear of upsetting the precarious arrangement on which the series stands. Aside from a few offbeat outliers -- namely Majoraís Mask, Four Swords, and this gameís own sequel Linkís Awakeningóthe Zelda franchise has all but fossilized around the general design pattern of A Link to the Past. As such, actually isolating what made the game so remarkable and refreshing in its time can be a mildly taxing effort. The Zelda formula -- which is to say, the structure and relationship between progression, puzzles, and items introduced and perfected in one fell swoop with A Link to the Past -- has become so common, so rote that it can be hard to imagine a time in which it felt revolutionary.

And in truth, maybe A Link to the Past never really did feel revolutionary. This isnít to say it wasnít groundbreaking or influential; rather, the entire affair is saturated with an uncanny humility. Its rounded, friendly graphics put players in charge of a pink-haired moppet battling chubby knights amidst pastel forests of toy-like trees. Its action moves at a measured pace with a leisurely flow determined by the playerís eagerness to either advance the plot or hunt out side quests and hidden treasures. A Link to the Past is gentle, unthreatening, harmless -- hardly the words one uses to describe a radical. Yet beneath its soft exterior, this is a game that unflinchingly codified the action-adventure (not action-RPG) genre and locked down the rules not only for its sequels but for countless imitators and derivatives as well.

Despite all of this, A Link to the Past also stands triumphant above 20 years of offshoots to follow as a masterpiece, as well as a rare act of sleight-of-hand: A game that calls the shots yet always lets the player feel in control in ways its successors could never quite master. Itís hardly the only ďrealĒ Zelda game to have come down the pipeline through the years, but to many it will always be the lone original in a roomful of imitators.

By Jeremy Parish? | Jan. 10, 2012 | Previous: Arcana | Next: Legend of the Mystical Ninja