The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Developer: Nintendo
U.S. Publisher: Nintendo of America
Original U.S. Release: April 1992
Genre: Action-adventure
Format: Cartridge

Based on: The original Legend of Zelda in a less frustrating world.

Games | Super NES | A Link to the Past

Article by Anthony Rogers | March 23, 2009

Thereís very little to say about The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past that hasnít been said elsewhere on the internet, really. Itís about as "classic" a game as you can get -- and yet, I missed out on it when it was new, having only been introduced to it a few years later. In fact, I somehow managed to avoid the Zelda series as a whole until that point. This oversight has since been rectified, but what they say is true: you never really forget your first. Maybe thatís why I feel like one of the few who believes that Link's sole 16-bit outing isnít regarded with quite as much respect as it should be.

Historically speaking, A Link to the Past is preceded by the an introduction to the land of Hyrule? in the first place and a quirky black sheep sequel -- two games usually described in such rose-tinted terms youíd swear you were playing Virtual Boy?. And the game was succeeded by Linkís Awakening, which was not only the first portable Zelda but is actually a major contender for "best Zelda ever" in many peopleís eyes. Even more significant is Ocarina of Time, the Final Fantasy VII of Zelda games -- it boldly stepped into the mysterious Third Dimension and has since been canonized as some of video gaming Second Coming.

While it's never actually omitted when waxing nostalgic about the heyday of the Super NES, A Link to the Past's importance to the Zelda franchise seems significantly downplayed these days. A shame, really, because the idea of what Zelda is has as much of its origins in ALttP than in the original Zelda -- if not in fact moreso. As Super Metroid was to the first Metroid, ALttPís most impressive feat is the way is smoothed over the rough edges of its predecessor. We may never know what happened behind closed doors at Nintendo back when the SNES launched, but Iíd bet good money somebody must have wised up to what makes for frustrating game design, universally banning obtuse and arbitrary design concepts. For instance, the substitution of bombing seemingly random rock tiles and burning unmarked bushes for challenge is never once seen in ALttP, and the world is a better place for it.

The most obvious improvement ALttP offered over the original Zelda was Linkís interaction with the world. (Zelda II being such an odd offshoot, Nintendo wisely decided to forego building on it; ALttP is build solidly on the first game's template.) Unlike the NES original, the objects and landscape in ALttP were not simply static images Link and his enemies simply maneuvered around. Everything -- trees, bushes, fences, stones, walls -- could be struck, run into, bounced off of, pulled, pushed, and whatever else you wanted to try. Nintendo even went so far as to trump the random bombing problem mentioned above by allowing Link to tap walls with his sword to check and see if they were hollow or not -- admittedly this was used rarely, but at the time I thought it was the cleverest damn thing Iíd ever seen. Enemies in particular received an overhaul, becoming far less frustrating than they had been in the past for several reasons. For one, they no longer moved in short, random spurts that made them nearly impossible to avoid (the sole reason, for example, that Darknuts are still discussed in angry tones). They reacted to the damage they were dealt, recoiling from a blow rather than soaking up the hit and plowing through Link anyway. And when they did hit you, Link didnít go flying halfway across the screen. All in all, with these few tweaks, the base Zelda game became surprisingly playable.

And yet, interaction was taken one step further still, in the form of other characters -- the one element ALttP carried over from the mixed results of Zelda IIís RPG-flavored experiment. Nintendo decided that while Link shouldn't have an experience system, it would be wise to at least flesh out the one aspect that had worked in The Adventure of Link: the plot. Well, OK, thatís not really being fair to Zelda II; technically, its paper-thin plot was more than sufficient at the time, and by todayís standards neither it nor its sequel particular shine. Zelda IIís townspeople were about as fleshed out as you could expect in an NES action RPG, and ALttPís story developed expanded on it just enough to give the player a constant sense of motivation to keep moving along through the adventure. Plus, it was sufficiently epic to inspire what remains one of the best title screens to date. The best thing ALttP did was clear up the localization and turn the populated areas from a simple side-scrolling area to full village with a complex layout. Thus players spent more time exploring the buildings and less time puzzling over the meaning of words like, "I AM ERROR." And while no single line from ALttP has burned quite so potently into gamers' collective memory as Zelda II's most obtuse sentence fragments, the game marks the first time Hyrule was populated with so many memorable characters: the lumberjacks, Agahnim, the flute boy, and Kiki the monkey, to name a few. Iíd venture to say that even Tingle -- the best character Nintendo has ever created [that's, uh, debatable -- ed.] -- owes his existence to the template put forth in A Link to the Past.

ALttP impact on the shape and destiny of the Zelda franchise should be fairly apparent by this point, but thereís one major piece of the puzzle that makes Zelda what it is: the, well, the puzzles. Tweaking how Link and enemies interacted made the game functionally playable, and the townsfolk were nice window dressing, but the game's emphasis on puzzles is easily ALttPís claim to fame -- the innovation that elevated it from "a better rendition of Zelda for NES" to something else entirely. Even in later dungeons, the original Zeldaís puzzles were generally no more difficult than "defeat all enemies, and then push a particular block." By comparison, youíre asked to do as much in the introductory escape from the sewers in LttP. Later dungeons would require you to set the controller down and think strategically about what to do, and the overworld was sprinkled liberally with puzzles and secrets -- the hidden pieces of Heart Containers in particular standing as another great innovation that intrinsically linked combat, exploration, and puzzle-solving. Perhaps the lack of coherent directions in the original somehow inspired the creators to make a game where players puzzled over what to do for the right reasons.

I should pause here and state that the original Legend of Zelda isnít a bad game. Iím sure it was certainly impressive when it came out, although I didn't experience it then. Even so, the gap between the rough foundation it laid down and the plethora of improvements ALttP offers across the board is astounding. Really, looking at one as the followup to the other says more about the quality of the latter than it does about the former. Iím sure the original was probably far more influential in shaping peopleís tastes than ALttP probably was -- it did, after all, foster a sense of exploration unheard of in a console game at the time. So in the spirit of this issueís theme, Iíll quit using it as a punching bag to talk about what made ALttP so great, especially since the impact the Super NES classic had on me was in no way related to how much better it played than an 8-bit game Iíd never played.

No, A Link to the Past moved me because it was the first time Iíd seen something that combined so many gameplay concepts so effectively. Games up until this point had been more like Mega Man or Mario -- very fun, and very good at what they did, but they were only that. ALttP had combat, it had exploration, and it had environmental puzzles -- and it did all of those things very well, and in perfect harmony. Games either demanded your reflexes, or they challenged your brain; never before had they combined the need for both in such a nuanced package. Maybe I had started to mature independently of games then, but the revelation that challenge didn't have to stem only from the fight to stay alive appealed to me. Even now, as an adult, ALttP's successors continue to challenge and sometimes stump me -- Twilight Princess certainly had its mooments. In some ways, the puzzles in ALttP taught me that games can be as grown up, as mentally taxing, as any "adult" activity is. And, yes, thereís the biological part of me that simply loves to be rewarded for being smart. To this day, thereís no easier way for me to make my brain spew those delicious endorphins than to crack a difficult puzzle and hear that famous chime.

In the many years since I first played it, Iíve watched as Nintendo has struggled to find that perfect balance between exploration and combat -- heck, even the varying emphasis from game to game on towns -- that ALttP did so well. Maybe thatís the curse of having to press on once youíve already created something where all the pieces fell into place so perfectly. Itís certainly not a phenomenon exclusive to games; musicians and film directors struggle with it all the time, and the Zelda series is as far from a one-hit wonder as you can get. Having several games that fall just short of your best is never, ever a bad thing. And of course, this being the Internet, plenty of people will disagree that this Zelda's balance was the best, and thatís fine. (I would ask those people to consider the fact that Linkís Dark World reflection of whatís inside his heart transforms him into a pink bunny before making any judgment calls on whether any other entry is objectively better than ALttP, though.) As long as Nintendo keeps A Link to the Pastís brilliant innovations nestled deep in the heart each subsequent Zelda, I know Iíll always be able recapture that feeling that forever changed my expectations of what games can be -- if only for a little while.