It is with great trepidation that I come to this review of Nintendo’s classic game The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
There is no perfect introduction to this great work of art that has ignited so many imaginations; a game that has danced in the minds of young children with magic and possibility. I know this because I rehearsed them all in my head a hundred times before I could even sit down and write this, and each one of them – in the nicest possible way – failed to encapsulate the full gamut of what this game represents to Gaming as a whole. How do you review something that you know will outlive you? How do you review…a Legend?
Well, you can start by slinging a few tired cliches. Let’s call them ‘adages’ for legitimacy’s sake. There are two adages that spring to mind when playing A Link to the Past:
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Zelda games are 3-D now, but graphical updates aside, scant little of them have strayed from the indelible watermark set by this game. It may as well be set in stone: the multi-level dungeons, the hookshot we all take forgranted, the Pegasus Boots, the MASTER SWORD, the Spin Attack, HYRULE CASTLE – THE HUB OF THE ENTIRE SERIES, Nintendo’s now-infamous Light World/Dark World theme (or in broader terms, travelling between two parallel worlds) – all emerged for the first time right here. Even the fan-favourite Ocarina has its origins here, though the English translation yielded only the word ‘flute’ (presumably the Western gaming world was not yet ready for the word ‘ocarina’). Zelda‘s musical landscape as you now know it – “Zelda’s Lullaby” (Princess Zelda’s Theme), “Ganondorf’s Theme”, “Hyrule Castle”, “Kakariko Village”, “Fairy Cave” (better known as THE SELECT SCREEN SONG) – was brought into being by Koji Kondo for this game. Even Link’s wide sword swing had its genesis in – you guessed it – A Link to the Past. So little has changed because so little needed changing. If any Zelda game or game *period* deserved a dubious 10 out of 10, it was this one.
Speaking of dubious 10s, The Ocarina of Time is a sacred cow that I take great pleasure in sacrificing on a regular basis. Those familiar with this particular habit of mine; feel free to roll your eyes knowingly at this point. But when the two games sit right next to each other on my Virtual Console, comparisons are going to be made. Ocarina of Time is, for all intents and purposes, A Link to the Past in 3-D. It was not the revolutionary trend-setter 19-year-old Nintendophiles claim it to be. It’s barely evolutionary, and its ‘innovations’ – context-sensitive buttons; NAVI, YOUR HELPFUL FAIRY GUIDE – loathe as you may be to admit it, could well be the reason you have to sit through a compulsory three-minute tutorial before you can play Wii Sports Resort. The introduction of one of Gaming’s most irritating support characters was the first of many steps towards Nintendo’s long-term stupefication of the gaming population. Z-Targeting meant a lot to 3-D games, but only insofar as it made what was already a simple task in 2-D games tolerable on an additional axis. Like the fifth generation consoles themselves, the shift to 3-D was completely arbitrary. I don’t know what flavour Kool-Aid we were drinking, but all of a sudden we were willing to lay down Super Street Fighter II for Battle Arena Toshinden, Sonic 3 for Crash Bandicoot, Tetris for Tetrisphere.
And Link to the Past for Ocarina of Time.
Never mind the fact that these mechanics work better in two dimensions; never mind the garish, jagged, polygonal puppet show before you; it’s in 3-D, kids!
Why do I feel the need to tear strips off Ocarina of Time – a great videogame adored by thousands (millions even?) – for a Link to the Past review? Think of me as a critical Robin Hood, robbing the rich to feed the poor. Earlier I alluded to a very vocal segment of the gaming population, the circa-19-year-old gamer whose first videogame console was the Nintendo 64, to whom Ocarina of Time represents the dearest experience one can have with a controller (albeit an absolutely terrible one). To those people, please understand that it is not my desire to stomp all over your childhood memories, I merely seek to contextualise the pedestal you place them on. The fifth console generation coincided with the rise of the internet, and so unanimously lauded franchise entries reached critical mass very, very quickly. Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, Super Mario 64, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – all new entries to long-standing franchises; all made relatively successful transitions to the third dimension; all were the first of their respective series to appear on the fifth generation of consoles; all were hyped like hell on a worldwide scale by online and print media – all received unanimous critical praise, and all have been claimants to the title of “Greatest Game of All Time”. Gamers today are no strangers to “Sequel Syndrome”, nor its dark brother “sequelitis”, and so I’m sure you can appreciate the powerful effect this had when unleashed on the international consciousness for the first time. Again, that’s not to belittle the achievements of these great titles, but the fifth generation of console owners had found their international voice for the first time, and that voice was saying “[Franchise Sequel X] is the Greatest Game of All Time” on a semi-regular basis. Those that had experienced previous console generations and earlier iterations may have perceived Franchise Sequel X in a different light, instead approaching it in the wider context of their place in the series as a whole. Had the internet reached critical mass in say, the late 80s, we might have proclaimed “Final Fantasy III/Metal Gear 2/Super Mario Bros. 3/The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is the Greatest Game of All Time” upon release. And we may have been right. But that’s not the point – the point is that the current Loudmouths of Gaming first owned a Nintendo 64 and their Greatest Game of All Time is Ocarina of Time. I disagree. I put my own bias under scrutiny, however, with the admission that I reached the “golden age” for gaming (that’s eight years old) during the 16-bit era and my first console was the Sega Megadrive. And so this could easily be [mis]interpreted as generational walking-stick-waving at good-fer-nuthin’ whippersnappers who don’t know no better. “In my day we played real games with real difficulty, no tutorials, and graphics that don’t look ugly as fuck in retrospect, and we walked barefoot eight miles to school every day in the blistering snow” and so on and so forth. Well guess what? I missed out on A Link to the Past during the 16-bit era. I played A Link to the Past for the first time via the Wii Virtual Console.
Now, whenever I ask [goad/provoke/whip into a frenzy] OOT fans just what it is that makes the game worthy of ‘Greatest Game of All Time’ status, they are happy to provide me with a laundry list of reasons. However, it wasn’t until I played A Link to the Past that it occurred to me: a vast majority of the things they loved about Ocarina were present in the series before Ocarina. To be precise, most of the things they loved about Ocarina of Time were introduced in A Link to the Past. The rest centred around nostalgia or something else unquantifiable like watching a Hyrulian sunrise for the first time (which, by the way, sounds like a great name for a drink). None of these things are enough to melt this cold, cold heart. Now, if someone was to craft a compelling argument citing OOT‘s contributions to the development of Hyrulian anthropology, that is something I could get behind. But in pure gaming terms, I’d have to award my “Best of Series” to A Link to the Past. Now falls to me the thankless task of convincing you.
Let’s begin by revisiting one of my earlier statements:
‘[The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is] a great work of art that has ignited so many imaginations…’
Recently I likened creative genius to a bag of Pop Rocks, buzzing and crackling with ideas and potential – it’s a strange feeling, to be sure, but damn if it doesn’t feel great. Now, Miyamoto is credited with most of these – it’s difficult to tell with the Japanese – certainly he was [and is, and probably always will be] ‘the fall guy’, taking responsibility for the team’s collective brilliance and blunders. Regardless, Link to the Past bursts at the seams with all the vitality of an art form that’s never been done before. There’s a sense that these guys are creating their own rules; their own language; and quite frankly, it’s exciting. Those who travel to the Dark World without the aid of the Moon Pearl transform into a creature befitting of their nature, in Link’s case, a pink rabbit. The Book of Mudora can be used to translate ancient Hylian runes. A curse that threatens to ‘halve’ your magic bar actually doubles it. What kind of topsy-turvy world is this? At this point I was willing to accept that the helpful sage, Sahasrahla, might communicate his cryptic clues via wall-intercom; though others seem to put this down to telepathy; or even something as unremarkable as wall plaques (spoilsports!).
Returning to the rest of that sentence:
‘[The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is] a game that has danced in the minds of young children with magic and possibility.’
I’ll make that more specific for you: Link to the Past is the quintessential boy’s game. It’s packed with the things that boys love to do. One need only look as far as Link’s inventory screen to realise this: a sword, a shield, a bow and arrow, a mallet, a boomerang, a grappling hook, BOMBS, and a BUG-CATCHING NET. Let’s focus for a second on the bug-catching net. Nothing appeals to my boyish mischief more than catching a fairy in my bug-catching net and being asked by the game:
“you have caught a faerie! Would you like to:
→ Keep it in a bottle
→ Set it free?”
What kind of boy wouldn’t take the first choice? A fairy boy, that’s what! I chuckle evilly as I stuff the helpless creature in its glass prison. It tries to get out, but I knock it back in and press the lid down tight. I shake it up a little to let it know who’s boss. I put breathing holes in the lid of course! Then I stuff the jar in my rucksack. My childhood was filled with stuff like this – I have a fairly amusing story of a boomerang that flew into a tree and disappeared (a MAGIC BOOMERANG, if you will) – and who here hasn’t fashioned a sword, or bow and arrow out of wood to fight with their brothers? Who hasn’t tied a stick to a length of rope and swung it onto the roof? Who hasn’t – with their friends – pooled together resources from their fathers’ garages to make a bomb and set it off in the park?
Link to the Past lets you do all of these things and more without fear of reprisal from disapproving and fun-hating adults – mischief is encouraged! Where do I sign?! A Link to the Past is A Link to Your Past; it taps into your boyhood fantasies* and imaginary play, and coming at this game for the first time as a full-grown man (debatable, I know), I can say that its effect is profound. It doesn’t rely on nostalgia, it evokes nostalgia.
* Sorry ladies, how about…Animal Crossing?
ALTTP reminds me of another ‘toy’: Rubik’s Cube. The entire game is a puzzle, from the Hyrulian overworld to the deepest dungeon. You can view the puzzle holistically (from a ‘helicopter view’, if you will), then by working away at a particular section, the puzzle begins to open up to you. And when you discover the secrets of a dungeon or a map, it feels as though they’re opening only to you. It’s all a clever ruse, of course, as they’re often necessary to completing the game, but this is a feeling distinctly missing from all subsequent Zelda titles. The Navis and the Midnas of the 3D Zeldas robbed me of any cleverness I might have had, and for the most part secrets have now been relegated to ancillary discoveries. In A Link to the Past, the dungeons themselves are the puzzles. And while the game does bottleneck at points (most notably at its beginning and end) – like Rubik’s Cube, there’s no ‘correct’ order of completion. The design encourages a particular dungeon order, but it does not force one, which is, you know, kinda nice. Multiple routes means you can skirt most of the overworld from the start, despite not being able to access it in its entirety. It’s not a case of “what are you doing here?! You’re not allowed in this area yet!” More like, “I wonder how I can get over there…” As you gain new items on your dungeon crawl, new paths begin to open up in your mind, and you begin to see how the Rubik’s Cube fits together. Then you start getting real clever, when you can exploit the subtle differences between the Light World and its Dark World counterpart, switching between the two at will.
The Hyrule of Link to the Past is the perfect size: open enough to explore from the very beginning, but dense enough so as to prevent getting lost or bored, with enough *just* beyond your grasp to keep things intriguing. The place is a veritable hive of activity, where stuff actually happens. Guards are constantly scouring the streets and forests for you, thieves are trying to rob you, and the villagers are trying to run from you. The landmarks are distinct and memorable, and it ranks as the only incarnation of Hyrule I’ve ever memorised incidentally. By comparison, Ocarina of Time (et. al) may as well be a barren wasteland (the original Hyrule was intentionally a wasteland, in line with its narrative**).
While we’re on the boredom score, what other Zelda game throws you headlong into its main dramatic situation from the outset? None, that’s what! **The original game didn’t have a dramatic situation at all per sé, instead motivating players through its over-arching narrative of survival and exploration, and power to it – but every other Zelda game opens with a whimper that can only come from performing menial tasks for village idiots. Link to the Past opens with a telepathic distress call from the titular princess. You receive your sword immediately from your dying uncle, and head directly to Hyrule Castle for the rescue. There are, of course, other forces at work, lest the game be finished within its first half-hour, but no time is wasted on Navi-coddling (“hey, listen!”) or training (welcome to Link’s Crossbow Training – who’da thunk they’d ever make a full game out of it?).
Like most elements of this game, the combat is nuanced enough to be satisfying, but simple enough to keep things in perspective. There’s less dicking around in the item-switching department, for one. Power gloves and flippers kick in at will when required, while boomerangs, arrows, bombs or hooks can be fired in tandem with sword-swinging without overtaking your primary aim (compare this to say, Twilight Princess, where the world virtually stops for you to take the shot). That’s not to say it’s a cakewalk, either – indeed, if you’re not on your A-game, you can find yourself in a very tight spot, scrounging for hearts wherever you can. The combat is never drawn out; rather it’s a vehicle for further puzzling. In this way it’s similar to one of the truly great 2-D-to-3-D migrations, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – combat is a pace-changer but not a pace-breaker.
Unlike those 3-D adventures, however, Link to the Past‘s combat isn’t lumbered with an invisible tractor beam in the field of battle. Z-targeting was Ocarina‘s ‘solution’ to its own camera-wrangling problem, praised for its ‘innovation’ – what it *was* was a sufficient stop-gap, not a praiseworthy one. Would you praise a biochemist for providing the cure to the flesh-eating virus of his own creation? Would you thank a snake for biting you and then slipping you the anti-venom vial? No, you’d be relieved perhaps, if not slightly annoyed at the inconvenience, before you dust yourself off and be on your way. And so it is with a mixture of relief and annoyance that I approach the Past and ask the Snake [Nintendo]: why bite in the first place if you’re not going to make a meal of it? Why create a flesh-eating virus if not to wipe out millions?
If it ain’t broke, why fix it?