Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, despite providing a radically different experience than its predecessor, nonetheless became a bestselling game, continuing Nintendo’s winning streak. In 1988, they began work on a new Famicom installment for their increasingly popular saga known as The Legend of Zelda. However, as the development cycle continued, Nintendo found themselves face-to-face with unexpected competition. One year prior in 1987, NEC Home Electronics launched the PC Engine, a console with an 8-bit CPU that boasted a 16-bit color encoder and video display controller. Moreover, in 1988, Sega introduced the Mega Drive, the successor to their Master System and a full-fledged 16-bit system. Though Nintendo executives were in no hurry to design a new console, they reconsidered once the success of these consoles caused their industry dominance to weaken. As a result of these developments, the team behind the new Legend of Zelda installment brought their project to this new platform that would be dubbed the Super Famicom in its native Japan and the Super NES overseas.
The creation of this new installment, eventually named The Legend of Zelda: Triforce of the Gods, would continue over the next two years, concluding in 1991 and seeing its release in November. Like the ones that preceded it, this third game received positive reviews from critics and fans alike. When it came time for localization, the game’s name fell victim to Nintendo of America’s draconian censorship policies regarding religious references. It was consequently renamed The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for its international debut in 1992. Western critics then too began to praise the game. According to Nintendo Power’s list of the top selling SNES games, A Link to the Past spent five consecutive years in the number one spot. To this day, it’s considered one of the greatest games ever made. It couldn’t have been easy to create a worthy follow-up to The Legend of Zelda – itself thought of as one of the best games of the eighties. How could Nintendo even begin to accomplish such an insurmountable task?
Analyzing the Experience
In the distant past, three goddesses representing the virtues of power, wisdom, and courage descended from a distant nebula, creating a new world. The Goddess of Power created the land, dying the mountains red with fire. The Goddess of Wisdom created the laws of the world, giving birth to science and wizardry. Lastly, the Goddess of Courage created life, instilling the virtues of justice and vigor within them. Once their work was done, they departed from the world they created. In their stead, they left a symbol of their strength, an artifact known as the Triforce.
It is stated in legends that a great power will be bestowed upon whoever finds the Triforce. The artifact is said to have been hidden in another world named the Golden Land. Many people sought out the Golden Land, hoping to gain the Triforce’s power once gates to the realm began appearing. However, none of them ever returned; only evil creatures ever emerged from the portals. It was clear that something needed to be done when many disasters began to beset the land. Knights from the Kingdom of Hyrule fought against the demonic hordes in a conflict known as the Imprisoning War. Though many brave souls lost their lives, they managed to buy precious time for the kingdom’s seven sages to seal Ganon, the leader of the invasion, in the Golden Land.
Many centuries later, after many generations of peace, a new disaster struck Hyrule. Pestilence and drought ravaged the land, and even the most powerful magic could do nothing to stop it. The king requested that his counsel of sages investigate the Golden Land, but to their surprise, their ancestors’ seal remained intact. The monarch then offered rewards for anyone who could find the source of these problems. In response, a wizard named Agahnim successfully quelled the disasters using a new form of magic. He was hailed as a hero by the populace and quickly appointed as chief advisor for the king himself.
One night, a young man named Link hears a woman’s voice in his sleep. She introduces herself as Zelda. She tells Link that Agahnim has done something to the other sages in an attempt to break the seal on the Golden Land and she is being held captive in the castle’s dungeon. The wizard killed the king and brainwashed the soldiers, effectively taking control of the entire country. Link awakens only for his uncle to forbid him from leaving the house, promising that he will return in the morning. However, Link leaps from the bed, and with Zelda’s guidance, finds a secret passageway into the castle. There, he finds his uncle in critical condition. Realizing Link is the princess’s only hope, he gives him his sword and shield before succumbing to his wounds. Link enters the castle, determined to rescue Zelda from her fate.
Choosing not to press “START” on the title screen right away reveals one way in which A Link to the Past differs from its predecessors. The Legend of Zelda and its sequel featured a text crawl introduction reminiscent of old movie serials such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, a practice that would later famously be used in the Star Wars franchise. A Link to the Past ups the ante with cutscenes depicting the most recent events while abridging the backstory detailed above. Though somewhat common in arcade games with what is known in the industry as “attract mode”, it nonetheless serves as an indication for the more story-focused direction the series was beginning to take.
Many key members responsible for the original’s creation returned for this installment. Accordingly, A Link to the Past marks a return to form from the sidescrolling gameplay of Zelda II. As was the case with The Legend of Zelda, this installment is played from a top-down perspective. The superior processing power of the SNES allowed for better graphics and a more diverse soundscape, both of which the artists utilized to a great effect for this game. The improvements to the series extend far beyond a mere update in visuals, however. The SNES controller had two additional buttons on its front, and the developers used them to create an interface superior to that of any previous entry.
Pressing “START” brings up the inventory screen, which allows you to view what each button does. Your primary means of defense is a sword, which is permanently assigned to the “B” button. The “A” button’s function changes depending on context. As the above screencap indicates, potential actions that can be carried out by pressing it can include talking with NPCs and lifting objects among other things. On this screen, you can highlight an item in your inventory. Once you close the screen, and the item can then be used by pressing the “Y” button. The map no longer displays onscreen during gameplay as a part of the HUD. Whether you’re in a dungeon or on the overworld, the “X” button is used to bring up the map.
Bringing up the map in a dungeon reveals an interesting new facet about them. This time around, they have multiple floors. It comes into play several times, as you may have to fall into a room from a higher floor to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. If you can see a floor below from a vantage point, you’ll know it’s safe to drop. If it’s pitch-black, it is a bottomless pit, and falling into it will cause minor damage to Link while sending him back to where he entered the room. The rooms themselves are no longer uniformly the same size; they could extend beyond the scope of the screen. Each floor has a five by five square grid. How this affects gameplay is that as long as you remain within a given space, your actions within a room will persist even if you leave it. For example, if you light a torch in one room, it will remain lit as you enter another room within the same grid.
Environments are notably no longer flat planes. Outdoor areas have varying elevations – a trait that extends to certain rooms in dungeons. You can jump from open ledges to the ground below. It’s important to think carefully before doing this, as you cannot climb back up unless there is a staircase that leads back up to the ledge. Fortunately, in any case, you do not need to worry about fall damage; even a several-story leap will not take any health away from Link upon impact.
Though these new ideas are both appreciated and make for a richer experience, the most marked improvement A Link to the Past can boast over the original game lies in its fluent controls. To begin with, Link can now move diagonally, making him far more maneuverable in a fight in addition to simplifying navigation in general. Furthermore, swordplay is now easier due to two factors. The first is that the sword has better reach. Though it had a decent range in The Legend of Zelda, you often had to get uncomfortably close to enemies to damage them reliably. The other factor is that Link now slashes the sword as opposed to stabbing directly in front of him. This means you no longer have to worry as much about lining up with the enemies as you did in the original, and better yet, you can hit them from an angle. It gets better – this installment introduces one of the most famous video-game sword techniques of all time: the spin attack. You hold down the “B” button until the sword glows. When you release it, Link will execute the attack, dealing increased damage to any monster unfortunate enough to get caught within it.
Despite being a relatively early effort for the console, I can tell the team behind this game was adept at utilizing the hardware. The first games on this new console initially had four megabits (512 kilobytes) of memory. This game broke the trend by boasting eight megabits (one megabyte) of memory. More tangibly, A Link to the Past is a much faster-paced game than either of its predecessors. The inventory and map screens take barely any time at all to access. The former is especially good because the puzzles in this game are a step up from either of its predecessors. By the end, you will have amassed an impressive arsenal of weapons and other useful items, and knowing what role each one plays is vital to have any success.
One refinement over The Legend of Zelda I highly appreciate is that some walls now have cracks. This instantly conveys to the player that the wall can be bombed to create a new passageway. This is a stark contrast to the original where there were no hints whatsoever, causing many players to waste their very limited supply of explosives. Not only that, but they and other helpful items can be found much more easily within dungeons – usually hiding underneath pots. Therefore, you don’t have to worry too much about conserving them. The game does throw curveballs later on by featuring cracked walls that are indestructible, but you can tell this is the case by holding down the sword button until the spin attack is charged then pressing in the direction of the wall. Destructible wall sections make different sounds when struck than the normal ones, so if it makes the wrong sound, you can avoid needlessly expending resources.
Though A Link to the Past was clearly built on the foundation established by The Legend of Zelda, it lifted ideas from Zelda II as well. Other than the ability to converse with NPCs, the most noteworthy one is the magic bar adorning the upper-left corner of the screen. The amount of required magic power is fixed for each item. The costliest ones tend to be the most powerful while the cheapest usually perform a mundane utility. If you run low on power, you won’t be able to use these items. Enemies may drop green jars upon defeat that will restore your magic if collected. They drop more frequently than they did in Zelda II, so this is rarely an issue.
If you do find that you need more magic power and enemies aren’t dropping the jars, you’re in luck. There are three varieties of medicine that can help you in a pinch: red, green, and blue. Red medicine restores all of Link’s health, green restores his magic, and blue restores both at the same time. There’s one caveat to this; shopkeepers do not provide containers for these medicines. In order to buy some, you need a bottle.
There are a total of four bottles to be found in the game, so although you can’t buy medicine right away unlike in The Legend of Zelda, you can potentially carry more than one at a time, making this an acceptable tradeoff. The bottle can carry other useful items as well. If you get a bug-catching net, you can use it to capture fairies and bees. Fairies, just like in previous games, restore a significant portion of Link’s health. If he has one in a bottle, they will revive him if he runs out of health. Bees are randomly found cutting foliage in outdoor areas. If Link captures one, he can later release it whereupon it might fly off toward an onscreen enemy, damaging them upon contact.
One of the greatest mainstays introduced in this installment would be the sidequests. Technically speaking, The Legend of Zelda featured many hidden items for Link to find that weren’t required to clear the game, but proved useful nonetheless. Zelda II also allowed Link to help townspeople, though most of the rewards for doing so weren’t optional. A Link to the Past takes this idea a step further. Unlike the earlier efforts wherein you would typically find helpful, optional items lying in random spots, in A Link to the Past, you often need to win minigames or explore elaborate cave systems to find them. I find it incentivizes exploration to an even greater extent than in any Zelda game thus far.
Perhaps as a means to this end, you no longer find Heart Containers outside of dungeons. Instead, you find Heart Pieces. The idea is fundamentally similar, but the difference is that you need four Heart Pieces in order to form a Heart Container. What this means is that the developers were able to hide more items capable of increasing Link’s health capacity without having to cut back on the number of dungeons they wanted to create. This gave us the best of both worlds, as there are a truly impressive thirteen dungeons to conquer and twenty-four Heart Pieces to find.
Then again, with the way the story is presented, one could be forgiven for initially believing there to be only five dungeons. Shortly after Link rescues Zelda, he is tasked with locating the Master Sword, a legendary weapon capable of banishing evil. Finding it is simple enough, but in order to pull it from its resting place, he must find three pendants repenting power, wisdom, and courage – the three traits the goddesses who created the land were defined by. An impression one could get is that Link must find all of these pendants, pull the sword, and defeat Agahnim, thus winning the game. However, on the way to the tower housing the third pendant, Link finds himself in a realm that would appear to be a decayed shadow of Hyrule. You don’t spend much time in this world before reaching the tower, but it’s enough to cast doubt on the impression that the quest to pull the Master Sword constitutes a majority of the experience.
This doubt is later vindicated when defeating Agahnim results in him bringing Link to the same blighted realm he traversed to get to the tower. It’s then revealed that this world is the Golden Land. Ganon had used his evil ambition to twist the realm in his image, creating the Dark World. Though by now, this is the facet which gives A Link to the Past its identity, for many gaming enthusiasts, it was an unprecedented move. One could reasonably assume that, before entering it for the first time, the Golden Land would merely be where the final battle took place rather than an entire second world to explore. It leads to what stuck out about this game to me the most when I played it for the first time.
In order to break the sages’ seal Agahnim needed to banish their descendants to the Dark World. Once the final one, Princess Zelda herself, was disposed of, the gate to the Dark World opened. Link is told that he must rescue the seven descendants who are being held captive in dungeons throughout this land. When I reached the first one in this world, I remember bringing up the map only to be taken aback when I noticed the word “MAP” had been replaced with “Level 1”. It may seem like an odd observation to make, but when I looked at that for the first time, I realized those previous dungeons didn’t count. My conclusion proved to be not terribly far off the mark when I then proceeded to have a far more difficult time with this dungeon than any of the ones in the Light World. This small detail broadcasts to the player that the game is no longer holding back, and the true experience begins here. It was far more expertly handled than in Zelda II wherein the spike occurred suddenly without warning, prematurely ending many a player’s run. As if to underscore all of this, the Master Sword can be upgraded twice. The legendary blade you spent the first third obtaining isn’t even the strongest weapon in the game – at least not right away.
The Dark World is by far my favorite aspect about this game, for it, quite literally, adds another dimension of exploration to the proceedings. It goes beyond simply adding a second overworld for the player to explore. Though the realms are indeed similar, they’re not completely identical. By using an item known as the Magic Mirror, you can travel from the Dark World to the Light World. It is through observing these minute differences that you can reach new areas. Luckily, there is a failsafe to ensure this process isn’t tedious or particularly time consuming. When you arrive in the Light World, you leave behind a sparkling tile that will take you back to the Dark World if you step on it. You also don’t have to worry about warping onto a cliff or similar obstacle. In such an event, you are simply sent back to the other world.
I can imagine some fans of the original game were put off slightly when they played A Link to the Past the first time only to learn that the greater emphasis on storytelling translated to a more linear design. To that potential complaint, I can say this game has a good compromise. To begin with, quite a lot of the Light World is open after rescuing Zelda. Though there are obstacles strategically placed to prevent you from reaching certain areas too early, you can explore a reasonable portion of it without any major upgrades. Once you reach the Dark World, you have to retrieve the valuable item from its first dungeon, but when you do, the game suddenly plays a lot like the original. Just like that game, though some items are required to clear or access certain dungeons, there’s nothing preventing you from attempting them out of order. Most games before and since A Link to the Past tend to be strictly linear or entirely non-linear, so it’s exceptionally rare to see one switch gears around halfway through.
Although many good things can be said about A Link to the Past even to this day, there are a few aspects I don’t really like so much. To begin with, through no fault of its own, the sidequests feel like an afterthought. It’s nice that they exist in the first place, but a majority of them are minigames with exceedingly simple goals with some depending entirely on the luck of the draw. Others don’t even have a worthwhile prize being offered, meaning people can, and often do, go entire playthroughs without ever playing them.
I also feel that the treasures become less impressive in the last few dungeons. On one hand, I do think the best armor being in the final dungeon is a nice callback to the original game, and I like that the most essential items aren’t introduced too late, thus giving you plenty of chances to use all of them. However, it also comes across as though there was less effort put into the final stages of the game, a feeling that’s only made worse when considering there are fewer NPCs to converse with as time goes on. It lends a feeling that both worlds are somewhat dead by the end of the game. This could have been effective had it been intentional, but the writing, though decent, doesn’t meld with the idea particularly well.
In any event, I believe these grievances are easy to overlook, as they ultimately don’t detract from what is an otherwise solid experience from beginning to end.
Drawing a Conclusion
With a strong translation compared to its contemporaries, this game demonstrated the importance of a good localization to would-be development teams all around the world. Back in 1991, very few games could boast the same level of content as A Link to the Past. It goes beyond being merely good for its time, however. The ideas the developers had for this game are forward-looking to the point where even today, they’re easy to appreciate. A Link to the Past is one of those games held in high esteem by nearly everyone who grew up with the medium around the time of its release. This is case where the strong following it has amassed over the years is entirely deserved, as it’s a classic game that stands as one of the SNES’s finest offerings. If you have not played this game, I strongly urge you to do so, for it’s easy to get a digital copy on Nintendo’s later consoles.
What I particularly enjoy about A Link to the Past is how it accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of eclipsing The Legend of Zelda in terms of scope without making the earlier effort feel like a redundant prototype. Both games were cut from the same cloth, and it’s clear when playing A Link to the Past that Nintendo used their knowledge to go in a different direction rather than rehash what made the original so memorable in 1986. In other words, it’s the standard every artist should strive for when tasked with creating a sequel to a popular work.
Final Score: 8/10