A Link to the Past Laid Out the Framework for Other Entries to Follow
I’ll never forget the moment I first booted up A Link to the Past and saw the 3D logo of the Triforce spinning on the screen. It was one of the earliest looks at 3D gaming and just the start of what would eventually become my favourite game released that year. A Link to the Past immediately felt both familiar and unlike anything that had come before. I had already played both the original Legend of Zelda and its sequel The Adventure of Link, but A Link to the Past immediately demanded my full attention with its chilling, dark prologue featuring a ritual sacrifice of Princess Zelda at the hands of the evil wizard Agahnim. In less than a few minutes, A Link To The Past gave us the first in-game cinematic of the series, Koji Kondo’s magnificent composition “Time of the Falling Rain,” a story about a king being dethroned and a prison break involving the young Hylian and the damsel in distress. It was like a scene from Game of Thrones, long before HBO’s hit show ever premiered, and it didn’t take long before I knew I was in for something truly special.
The game begins when Link is awakened by a telepathic message from Princess Zelda, who says that she is locked in the dungeon of Hyrule Castle. As the message closes, Link awakens to find his uncle ready for battle, telling Link to remain in bed. After his uncle leaves, Link (of course) ignores his uncle’s command and rushes through a dark field in the middle of the night during a vicious thunderstorm, into Hyrule castle, and saves you know who. In many ways, the opening is similar to various plot beats we had seen before in several video games, but it was the type of payoff typically found at the end of an adventure game, not at the start. Unlike any game I had played before, A Link to the Past immediately put me, the player, right into the heart of its clichéd rescue scene. Breaking Zelda out of a prison cell and crawling through a sewer system to escape the castle only to discover that Link’s uncle was mortally wounded in battle felt more immediate than any other scene from a video game before it – and it all took place within the first 10 minutes.
Twenty-five years later this might not seem like a big deal, but back in 1992 A Link to the Past did many things other games had never done before it, and in many ways, A Link to the Past was the Zelda game that would lay down the blueprint for other entries to follow. A Link to the Past puts its contemporaries to shame, which is quite a claim when you consider the library the Super Nintendo boasts. There are easily more dungeons to explore in this game than any other games in the series, and each of those labyrinths is vibrantly rendered. Kazuaki Morita, who would go on to become a permanent fixture in the Zelda franchise, did an incredible job in creating a new multi-level geometry for Link to roam around. Every dungeon in the game is overflowing with intricately-layered platforms, a wide variety of enemies, and a healthy dose of complex puzzles. One could say that A Link to the Past is the ultimate dungeon-crawling game. It was also a graphical showcase at the time, full of diverse environments, and detailed sprites. The sound design, too, is a work of genius. Koji Kondo’s compositions here are legendary, and A Link to the Past helped to establish the musical score of the Zelda series. Meanwhile, the game introduced elements to the series that are still commonplace today, such as the concept of an alternate or parallel world, the Master Sword, and several new weapons and items for Link to use.
Released to critical and commercial success, A Link to the Past was a landmark title for Nintendo and established a formula for adventure games that balanced exploration, storytelling, item acquisition, and puzzle-solving. It’s a formula still followed today, and not just in the series, but by many other game developers worldwide. In the Zelda canon — which, in my opinion, consists of six masterpieces — this 16-bit adventure is still by far my favourite game in the series. Even after playing well over 170 hours of Breath of the Wild, A Link to the Past can’t be outmatched. There are plenty of reasons as to why it is not only considered today to be one of the greatest video games of all time but maybe the best of its generation. The first NES game (which I wrote about at length) is an excellent game, one of the greatest 8-bit releases ever to come from Nintendo, but ultimately Shigeru Miyamoto couldn’t cram all of his ideas in due to hardware limitations. The Legend of Zelda served as a skeleton frame for A Link to the Past, which took everything the original game had and not only perfected it but added so much additional content that it’s amazing they were able to fit it all into a 16-bit cartridge.
Due to the success of previous titles in the series, Nintendo was able to invest a bigger budget and ample resources into the game’s production. Shigeru Miyamoto, along with a small group of designers, started generating plenty of ideas for the 16-bit Zelda game long before they ever wrote one line of code. Kensuke Tanabe, who worked on Super Mario Bros. 2, and Yoshiaki Koizumi, teamed up to flesh out the script, adding a complex backstory for Hyrule. Tanabe and Koizumi decided that their story would be a prequel, taking place generations before the original Legend of Zelda and centered around themes of dualistic cosmology describing the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light and an evil, material world of darkness. To save Hyrule, Link is required to rescue the seven descendants of the Seven Sages from dungeons scattered across the Dark World. Once the seven maidens are rescued, they use their power to break the barrier around Ganon’s Tower, where Link faces Agahnim, who creates two ghostly specters, each as powerful as he is. While the opening caught my attention, and the various quests and complex dungeons kept me enthralled, it was that twist halfway through the game that blew my socks off!
At the time, most Super Nintendo game cartridges had 4 Mbit of storage space. Since the Light World and the Dark World are almost identical in layout, limiting the color depth to eight colors instead of the Super Nintendo’s default 16-color tiles and keeping the Dark World in the game’s ROM allowed A Link to the Past to double its storage to 8 Mbit instead. Nintendo once again being Nintendo didn’t let hardware restrictions stop them from making the game they wanted to make. It’s amazing how Hyrule’s doppelgänger effectively doubles the size of the game, and it’s even more amazing when you consider the sheer size of the quest – the various locations to explore, characters to interact with, the ground-breaking puzzles, the complex dungeon design, and the way the game reinvents itself halfway through by throwing in a mirrored version of Hyrule. It’s no wonder it became the largest game project the company had undertaken to date, with an all-star roster of Nintendo’s best software developers taking part.
By the time the game was finished, A Link to the Past had taken three years to program. It was released in Japan on November 21st, 1991, exactly 1 year after the release of the Super Nintendo, as that system was engaged in a neck-and-neck battle for dominance with Sega’s rival 16-bit console, the Genesis. With Sonic the Hedgehog giving Mario a run for his money, Nintendo needed another huge hit on their hands. Needless to say, they crushed the competition. While I was busy spending countless hours playing A Link to the Past, each and every single one of my Sega-loving friends were knocking at my door asking if they could come in and watch. Sonic had nothing on Link, and owning a Super Nintendo (not to mention A Link to the Past) made my household a popular hangout for all my neighborhood friends.
I could go on for hours gushing over this game. A Link to the Past is visually brilliant, thematically rich, ambitious, and epic. There are hundreds of reasons to praise the game, but what really sets A Link to the Past apart from the original Zelda is that A Link to the Past isn’t as opened to exploration as the original. In a way, it feels a bit more processed. Now, this may seem like a criticism, but it’s quite the contrary – A Link to the Past took the special feeling of exploration and freedom a player gets when playing The Legend of Zelda and made the journey far more focused and linear. As much as I loved the first Zelda game, I never found myself stuck in a rut while playing A Link to the Past, constantly circling Hyrule for clues on how to advance, or needing to read an issue of Nintendo Power to figure things out.
That’s not to say that A Link to the Past isn’t without roadblocks, however. Sometimes the game left me scratching my head — it came packaged with a sealed hint book that could be opened when you desperately needed to – but A Link to the Past never felt tedious. There was always someone new to encounter, a new item to discover, or a mystery to unravel in between your moments of frustration. More importantly, A Link to the Past gives players plenty of opportunities to deviate from the beaten path, even though the game is really guiding you through most of the adventure. You see, A Link to the Past gives players just enough leeway and a certain amount of freedom to make you feel like you are always in control when you really aren’t, and it’s that illusion that makes this game so incredibly special. Here’s a game that refused to hold your hand, but is smart enough to leave just enough clues lying around to help guide you to the end.
If anything though, A Link to the Past is a game about duality. Nowhere is the theme of duality more heavily referenced in the Zelda canon than here. A Link to the Past explores this theme using such broad strokes as characterization and storyline, as well as more minute touches like setting, sound design, colors, dialogue, and even costuming, such as Link’s transformation into a harmless pink bunny. It’s also a story of magic, madness, and metempsychosis. It’s an amazing and unforgettable experience that will have you feeling like the rabbit Link transforms into, trying to puzzle out what exactly is going on as moblins circle and Armos Knights careen toward you out of the darkness. It features a plethora of setups and payoffs, and “links” everything in the third act to everything in the first act. The attention to detail that went into making this game gives the impression that every pixel serves a greater purpose. There’s no doubt the game even has moments that seem like transmissions from the future. Anyone who relishes seeing the reach and scope of the genre redefined should not miss this marvelously accomplished game. It’s a game of discovery – it’s a game of mystery.
A Link to the Past changed how I viewed video games. It made me understand that there was more to the medium than entertainment. It helped me understand the importance of a good story, and it was the first game I found myself having deep, long conversations about. Twenty-five years later and not much has changed: A Link to the Past still leaves me in awe. It brings back fond memories, and playing it over and over makes me feel young again. As much as I enjoy almost every entry in the series, more often than not, many of the recent games mostly require your ability to follow directions, instead of asking players to freely explore and tap into their urge for adventure – and more importantly, use their imagination. That sense of wonder that the Zelda series once delivered has somewhat disappeared over the years (not including BOTW), but thankfully we can always go back and revisit A Link to the Past.
- Ricky D