My family has always observed many traditions at Christmastime. We watch TV Christmas specials, listen to seasonal music, drink eggnog, and cover the house with wreaths and lights, to name only a few observances. Yet out of all these traditions, there is one that I particularly cherish: every Christmas Eve, I play through The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. For nearly a decade I have celebrated the holiday season by watching those beautiful polygonal yellow triangles stream across the screen and unite into the Triforce. From its action-packed world of adventure to the triumphant fanfare of its soundtrack, A Link to the Past is a sign that Christmas is truly upon me.
This tradition began back in 2011. I wasn’t extremely familiar with Zelda at this time: I was eleven years old, and thus I was either too young to appreciate them or not even born at all when the most iconic Zelda titles were released, like The Wind Waker, Ocarina of Time, and especially A Link to the Past, which was published a full eight years before I was born. The only titles in the series I had played were Spirit Tracks on the DS and a battered, slightly broken copy of Twilight Princess I borrowed from the local library. Despite my inexperience, I recognized that this was the ideal time to dive further into the series. Zelda hype was at an all-time high that year, with 2011 bringing the series’ 25th anniversary along with the impending release of its latest, most ambitious entry, Skyward Sword.
Every year, I delight in returning to Hyrule to sense that same magical sensation, feeling like a kid once again as I uncover more and more secrets in every playthrough.
Being the nerdy, retro-obsessed kid that I was, I did my research into the history of the Zelda franchise to determine which classic game was the perfect encapsulation of all the series had to offer. I stumbled upon dozens of articles and YouTube videos praising A Link to the Past as the quintessential Zelda experience, including one memorable IGN review claiming that it is effectively “the only Zelda game ever made.” My decision was easy. I loaded up the Wii Virtual console that winter and downloaded A Link to the Past, and that game thus became my gateway drug to the wonderful world of Zelda.
But my intoxication wasn’t immediate. The first time I played A Link to the Past eight years ago, I was baffled at its minimalistic design. Gone are the tutorials and handholding that are so characteristic of modern games; instead, A Link to the Past epitomizes the hands-off design philosophy of early-90’s gaming. It gives you a sword and drops you into an entire dungeon within its first five minutes, and not long after that, nearly its entire world map opens up to you with only vague instructions about what to do next. Even Breath of the Wild offers a more guided opening than A Link to the Past.
Having been raised on the handholding of contemporary games, I was initially overwhelmed at the amount of freedom it offered me. Upon emerging from the opening dungeon and finding all of Hyrule stretched out before me, I felt utterly and completely lost. I was left with the imposing question: what now?
Yet this very hands-off approach was exactly what would excite me so much about the game. Such a lack of guidance may have been overwhelming for someone like myself, having been raised on linear games that literally play out on rails like Spirit Tracks, yet it was also exhilarating. Almost every nook and cranny of Hyrule is ripe for free exploration, to the point that even its dungeons, typically a bastion of linearity in Zelda games, can be tackled in almost any order as long as you have the items and ingenuity to access them. This excitement only increased when I reached the game’s second act and entered the Dark World, the shadowy counterpart to Hyrule’s Light World, in which the level design only becomes more involved and secrets to discover are even more beguiling.
I was enamored with the depth of the world design upon my first playthrough. I was always an imaginative child obsessed with creating the ideal fantasy worlds and adventures, and when I explored through the Light and Dark worlds of A Link to the Past filled with medieval dungeons and monsters, I felt like I was finally experiencing the fantastical adventure of my dreams. Every year, I delight in returning to Hyrule to sense that same magical sensation, feeling like a kid once again as I uncover more and more secrets in every playthrough.
A Link to the Past’s world may have pulled me in with its intricate freedom, but it is the memorable characters and adventures found within it that keep bringing me back to it each holiday season. Its dual worlds are inhabited by a wide cast of memorable characters, ranging from the outlandish to the tragic. In my first playthrough as a kid, I was delighted with the zanier characters, such as the old man who sits alone in the desert next to a sign that announces that no one should talk to him. Yet as I’ve gotten older with each visit to the game through the years, I have come to appreciate the more mature stories, like the flute player whose soul is split between worlds. These stories take the elegantly free-flowing structure of Hyrule and make it spring to life.
For many people, the true magic of Christmas comes through the stories each season brings, whether they be the books we read or the movies we watch. For me, it is these simple yet striking stories that have stuck with me the most each holiday season. A Link to the Past tells a story of worlds split between light and dark, good and evil, and the characters that inhabit them exemplify that. Some have been hideously disfigured by the effects of evil, being transformed into twisted shapes and monstrosities, whereas others are distinctly unaffected, like the old men at Kakariko village who tell tales of mysterious wonders. As I get older with every playthrough, I come to understand how A Link to the Past balances tragedy and hilarity in the characters that inhabit its open-ended world. Christmas isn’t all about the material gifts we receive, but also about the spiritual gifts we attain through experiencing the natural ups and downs of life. Playing through A Link to the Past and the dichotomy of light and dark in its worlds is only a natural reinforcement of that.
Christmas is about childlike wonder, and that is exactly what I feel every time I play A Link to the Past each year.
In my first playthrough, I was lost in this world for the better part of several months. I took my time to explore every corner of Hyrule, finding as many heart containers and hidden items as possible. Eventually, however, I came to the end of my adventure for the very first time. It was the afternoon before Christmas, just as I was about to leave for a family Christmas Eve dinner. While my family was rushing to make themselves presentable for the formal occasion, I was situated directly in front of my Wii, basking in the satisfaction of the triumphant ending fanfare after having reclaimed the Triforce for myself and ridding Hyrule of evil. This was the perfect storm of emotion – the excitement of the fast approach of Christmas mixed with my pride at having completed such a monumental game was a wondrous feeling that I will never forget. From that time on, I have replayed the game every Christmas Eve in an effort to recapture just a touch of that same magic.
A Link to the Past forever changed the way I thought about games. It showed me that games could offer grander adventures than the simple platformers and linear experiences I had been previously exposed to. Venturing through its beautifully symmetrical world felt like my childhood dreams of fantasy adventure had finally come true. And although I had always been fascinated with retro gaming, I was firmly motivated to discover the world of past gaming after experiencing A Link to the Past. I went on to pursue the finest retro games that have enriched my life through the years, from Castlevania to Super Metroid to Phantasy Star.
At its core, Christmas is about childlike wonder, and that is exactly what I feel every time I play A Link to the Past each year. Yet with every return to Hyrule, I sense that its realms of castles, villages, dungeons, and monsters are the perfect materialization of that childlike wonder I had always had. A Link to the Past introduced me to what gaming could be between its more open-ended design and mature storytelling, all while making my childish fantasies come to playable life. I sense the comforting warmth of nostalgia every time I boot up the game. For those reasons, right alongside eggnog and Christmas carols, A Link to the Past is one of my most cherished holiday traditions.