I still remember when I was a wee lad…back in the NES days, there were a great lot of games to be played and it was my goal to play them all. Each week I would travel to Mr. Video where I would check and see what new grey cartridge might satiate my appetite for the next few days. While I did indeed spend a lot of time playing that little 8-bit box, particularly the Mega Man and Super Mario Bros series’, it wasn’t until NES’s big brother came along that I was really hooked on gaming.
My first real foray into gaming addiction came in the form of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Here was a game like nothing else I’d ever seen. First of all, it was gorgeous to behold. Never had an 8-year-old been so thoroughly amazed by graphical capabilities as I was when I first left Link’s house and marched off into the stormy night in search of Hyrule Castle. Right from the outset the player is given a lantern and introduced to even more fanciful mechanics, such as the ability to change the way a room appears by lighting a lamp. As we now know, this sort of thing is pretty old hat by today’s standards but back in 1991, an engine with lighting effects was a massive achievement.
As you explored that first dungeon, battling royal knights in search of an imprisoned princess, you could actually see and hear your sword swing and connect with enemies or objects. Furthermore, the things you struck would react to being hit: soldiers reeled back and grunted, stones and walls clinked and sparked. This wasn’t just a bunch of arbitrary disparate parts thrown together into a series of levels, this was a real world.
A Link to the Past would basically be the archetype by which every subsequent Zelda title would be designed, and the blueprint by which each one would be built. In hindsight, it’s simple to describe, but back then we didn’t even have terms like open world, seamless transition, growth based mechanics, or long term immersion. All we had was this great big world full of monsters and magic, and the great sense of wonder that it instilled in our youthful hearts.
It takes a special kind of game to offer this manner of escapism to a player, the type of game that inspires you to search every edge of two worlds for every last secret, and to crawl to every last corner of dungeon after dungeon, just to see if there might be one last thing to find, one more room to explore.
In essence, these are the games that are most special to gamers, the ones that you never want to be over, the worlds that you never want to leave. Since my first foray into Hyrule, there have been many games to earn the same level of distinction, but the first will always be The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
It was a game that knew what I wanted, even before I knew myself.