The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Developed by Nintendo
Game Boy Advance and Super Nintendo (reviewed)
Released in 1991

Of all the Zelda games out there, this is the review I was dreading the most. I’ve played A Link to the Past many times before without ever reaching beyond the halfway point. I appreciate many of the amazing feats it accomplished in its era, but personally I have never been able to find the fun in this game. If you do like this title, then you have succeeded where I failed, and I envy you for that.

Heroes and princesses

Hyrule has changed a lot since we last left it. While the first two games in this series were in chronological order, this one takes place many years after, where the battles with the evil Ganon have become the stuff of legends. We take control of a new Link, an average boy by all accounts who lives with his uncle. When one night he is awakened by a female voice and his uncle turns up dead soon after, Link’s life is thrown into turmoil as he must rise to defend Hyrule and save the beautiful Princess Zelda from the clutches of an evil wizard.

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A Link to the Past has more storytelling than ever before with recurring characters and interesting side-stories crossing Link’s path on his journey. These characters will mark important destinations on Link’s map or offer advice, and while characterization is still a tad limited in this era, there is a lot of charm to be found here. I was especially fond of a side-plot involving a man’s lost son, which is one of the bigger and more interesting stories to be found here.

The main plot, I feel, is a bit lacking. While the missing boy presents an emotional crux that feels satisfying to resolve, the actual story involves the blandest and most uninteresting people in the plot, all eager to spew exposition at you. At best it’s still a lighthearted fantasy adventure though, and there are some neat plot twists that prevent it from feeling wholly generic.

Story score: 6/10

Again with the clashing

I mentioned in my review of Zelda II that it had one of the best combat systems in the series and it’s such a shame that Nintendo backtracked on that. A Link to the Past plays more like the first game with an overhead perspective and combat that happens while you are exploring as opposed to a separate battle area. Enemies will wander around each part of the world and attack Link in various way, such as simply charging him with their sword or staying back and launching projectiles.

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My main complaint is that Link is stiffer than ever before. You have a choice between a slash directly in front of you or a fancy spin-attack that must be charged, as well as using an item from your inventory that must be equipped before use. While that sounds pretty similar to the first game, the menu to change the equipped item is painfully slow and breaks up the action, but without it combat is a major bother. You end up in boring stalemates with your enemies that take no skill to resolve or lose a lot of health to enemies that glitch inside of you or run away from your slow, cumbersome slashes. After the first hour of playing I stopped bothering with combat entirely and began avoiding enemies like the plague, with the obvious exceptions of the pretty easy boss monsters at the end of temples.

To be fair the puzzles you solve aren’t that bad and the actual design of the dungeons is worthy of praise. While many are quick to remind us that Ocarina of Time was the first 3D Zelda game, many fail to note that A Link to the Past already had you thinking in a 3-dimensional space. The multi-floored dungeons all click together in logical and consistent ways, forcing you to sometimes solve puzzles by dropping down holes or showing you bridges leading over the murder gauntlet you are currently trying to escape from.

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The issue here is that I am spoiled. I grew up playing the 3D Zelda games on the Nintendo 64 and onward before buying an NES much later in life to experience the older entries. I appreciate The Legend of Zelda and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link as classics of their era that hold up to this day, but the gameplay of A Link to the Past feels like the in-between. Not quite developed enough to appeal to me in the same way as the expansive 3D games nor as solidly designed and classic as its predecessors. It just falls in the middle for me with the mediocre combat and unremarkable puzzle design not holding up well enough to hold my interest at all.

Gameplay score: 4/10

Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuut

This is a beautiful game and the transition from 8-bit to 16-bit was particularly kind to the Zelda series. While the character design is simply okay, the world and feel of the game are superb and truly set a new bar for its successors to be compared to. Hyrule is huge and countless little details help this fantasy world come to life. And just when you think you have seen it all, the game shows you the Dark World, which is the same map in terms of size and locales, but with everything you know swapped out for monstrous creatures and architecture.

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The music is once again done by Koji Kondo and the man certainly brought his A-game. Just… wow, the moment you arrive on the title screen and awake in Link’s bed the music begins to set the tone and it’s so much more exciting, mysterious, and sometimes even creepier than the tunes we got in the simpler NES days. Even the main theme which was absent in Zelda 2 makes a triumphant return and it was great to hear the humble origins of songs that would become recurring in later entries.

A Link to the Past, for as much as the gameplay doesn’t click with me, looks and sounds fantastic and the fact it came out relatively early in the lifecycle of the Super Nintendo is crazy. Everything about it feels like Nintendo pulled out all the stops and went as far as the system can go, and that passion shines through in the final game.

Presentation score: 10/10

Side-questing galore

There is a lot of extra stuff you can do in A Link to the Past, many times more so than in previous entries. There are heart pieces to collect that build up to new hearts to add to your health meter, which now tend to involve more interesting interactions with the world than simply blowing up a wall. In towns you can spend money on equipment and mini-games or pick up various side-quests like the aforementioned one involving the missing boy. I even ended up borrowing a bug net from a kid and training my own insect companion to fight alongside me, which was an unexpected extra.

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As for replay value, while I don’t really enjoy the actual gameplay, I do find myself returning to A Link to the Past frequently, though mostly to try to make it click with me. For all its flaws, it at least represents a less complex time, when Zelda games didn’t need to have lengthy opening segments, forced tutorials, and mandatory helper characters. I can just pop this into the Super Nintendo and go at it for a while

Extras score: 8/10

Verdict

I don’t like A Link to the Past, but I do appreciate it. As a Zelda game it’s one of the finer, more carefully designed entries, and I feel the world-design is the best Nintendo ever achieved in the series, providing loads of stuff to do in areas with plenty of variation, secrets, and scenery, unlike titles like Ocarina of Time where there is a huge space in the middle with everything of relevance shoved into the far corners. People like me who missed out on it at first may have trouble adapting to this game’s quirks (also like me), but if you are a veteran then feel free to revisit this game. It’s still as great as it was when you last left it.

70/100

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