I was never entirely satisfied with my review of A Link to the Past, feeling that I was too brief about such a significant game and failed to adequately explain why I dislike it while, at the same time, holding a deep fondness for the NES original that started the franchise. Now that Stian came over to The Netherlands and helped me through the game, my opinion on it has changed a fair bit and that, I feel, necessitates a re-review.
The Sleepy Link
Link is a young man living together with his uncle in a small house in the Kingdom of Hyrule. All is not well within the Kingdom, as an evil wizard has appeared and begun manipulating the soldiers to do his bidding. On a particularly rainy night, Link hears the voice of Princess Zelda in his dream, revealing that the wizard has imprisoned her and the other maidens to further his evil ambitions. Link’s uncle sets out to save her, but soon passes his sword unto Link as he falls in battle.
The start of the quest is some of the most memorable content on the Super Nintendo, as you delve into Hyrule Castle to free Zelda and bring her to a secret hide-out. However, it sets the stage for a fantasy story that is more than a little flawed. Storytelling is distinctly not A Link to the Past‘s strong suit, as it frequently forces you into lengthy exposition sequences that slowly give you all the pieces to an underwhelming and basic fantasy plot.
After clearing the initial dungeons, your main quest becomes to journey between a Light and Dark World in a quest to free all the maidens captured by the wizard. While the idea of having two parallel worlds wasn’t quite as tired back in these days, the simplistic light & dark comparison doesn’t hold much appeal anymore in retrospect. It’s still kind of fun to see how the two worlds differ, but not to the same extent as the past and present worlds of Ocarina of Time or the Light and Twilight dynamic of Twilight Princess.
A Link to the Past also seeks to establish more lore and backstory for the franchise, most of which is kind of generic and no longer relevant. Ganon is, for the first time, introduced as a thief who sought the power of the Triforce, only to be sealed away for his efforts after a long, tiring war. However, his motivations still come down to simplistic conquest, leaving the character underdeveloped and shattering some of the mystique Ganon held in the first two games.
The more I played the game, the more I realized that the central weakness lies in its lack of emotional involvement. The game wants to have a story, but its characters are throwaway and hardly present. Only the village elder has a consistent role as he provides hints across the adventure, and even that is stretching it. You could call it a limitation of the times, but we have seen better both on the Super Nintendo and even on the NES.
Story score: 3/10
Deep pockets and a large inventory
A Link to the Past combines a number of gameplay styles, most prominently sword fighting and solving puzzles. Link will get his iconic sword early on and can use it to perform simple slashes or charge it up for a spin attack. The overall goal of the game is to find your way to various dungeons spread across Hyrule, which then have you go through a labyrinth of small puzzles to gather keys, find important items, and eventually defeat a boss.
My first complaint would be that the combat feels limited. The Legend of Zelda would have simple but effective controls for fighting and its sequel, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, expanded the combat with high and low stances alongside a list of special moves and magic spells. The very act of attacking in A Link to the Past feels lackluster by comparison; attacks are weak compared to enemy health, a lot of enemies bounce you back with their defenses, and the sword animation can cause you to miss unexpectedly. Especially once you go into the Dark World most enemy encounters become bothersome, with foes that can take up to 8 attacks.
The list of tools you assemble over the course of the game alleviates this problem somewhat. You can exploit enemy weaknesses and eventually upgrade the power of your sword and armor to finish fights quicker. Experimenting with what works can be a fun process, but it is held back by only having one slot for active items. This means you need to go into the menu every time you want to switch to a different tool, and that only gets more annoying whenever the game has you face enemies that are only vulnerable to a specific attack.
As you gain more items, navigating the world also becomes much easier. At first, the land of Hyrule is a little convoluted, with important roads blocked off and entire places being unreachable, but the items you gain will soon allow you to pick up rocks, bomb open walls, and cross large gaps. It’s fun because you not only open up the way to new content, but you also make backtracking easier. The world is also well-designed and feels as believable as one might expect from a SNES-era game while still making sure every screen has worthwhile content. Ocarina of Time could have stood to learn from that.
With that said, A Link to the Past did have a lot of puzzles and navigational problems that would have driven me insane if it weren’t for Stian pointing them out. An entire section of the Dark World, for example, is inaccessible unless you use the hookshot on a target that is entirely off-screen. Other puzzles heavily rely on nonsense logic, such as blocks that must be pushed in certain directions without indication or keys being hidden on random enemies.
The most egregious part of the game is a boss fight that requires the use of two entirely different items, neither of which is found in the actual dungeon; in fact, one of them isn’t in a dungeon at all and actually resides in an obscure corner of Hyrule you’d have no reason to otherwise go to. On top of that, this boss and a scarce few others require magic and, when your magic meter is depleted, you have no hope of ever beating that boss, unless you happened to buy a potion or are willing to die/teleport out and grind enemies for refills.
I can appreciate A Link to the Past for its desire to improve on the NES classic, by still having a structure based around various dungeons, but adding in a more complicated overworld and putting a lot of emphasis on item usage. However, many puzzles remain too obscure and the combat is a downgrade compared to previous entries.
Gameplay score: 4.5/10
On a rainy night
I mentioned that A Link to the Past has one of the best intros on Super Nintendo. Waking up on that rainy night and taking in the atmosphere as you sneak your way into Hyrule Castle instantly draws you into the game, but A Link to the Past doesn’t maintain that momentum.
The game’s tilesets look pretty good and even make simple floors look a little more special. I’ll even admit that that places make sure to vary up the flooring so it never appears too repetitive and A Link to the Past does impressively manage to have different layers within its level design, allowing players to cross under or over parts of the world. However, atmosphere is scarce beyond the introduction segment.
The music is nice, but always has a similar adventurous feel to it that never feels specific to any particular place, safe for the Fairy Fountains. Even the Dark World kind of loses its appeal immediately, ironically because it has the best music track in the entire game. It’s supposed to be this once beautiful place corrupted by the evil heart of Ganon, but the effect is slightly tougher monsters and a few extra skulls lying around, set to a music track that would feel at home just as much elsewhere in the game. It doesn’t hold a candle to emerging from the Temple of Time to witness the destroyed Hyrule and hearing that haunting wind replace the once joyful castle town theme.
The quality of the sprites, the Koji Kondo soundtrack, and the care in assembling the world all reveal that A Link to the Past was passionately put together by competent people. Despite it all looking and sounding great, none of it ever feels special. If it weren’t for Link, The Triforce, and Ganon, this could have been any other fantasy adventure.
Presentation score: 6.5/10
A Link to the Past is the first game to introduce heart pieces, which task players with exploring the corners of the land to find smaller rewards that eventually upgrade Link’s health. This comes on top of the full hearts granted by each defeated boss.
The game further incentivizes exploration with a number of beneficial side-quests. These lead to permanent upgrades to items, including improved swords, greater inventories for consumable items, bottles to store potions and fairies into, as well as entire new mechanics like fast travel.
Extras score: 8/10
There are a lot of remarkable features to A Link to the Past, but what damns it in my eyes is that it’s good only in the ways that don’t really make that much difference to me. In many other regards, I find that ALttP plays like an awkward in-between stage that bridges the classic NES games and the more familiar style of the 3D Zelda titles. It’s a beautiful and nostalgic game, but playing it nowadays makes it feel lacking in ambition.