I grew up as a child, fat and happy (ok, lanky and happy) with my NES, never terribly jealous that I didn’t have an SNES like some of my friends. My NES was fine – we were good friends, and I could happily play Contra, Ice Hockey, and TMNT III all day long. Having played the original Zelda through a number of times, it wasn’t until I scraped together enough cash in 9th grade to buy a N64 that I was able to experience a new Zelda game. Ocarina of Time basically caused my 15-year old brain to explode due to awesomeness, but I never knew that I had completely missed an almost equally incredible experience in the 4th generation of videogame consoles. That gaping hole was due to Zelda: A Link to the Past (and to a lesser extent Super Metroid, but we already know my feelings on that one).
Zelda: A Link to the Past (hereafter ALttP) was released for the SNES in 1992. A prequel to the previous two Zelda games on the NES, ALttP is an action adventure game that is widely considered one of the best video games ever made. It is so widely regarded that it has actually just received a spiritual (and chronological) sequel in the form the newly released 3DS game, A Link Between Worlds. Combining high quality gameplay, an engaging story, great graphics, and phenomenal sound, ALttP deserves all of the accolades it receives. If you haven’t played this one yet, stop reading this review and go play it now. It’s that good.
ALttP does away with the side scrolling perspective that was introduced by its predecessor, Adventure of Link, instead taking place entirely from a top down perspective. Gameplay is very similar to the original Legend of Zelda, taking place between the overworld and various dungeons spread across Hyrule. Unlike either of the earlier entries in the franchise, however, ALttP introduced the light world/dark world concept, that would be brought back in one form or another throughout various future games (the two timelines in OoT for instance).
The storyline of ALttP will likely sound familiar to you, even though it was a fresh addition to the franchise in 1992. Taking place immediately before the first two NES games, ALttP begins with a young boy named Link attempting to rescue Princess Zelda from the depths of Hyrule castle. After their escape, it is revealed that a wizard named Agahnim is attempting to break the seal on the dark world, which was originally created by the seven sages many years prior to imprison the dark lord Ganon. Ganon had traveled into the Sacred Realm, the resting place of the Triforce, and upon obtaining the sacred relic, corrupted the realm, turning it into the dark world. By successfully tracking down the 3 magical pendants, Link is able to weild the Master Sword, the legendary blade of evil’s bane. As Link rushes to Hyrule Castle to confront Agahnim, he finds the wizard sending Zelda into the dark world. Following a confrontation with Agahnim, Link himself is sent to the corrupted realm as well, where he must rescue the descendants of the seven sages, allowing him to break the seal on Ganon’s Tower and confront the dark lord. Following his victory, Link touches the Triforce, returning both Hyrule and the Sacred Realm to their original states.
The main overarching mechanic in ALttP revolves around the light world and dark world. Early on in the game, Link is transported to the dark world, an alter-ego version of the light world Hyrule, with much of the scenery and enemies replaced with dark world counterparts. Eventually, Link finds his way back and obtains the ability to travel between the worlds at will. Successfully navigating between the two worlds is accomplished through the magic mirror, and is key to progressing through the game, as well as unearthing all of its secrets. Often slight changes in the topography between the two worlds can be exploited to obtain elusive heart pieces or power-ups.
Combat is deeper in ALttP than the original Zelda, primarily due to addition of diagonal movement and the ability to swing your sword rather than just stab with it. This requires more precise positioning with respect to enemies, as they can deflect your own blows with their weapons, requiring you to setup your attacks properly in order for them to land. The greater freedom of movement is a very welcome addition to the series.
ALttP introduced a number of items and mechanics that would be standards for the franchise. Items such as the Master Sword and the hookshot are first found in ALttP, along with the now familiar magic system (different than that in Adventure of Link), Kakariko Village, and the inclusion of Zoras as an intelligent race. In addition, we are introduced to the main lore elements of the Zelda franchise, including the three godesses, the creation and ramifications of the Triforce, the sacred realm, and its corruption. As well, the general progression introduced in ALttP finds its way into most Zelda games that came after: gather three items you think will solve Hyrule’s problem, queue major story event that doesn’t go as well as planned, then go fight through a handful of temples before battling the final boss.
Perhaps one of the most amazing things about ALttP for me was how much this game really sets the stage for Ocarina of Time. Going straight from the original NES title to OoT as a child, I had no idea how much was borrowed from ALttP. The lore, the progression, the items, the music; the roots of OoT lay heavily in ALttP. Just walking through Kakariko Village for the first time and hearing the Kakariko theme start up brought me right back to my childhood playing through OoT.
The overall difficulty, like most Zelda games, is not tremendously high. The combat requires a little more practice than some due to the blocking mechanics, and some secrets are quite well hidden, but overall ALttP is not a tremendously challenging game. Deaths are to be expected, but the inclusion of bottles, different types of potions, and fairies all help to smooth out the occasional difficulty spike. Compared to later games, ALttP requires more puzzle solving than later games, especially when it comes to accessing some areas and dungeons, but nothing as painful as the first two NES titles.
Gameplay: Classic Zelda gameplay that cemented a lot of the mechanics and themes that we are still seeing today. The game controls beautifully, items are varied, and a number of sections require a decent amount of thinking through to progress.
Graphics: The graphics are top notch for the SNES. Thanks to the wonderfully detailed sprites and environments, ALttP is still as eye-catching today as it was 20 years ago. While 3D graphics can age very quickly (see also, every N64 game), well done 2D graphics can stand the test of time, and ALttP is a shining example of that. While they aren’t the most detailed or complex graphics the SNES has been forced to put out, the visual style is stunning overall.
Sound: The Zelda franchise is well known for it’s sound, and of lot of the epic melodies we know and love today can trace their roots to ALttP. Drastically expanding upon it’s predecessors due to the enhanced capabilities of the SNES, the music in ALttP is simply phenomenal.
Nostalgia X-Factor: Sadly enough, I had never actually made it all the way through this one until recently, although certainly growing up without an SNES is partly to blame. Later in life, I would always fire up the emulator, make it through the first dungeon or two, then get distracted with something else. Finally sitting down with the cartridge and playing this one through was a treat, and I found myself brimming with Ocarina of Time related nostalgia, just due to the deep ties between the two games.
Worth Playing? ALttP is a must play. I don’t care what your excuse it, go out and play it. It is simply one of the best adventure games ever made, and it has aged incredibly well thanks to the detailed sprite graphics and solid gameplay. If you have ever even SLIGHTLY enjoyed a Zelda game, you owe it to yourself to play this one.