May 27, 2017
Welcome once more to the Legend of Zelda through the Lens of Truth. Today, as you have undoubtedly gathered from the title of the article you clicked on to reach this page, we shall observe and analyze the first post-NES era entry, A Link to the Past. This is by a significant stretch the most popular of the top-down style games in the series, and it is uncommon to hear this classic denigrated for any reason. You probably know the drill by this point, graphics, sound, gameplay, story. If not, check out my other “Lens of Truth” articles, or just jump right in with no idea what to expect. It’s pretty self-explanatory, so you ought to catch on quick.
Despite being as powerful as any competition at the time and much like its forerunner, the SNES was imperfect in graphical terms. Bad sprite design could ruin an otherwise enjoyable experience. Luckily, A Link to the Past suffered no such fate. The design and animation followed official artwork so closely (and clearly) that now as I revisit the original sketches in Art and Artifacts, I rapidly recall the sprites of enemies and bosses that I have not fought in years, and with the visuals as a starting point, the fondly remembered fight follows suit. This includes not only the mechanics, but often emotions experienced during the battle. Mostly this entails how awestruck I found myself at such entrancing puzzle-based bosses or my sheer annoyance at giant moldorms, but hey, evoking an emotional response a decade and a half post-factum is a fearsome feat for a five-by-nine photo.
This was also the first Zelda game to incorporate themes into every dungeon based on its location. The volcano level had fire everywhere, the palace hidden underneath a lake was riddled with water puzzles, and so forth. It sounds simple and somewhat silly now, but at the time this was a rarely utilized concept, and after this proved its viability, it became a default feature that almost every video game since has imitated.
I have zero complaints about the graphics, and would go as far as to rate this the best visuals for the console generation. They did literally the best job any game creator could with the system. Perfect ten.
After his counterpart, Tezuka, rivaled his magnificent soundtrack in Zelda II, Koji Kondo returned and one-upped not only him, but the rest of the entire industry. The score for A Link to The Past pushed the envelope of what was possible at the time. With the evolution of technology, musical limitations of the NES were no longer present. Full orchestral scores were still beyond the visible horizon, though digital mediums used were now able to more closely imitate sounds of musical instruments, nigh on fooling players into thinking they were listening to a live band performing ad-lib as the game went on. Blippity-bloop of old had transformed into something that felt more alive, expressive, and evoked feeling within players as never felt before by digital storytelling means.
Each tune was unique, including some rehashed versions of tracks from Zelda one. Beyond that, the average game of the time usually had one theme for the overworld, one for dungeons, possibly an extra for the final dungeon, and one for towns. Beyond this there were usually a few specific to key areas, but that was basically it. This game blew the average track numbers out of the water by introducing unique tracks to particular towns and areas, and few games rivaled this. In fact, the only games that come to mind that come close are Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy IV. Every single one was composed marvelously and “memorable” does not do justice to how iconic these themes have become.
The only tune that got repetitive was the dungeon theme. This was less noticeable than it could have been, since the thematic changes drew your focus away, but after a dozen devious dungeons, it was very nice to have a change of musical pace once you got to Ganon’s Tower. An indescribably good soundtrack with only one tune that gets stale earns a nine out of ten.
This game did what I consider to be the greatest achievement any kind of media can obtain; it established a cliché. Adding items to your arsenal and using each to solve puzzles and defeat monsters is not a mechanic limited to Zelda. Games coming out shortly after such as the ever underrated Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest, and going forward to games in the 2000s and beyond such as Monster Hunter reused this idea to create their fundamental functionality. You may consider this a Zelda staple from the original game, and you would not be incorrect, however I believe there was a much greater impact on the world of gaming from our Super Nintendo friend.
The ideas presented in the original game were transformed tenfold and transcended to a new level of puzzle-based gameplay. Nearly every item could be used to defeat monsters as well as solve puzzles. In Zelda one, almost all puzzles entailed defeating every monster in the room or pushing a block, often both. In Zelda three, puzzles ranged from reaching switches from far off with your bombs, boomerang, hookshot, or magical Cane of Somaria to fooling foes into turning their backs on your arrows. This does not even begin to describe boss fights, which were all designed around using a particular item in a particular way.
Beyond inventory alone (which is the largest collection of unique items in a Zelda game to date) there was also excellence to be found in other design aspects, particularly the dungeon layouts. Removing puzzles from the equation entirely, players had to traverse treacherous, nonlinear nightmares. Wandering for hours, backtracking, and finding new things every time you reenter a room is my favorite type of dungeon crawling. That combined with the sheer scale of dungeons made for an absolutely astounding experience. No dungeon has surpassed Ganon’s Tower in terms of relative size and complexity, and I consider the only close competition to be Hyrule Castle in Breath of the Wild, twenty-six years later.
Finally, the difficulty was not up to NES standards, but it was not an easy game by today’s standards either. I find A Link to the Past to be the ideal middleground between difficulty and fair gameplay. It has a small learning curve and certainly presented a challenge, but it never felt overwhelming and seldom required more than one retry on the same challenge. This is the happy medium I love to find in games, but more often than not, games are either too easy or artificially derive difficulty by doling out more hit points to enemies than players. Every game should strive to reach these heights in every aspect of gameplay. Perfect ten.
Stories on this console, as they had for years before (between arcades and other home systems) were a supplemental detail so you could get on with the game. A Link to the Past was not the first to break this norm, however it was possibly the most popular to present a deep story within a video game. This did not reach the heights of previously mentioned Chrono Trigger, or Final Fantasy IV (which are apparently the perfect games to compare to this one for multiple reasons) however without this as a starting point, I wonder how well heavier story-driven games would have fared. This title was the first time many players experienced a story worth paying attention to. It was no Tolkien, but it was full of interesting plot twists, characters with enough personality to care about, and ever intriguing intricacies within the primary story as well as side-quests. A third perfect ten.
Counting up three perfect tens and a nine, A Link to the Past skyrockets to the lead out of the three games reviewed so far, but there are many still to go. Will there be a tie? Will any find a perfect forty? Will Goku show up in time? Find out on the next installment of Zelda through the Lens of Truth and let me know what you think on Twitter (@spamomanospam) or in the comments below!