I still remember the first time I started playing this game. It was a stormy spring day in 1993. My family and I were visiting my Grandma’s house along with my cousins Matt, Chris, and Jake. I’ll never forget playing the first few hours in a thunderstorm warning. It is just something that sticks with me to this day. Let’s just get it out of the way. A Link To The Past (ALTTP) is often cited as one of the greatest games of all time. And it is. The sense of mystery and growth is just extraordinary. All the details just click. Even the title screen is outstanding, taking me back to the good times that were had on that one stormy day …
The game starts with a bang. Link is visited in a dream by princess Zelda, begging to be saved from an evil wizard. After being told to stay put by his uncle, he naturally goes out into the stormy night to save the day. With this act of defiance begins one of the SNES’s best games. Think of this entry as being a more sophisticated and accessible version of the original Zelda for the NES. Right off the bat Link has his sword, but as he progresses he will find many more weapons and tools, serving to both make the game easier and open up more of the game’s world. And make no mistake: You will spend a lot of time exploring Hyrule. It is so full of content and things to do that you can’t help but marvel at the amount of detail Nintendo threw in. There is just no empty space in this one! Townspeople scream for help and run inside at your mere presence (You BECOME a wanted criminal, after all), you’ll encounter a hobo camping near the waterfront, blacksmiths work to forge their masterpieces diligently, and in the foggy lost woods, an ancient weapon beckons …
Speaking of weapons and equipment, A Link To The Past gives the series its tightest and most balanced inventory. You get a book that would just be a plot point in any other game, yet here you can also use it to cast the spells you get. The Hookshot can propel you over gaps as well as stun enemies. Boomerangs attack as well as get to out of reach items. Almost everything in the game has combat usefulness as well as applications in the world of the game. One of my favorite combat combos include using the magic cape to avoid projectiles before moving in for the kill! Or try beating Aghanim with the bug catching net!! This game succeeds by letting the player succeed.
Upgrades and heart pieces are in sight but JUST out of reach. Statues can be moved and walls can be bombed to reveal new adventures. Hyrule feels almost ALIVE at times with little to no filler items. In later games the reward for a a player’s discovery may be a rupee or bombs, ALTTP gives you a freaking MAGIC CAPE and an ICE ROD!! I still remember my first visit to the Lost Woods, with its maze-like forest and misty atmosphere. The shady inhabitants sent me into imagination overdrive! It is just that detailed.
Then there is the Dark World. After your first four dungeons, you will discover that you’re not even halfway done yet. A whole new version of Hyrule is waiting for you, only everything is twisted and wrong. The Lost Woods become the Skeleton Forest. The Village becomes The Outcast Town. It is here that the game really picks up as you must travel between these realities in order to set things right. I just love how dangerous the Dark World feels, with strong enemies and an unforgiving terrain giving you a true sense of uncertainty that the series has never again been able to match. Even the trees are out to get you here!
All of this combines to give the player a feeling of growth that is the hallmark of classic Zelda. Remember when you started the game and everything was scary? Those Cyclops statues were scary until you get the bow. Then you feel powerful and thus, unafraid. Remember how scary it was to fight the ball and chain knight the first time as a mini-boss? Once you get the Master Sword, you will fight them as a normal enemy and not feel intimidated. Gibdos are terrifying until you get the Fire Rod, and then they no longer matter. The game is masterful at making the player feel like a badass as his arsenal and equipment grow. Every heart piece, upgrade, and new weapon makes the player feel powerful in a way that they did not before.
The dungeons also play off the central mechanic of empowerment. Each offers a perfect difficulty curve and puts a different spin that usually is based off of an upgrade or weapon you do not yet possess. The first three are easy, and it is almost true to say that the entire Light World is a tutorial for the real game (The Dark World). But by the time you get to Turtle Rock, you’ll be getting your head handed to you regularly. It is an increase in difficulty that is not really a part of the Zelda series anymore. In latter entries, enemies are essentially puzzles, and once you know the pattern they can’t touch you. In ALTTP, if you are not good at the combat you will die, pure and simple. These dungeons are also much more exploration focused, and it is only in the last few that you will see puzzles in the modern sense. I love the fact that you can finish the dungeon without even going through every room in some cases. Gannon’s Tower gives us what is still to this day the most complex and rewarding dungeon to ever grace a Zelda title.
Bosses are another strong point, with creative solutions to defeating them. Often you will have to use the weapon you found in that dungeon in order to defeat them. A great example of this is the boss of the Palace of Darkness. You must use the hammer to break the rocky mask off the boss before finishing it off with the Master Sword! It is this combination of discovery, fun combat, and epic boss encounters that make the dungeons in this game the strongest in the series. Speaking of dungeons, here is an interesting fact. ALTTP has the most. Between the Light World and the Dark World there are twelve dungeons, compared to the series average of nine. When you think about it, it is almost enough to make you cry. This game is both quality AND quantity!
It also helps that the ‘bells and whistles’ are also up to the same quality. Everything from the Over World theme to the final boss music sets the mood so well. The church music sets the adventure’s tone perfectly, imparting all of the weight of this quest onto the player’s shoulders. And this game marks the origin of some of the series’ trademark pieces, such as ‘Zelda’s Lullaby’ and ‘The Village’ theme. Graphically the game is a marvel for an early SNES effort, giving us two distinct versions of the same world and massive detail right down to things like trees and grass. Just look at the screen at the top of the Pyramid of Power. It is a fitting example of the game’s graphical fidelity.
The final legacy of ALTTP is this: It is the standard by which the series has been held. It has never been surpassed, as its formula is used in Zelda titles to this day. The perfect game, and one all must play. You cannot consider yourself a gamer if you have not experienced this game at least in passing. Try it and weep with me at the fact that the SNES is the ONLY platform that did not get two Zelda games. I can only imagine what a Zelda utilizing a 32 Meg cart would look and play like …
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