Enter the Master Sword
This Critical Miss is a bit of cheat because I have played The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past before. As a kid, I had the Gameboy Advance rerelease of the game. From what I can tell, it’s the exact same game as the 1992 Super Nintendo game, but with a little screen crunch and more washed out colors. I wanted to play it again for this post though because I never actually finished it. When I was younger, I never made it past the Ice Temple and the few times I’ve picked it up since, I never made it much further than the beginning of the Dark World.
The story is the standard Zelda story: evil being is being evil, find three of something to get the Master Sword to defeat them, things go wrong shortly after gaining the blade, explore more dungeons to collect more items to stop the evil once and for all. It is the same story as any other Zelda game but this time the evil being is the wizard Agahnim, who is actually Ganon in disguise, and he is collecting maidens to open up the Golden Land. Once Link has the Master Sword and defeats Agahnim, he is transported to the Dark World, the Golden Land that has been twisted and corrupted by the wizard’s evil desires.
The story is serviceable but I never found it engaging. The backstory of the Triforce and the Golden Land is mostly told by the maidens after saving them from dungeons. The story is simply told in long text dumps that are not particularly well written or interesting. The reason for the simple style of storytelling is most likely due to the limitations of the SNES, but games like Chrono Trigger managed to tell epic and engaging stories with the same limitations.
Gameplay has always fared better on the SNES and A Link to the Past’s gameplay is still very fun. The core loop is exploration, fighting enemies along the way, and looking for gear, upgrades, and items gives a great sense of adventure. The overworld is fairly large for a SNES game and it is colorful, has varied locations from deserts to lakes to tall mountains, and is absolutely full of secrets to find. Being transported to the Dark World is a cool moment the first time it happens, but visually, it is not as appealing to look at as the Light World. It’s just kind of drab, filled with mostly browns and yellow, sick looking greens and muted purples. Thematically it is fitting, but after the bright and stunning colors of the main overworld, the muted color pallet of the Dark World gets boring after a while.
The exploration aspect of A Link to the Past is the strongest part of the game for me. Secrets like heart pieces, piles of rupees, and items are scattered everywhere across the map. It’s the type of game where you can spend hours exploring the world in between the critical path dungeons, looking under every rock and bush for hidden passages or items. Some of the most satisfying secrets to find are those that require moving between the Light and Dark Worlds because some areas, like ledges, cannot be accessed unless shifting between the two different maps. Link can teleport back into Hyrule by using the magic mirror and doing so will leave a cloud of magic dust that takes you back to the Dark World. Besides the dust created by the magic mirror, Link can only travel from the Hyrule to the Dark World by finding magic portals. It’s an interesting limitation that makes entering the Dark World a puzzle in and of itself and is used consistently to unlock areas of the map and to discover the entrances to dungeons.
Dungeons are a staple of every Zelda game and utilize a blend exploration, combat, and puzzle solving to complete. They need to be explored thoroughly to find the big key, the item needed to finish, and the lair of the boss at the end. Some dungeons require items found in the overworld to navigate, like the Swamp Palace needing the Zora flippers to swim through the changing water levels. This is great because it requires players to explore the overworld thoroughly. Typically, you will have what you need already to explore a dungeon, but if not, it’s just a matter of finding the item needed in the world.
The items found in dungeons are often needed to defeat the boss at the end, but not always. For example, you need the magic hammer in the Dark Palace to break the Helmasaur King’s armor before you can damage him. Requiring the items found in the dungeons to defeat the boss is a design choice Nintendo would make more in later Zelda games, but in A Link to the Past most items seem to be designed with exploration and puzzle solving in mind rather than combat. This is not a bad thing, but it does make some of the items feel less impactful, like the cape, if they are only really required to gather a heart piece. This does lead to some odd choices when items in dungeons are optional. I found it very strange that Link finds the blue mail, which reduces damage taken, in the Ice Palace, only to find the red mail, which reduces more damage, three dungeons later in Ganon’s Tower.
This is, of course, if you are doing the dungeons in the order the game suggests. They can be completed out of order, but many require items from previous dungeons to compete or even unlock the area of the map they are in. I went through the dungeons in the order found on the game map because doing them out of order seemed frustrating to me as someone who does not know the game like the back of my hand.
The dungeons are fun for the most part because they rely so heavily on the best aspects of A Link to the Past: exploration and collecting items. That being said, however, they can get tedious to do. I think 3D gaming worked wonders on the Zelda series’ puzzle design. It added a much needed sense of spatial reasoning to explore dungeons. In the 2D games, so many of the puzzles rely on killing all the enemies in the room, pushing a certain block, or finding a button underneath a pot in order to unlock the door or make a key appear. While every dungeon has its own gimmick, the Swamp Palace’s changing water levels or Turtle Rock’s floating platform to ride, they tend to lack individual personalities to me. They have slightly different atmospheres and looks to them, but the dungeons still often look and feel too similar for my taste.
But the game is still great, solidly designed and with a sense of adventure unparalleled by most other SNES games. It was so realized that it became the foundation for pretty much every Zelda to come after it. It introduced the collection to Master Sword to more collection outline common in other games in the series. It was the induction to staple items like the bottles, hookshot, heart pieces, and even the Master Sword itself, as well as abilities like the spin attack. It is the game that made the Zelda series what we think of today while managing to maintain its own identity since it is still a 2D game where most games that came after are 3D.
I think it’s time to admit to myself that I’m just not a huge Zelda fan. I am still a fan, but a casual one as opposed to a die-hard one. I’ve played many games in the series and, while I have enjoyed all of them, I’ve never really fallen in love with any. There’s never anything deal breaking in them that makes me shut them off, but there’s not much I can think back on that I absolutely adored. That is except the wall merging mechanic in A Link Between Worlds. I found that to be a truly genius additional that opened up puzzle and level design to a possibility not seen before in the series. And that game owes everything to A Link to the Past. It is basically its child with how much DNA it shares with A Link to the Past by being a reimagining of the game. If I had to choose a favorite Zelda game, A Link Between Worlds would be high up, probably even the top spot. So even if I did not find A Link to the Past the most engaging game to play nowadays, I will also thank it for helping create one of my favorite games in the series.