Does it hold up?
Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Back in 1992 when the SNES was still pretty new, Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past hit the shelves, and the cartridges quickly hit our consoles. Still basking in the new found radiance of 16-bit graphics, SNES gamers like myself reveled in the layered graphics and dazzling sound. Though at Geek at Arms we have to ask, “Does it hold up?” Nostalgia clouds judgment, and far too often we find that the wonders of our childhood are baffling under more mature scrutiny. And today I’m taking a fresh look at a game I used to love to find out how it holds up with a fresh look.
The basic premise of the game – in case you have been in a coma since 1986 and are unfamiliar with the premise of almost every Zelda title – is a young boy, Link, is awoken in the middle of the night. A voice guides him to the castle where he helps Princess Zelda escape. No one is quite sure why you do this, since being a Zelda title, you’re pretty sure she’s going to get captured again. And the person responsible for all this evil you’re fighting is – spoiler alert – actually Ganon. You spend the majority of the game traveling back and forth between the Light World and Dark World versions of the overworld map gathering items, solving puzzles, and completing dungeons.
But how was the play through? In short, I felt a little frustrated at the beginning. You start your journey heading up a clear path. Once you rescue Zelda and take her to the sanctuary, you get your next destination marked on a map. Once you finish that dungeon, you talk to an old man who gives you the only thing that can get you a book you need. Once you get the book, you can gain access the second dungeon. In the second dungeon you get the one piece of gear that allows you to access Death Mountain.
What’s my problem so far? It’s the “follow the breadcrumbs” method of adventure design.
The great thing about the original NES Legend of Zelda was a pretty open game. Want to skip Level 1 and jump right on to Level 2? Go ahead. Want to go from Level 2 and march your way up to Death Mountain just to have a look around? No one is stopping you! Do you want to skip getting the wooden sword on the start screen and instead wander around swordless, until you get some hearts and grab the White Sword? You can do that. With only a few exceptions, the exploration is open enough that the map has soft barriers. It’s only the difficulty of the monsters that prevent a newbie player from marching right from the start screen to exploring more challenging areas.
By contrast, A Link to the Past forces you to complete the first three pendants before going to areas of higher difficulty. The first thing I wanted to do when I got to the Dark World was take a look around and re-explore areas I was familiar with in the Light World. No dice. You have to get the Hammer from Level 1 in the Dark World to even access any other area of the map.
That being said, on my second play through, I went right from the Level 1 – The Dark Palace to Level 4 – Blind’s Hideout. In Level 4, you pick up the Titan Mitt, which allows you access to almost the entire map. None of the rooms in Level 4 required either the Hammer or Hookshot to finish the dungeon. So, the game allows some limited non-linear play.
That frustration circumvented, the game was actually a lot of fun. Having the Light and Dark Worlds essentially doubled the map size. The levels were well designed, and legitimately a joy to explore. They were challenging without being ridiculously frustrating. The ability to have catwalks overlaying rooms on the same level adds a new dimension of play. But two things really stood out in my playthroughs: the monster design and Link’s arsenal of gear.
The brilliant thing about the monsters in this game is that there are so many diverse kinds of creatures. It’s got variety not only in stylistic design, but also in regards to individual creature effects and vulnerabilities. Striking a Hardhat Beetle knocks both you and the enemy back several squares; Terropins are only susceptible to sword strikes after flipping them with the hammer; Helmsaurs are most easily killed with a skull or jar. The point being, the dungeons are packed with their particular denizens, and all require a slightly different approach. It keeps every level fresh with different kinds of challenges.
The second piece of design excellence is the inventory. In some adventure games (and even later titles in the Zelda series), designers will place a treasure that is fundamental to that level, or level’s boss, and then it has limited usefulness in the rest of the game. And while there will always be items you lean on more heavily than others (I’m looking at you, hookshot), the treasures are pretty well placed through the game, and useful across dungeons and on overworld maps.
So, does it hold up? I’d say it’s a pretty solid yes. While modern graphics and sound have left 1992 in the dust, A Link to the Past shows its age without looking or sounding clunky. They feel like something representative of an age without feeling like you’re missing out on contemporary developments. Both in the 90’s and now, I still think that the sound effect when Link transitions between Light and Dark Worlds is cool and a little freaky.
Apart from the previously mentioned merits, the game has clever level design, good play control, and satisfying boss battles. All of these make the game a classic and not a relic.