The Great Zelda Playthrough Part 3: A Link to the Past

After a brief hiatus of *checks notes* uh…five years, I’ve decided to once more return to The Great Zelda Playthrough, in which I play through all the Zelda games in order. Why the delay? Well, because I started to burn out and took a break, and then Breath of the Wild came out and was great and I loved it and for a while that was all the Zelda I needed. Fortunately, I had the foresight to actually start working on this post all that time ago, meaning the notes from my first impressions still remain and I can cheat a bit by fusing my memories of that playthrough with the memories of this latest playthrough. It’s like I was never gone, and also never interrupted the order with Breath of the Wild (or Link’s Awakening for Switch (or either Hyrule Warriors game))!

Anyway. Onto what’s going to be a weird mishmash of things I wrote 5 years ago and things I’m writing now.

I’m not sure that a single Zelda game has had as big an impact on the franchise as A Link to the Past. This is when the Zelda series truly became the Zelda series. Even Ocarina of Time, which many people think of as being most influential and impactful, takes most of its cues from A Link to the Past. I cannot overstate enough how essential this game was. Zelda 1 created the template for gameplay, but A Link to the Past established it. Zelda II began to delve into lore, but A Link to the Past is where the overarching narrative began to start. Most of the most iconic recurring songs in the series, including Kakariko Village, Fairy Fountain/Title Select, Cave, and Hyrule Castle, originated from A Link to the Past. And A Link to the Past is the game that created the “Zelda Formula,” which include (among other things) the “three dungeons, story twist and/or getting the Master Sword, more dungeons” story structure, a more sinister alternate world, and Ganon turning out to be behind everything the whole time.

It may be the most influential game, but the question remains: is it the best game? Well…I guess we’ll probably have to wait until the whole project is finished to actually find out but read on anyway!

The Story: Zelda’s First True Legend

A Link to the Past has always made the Zelda timeline a bit confusing. It was launched as a prequel to Zelda 1, but it starred a different Link and Zelda. So over the course of three games, you have two Links, three Zeldas, and one Ganon. Of course, it was still “first game, sequel, prequel” at this point, so things weren’t too complex. That happened as more games were added, meaning that we had sequels to the prequel (that still came before the first game). And of course, there’s the fact that A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time seemed to be telling the story of the same events, but in a way that contradicted itself. I personally began to suspect that the first two games and A Link to the Past took place in their own, completely separate alternate universe. I was pretty damn close to being right (I never expected Nintendo to tie it back into Ocarina of Time), but I also wasn’t vocal about my theory so it’s not like I have any real proof of how smart I was and how I totally got the Zelda timeline right.

But we’re not here to talk about theories that don’t matter anymore, we’re here to talk about the story of this game, and it’s an important one. The jump to 16-bit and the practice the previous two entries provided allowed A Link to the Past the ability to greatly expand its story. It tells the story of Link, a young man (perhaps a knight or knight in training?) who stumbles into a conflict that began long before his time. Upon hearing the voice of the princess Zelda call for help in his mind, he follows his Uncle to Hyrule Castle to free her. Upon her rescue, she explains the history behind why she was kidnapped in the first place. Roughly a century ago, a war began for the Triforce, an artifact with the manifestation of the Goddesses’ power, left behind by them in the Sacred Realm. During this war, a thief named Ganondorf managed to steal the Triforce, his impure heart corrupting it and turning the Sacred Realm into a world of darkness (aptly called the Dark World). Ganondorf, who had at this point transformed into the boar-like beast known as Ganon from the previous games in the series, was sealed in the Dark World by seven sages. And that brings us to the present of our story, in which the wizard Agahnim has taken control of Hyrule Castle and is trying to break the seal imprisoning Ganon by sending seven maidens descended from the sages to the Dark World.

While all that lore and backstory is ultimately fairly simple, it’s far more in-depth than the stories of the first two games. It’s also the first story where Link does not choose to undertake a quest, but has the duty thrust upon him by others: by his uncle, by Zelda, by Sahasrahla. Link is merely trying to salvage events that have already been set in motion long before his time. It’s a legacy that has been passed on to him, from a story old enough to already be legend. By creating a prequel to the first two games, and then creating an even earlier, even greater story before it, the game creates a world and story that is full of history, of legacy, of lore, that echoes into the present and will continue to echo into the future. This Zelda game is actually a legend: one that links the present to the past.

Yeah, turns out that calling the game “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past” actually has a purpose beyond being a pun on the protagonist’s name. It speaks to the idea of cross-generational history and legacy that persists heavily through the series to this day.

The Legacy

I’ve already gone through a lot of the legacy this game has left, both in terms of story and gameplay, but I still can’t overstate it enough. This game revolutionized Zelda. This is when it truly became what it was today. There’s a large faction of fans that still consider it the best Zelda game of all time, and there’s a reason they feel that way.

As I’ve already mentioned, A Link to the Past is responsible for the structure of many games, some of the most iconic music, and recurring tropes such as “dark worlds” and Ganon hijacking the plot, but it did so much more than that. It was the first game in the series to include the Master Sword, as well as a plethora of other recurring items and gear, like the pegasus boots, the flippers, bottles, and (possibly most iconically) the hookshot. Pieces of Heart also first appeared in this game, and have been utilized in almost every game since. A Link to the Past took the idea of a magic meter from Zelda II and revamped it into a magic system subsequent games would use. And, of course, it’s the first appearance in the series of an ocarina, an instrument that would play a minor to pivotal role in multiple subsequent games.

There are plenty of elements that didn’t quite get picked up on, of course, but all they serve to do is make A Link to the Past a bit more unique. They’re little quirks that don’t actively detract from the game, but just make the gameplay a bit different. The magic medallions, for example, which can quickly clear a room, or the magic cape, which allows you to turn invisible to avoid damage. There are even a couple of magic canes that, while a little unpolished in this game, come back to make for clever and memorable items in later games.

My Playthrough

My plan for A Link to the Past was a pretty standard playthrough.

That’s the first sentence I originally wrote, half a decade ago. What it ended up being was as non-standard as you can get, with a few different false starts across several systems. I initially started on the Game Boy Advance port, which was what I owned and knew. There are a few changes that port made that I wasn’t super thrilled with, such as replacing Syrup’s assistant with Maple from the Oracle games or overdubbing Ocarina of Time Link’s “HYAA” every time you swing your sword. My second attempt was while messing around with the SNES Classic before finally landing on the Nintendo Switch Online version. It provided all the portability of the GBA with any real changes from the original apart from a few time-saving features in the form of save states.

When I first started up the game on the initial playthrough, I was absolutely floored by it. After Zelda 1 and Zelda II, it was a huge step up in terms of visual and audio quality. There were so many little tweaks to gameplay that began here that I had taken for granted until playing through a few games without them. Cutting grass, the ability to lift and throw things, etc. Perhaps the dumbest overreaction I had was my glee at different layers of elevation in the same room. “There are levels,” I said excitedly. “This changes everything!” And it kind of did. The world and dungeons could be built differently, with different floors and the ability to retreat to safe vantage points instead of simply moving around the room.

However, I didn’t love the dungeon design. I found the dungeons weirdly labyrinthine and confusing, ushering you around in circles. Those different levels made it hard to read where the entrances and exits in each room were, meaning the map was often hard to read. I believe it was around the ice dungeon that I began to get frustrated and took a break. And then Breath of the Wild came out and, well…yeah, wasn’t planning on going back any time soon.

However, when I revisited it with the intention of seeing it through, I found myself much more amenable to the dungeon design. I don’t know whether it was the increased screen size or something different in the aspect ratio that made them somewhat easier to navigate, but I found them a lot more intuitive on the revisit. They struck a really good balance between the dungeons from Zelda 1, which were based around quick combat and movement, and the slower, more puzzle-based dungeons from later games.

That said, I while one of my gripes disappeared, not all of them did. I have some major issues with the combat, largely with how invincibility frames work. When you hit enemies, you knock them back, giving you both time to regroup and reposition. However, when enemies hit you, the enemies continue to advance through your invincibility frames until they’re on top of you, forcing you into a dangerous retreat. Only being able to use one item at a time also really limited combat, since switching items was slow and clunky. And while I don’t know whether this is the fault of the game or me just being more comfortable with more familiar items, I barely used the items that consumed magic, like the rods, canes, capes, or medallions.

Finally, I didn’t love the difficulty curve. Once you enter the Dark World, everything hits really hard and takes a long time to kill (which is particularly annoying as you’ve just gotten a sword upgrade in the form of the Master Sword). It’s not until after you’ve beaten fourth of seven dungeons in the Dark World that you can upgrade your sword and mail, but once you can upgrade them, it’s not long until you can upgrade them again. It makes the middle section of the game frustratingly difficult compared to the beginning and the end.

Overall, though, I was really impressed with the game, with a very well-designed overworld with a lot of fun secrets to find and explore. I found most of them naturally (and looked a few up to save myself time), while still feeling like the ones I was missing meant I still had plenty of room to explore if I wanted to go back and aim for 100% completion.

The Verdict

A Link to the Past was a very good game. I just had a lot of issues with it. The dungeon design (initially), some frustrating quirks of gameplay, etc. It had a good story, but it was also a little sparser than I’d hoped or remembered. It’s a game that started really strong, but then started to lose me as I got deeper and deeper into it. So while it was, overall, a very good experience, it falls short of the joy I got experiencing a broken Hyrule in Zelda 1. That said, it’s still miles ahead of Zelda II, which was overall such a big divergence that it became frustrating.

I love A Link to the Past. I just don’t love it as much as I thought I did. And I honestly don’t know how much that will be reflected in the rankings. All I can say for now is that it’s not my top game. Zelda 1 is narrowly edging it out based solely on its gameplay, which to me felt more exciting and much smoother.

That said, that makes A Link to the Past a great measuring stick because it’s so quintessentially Zelda. It improved on the series enough to codify the formula, even if that formula needed polish. For everything that irks me about it, there’s two things I love, and consequent games will likely manage to both improve on some of its flaws while falling short of other standards it set. It’s also currently the game in the series I respect and revere most, and probably will be moving forward. This game made Zelda what it was, and I think it can be forgiven for a few missteps as it figured out its stride.

So here’s where the rankings currently stand:

  1. The Legend of Zelda (NES)
  2. A Link to the Past
  3. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Next up? Link’s Awakening, the first of the handheld games, which are some of my favorites in the series. I look forward to seeing how Nintendo handled upping their game for the SNES, then having to take a step back to develop for the Game Boy.

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