Zelda Replay Part III: A Link to the Past - ArticleEvan Norris , posted on 19 April 2020 / 2,388 Views
Welcome to Zelda Replay, a celebration of what I consider the best video game franchise. Each article in this ongoing series will explore a specific The Legend of Zelda game—which I will replay and re-evaluate—starting with the first installment on NES and moving forward according to release date.
Note: I will cover only mainline, official titles for this project, so don't expect non-canonical entries like The Wand of Gamelon or side projects like Link's Crossbow Training. Every game will get a review and will enter into a series ranking that I’ll update with each new article. Please enjoy.
Part III: A Link to the Past
"We will temper your sword perfectly!"
A Link to the Past is boringly perfect. Aside from some framerate drops during busy scenes and a few cryptic puzzles, it's difficult to summon anything negative to say about it. On the audio front, it's stellar, with several immortal tunes courtesy of musical wizard Koji Kondo and immersive, layered sound design. Graphically, it's evocative and detailed, with small touches—like the canopy casting shadows on the ground in the Lost Woods—making everything more whimsical and magical. In terms of gameplay, it delivers a fulfilling mix of crunchy combat, cerebral puzzle-solving, and lucrative exploration.
If the original Legend of Zelda was, to borrow a metaphor from the Zelda series, the Master Sword—extraordinary but a bit raw and unrefined—then A Link to the Past is the tempered variant: brighter, better, and polished to perfection.
Apart from standing as the model representative of top-down 2D Zelda, A Link to the Past is the quintessential Zelda experience, one that introduced several franchise staples and codified the rules, mechanics, and tropes of the series for generations to come. Like Goldfinger for James Bond, A Link to the Past took conceits and themes from the first two installments, tweaked them, and established a blueprint for the future. Apart from Breath of the Wild, which drew inspiration from the NES original, every mainline Zelda game after 1992 has referenced the guidelines instituted on the SNES.
A Link to the Past represents not only a foundational text for The Legend of Zelda. It's a diagram for all modern action-adventure games, thanks to its ideal concoction of real-time fighting, exploration, puzzle-solving, item collection, storytelling, and gameplay that's both open-ended and organized.
Indeed, the structure of A Link to the Past—much more organized than the original game but far less linear than something like Skyward Sword—is one of its most essential features. Where the NES Legend of Zelda dropped players into an unknown (and unknowable) world and tasked them to fend for themselves, the SNES sequel is more methodically arranged. You can still improvise, visit locations "out of order", and explore indefinitely, but everything is tidier and more sequential. A Link to the Past retains that heady sensation of discovery but pairs it with more focused storytelling and fewer opportunities to become truly lost.
As with everything in the franchise, this isn't a random achievement. In the January 1992 edition of Famicom Tsuushin magazine, producer Shigeru Miyamoto spoke about finding a fruitful middle ground between frustrating and rewarding gameplay, using breakable walls as an example: "Concerned, I balanced the joy players would get from hunting around and at long last discovering a breakable wall and the thought of how long that would realistically take, and, in the end, opted for putting in visible cracks on the walls that can be destroyed."
That same level of thoughtfulness permeates everything in A Link to the Past, from its eight-way movement, to its ingenious multi-layered dungeons, to its Dark World—a sinister mirror image of Hyrule that basically doubles the size of the game and opens up several clever puzzle-solving possibilities. This is one of Nintendo's most ambitious titles, not only because it underwent years of experimentation and technical workarounds, but because its developers molded it with an eye always on the end user experience.
Meticulously and thoughtfully designed, A Link to the Past is pretty much perfect. It's the gold standard for 2D Zelda games and for top-down action-adventure titles in general. Its successes in sound, visuals, controls, storytelling, level design, and structured action-adventure gameplay seem effortless—even though we know they're the result of months of careful planning, analysis, and trial and error. The Zelda series went though many permutations after 1992, but almost every one owes something to the brilliance of A Link to the Past.
1. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
2. The Legend of Zelda
3. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link