The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is, appropriately, a legendary game in the Zelda series. Already impressing out of the gate with the NES original, The Legend of Zelda would go on to be one of the most well regarded series in gaming and still continues to put out quality games to this day, but almost every element the series would become known for was either introduced or refined in A Link to the Past, where the series not only broadened the scope and lore of the Zelda franchise, but pushed the game series towards its larger story focus, use of puzzling dungeons, and unforgettable music.
A Link to the Past’s story is very much set up like a fantasy legend. In a world apart known as the Golden Land, the Triforce can grant the wish of anyone who manages to claim it, but the wars for its incredible power lead to it being sealed off by seven wise men. For ages, this world remained apart, but the wizard Agahnim has begun kidnapping the descendants of those wise men to break the seal, grabbing the Princess Zelda and killing the king in his bid to reach the Golden Land. In desperation, Zelda telepathically cries out to a boy named Link (or whatever you choose to name him) who must now head off to foil Agahnim’s plans, save the seven descendants of the wise men, and enter the twisted reflection of his world known as the Dark World to prevent the Triforce from being used to conquer Hyrule. There is more to the plot and a whole world of characters to meet with minor quests or stories of their own attached to them, and while the fantasy plot doesn’t really throw any curveballs and the side quests are all pretty simple, the story helps a lot in making the world of Hyrule feel like a place with history and depth. Hyrule is also full of varied environments to make it feel much larger than the game map truly is, and it is a world positively packed with secrets that are a joy to search out and never so obtuse that you can’t figure out how to uncover them. Some of them won’t make sense at first of course, but as you get more items or learn more about how you can interact with the world, you can uncover a slew of optional content that fleshes out the game experience beyond the actions required by the story.
Despite its massive overworld, most of the top-down action-adventure game’s action will take place in the game’s many dungeons. Although often trending towards similar visual designs, these sprawling locations twist and turn around on themselves with various rooms that either task the player with solving a puzzle, ask them to traverse dangerous terrain, or make them take down deadly foes until they have the right amount of keys and items to get to the dungeon’s boss and claim the key quest items. Besides incorporating different puzzles and enemies, the dungeons manage to set themselves apart from each other through gimmicks such as a tower whose floors you need to drop through to reach otherwise inaccessible areas or a subterranean dungeon beneath a forest that you must emerge from to find different entrances. While not always putting forth the most complex of puzzles, the dungeons do a decent job of mixing up the rooms where you must simply perform a function and the rooms with more thoughtful challenges that those simpler rooms often helped prepare you for by teaching you the mechanics in a simpler atmosphere. There is also always a new item Link will find in the dungeon like a bow or a hammer that can sometimes add a second layer to the challenges you’ll find there or might be incorporated into a later dungeon’s design, although the somewhat freeform nature you can approach the dungeons in means that some items hardly get used to their potential. This is often where sidequests can help as you might uncover puzzles that require certain items or knowledge you’ve gained along the way, but you can also unlock items that aren’t necessary but can make the game much easier and enjoyable as a reward for going out of your way to find them. The biggest example I can think of to that effect is the bug-catching net, a simple unassuming item you can get early on that isn’t required at all, but couple it with the also optional set of four empty bottles you can find during your quest, and you can catch and keep faeries with you who will revive you in the event that you die. Death is not uncommon in A Link to the Past either, with even basic enemies and traps able to take away a few hearts with ease. Your health will gradually grow as you beat more dungeons and there are optional diversions to find heart pieces or to buy healing potions, but the foes remain tough even to the end, with bosses usually having a few ways to hit even experienced Zelda players.
If there is one easily identified shortcoming with A Link to the Past, it would be the combat. It is a serviceable inclusion and rarely ever stands out as something bad, but its simplistic design means most foes you find will just require you to slash at them until they are dead. Link’s basic slash has an acceptable range thanks to the fact its got a bit of a sweep out in front of you, but besides a few enemies whose shields or armor you have to work around, your sword is going to do the job easily enough. You can get your other items involved to take foes out from range or dispatch certain foes in a much easier manner, but outside of the bosses, enemies rarely test your abilities. Boss arenas are often cramped environments that the boss itself usually does a pretty good job of filling on their own, but when extra hazards are added or they begin launching their attacks, the boss battles soon test your ability to stay out of danger and dish out damage at the same time, something the game doesn’t train you too well for with its weak groups of baddies and mostly puzzle-focused design. They do at least encourage creative use of your items, and sometimes the boss might be a bit of a puzzle in that you need to figure out how to put a decent dent in their defenses. The flaw in the combat is not so much what it did wrong as it is failing to be exceptional in a game that had the quality to match a more fleshed out battle system.
When faced with a classic like this though, it’s important you don’t let high praise weigh the experience down. The graphics can be pretty strange at times, the immediate example of Link’s pink hair coming to mind, and while the world has a lot to find in it, you’ll also find yourself trekking across the length of it quite a bit. The game sadly withholds the ability to travel quickly about for quite a while and still imperfectly implements it once you do have the required item. It does mean you are likely to keep the proper mental maps needed to return to old secrets you couldn’t solve or to help you relate the mirrored Light and Dark Worlds so that you can solve puzzles split between the two, but the sometimes winding paths you have to take to get to certain areas can drag out the experience. A Link to the Past is a meaty game that would be long enough on its own even if you didn’t indulge in diversions, but the size of it is stretched out a bit by the map design and the fact that if you save and quit, you’ll load back into a central location of the map instead of where you left off, making dungeon navigation just that bit more difficult. In the moment, it’s pretty easy to not notice these issues though as A Link to the Past’s core is so enticing that you can accept those flaws in exchange for the greater experience.
THE VERDICT: For many years, I said that The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was my favorite title in the Zelda series, and after revisiting it, I’m not exactly assured of its position anymore. Not because of this game’s flaws though, but more because of the strength of the series after it took the building blocks presented here and refined them into gradually greater and greater games. They are building from a base of greatness though, so even if you are coming back from beginning with a later title, A Link to the Past still holds a lot to enjoy without feeling like an experience that lacks refinement. It is a solid experience with a few quirks like its navigation and simple combat system, but the challenging but fair dungeon puzzles, the world with so many extra things to find, and a well realized progression that makes beating bosses both manageable and satisfying, A Link to the Past at least earned that long time loyalty from me and still stands on the higher end of the series quality-wise.
And so, I give The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for the SNES…
A FANTASTIC rating. Regarding this classic as fantastic isn’t exactly a ground-shaking verdict, and while I tried to ask myself if it should be knocked down a rating many times, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Save getting held up on a difficult puzzle, A Link to the Past has a strong momentum to it that you can choose to interrupt if you wish to explore a world with tasks just waiting to be completed. They can be simple or the reward might not be great, but they aren’t bad, and that ties into the main reason this game isn’t getting knocked down a rating. It’s flaws are present and identifiable, but they are more unrefined than they are bad, missteps rather than complete falls. The combat is simple but it never feels like it needs to be more than it is. The map is not always easy to traverse, but it keeps the game world from feeling like just a video game space that needs to be moved through as optimally as possible. The Game Boy Advance remake would make the game even better by smoothing over some of the game’s rough edges, but even then it didn’t have to change much as the core experience was already solid enough. It’s no surprise that Nintendo would later try to recapture the world and feel of A Link to the Past with this game’s far off successor A Link Between Worlds.
A Link to the Past impressed me the first time I played it, and while replayability isn’t a priority when it comes to this game’s design, I could still see the things I loved quite clearly as I revisited it today. For the top-down Zelda experience, it still might be the definitive game, and A Link to the Past is certainly a past worth exploring.