There’s some type of underlying magic to the Zelda series, one that draws players in like a phantom light across the bog – only not, you know, horrifyingly malevolent. Perhaps comparing it to the draw of a siren song is more apt. Wait – sirens drew sailors do their doom, right? Okay, forget the poetic analogies. Zelda is just awesome. There.
Anyway, that first time playing a Zelda game is the type of memory you don’t soon forget. Sure, I’d played video games before. Little snippets of Mario on a friend’s Gameboy, or perhaps some Star Wars: Rogue Squadron on the family computer (which I still own, and am quite certain can now be counted as an antique). But it wasn’t until playing A Link to the Past on the rented SNES at the Nebraska hotel my family was staying at that I truly embraced video games.
Perhaps my route to the franchise was an odd one, but it worked like this: at the time, my younger brother was deathly afraid of a select few very odd things. His greatest fear was Jim Carrey’s version of the Grinch – fully understandable – but the close runner-up was Majora’s Mask. Every time a commercial would come up on television or he’d see the advertisement stand at a store and he’d cower.
Being the wonderful older brother I was, I decided to prank the crap out of him by ordering a Zelda game on the hotel SNES service. I assumed they were all the same and thought he’d be scared; it ended up having a completely different reaction. This game was The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and it was excellent.
My mom and younger brother watched as I fumbled around the castle grounds in a rainstorm. It took our collective minds about fifteen minutes to figure out the secret entrance was under that bush – at this point, the timer was already up (the rate was 15 dollars for 15 minutes; not a good trade-off). It was too expensive to have another go, but it sure left an impact.
Fast forward a few years, to the release of the Gameboy Advance, and you now had me as a dumb little kid gamer. I was now the proud owner of Pokémon Crystal Version and the handheld adaptation of E.T. the Extraterrestrial (colloquially known as “the game that undersold so poorly most of the copies had to buried in the desert and which almost destroyed the entire gaming industry”). Needless to say, Pokémon got quite a bit more attention.
Imagine my surprise when I received the very same Zelda game we had all played together a few years ago in that hotel – now completely portable. Things led very quickly from getting A Link to the Past on the Gameboy Advance to reserving The Wind Waker on the Gamecube. The final nail in the coffin was receiving Ocarina of Time as a pre-order bonus – there’s just no way for a poor nine-year old to recover from getting Ocarina of Time thrown at them from nowhere. I was a gamer now.
A Link to the Past was a huge step up for the series. After a breathtaking introduction and a sequel that garnered mixed reception, Zelda lay dormant for about five years. Five years in which the NES lived out its incredibly successful late-term period, and in which both the SNES and Sega Genesis rose to dominance. As any gamer knows, half a decade is quite a gap in the gaming world – it was time for Zelda to return to the world stage in force.
A Golden Power
When most of my family sat down to play A Link to the Past on that rented SNES back in Nebraska on behalf of my little act of attempted evil, something hooked us all in immediately: the introduction. I had always perceived of video games as fun little time wasters with no substance. In this moment, that entire notion was turned on its head as a cinematic prologue set to a sweeping score told of a legend involving mystical sages, an ancient war, the greed of mankind, and the rise of a kingdom.
This prologue segues right into a dark and stormy night. Your Link is left item-less save for a small lantern which he carries through the typhoon, pleading the guards for information on his uncle. After playing so much with the fun physics and basic premise of Mario, it was shocking to be thrust into a game so focused on an overarching narrative; a game in which the beginning is spent in complete vulnerability.
The story of A Link to the Past may not be robust by today’s standards (in fact, it’s quite weak), but that initial opening was such an utter surprise – a completely unexpected and wholly welcome shock. It wasn’t until later, when playing the GBA version, that I truly got to experience the full story. Drawing the Master Sword for the first time was one of the most epic video game moments ever. Sure, Ocarina of Time may have done it in full 3D – but A Link to the Past got there first, six years beforehand.
I still remember the story fondly, even though now – with a novel and film-obsessed adult’s inappropriately large knowledge of how to craft fine narratives – I’m aware it’s objectively terrible. Now, Agahnim’s revelation as no more than a puppet of the even more evil Ganon is laughably, offensively cliché. But at age nine? That “evil-behind-the-evil” is the most earth-shattering and epic twist imaginable.
There’s a certain wholesomeness to the plot of A Link to the Past that’s difficult to place. Maybe it’s just the nostalgia seeping through – or perhaps it’s just the cheerful basicness of it all. Whatever the case, I know I enjoyed it immensely. What is objective study in the face of subjective opinion, anyway?
This Land is Your Land
Of course, the story wasn’t the star of the show – not really. It was the world; that wonderful kingdom of Hyrule. Traversing a large, open world was nothing new to me after playing Pokémon, but Zelda treated it so differently it felt more like a real adventure. There were no artificial battle scenes in which the characters were inexplicably warped to a blank dimension and took turns hurling magic blasts at each other. In the land of Hyrule, it’s just you and your sword…and your approximately 47 ½ random doohickeys and thingamajigs you pick up along the way.
The locales were also stunning. I actually got lost in the Lost Woods more than a couple times, and died quite a bit on Death Mountain. So maybe the nomenclature wasn’t exactly the most complex, but you couldn’t help but be sucked into this world. There was always something insanely wonderful hiding behind every corner, similar to Pokémon. The difference being here, instead of your umpteenth super potion, you’d find an invisibility cloak, or a medallion that causes earthquakes. Maybe even a buxom blonde fairy in a bikini.
Hyrule felt like a beautiful kingdom full of larger-than-life characters, ridiculous items and hideous monsters. It didn’t matter how technically small it was – it was my land. Your land. The land of any gamer who took up the cartridge and placed it in the console (maybe blew on it first to get it to work).
Dungeons and Dragons
What’s a Zelda game without dungeons, you theoretically ask? Nothing, I theoretically answer. Well, maybe not nothing – but significantly less. The dungeons of Zelda are what truly make up the core part of the gameplay, and A Link to the Past was the first game to really hone in on and perfect the dungeon concept.
Instead of being “levels” or “palaces”, the dungeons of this legendary third entry took on distinct themes and titles – a practice continued to this day. From the unearthly Palace of Darkness to the endless pitfalls of Turtle Rock, A Link to the Past truly delivered on the dungeon front.
Of course, you can’t have dungeons without dragons – no temple is complete without its monstrous protector. The bosses of A Link to the Past were wildly powerful in new and exhilarating ways. I still fondly remember the Trinexx battle as one of the pinnacles of the game.
A Link to the Past, or a Path to the Future?
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past exists in a strange position. As the title denotes, it was designed as both a return to the series’ roots and a game mired in the mythology of Hyrule’s ancient era. Yet, this very same attempt to return to the past would come to set the path for future Zelda games to come. Every major Zelda game since the release of this title has followed the “Zelda formula”, which was set in place for the first time here.
I’m also torn on the title in the end. On one hand, it’s not in my “top tier” of games in the series, and yet it’s probably the one I’m most blindly fond of (due entirely to nostalgia). But perhaps that’s just what the series needs to continue focusing on in the future – the quest to lay out a golden standard that inspires up-and-coming gamers to the possibilities the entire genre holds.