Much as with the original The Legend of Zelda, the series’ SNES release, A Link to the Past, is one of those classic, “greatest-of-all-time” games that I’d simply never sat down and beaten. I figured it was time to change that.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (3DS, GBA, SNES [reviewed], Switch, Wii, Wii U)
Released Nov 1991 | Developed / Published: Nintendo
Genre: Action-Adventure | HLTB: 15 hours
If I was going to try and sum up A Link to the Past, it would probably be as The Legend of Zelda done the way I think that game was originally intended; that is, if one could delve into the mind of the developers as they were creating and imagining that first entry, something like A Link to the Past might well have been bubbling away there. I’m not sure what other praise I could give A Link to the Past that would eclipse that. This game is widely considered, alongside the first game, as among the best of the franchise, as well as one of the best video games of all time. Like with The Legend of Zelda I suspect that if you grew up with this game as one of the formative moments in your childhood then it presumably resonated strongly. Frankly, who could blame you though; seeing A Link to the Past for the first time back in the early ‘90s must have been mind-blowing.
It stands as a testament to the triumph and the power of the SNES. All the concerns I voiced about the changing context of the way in which we experience the original The Legend of Zelda are gone. While A Link to the Past naturally still belongs to the age of manuals and swapping tips and experiences with friends in person, the game is also completely accessible because everything necessary to play can be found within the game. One button now brings up a full map of Hyrule, but crucially it doesn’t display a ton of information, which works to preserve the sense of exploration that the original game sought so hard to cultivate. From a patient gaming perspective it might seem like a barren map screen given it neglects to hint at what is hidden across the world but that’s part of its greatest strength: its game world, while pretty impressive for SNES standards, is actually reasonably compact and it’s not that much of a stretch to expect its players to sink in to the world and get lost in exploration. NPCs now have tons of useful dialogue, obliquely pointing ways towards uncovering secrets, and the game actively encourages you to investigate oddities in the world; if it looks a bit strange, like a path leading to a dead end and a waterfall, or a pointedly placed rock in a stone circle, then it’s almost certain to contain a secret waiting to be uncovered.
A Link to the Past thrives best when its players want to engage with that sense of discovery. However, given how hard it can be, the lure of guides is almost inescapable, if only to feel like you’re making progress. It does feel like a much more well-balanced game than its predecessors, at least, but it retains some of the arcade-style difficulty of the NES era; at points the screen can be absolutely swamped with enemies, and you’ll find yourself struggling to spin Link around into a position where you can avoid taking damage. In general I found unless I needed to refill resources, sometimes the only good move to make was to leg it to the next screen. That’s not always possible in dungeons, of course, and as great as some dungeons felt, a fair few felt like exercises in frustration; if I never have to fight Moldorm again I’ll be supremely grateful.
For all the times I found myself harrumph-ing in annoyance, I can’t deny I had a great time with A Link to the Past. It really does feel like the perfect realisation of the mechanics and ideas found in the original game. The foundations remain very much the same; the game is presented from a top-down angle, and is built in self-contained “screens”, so reaching the border of one triggers the transition to the next. This helps players to retain an awareness of what they’re going to expect in each screen, as you can’t be pursued between them. Link can swing his sword to attack, and carries a shield to automatically block frontal blows, but your enemies are multitudinous and need a variety of strategies to defeat; your sword might take out most, but it’s not always the most efficient method. Thankfully, you can amass an absolute armory of extra items, from Zelda staples like bombs and a boomerang, to more esoteric, often magical, paraphernalia. The items Link accrues in A Link to the Past manage to feel a little more flavourful than in the original game. There’s no ladder or raft here; instead most of the stuff Link crams into his bottomless backpack are along the lines of wizardly staves and medallions of great and terrible power, which helps cement the fantasy feeling of this incarnation of Hyrule, and indeed for the games to come.
A Link to the Past also does a lot more work in the story department than The Legend of Zelda. We’re treated to a proper introduction cutscene this time around, as an evil sorcerer named Agahnim invades Hyrule, capturing the castle and sending soldiers across the world to hunt down Princess Zelda. This game is much heavier on exposition than the first, but I’m a big fan of that; I love the increased focus on the story, although the actual beats that the plot makes aren’t especially expanded upon. Instead, much of the narration is concerned with past events and the lore from which the game’s events are built on, which creates a fantastic sense of scale as the unfolding reign of Agahnim is put into the in-universe context of the history of Hyrule. It makes sense for this game to be chiefly lost in its own past as well – this is A Link to the Past, after all – and in doing so it builds the feeling of being a small piece in a wider, grander cascade of events. You might perhaps feel like the prophesied hero is a played-out trope, but I suspect even the most jaded of fantasy fans will find something to enjoy in this game; there’s nothing cynical about it, but instead A Link to the Past is beautifully earnest in its commitment to its own triumphant swords-and-sorcery ideals.
This game is also the origin point for one of the Zelda franchise’s most enduring gimmicks: the other world. This is the first game which sees Link have to adventure across both his own world and a twisted Dark World, which is replete with scarier monsters and more deadly dungeons. Discovering the Dark World lacks the impact I feel it should as you sort of phase through it incidentally on the way to an early game dungeon, but once the game makes a more concerted effort to throw you into dungeons there you get to experience it a little more fully, and it doesn’t disappoint. I love that the two worlds are so strongly linked; sometimes things you do in one will affect the other, and often to get to the game’s most hidden secrets you have to hop between them in order to manipulate your location on the overworld. It’s also in the Dark World where the game’s plot properly begins to unfold, and Link gets bombarded with the ancient history that informs and shapes the narrative, reinforcing the sense that the Dark World is a glimpse into the terrible future which awaits Hyrule should Link fail in his quest.
There’s no doubt that A Link to the Past retains a lot of love from certain members of the Zelda fandom, and much like the original game, it is still honestly easy to see why. However, whereas the first game is, I think, a game that is best perhaps best experienced by folks who are more used to tackling older games, or indeed are more comfortable with mapping out their own experience or seeking a guide for direction, A Link to the Past manages to remain a brilliantly accessible entry point for the franchise. The SNES visual style has seen a resurgence in recent years among indie gaming culture, and even without that it is still gorgeous, with vibrant and clear graphics filtered through an almost cartoonish style which keeps it a timeless joy. The controls are still tight and responsive, and the dungeons have more personality than any of the entries before, making them stand out in a way the original’s couldn’t hope to do. On top of it all, it’s far easier to sink into the excellent fantasy story, and to really feel like you are Link, embarking on his perilous quest across worlds to save Princess Zelda.
6/7 – EXCELLENT.
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.