Greetings, old-school gamers, and welcome to Retro Rundown! Every other Friday, I pick a classic video game from my collection – I’m defining “classic” as “PS2 era and earlier” at this point (I know, it makes me feel old too) – and give it the Big Brother treatment, exploring the game’s history, themes, and legacy. I’ll even throw in a few personal memories with the game along the way, and see if I can touch on the shared experiences that make so many of us remember it fondly.
There’s a new Zelda game coming out, and some of the Nerds foaming at the mouth over it! (Seriously, Scott, there’s foam on my couch and I expect you to pay for the cleaning.) Old man gamer that I am, I lost track of the series a long time ago – I’m ashamed to admit that I even missed Ocarina of Time the first time around, a beloved retro game in itself that doesn’t quite hold up mechanically by today’s standards (so I’m out of luck on capturing the magic that made people think it was the best game ever for some time). But that isn’t to say that I’m not a fan of the franchise; in fact, Zelda and I go all the way back to the original release! Today, in honor of the upcoming Breath of the Wild – and because I’ve been on something of a Super Nintendo RPG kick lately – I’m covering my favorite title in the series: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past!
The original Legend of Zelda, released for the NES in 1986, was conceived by Nintendo head Shigeru Miyamoto as the antithesis of Super Mario Bros., as it emphasized free exploration rather than linear gameplay – a theme that would recur throughout the series. After the successful but polarizing Zelda II: The Adventure of Link the next year, it was a given that Nintendo would continue this (secondary) flagship series into the SNES era and beyond. Nintendo spent a comparatively large amount of time developing its first 16-bit Zelda offering, ultimately culminating in A Link to the Past in 1992.
A Link to the Past was very much a return to the gameplay of the original, bringing back the overhead view and scrapping the side-scrolling from its predecessor. But the more advanced hardware and generous development cycle allowed director Takashi Tezuka – an unsung hero of Nintendo who’s been working in one capacity or another on beloved Mario and Zelda titles all the way back to their earliest days – to focus far more on story and (to a lesser extent) characterization than was possible in the “single line of dialogue” 8-bit titles where the action and puzzles were basically the whole game. There were also more complex puzzles and a wider range of tools at the player’s disposal, both extensions of some of the key elements of the original game.
LttP is particularly noteworthy in the series’s lore because it marks the inception of the nonlinear – or, less charitably, “insane” – timeline. The first two games were pretty straightforward: Ganon does something bad to Princess Zelda, Link makes it right and defeats him. This game does follow the blueprint, with a couple extra wrinkles, but is actually a prequel to the first two games where *this* Link meets *this* Zelda for the first time. Oh, and this is only one of three possible timelines in the Zelda universe, the one where an earlier Link is defeated by an earlier Ganon. We didn’t know any of this in ’92, since this was the first title to actually give us any significantly fleshed-out story, but every subsequent release would add to the complexity of the saga.
A Link to the Past introduced many elements to the Zelda series that are present to this day, whether they were tools in the hero’s inventory (the hookshot and Pegasus boots), upgrades to the hero’s strength (four Pieces of Heart would boost the life meter), or aspects of the world itself (parallel “Light” and “Dark” Worlds that affected one another). Despite the more detailed story, it didn’t lose its focus on action. Combat is intuitive and fun, and almost every item Link picks up adds to that in some way. The action puzzles aren’t quite ingenious, but they’re fun to solve and they utilize that omnipresent exploration well, and returning to previously visited areas with new equipment often yields a worthwhile reward. As in the previous games, boss fights are a highlight, since you need to figure out the correct combination of weapons to get around their unique defenses, and plenty of time was put into the design of each baddie.
The plot of this specific Zelda game starts with Link receiving a psychic cry for help from Princess Zelda, who’s been imprisoned by the treacherous wizard Agahnim after he took control of the royal guard. Following his uncle into the castle’s depths to rescue the damsel, Link finds him incapacitated (not dead, because a mainstream Nintendo-produced game still had to pull its punches a little bit in the early ’90s) and takes up his sword to begin the adventure. Players learn the ever-expanding game mechanics as they traverse the world to retrieve the three pendants that will allow them to obtain the Master Sword (another first appearance) and defeat Agahnim. But here, the game pulls a memorable bait-and-switch; rather than going quietly into the night, the dark wizard succeeds in his plan, opening a rift that pulls Zelda and Link into the Dark World – once the Sacred Realm, now twisted by his alter ego Ganon’s evil desires. This is one of the early instances of a fake-out ending at roughly the halfway point in a game, and it really showed off the Super Nintendo’s memory capacity.
The exploration theme in play here wasn’t simply a matter of finding new places in the vast world of Hyrule as in previous games; the story also featured more complex themes like the examination of one’s own psyche and a Dark World that brings out one’s true self, usually to their detriment. We encounter characters that are transformed into demonic beings or even inanimate objects with little sense of self, based on the darkness that was hiding inside them before they found a way into the Dark World in search of power and became unable to escape it. There’s a certain hopelessness in these side stories that sticks out amidst the otherwise childish fun of the game, a common occurrence in games that have really stood the test of time.
Like many other children of the ’90s, I was sucked into A Link to the Past and became obsessed with it for a time. For some reason, I actually hooked the SNES through our VCR (an early recording device for TVs, kids) and recorded my own gameplay for about an hour – an early version of a Let’s Play, if you will! I also loved reading Nintendo Power magazine’s series of comics that took place in the game and expanded the story a bit; for kids everywhere, this fueled the fire of the game’s popularity and the demand for more and more Zelda titles (which hasn’t died down to this day).
One of the coolest things about this game is the abundance of secret areas, and the best one became a legend that wasn’t fully understood until nearly 30 years after its release: A young man named Chris Houlihan won a contest to get his name in the game, and it’s located in a secret room that can only be accessed under specific circumstances that almost nobody found before actually looking into the game’s code. It’s possible that the infamous Easter egg in Batman: Arkham Asylum took its inspiration from this story – let’s put a secret in our game that only the most obsessive players can find!
The game sold 4.5 million copies in the US, making it another big hit for Nintendo and one that every self-respecting Nintendo kid had in their collection. Finding a cartridge today is an interesting case of supply and demand, because there’s plenty of both; today, the price of the game alone has settled at around $30, a bargain for a serious collector! It received an excellent port to the Game Boy Advance in 2002 that added a separate multiplayer game mode called Four Swords Adventures, which is available for closer to $20, but you probably want to go with the original to get the authentic console experience.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past consistently appears on lists of top SNES games, and is frequently mentioned along with the best games of all time. In my opinion, A Link to the Past compares favorably to a game like Ocarina of Time, which is dated considerably by its blocky graphics and experimental gameplay despite coming out later. It’s hard to say that Nintendo execs knew this at the time, but every design decision has contributed to the game only becoming more beloved in retrospect; in particular, the epic music and bright, cartoony-but-not-too-cartoony visuals make it a timeless experience with broad appeal, rendering the game’s title remarkably prescient. In the end, LttP captures everything we loved about games in our childhood – and easily earns its place in the hearts of gamers.
That’s it for this issue of Retro Rundown! If you enjoyed it, please check out additional offerings from yours truly. If you have a strong opinion about other games I should revisit in this series, hit up the Dashing Nerds on Twitter or Facebook, or leave a comment below!