The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past
It takes a special kind of confidence for a game to only reveal its central conceit several hours into its course.
That’s exactly how A Link To The Past presents its dual world setup, first giving you, transformed into a pink rabbit, a taste of a mysterious somewhere, and then showing how it’s a mirror of the world you’ve just come from. Except it isn’t, quite.
LTTP also shows great confidence in allowing you to figure out for yourself the ways in which the two worlds differ. And, as you do, Hyrule opens up into a canvas of enormous and captivating possibility.
Ripe with puzzles and secrets that are never condescendingly spelt out for you, the map is a resource to pore over, every ridgeline and cliff face worth testing, every rock worth lifting. It’s hard to imagine how LTTP could be recreated quite as well in three dimensions, because its taut design is a document of the value in the unwavering gaze of two.
Knowing that every detail is laid out before you, LTTP’s designers made its intricate and multi-layered dungeons the apex of 2D level design. Much of this self-belief is down to it having confidence in you, a bond of enduring respect that lends LTTP a maturity that only now is beginning to fit its years.
Resident Evil 4
In the common mob, Capcom found something infinitely more terrifying than shambling monsters: hate, and the idea of casting the player as ‘un forastero’ – an outsider.
The opening of Resident Evil 4, a short series of straggled encounters and traps leading to a face-off against an entire village, sets a relentless pace that never lets up.
From here it’s all up for the player and down for Leon as gaming’s greatest rollercoaster picks up speed. The genius isn’t in the wicked imaginations behind the countless bizarre monsters and pantomime villains, though, but in the restraint with which they’re used: each given a short section that perfectly exploits their characteristics, and then discarded.
The structure is a masterpiece of variation, always combining and recombining enemies, your weapons and position, and one-off elements of the gameworld so no two fights play out in the same way.
Add to this the greatest lineup of bosses ever to roll off the Capcom production line, a mix of environments that runs from rural atavism to baroque vanity projects and the inevitable secret lab (complete with the series’ most terrifying enemy, the egenerator), and a script smart enough to play up the schlock factor.
Then imagine all of this in a beautiful Frankenstein’s monster where you can’t see the stitches. Irresistible.
And Episodic Content
Gordon Freeman is a floating gun. Sometimes he’s just a crowbar. He exists only in the reactions of others, his repertoire of self-expression locked within a reticule.
And yet, through Freeman, you’re rooted in a world with a conviction that almost no other game can claim.
Beyond the character chit-chat, the story of this world is riddled through the environments: from the draconian sterility of City 17 to the lonely roads of the coast, there are tales of desolation, atrocity and loss, never demanding your attention but pervading your unconscious.
And yet for all the high-minded accolades that are lavished upon its world-building, this is a game that revels in halving zombies with saw-blades. It’s easy to reflect on Valve’s achievements in quiet moments, but Half-Life 2’s combat, though mechanically aged, is no less brilliantly orchestrated.
That first rooftop flight; that protracted feud with a Combine chopper; that sudden, shattering encounter with a pack of Hunters as they effortlessly outflank you – adrenaline shunts into you with every spent shell.
In a genre that avariciously cannibalises itself, it’s remarkable that Half-Life 2’s strengths either remain unsurpassed or entirely its own – but with so many to choose from, perhaps other games just don’t know where to start.
Super Mario 64
Before Mario existed in 3D, there was a faceless, shapeless block.
Shigeru Miyamoto insisted that before there was a game, before gaming’s most famous character was recognisable, he had to be fun to control.
Super Mario 64 didn’t, as is often claimed, translate Mario from 2D to 3D. It built a new world around that block, invented a structure – the stars which gradually unlocked new areas to explore, the playpark hub world – that fitted it perfectly, and enlisted the industry’s most brilliantly surreal minds to make it feel real.
Why shouldn’t you jump into a painting to explore it, or a clock face, or a toy house Why should a world stay the same size, or a level be the same every time you enter it There’s no reason, of course, and there’s no rhyme to how it all slots together – from the carpet that travels on a rainbow to the castle’s secret slide.
Super Mario 64’s greatest achievement is how effortless it feels in the hands, how a child can spend hours running around the first level, and an adult can do exactly the same.
It’s that rarest of combinations: intoxicatingly deep and imaginative, as simple as cause and reaction, and consistently surprising until the very last star. Over a decade and countless imitators later, that first venture into 3D is still breathtaking.
The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time
Over a decade after release, The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time has achieved a distinction reserved for a true classic.
It’s been forgotten. Writing about it garners nothing but grandiose adverbs and scattered memories of Hyrule Field. It’s ‘unquestionably’ and (even better) ‘indefinably’ great.
Deserved or not, opaque hyperbole doesn’t help explain why Ocarina works so well now, particularly in terms of it being a big-budget adventure in a technology-driven industry.
To be blunt, if you want sunsets look at Far Cry 2; if you want advanced animations then play with Assassin’s Creed. Visually and procedurally, Ocarina can’t compete.
They’re not small considerations – the drop in resolution alone from current standards to an N64 is huge – and yet here it is. There’s a difference between dazzle and brilliance. Sophistication – it’s the most important concept in videogame design, the balance and blending of function, fun and feedback into a coherent environment.
Ocarina understands how people play games, the curiosity that weighs up cause and effect, the importance of the player’s own impulses in creating entertainment…
An in-depth, six-page article examining the enduring triumph of Ocarina of Time can be found in Edge Issue 200. An abridged version will be published here soon.