Retrospective: The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past

Link to the past

Format: SNES Publisher: Nintendo Developer: In-house Release:1993

There’s something about viewing a Zelda game from above. Shigeru Miyamoto has famously said that the N64’s Ocarina Of Time – which appeared seven long years after this, its home console predecessor, was released in 1991 – was how Zelda had always looked in his head. The implication was that Ocarina was the world of Hyrule made flesh, finally realised as it was always intended to be, and that 2D instalments of the great series were literally a pale shadow of their later selves.

And yet top-down Zelda has refused to die, still outnumbering the 3D games. A Link To The Past was followed by the Game Boy classic Link’s Awakening, possibly the most beautifully designed game of the entire series, an epic adventure distilled to just 160×144 pixels. Capcom subsidiary Flagship was drafted in to help create the Oracles companion games and the cute Minish Cap for GBC and GBA respectively. The GameCube invited 2D Zelda back to the TV for the riotous multiplayer reinterpretation in Four Swords Adventures, while the DS Zeldas, Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, forced a 3D world into the old overhead view. Most recently, A Link Between Worlds acted as a homage to this SNES classic.

Of course, its suitability for handhelds is the main reason for the survival of this format, but it’s not the only one. Something it’s easy to forget about 2D Zeldas if you haven’t played one since Ocarina is just how fast they are. For all A Link To The Past’s grand scale – it was the first SNES game to stretch itself out across a whole, luxurious megabyte – it’s a rapid, taut little action game to boot, bustling with enemies and pacy, button-mashing combat. Link can race from one side of the map to the other in a couple of minutes. These days, the rule is that the more complex, detailed and large an adventure game world is, the more languid and involved the style of play. In that context, A Link To The Past’s blend of arcade immediacy and fathomless depth is an utter delight, a miracle of a bygone age.

This is, of course, a mission to rescue a princess – but the game’s dual realms ensure that it’s really not that simple.

It’s the flipside of Miyamoto’s comment: A Link To The Past is the romantic epic condensed, codified, rendered with maximum efficiency in a bewitching tangle of sprites and icons that teem with life. It’s Zelda concentrate, a powerful and heady dose of something videogames once excelled at, but have almost forgotten how to do: magically shrink whole worlds with the sheer power of imagination.

And what a world was shrunk. Play A Link To The Past immediately after Ocarina and you’ll be stunned to discover how incredibly close in conception the two games are. Every single side of Hyrule is there in the earlier game: the pastoral bliss, the rugged wilderness, the pathos and comedy and humanity, the spellbinding mystery. A Link To The Past, it turns out, didn’t just pin down the formula for 2D Zeldas that would keep them going for another 15 years. It defined the entire series, 3D games too. It painstakingly mapped out the rules and legends of videogaming’s most intricate and enduring creation, for all of us to look down upon, and marvel at.

The single most important practical innovation it brought over the first Legend Of Zelda was probably the multi-level dungeon. It doesn’t sound impressive, but the addition of several floors was effectively the series’ move into 3D before the fact. Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka and their designers instantly began to explore extremely complex spatial relationships and exploit the potential to turn dungeons into huge layered puzzles, the equivalent of tongue-twisters for the mind’s eye.

But they had an even more grandiose meta-puzzle in mind, one that would become a thematic and design cornerstone of the series. Link’s unexpected transportation to the Dark World halfway through A Link To The Past introduced to Zelda the concept of two parallel realms, and the series would never look back. Ocarina and Twilight Princess copied it almost verbatim with their desolate future and shadow realms. Minish Cap put a new dimensional twist on it with the ability to shrink Link to microscopic size. Oracle Of Ages and Seasons actually went as far as splitting the two worlds into two separate game cartridges, connected by the slender thread of data exchange. And those games that didn’t actually use two worlds in their design still relied heavily on the concept in their stories. The Wind Waker and Majora’s Mask both seemed to take place exclusively in an alternate universe, with the ‘true’ Hyrule of Ocarina lying over everything (or, more accurately in Wind Waker’s case, underneath its seas) like a shadow.

As Link’s bag of tricks expands, his access to the worldmap extends ever further – and then, there’s that twist.

The genius of the Dark World is that it has a tremendous impact on A Link To The Past on two distinct levels, appropriately enough. It’s a heavy emotional sucker-punch, a one-two combination of wonder and fear at being transported to its grimy, sinister, mocking world where everything is the same, and yet opposite. It stalks you with a vision of what should happen to Hyrule if you fail, and indulges a taste for the bleak and malicious and misanthropic that so rarely gets an outlet in Nintendo’s games.

But the Dark World adds an incalculable amount to the design of the game’s overworld, too. Actually, scratch that, its contribution can be calculated exactly: it doubles it. Once the ability to move between them is discovered, the relationship between light and dark worlds becomes an obsessive fascination, the source of countless mind-bending puzzles that literally tear the fabric of the game apart and put it back together again. It’s the ultimate expression of what makes Zelda games so endlessly absorbing and satisfying to play. If A Link To The Past is ‘just’ the best Zelda in two dimensions, then that’s nothing to be ashamed of: it’s one more than most games have.