While it’s easy to go back and review an old game that you never played or cared much for in the past, reviewing an old game that you grew up on presents a small challenge. My play experience differs from that of other due to having the innate knowledge of how to solve every single puzzle programmed into my cerebellum, and I’d be degrading a part of my childhood if I were to denigrate the game in question. Likewise, if I praise the game too much, then I could be accused of being nostalgic, and I hate the idea of blowing smoke up the ass of a game that already has the collective gaming industry giving it a chimney stack enema. So, I found myself replaying the game, trying not to take for granted aspects that I used to, breaking old gameplay habits and asking myself “if someone who never played this before started now, how would they react?”
After all, what good is it to say “well this game is an innovator, the first to have so-and-so” if players have already experienced so-and-so, but better utilized in other games. The overall impact a game has had on the industry means little to the uninitiated player trying it out for the first time.
So, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
I really couldn’t tell you what the overall story of the game really is, other than the critical points. Young boy discovers he has a fate-based connection to the “hero of legend” and must rescue Princess Zelda, the Triforce and two realms from Ganon, or Ganon in disguise. It’s kind of funny actually, that Ganon, an evil sorcerer, assumes the alter-ego of “Agahnim”, an evil sorcerer. That’s like Marv Albert disguising himself as Al Michaels. There is an excess of backstory; a lot of talk about ancient knights, wisemen, maidens, golden lands, and that I’ve played this game dozens of times over in my lifetime and still couldn’t give you an honest account of the mythos is an indication of how much insignificant plot is present. Most of the time, this story is told in some kind of explanation from any number of rescued maiden-crystal persons and ultimately accounts for nothing in the grand scheme of life.
There’s a good amount of text reading involved when it comes to story. Though I’ll take being able to mash the A button the scroll through dialogue over the unskippable cutscenes of Ocarina of Time any time. The actual dialogue isn’t terrible, mind you, and most NPC characters, when not running at you with a blade in front of them, will often give you hints on how to progress or find treasures. That’s an aspect on A Link to the Past that I do like; the game will try to point you in the right direction without holding your hand. You can always resort to your map to find out where the dungeons are, but you’ll be left to your own devices (as well as whatever text gossip you may find) on how to get there.
Oh, and there’s a light and dark world dynamic. While A Link to the Past was the first to use the two alternate realms concept, it’s since been seen in far too many Nintendo games, including of the Zelda breed. Other games make more thorough use of the “do something here and it affects something there” dichotomy, which may actually be to this game’s benefit, as it means less time travelling between realms fidgeting with every tile in the virtual landscape, trying to find the right passage. Also, the “Dark World” in this game is far more interesting than in subsequent games in that it’s not just a “darker, more evil” version of the “Light Realm”. Knights become knight-pigs, a person is transformed into a headbanging shrub and trees have faces with elephant trunks that spit bombs at you; this game was definitely designed at the ’s creative phase (drug-induced or otherwise). As a result, exploring the two realms becomes a joy, as I found myself looking forward to exploring the alternate realms.
That said, if I have one small complaint, it’s that you never reap the benefits of your hard work. The whole idea is that the “Dark World” is this once legendary landscape transformed by Ganon. Yet once you stick an apple in the pig’s mouth and roast him, you never get to see the reformed “golden land”. The actual ending comprises entirely of the NPCs from the Light World celebrating the liberation of a dimension that has no bearing on their existence.
This is a 2D Zelda, meaning a couple of things. One is that you’re never standing still, manually aiming your bow and arrow, or fumbling with a targeting system as you dance and cartwheel around a single enemy. The other being that the game is viewed from a top-down perspective. Link moves a tad slow (well I guess he’s quick considering how his legs are about a quarter-inch tall) and can only attack what’s in front of him. As a result, the “combat”, if you will, becomes a methodical affair, as you find yourself striking down enemies while avoiding assorted projectiles and threats. This is actually a tougher game than it may appear; later dungeons have rooms filled with enemies that’ll rip your heart(s) out if you’re not careful. While the bosses generally have a single method to defeat, you’re given free reign to be creative with your typical henchpigs.
For this is a Zelda game, and one of the trademarks of a Zelda game is to start out with nothing and collect more toys as you progress. And unlike later games (and boy did Wind Waker botch this), items don’t have a singular, context-sensitive use. You can use the Fire Rod, for example, to light torches and burn up enemies, at the expense of your Magic Meter. And you’ll collect the lion’s share worth of offensive and defensive items, some of which are optional and can be missed out on if you’re not exploring or paying attention to character hints.
And one thing I noticed on this recent playthrough is that the game isn’t entirely linear. Granted, there are some areas that are inaccessible without key items, but you have a limited degree of freedom to tackle challenges in the order you see fit. I found myself neglecting the second Dark World dungeon when I noticed I could survive just fine without the Hookshot, regardless of how blasphemous such a statement may be. Dungeons all have a general solution in terms of how they are to be navigated, but you’re never told how or what, and are thus made to explore and toy with your surroundings.
I played the Game Boy Advance “update” of A Link to the Past previously and found all of the changes, the simplified dungeons, the voice-samples, the sprite tweaks, to all be jarring, forced and uncomfortable. So I’m glad to see that the Wii Virtual Console release is indeed a straight port of the SNES game.
Surprisingly (or maybe not), A Link to the Past is still great, so long as you’re not sick of the Zelda clichés that later games help beat to death. If anything, the less linear nature of the action-adventure game actually feel like I was on a grand adventure, a notion that most games seem to miss by a country mile. Really, this game’s biggest threat is Nintendo, and how many of the gameplay conventions here have since been repeated ad nauseam in later games. But if you’re not sick of collecting the Hookshot time in and time out, this is well worth the ten odd dollars you’ll spend on the Virtual Console.