Gaming Memories: A Link to the Past

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list (and possibly beyond), and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

I can still hear The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. The pitter-patter of footsteps in the sewers. The swing of Link’s sword. Picking up a pot. Transitioning between light and dark worlds. Hitting a switch in a dungeon. Going up and down stairs, jumping in the water, firing the bow. The cry of a defeated boss. And the music. Gosh, the music. I can still hear all of it as if I was playing A Link to the Past right now. There aren’t many games I can say that for, but A Link to the Past is special. It’s a game that remains with me so many years later, as deeply as any game I’ve played. It’s a game I have a hard time not getting a little mushy about.

I know this place like the back of my hand.
I know this place like the back of my hand.

I imagine most of us have a handful of clear inflection points in our individual gaming histories, and A Link to the Past is one of mine. It showed me just how ambitious games can be, as its scope was heads and shoulders above anything I had played to that point. It took place in a single large, connected world, rather than across a series of self-contained levels. You collected a spread of interesting items that had many uses across said world. Numerous enemies, bosses, and dungeons tested your smarts just as much as your skill with a sword. There were countless secrets that felt magical, as if anything was possible; I came to expect the unexpected. This created a virtual space I wanted to actively poke and prod every corner of. It turned the focus towards a process of discovery, of learning the rules and intricacies of a world I had never been to. Unearthing surprising interactions remains one of my favorite things about video games at large, and A Link to the Past is full of them. You can identify hidden breakable walls by the sound your sword makes when it clangs against them? One enemy type turns into a helpful fairy if you sprinkle magic powder on it? Throwing your boomerang into a specific pond will produce a better boomerang? Such interactions may seem obtuse on the surface, but taken together they cultivate a mindset of curiosity and experimentation. It's that exact mindset that makes systems-driven and/or open world games so popular today, in 2018. But A Link to the Past was doing it in 1992, and it was the first time I thought about games that way.

That’s not to say A Link to the Past isn’t an extremely well-crafted game by traditional standards either, because it most certainly is. The Legend of Zelda series is regularly considered one of gaming’s best, and A Link to the Past exemplifies all of the series’ most positive traits. It remains a masterclass of game design, one of those rare games you point to and say "it does everything right." It controls well, it has a look that was stunning at the time (and still works today), and its soundtrack remains among gaming’s most iconic. Its world is meticulously crafted to afford the player ample room to explore and experiment, but offers just enough direction to not be completely overwhelming. The light world-dark world dynamic is an incredibly clever twist. There’s a great variety of enemies and bosses, and a progression of items and difficulty that feels right. The dungeons are full of great puzzles that test your spatial awareness, with rooms assembled just so to provide a consistently rewarding challenge. It’s the rare game that I find enjoyable to engage with throughout, without ever dragging or feeling tedious. Given the scope of A Link to the Past compared to games of that era, it’s hard to convey just how impressive that was at the time.

Did I mentioned A Link to the Past has many excellent dungeons?
Did I mentioned A Link to the Past has many excellent dungeons?

And still is. I revisited A Link to the Past earlier in 2018, for the first time in over a decade, and I was struck yet again by how well it holds up. This is the game that codified the template that would see one of gaming’s most defining franchises through decades of successful sequels, and looking back I can’t help but feel this particular entry stands the test of time better than any of them. Its freedom and sense of discovery is somewhat dulled in many of the sequels; consider how you can tackle some dungeons in any order, how some bosses and puzzles have multiple solutions, or how it’s confident enough to not tutorialize every detail. On the other end, A Link to the Past is never as obtuse as the original Zelda; you never have to resort to burning down random trees to find the next dungeon. Different people are going to land at different places on the Zelda spectrum, but to me, A Link to the Past hits a sweet spot of being neither too obtuse nor too directed. Aside from being a remarkably well-designed game in all aspects, that’s what stuck out to me more than anything when I revisited this classic again after so many years. Not many games, Zelda or otherwise, hold up this well for this long.

Zelda games have predominantly been, first and foremost, about a young boy going on a big adventure. Shigeru Miyamoto himself has talked about his inspiration for the series coming from his own explorations of caves, hillsides, and forests as a kid. A Link to the Past was my first Zelda game. And it was my first big video game adventure. Games have certainly grown in size in the decades since, but A Link to the Past was the one that made me realize just how big they could truly be; how much they could spark the imagination and provide spaces to explore, discover, and learn. I never looked at video games and their potential the same way in its wake. A Link to the Past is an important link to my own past, and defined how I viewed the entire medium going forward.

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