Reevaluating The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past2019/09/19
I first played The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past with its 2003 port to the Game Boy Advance, already familiar with the series through my much loved copies of Ocarina of Time and Link's Awakening (and the lesser loved but still very good Oracle of Ages). Several years and a handful of attempts later, with the promise of an unfinished Zelda always luring me back, the furthest I'd ever managed to reach was the ever frustrating moth-like boss of the Skull Woods, the third dungeon of the game's more sizeable second half. Eventually I conceded that the game simply wasn't for me, unsmitten by its undulating hills, bulbous trees and acid green grass, a world too far removed from the near perfection of my beloved Koholint Island. I resigned it to incompletion, but as the release of the Link's Awakening remake for Nintendo Switch loomed, bringing with it a surge in love for a series close to my heart, the presence of the SNES classic through the Switch Online service - and with the appealing prospect of save states to help deal with my overgrown moth nemesis - was too much to ignore. Here was my moment to reevaluate a game held as a series highlight whose magic had always been lost on me, and this time I would see it through to completion!
Unfortunately it has done little to change my mind.
A Link To The Past is often heralded as the game that defined Zelda, as the origin of the series proper, but other than the music it's a point on which I have to disagree. To me the game is decidedly prototypical, ranking alongside its preceding NES games, and while transitionary it still isn't until Ocarina of Time where the series fully finds its own unique identity. That game, and other later games in the series, help me explain my reasoning through comparison.
First let us examine the game structure, and the way in which the world unveils itself to the player. Taking Ocarina as the gold standard, in that game you begin in Kokiri forest, a far and distant corner of Hyrule disconnected from the outside world. Simply leaving the forest is a huge step that happens several hours in, and the world is as new to Link as it is to the player. Castle Town and Hyrule Castle is an impressive first destination, but only the beginning of an adventure which eventually sees Link exploring such disparate and apparently distant locations as Death Mountain, Lake Hylia and the Gerudo Desert. It's not just geographical locations though, but places - Kakariko Village, Goron City, Zora's Domain, Gerudo's Fortress. There is a whole kingdom of settlements to discover, all slowly uncovered through the game's first act (and then cleverly recontextualised and rediscovered in the second). This exploration and discovery has become a series staple, an important half of the Zelda formula that people miss when it is no longer present.
In contrast against Ocarina of Time, in A Link To The Past you begin in the centre of the map. The world isn't laid out before you but around you, right there in all directions. This works well in games like Majora's Mask where the central location is also a hub of progression, but Link's house in A Link To The Past is not that. Far from a hub like Clock Town or Skyloft, you only actually need return to it once in the guise of its Dark World alter-ego (and even that I found irksome). It's notable that in A Link Between Worlds, the quasi-sequel to A Link To The Past on the 3DS, Link's House is recontextualised as Ravio's rental shop, giving it that much needed recurrence, the place where you arm yourself with the equipment needed to tackle the world in any order of your choosing - a design decision also befitting of the map-centred start. A Link To The Past in comparison follows a set order of progress. Hyrule Castle serves as a tutorial, immediately followed by Kakariko Village - the only settlement in the game (if you combine it with its dark world counterpoint, a not unfair stance to take). Worse than simply lacking in new places to discover, Kakariko Village is also only new to the player - the people there already know Link, so in-game there is no sense of discovery and it introduces a disconnect between the player and protagonist. Far from defining the series, this is actually a step back from Zelda II which took a decidedly RPG approach with its multiple towns and villages new to Link and player alike.
So there aren't any new settlements to discover - what about geographical places? Unfortunately there too A Link To The Past is found wanting. Not only is it a very small world, but it's almost all instantly explorable. Most of the overworld can be visited before entering the first dungeon. Compare to Link's Awakening's strict metroidvania-like design, where each dungeon item allows further advancement across Koholint Island, in A Link To The Past it is only the world's secrets that are locked behind progress. This contributes to how small the world feels, when it is ungated and instantly knowable. Metroidvania design works best for me because I remember those places I can't yet reach. In A Link To The Past it's not places you can't reach, but individual stones you can't lift, or ends of caves you can't quite get to. It's secret hunting, not world exploring. It also means the game lacks balance between overworld exploration and dungeon. Instead the world exploration is front-loaded, and the later game becomes a dungeon-rush where you can quite literally exit one dungeon and warp to the next, with no explorative gameplay to break things up. That is antithetical to what has become the established rhythm of Zelda games.
Secret hunting is a good way of describing A Link To The Past and is what makes it most similar to the original The Legend of Zelda on the NES. The approach these games take can be very rewarding when you stumble upon something of your own accord, it actually feeling like a genuine discovery, more-so than when a game directs the player down a preordained path of progress. Unfortunately much of it is also obtuse, with a great temptation to refer to a guide rather than wander aimlessly around the world hoping to happen across the next secret. A Link To The Past's greatest problem is in making many of these obtuse secrets mandatory for completing the game.
Getting the flute is a great example because it's also one of my favourite quests in A Link To The Past. The game does a very good job in setting up the mystery - as you enter the clearing where the flute is hidden you see the flutist's ghost disappear and the animals he held captive scatter. That sets a clear flag in the player's head that there is something here to discover, a flag that prompts the player to return once they can access the dark world. The related quest respects the player's autonomy in talking to an old man in the bar in the nearby Kakariko Village, and the small story the game tells with such few elements feels sincere. Yet the actual uncovering of the flute has a propensity for annoyance. Its resolution is in the player warping into the light world and digging to unearth the instrument, but having no clue as to its specific location this can quickly turn to frustration and even doubt over this being the intended solution. There is no indication of exactly where in the glade the flute is buried so it becomes an exercise in trial and error, one that had me resort to a guide as I myself started to doubt I was doing the right thing having dug in the more obvious locations. The satisfaction in the puzzle design is in thinking to dig, but the execution in forcing the player through said trial and error is unjustified, a lack of signposting without merit. Progress hidden behind secret hunting.
There are other puzzles I like in the game, like obtaining the Book of Mudora or using the magic spell Ether to open the entrance to Misery Mire, a later game dungeon. These puzzles are good because they are hinted at, as with the book being obviously perched on top of a bookcase so that you might think to try and knock it down, and with the pattern recognition involved with using Ether as its symbol is drawn into the environment. Unfortunately there are other secrets in the game not so easily solved and less easily discovered, such as obtaining the gold sword and silver arrows required for beating the game. While I can bemoan the overabundance of hand-holding in more modern games, something even later Zelda titles have fallen foul of, there is a limit to favouring player autonomy that A Link To The Past too often crosses into the frustratingly obscure. In the absence of contemporaneous playground gossip a guide feels necessary to the enjoyment of the game.
Returning to the (lack of) settlements in A Link To The Past I also feel a need to complain about the size and design of Kakariko Village. It's a sprawling location, taking up a considerable portion of the overworld, unfortunately most of it unjustified. There are buildings and characters that could be cut from the game entirely, and the grid-like layout does nothing for directing the player's attention to what is most important. Compare that to the much smaller and more densely packed Mabe village in Link's Awakening, also more organic in its arrangement, or the superbly designed Skyloft of Skyward Sword that centres itself on the bazaar and is deliberately engaging to simply traverse. While as a location A Link To The Past defines what will become a series staple, it lacks the interesting character of the place itself, comparing infavourably against all future iterations.
On characters too A Link To The Past is still stuck in the "old men hiding in caves" approach of the original game of the series. This perhaps is my main reason for calling the game a proto-zelda, more-so than even the lack of exploration between dungeons or secret-hunting design, because it's so immediately visible and with a disproportionate effect on the identity of the world of Hyrule. The number of shops especially found inside caves, and their layout of a shopkeeper standing by three items sitting on the floor, feels so unforgivingly like a NES throwback, as if these characters themselves are secrets waiting to be discovered rather than cognizant denizens of a wider world.
Combining the lack of settlements and more developed characters makes apparent the lack of races we now associate with the series, further evidence of the game's still early developing identity. A Link To The Past presents a world of generic fantasy and fairy tale. There are no Gorons or Zora (at least, not in the modern sense). Instead there are only kings, sages, witches and dwarves. A lot of Zelda's identity comes from its unique fantasy setting, but most of that is unestablished in A Link To The Past. What we have instead is a world much more stereotypically Tolkien.
It's possible to further complain about the minutiae of playing A Link To The Past from a modern perspective. Its dungeons lack a quality of life present in future titles, such as an unrefined compass and missing dungeon warps for fast travel. Despite some frustrating loops hunting for a hidden key however, where the trigger was hidden by a single block or beneath a solitary pot, these complaints are more easily overlooked. As a product of its time and trailblazer in its genre such complaints are unavoidable and expected, later games of course benefiting from collective lessons learned. Other aspects of its design remain well-implemented and delightful, one of the highlights for me in the unusual gimmick of the Thieves' Town dungeon - A Link Between Worlds' repeat of that general concept is done even better. That perhaps sums the game up nicely, as an experience made obsolete by the games that have come since. I love Zelda, and I acknowledge that the series would not exist without those three early games of its past, but for me that's where those games are best left.