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Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Videogame Classics

Reviews of the greatest video games of all time, from classic to modern games.

This ongoing series of reviews offers entertaining insights into those great games and consoles that we love.

1992 - Nintendo - Released on Super NES
The Legend of Zelda - A Link to the Past - video game classics

Videogames of the Damned

Daniel Thomas MacInnes' videogames blog, offering commentary and reviews on classic and modern games.

The spirit of "independent game journalism" lives on!


March 25, 2003

Shigeru Miyamoto is the undisputed master of the videogame. His creative genius is the standard by which all others are measured. If you asked me in 1985 who the greatest games designer in the world was, I would have said Miyamoto. Almost 20 years later, computer technology has grown by leaps and bounds, but the Master remains the same.

His most famous character, of course, is Mario, who first appeared in Donkey Kong in 1981. After two follow-ups (Donkey Kong Junior in 1982 and Mario Brothers in 1983), Miyamoto unveiled the landmark Super Mario Bros. in 1985. It was more than an extension of previous games; it was as though the videogame, as a form, had reinvented itself. The level of scope and imagination was far beyond anything seen before, and became the blueprint for practically every scrolling platform game ever since.

In 1986, Miyamoto followed up with a new character named Link. The Legend of Zelda was released on Nintendo's 8-bit NES console, introducing players to the modern adventure-role playing game. Instead of Super Mario's side-view, Zelda is presented in an overhead perspective. The game draws an obvious influence from Warren Robinett's seminal Adventure, but creates a viable fantasy world full of puzzles, fierce battles, and endless surprises.

Zelda is, in a sense, Mario's twin. While the Zelda series takes a Tolkien-esque, slightly more serious, tone than the psychedelic primary colors of Super Mario, the sense of wonder and surprise is very much the same. If these games seem to take years to be made, there's a reason. To date, there has been only seven Zelda games (not counting the two Capcom productions on the Gameboy) since 1986, and the wait has always been worth it.

This week, I've been playing the third game in the series, A Link to the Past. I personally consider The Ocarina of Time on the Nintendo 64 to be the pinnacle of the series, but Link to the Past is often a favorite of the diehard fans, and it remains among the finest 2D videogames ever made.

The Legend of Zelda seems oddly named, since the hero of the saga is a young boy named Link. Zelda is, instead, the princess of Hyrule whose only talent seems to involve being kidnapped. But then again, doesn't that describe most videogame maidens? Perhaps she should learn how to use a sword and defend herself for once.

As I've mentioned before, Zelda is very much the twin of Super Mario. There is a sense of wonder and surprise to both games; you feel that you are exploring a vast world, where the next surprise is right around the corner. The world of Link to the Past is littered with these little teases. In one area, there may be bushes, trees, rocks, boulders, ponds, and tombstones. There may be a surprise behind every one.

Like Mario, there are really two game worlds: the one which is on the screen, and the one that is hidden away, just beyond view. Sure, you could play through this game with only Link's basic sword and shield, but what fun is that? Aren't you at all curious to find what lies behind that wall?

There are so many examples that I could spend hours describing them all. Some secrets reveal extra weapons or items. Some reveal needed information. And some are just to be enjoyed on their own whimsy terms. In one house, you will find a picture of Mario. Tug on the picture and a number of coins pop out. This, in itself, reveals one of Miyamoto's traits: curiosity will be rewarded.

Another convention of his style is the difficulty curve. This game does get progressively challenging, but you are never truly over your head. When a new skill is introduced, there is always an opportunity to practice those skills before they are later needed. The game's trademark dungeons are loaded with clever puzzles that are never too hard, but are rarely giveaways.

Navigating dungeons requires you to find a map and compass, but these are never found right away; you must explore for a while first. Miyamoto once remarked that when he travels, he prefers to explore his surroundings for a while before buying a map. When I read this several years ago, a light clicked in my head. Suddenly, it all makes perfect sense. Most games would be more concerned with difficulty, or padding out the play time (an overrated measure of a videogame's worth), but Miyamoto doesn't do that. He just wants to share the experience of visiting a new place for the first time.

The master imbues his games with, more than anything, a sense of fun. There are many moments in this Zelda that stick out: a thief in the woods who steals your items; fairies which can be caught by a net and bottled; a monkey who follows you around; a race around an obstacle course; a pond which is drained (an effect which is masterfully recreated in Super Mario 64). Then there are those lovable chickens. Some villagers own chickens, which usually mind their own business, but can be picked up and thrown by Link. There's no real point to tossing the birds about; laughing at their flailing feathers is its own reward.

Why does no one else offer an adventure game with a sense of purpose? This is not another by-the-numbers game that only wants to be beaten; Zelda wants to be loved. Every moment is a party, and everyone is invited. Link to the Past was released this past year on the Gameboy Advance, and time has taken none of its charm. If anything, the experience is more enriching than most anything on the contemporary scene. Such is the magic of Shigeru Miyamoto.