Review: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

A Link to the Past cover

The time has come to review my personal nomination for the title of “Greatest Video Game of All Time.”

I love The Legend of Zelda with every fiber of my being. Surprise, surprise. As many other gamers have likewise said before me, I believe that this series has all but distilled and perfected the medium of interactive media. Among us Zelda fans, there are usually two titles that are championed as the absolute apotheosis of the franchise: Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past. Make no mistake; except for the CDI games and Skyward Sword, I adore each iteration of the Zelda series (I’ll discuss my lack of affection for Skyward Sword when I review it), and I too believe that Ocarina is a masterpiece, but I don’t think it holds a candle to even the 3d games that came after it, let alone A Link to the Past.

I feel a similar way when people say that the Nintendo Entertainment System is the greatest game console of all time. I will concede this: it is the most important console ever made; after all, it saved the game market from utter destruction in the ’80s, and there are several timeless classics in its library (most notably Super Mario Bros. 3 and Castlevania), but the fact still remains that the NES had many constraints that prevented its games from reaching their true potential.

I argue that it is the Super Nintendo Entertainment System that is, in fact, the greatest console of all time. It was made during the forth generation of home consoles, the era of that sweet spot in gaming’s history where the machines weren’t yet powerful enough to render significant amounts of 3d graphics, but were powerful enough to allow you to do pretty much anything you wanted in 2d. In my opinion, you should only make a game in 3d if you have a very good reason to; for instance, for accommodating puzzles that take place in 3d space (such as in Portal or Assassin’s Creed), and if you don’t you should just make the game in 2d (I have a similar sentiment towards traditional vs. computer-generated animation). The Zelda series is my main example of this idea in motion; honestly, how much of Twilight Princess or Wind Waker would have changed very much if they were 2d games? They both have a handful of 3-dimensional puzzles, but otherwise have very little gameplay that couldn’t be reproduced 2-dimensionally. I argue that A Link to the Past is the bar Nintendo has to surpass before they can have a case for making 3d Zelda games, as it is better-tuned and designed than any of the other titles.

The genius of A Link to the Past is its simplicity. You begin the game with nothing; all you can do is move around with the d-pad and open doors and pick things immediately in front of you up with the A button. Once you get your sword and shield, the game demonstrates what is, in my opinion, the most elegant and perfect combat system in the world: you press B to swing the sword in the direction you’re facing, hold B for a few seconds to charge your sword and release it to spin it in a highly-damaging arc, and your shield will automatically block all physical (and later optical) projectiles it is facing. To use any other items, you simply press START to open up your menu, move your cursor over the item you want, press START to close your inventory again, then press Y to use the item in the direction you’re facing. That’s it.That’s the entire combat system. And it is the most fun you’ll ever have fighting things in a game.

Another great thing about the game is that it has a very good, but simple story set in a vibrant world; the most complex things about it are that it has an alternate dimension and that it has a villain who disguises himself as his own servant, but otherwise it’s very straightforward: you have to get three necklaces from monsters in dungeons to get a sword that can kill the villain, then you have to collect seven crystals with girls in them from more monsters in dungeons to actually get to him (I said that it’s simple, not that it’s not weird; this is a Japanese game, after all), and after you kill him you take three dragonball-like triangles from him that you use to wish everything back to the way it was.

Everything about this game is just brilliant; the dungeons are fantastic, the puzzles are just the right amount of frustrating, and pretty much every one of its bosses could make it into a top-ten list of the greatest bosses ever made (a strong contender for the #1 position on my personal list is Helmasaur King, the boss from the first dungeon of the game’s second act). My biggest criticism, which is honestly just a nitpick, is that it can sometimes get a little tedious or overly frustrating; without a walkthrough, you’re going to find yourself floundering about, not knowing where to go in places, and every time you die in a dungeon you’re sent right back to the beginning, which will (likely) cause more than a few rageful moments. However, like any great difficult game, the frustration these bring is just enough to give you an enormous sense of satisfaction when you finally, at long last, reach the end and complete it.

This game is a masterpiece that I adore.

Review: Extra Credits

Extra Credits Title Card

Being a far-left pretentious snobbish hipster, I have a very deep personal investment in some very hippie-esque things, such as free education. I am a very firm believer in the idea that all knowledge should be free and available to all, which is why I’m such a fierce advocate for the public domain and universal access to informational resources.

One thing that intensely frustrates me is the general lack of quality, open resources for learning things such as computer programming or 3d modeling. In general, within the tech world, if you want to get into a career you have to fork over a pretty penny for training. I consider this to be nothing short of ridiculous, as it costs nothing to download everything you need to do either of those things; rather, you instead have to pay a stupidly huge amount of money to simply learn how to do those things.

It is for that reason that I weep with joy every time I see low-to-no-cost, quality, entertaining, effective resources for learning new skills. One example of such a resource is how-to-draw books, which contributed a great deal to my development as an artist.

Of course, there are many, many skills that don’t get remotely enough coverage by such accessible learning tools. As I’ve said in my reviews introduction, the purpose of my reviews is to either discuss or recommend works. It is for this reason that I plan on reviewing accessible, quality educational resources; whenever I find such a resource for a little-covered subject, I consider it to be my duty to give it as much attention as possible so that other aspiring artists might also receive the same wise guidance that I did.

For an introduction to science, I recommend Bill Nye the Science Guy. For beginning a pursuit of drawing comics, I recommend Making Comics by Scott McCloud. And finally, for an invaluable, free course in game design, I recommend Extra Credits.

This show began as a college project for Daniel Floyd, who would go on to be an animator for Pixar. HIs very first video was on women in video games (and incidentally, my own researching of the subject is what caused me to discover this show in the first place). When he formally launched the first “official” episode, Bad Writing, his team consisted of himself as the narrator, esteemed games designer James Portnow as his writer, and artist Allison Theus to create the visuals. Its style is casual yet intellectual; it is drawn in a pleasantly cartoonish art style, with frequent sight gags and explanatory visual aids to illustrate what Daniel says. Though there is an expected literacy in games from the audience, the creators generally attempt to make it accessible through explaining and highlighting the specific relevent aspects of the games they discuss. In their pursuit of the teaching of game design theory, they also discuss the achievements and techniques of other media and how to apply it to the betterment of the media of games. For instance, in their antiheroes episode they discuss the works of Lord Byron (a major codifier of the archetype) and the antiheroes therein. They compare the Byronic heroes to mainstream antiheroes in video games, highlighting a perceived lack of true depth in video game antihero protagonists and proposing how that might be remedied.

This show is extremely entertaining. Not only is it very funny, but its great optimism and enthusiasm for its subject matter result in clearly heartfelt performances. If you’re like me and love (some kinds of) horror and cyberpunk, you’ll be especially pleased; they cover such topics frequently.

Their advice is very solid, too. I’ve played and made games with their observations and advice in mind, and as it turns out they’re largely correct about most of what they talk about; by and large, when games are in accordance with their advice, I find them to be better constructed and more entertaining than when they don’t.

Of course, there are things that I disagree with them about, most notably their position on the place of the story in the game making process. Personally, I believe that it’s a perfectly valid practice to begin with a story first before designing gameplay around it (after all, for games such as RPGs, the story is the entire point, and thus should be the first concern). Of course, this might be nothing more than an artistic difference.

I cannot stress how good this series is. It was one of the main inspirations for the style of this blog, and I wish the world had far more things like it. If you want to begin getting into the show, I recommend you start with Video Game Music, since it’s a very accessible yet informative and entertaining episode that’s a great way to ease yourself into it.

Once you’ve seasoned yourself a bit and have watched several episodes, I recommend you watch Call of Juarez: The Cartel, which in my opinion is their best episode. However, it is also one of their heaviest; it’s about the potential danger that laziness in game design can pose to our ideological clarity and understanding. It is a call for game creators to take their craft seriously, and I sincerely wish that everyone in any way involved or interested in games would watch it.

If you want to ease your mind a bit after that somber experience, I recommend you watch their Games You Might Not Have Tried series; it is my favorite collection of episodes, and many of those games are now in my steam library and I wholeheartedly recommend the rest of you to play many of them as well.

This show is, overall, a masterpiece that I adore.