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.