In Depth Review: The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past [SNES]
The Legend of Zelda games always seem to catch RPGamers off guard because some people try to classify them as "role-playing games." "But they aren't," some people say. This is because some people don't consider action-heavy battling as RPG-style gaming. No Command menus -- the main character Link comes out with swords-a-swingin' and boomerangs-a-flyin'. No wading through menu commands for each and every action -- swing your sword or use your item (after you select it from a menu...) at the single press of a button. You move Link around his enemies and fight 'em on the spot just like an action game, rather than taking an RPG-influenced dive into a separate "battle mode." Mimicking the very first game in the series, A Link to the Past is played entirely from an overhead view, whether fighting or running through town. Up, down, left, right, slashing as you go. Link lost the ability to crouch and jump up from The Adventures of Link, satisfying many gamers who yearned for more "traditional" Zelda (odd, since up until this point only one game was bird's eye and one game was side scroller... go figure). Ah, but should you be near an edge and in a jam, you can press against the edge with the control pad and Link will do a fancy little *hop* onto the ground below... provided that there is ground to land on. Link also has a much larger arsenal at his disposal than in previous games. The all-too-famous boomerang from the first Zelda returns (haw haw, another fun pun) in this installment. He also gets a lamp to light up dark rooms, jars with which to store (kidnap?) faeries and even bees to aide him in battle. Nintendo has also blessed this third Link with boots to dash headfirst into trees, and also through enemies (with portruding sword, of course). Link can also pick up and throw pots, bushes and chickens to throw around at baddies. Some of the coolest (but also cautiously-used) additions to Link's weaponry are the three medallions you find throughout the game, which bring different types of mayhem and destruction to all unfortunate monsters onscreen and drain his magic meter. But perhaps the most notable improvement in the game is Link's ability to charge up his sword and release a spin attack. In fact, while charging his sword, Link holds it out in front of him and can parry enemy soldiers' swords as well. Link also now slashes his sword in an arc, rather than poking and stabbing, thus increasing his range of attack. Where before you'd miss an enemy who stood diagonally above or below Link, now you would catch them with the tip of his sword and knock 'em back good. Suffice to say, ain't no one seen Link fight like this before, what with all of the improvements to Link's fighting skills.
The game moves at a pace which I'd classify as "patient." It's not really slow, but you have to think your way through this game, not just fight your way through it. This is evident mainly in the palaces and dungeons, where puzzles await our hero. And they're not just "Duhr, hit de switch and find de door" puzzles either -- some involve the manipulation of items on multiple floors (the multiple floors being another new concept in an overhead Zelda game), for example. You also spend time traversing the world, trying to find your next goal or target, as in the other Zeldas. But being that you can talk to village-folk and gypsies for clues, a concept that was somewhat employed in Zelda II: The Adventures of Link, your adventures consist of more intuitive searching and less aimless wandering. Also keeping the pace from being too slow are the simple menus that you bring up -- in fact, there really only is one major menu, plus a map screen -- so wade-haters need not worry. It's this perfect blend of challenge with simplicity that make A Link to the Past so great.
Continuing the almost endless string of Zelda make-overs in this 16-bit glory is the music. At the game's outset you're faced with unfamiliar but haunting and appropriate music, strings performing tremelos to accompany the whooshing sound of the rain. You're then treated to a dynamic, evil yet regally tinted piece that takes you through a palace. Finally, when you emerge in the sunbathed fields, you can hear the familiar tune first heard so long ago, in the mid 80's on the ancient grey NES. This time, it's redone beautifully with powerful horns doing the melody justice. For many, that's all that needs to be heard: the Zelda theme in 16-bit. But of course, Nintendo loves us and didn't just limit the soundtrack to four tracks, as it did with the previous two installments. We hear music for the overworld (two tracks! play to find out why), the village, caves, the central palace, faerie ponds, the other palaces to be conquered in the game, and boss battles. The tracks that tend to be on the ambient side, with little themes and/or depth behind them, are still enjoyable and fit within the game. In fact, there's not one tune in there that I can really say I disliked. While not godsend or an undisputed masterpiece or, the variety and enjoyability of the soundtrack does not hinder the game's enjoyment one bit by teasing your ears with incessant noise. Keep the game un-muted -- you'll enjoy it more.
Considering A Link to the Past was a rebirth of The Legend of Zelda on 16-bit, one might be inclined to assume that it has little if any originality to it. I'd be inclined to assume that such a person wouldn't have taken note of all the nifty additions Nintendo made to the gameplay. The Net and Bottle items add new elements to the game -- Faeries caught in bottles act as extra "lives," reviving you on the spot when you die, and as stated before, bees fight for you when released. You can store life- or magic-reviving potions inside. You can find Pieces of Heart scattered throughout -- get four and you have an extra heart. Many of the boss designs are ingenious. Many of the inventory items are so original that you'd be hard pressed to find an action-RPG that either has something to match them, or that hasn't ripped off of them somewhat blatantly. Perhaps the biggest knocks on the game's originality is that at (a) heart, it's still old-style Zelda with new tricks (this isn't even really a bad thing, now is it?), and (b) the plotline could be a bit more original.
However, while the plot consists of a kingdom in distress, a princess in need of saving, etc. etc. etc. and blah blah blah, the way Nintendo crafted the story differently than the other two games is quite imaginative. I know it seems that in a Zelda game there almost always seems to be a seal to break or something or other, or a princess to save... but in this case it's probably more important to pay attention to *how* the goals are met, how the story unfolds, rather than what the general idea actually is. I mean think about it -- so many games out there have a general "The World is in Danger! You must SAVE it!" plot, but yet we tend to laud them for original plotlines. Why? Because each one manages to put different twists on the general idea, or the games' stories go about it in different ways. And along the way, there are a few side-stories that keep you busy, should you ever get bored of following the main storyline.
It's funny how stories can be so tainted by poor localization. What's funnier is how A Link to the Past is better localized -- far better -- than newer games, even games today. (Think Xenogears, Legend of Dragoon, the ol' Breath of Fire II...) I never got a sense of being lost because of shoddy dialogue, nor do I remember seeing any blatant errors (Citan misspelling "civilzation" or the infamous "Off course!"). The translators somehow kept the dialogue from being bland and dry. All the characters a sense of individual personality, and while not developed like some of today's games it was quite a good job considering when it was released.
A Link to the Past is also a marvelously replayable game. While linear, there are certain things you'd want to go back for. Did you get all your heart containers? What about all of the bottles? Are you sure you bombed every crack in the wall? It's one of those games where you go back to find what you hadn't on the first try, yet doesn't make acquiring items such a hassle that you just decide to give up. A Link to the Past is also just plain fun. Like the Zeldas before it, even if you wanted a quick fix, you could turn on the game and just run around crushing baddies out of your way, or rush through the game to test your memory. Linearity in a game is not always a roadblock for replay value, and A Link to the Past is a perfect example of that.
"Well, I really don't care... I wanted to see Zelda for the 16-bit facelift." And oh how lifted the face is.... ahem. All of the character sprites are drawn to look much less flat. There is an extremely evident increase in the number of frames used for character animations, as Link's old goofy three (or so) framed stride is replaced by a bouncy, hopping jaunt. The color usage is rich and refreshing, with well-detailed trees, mountains, grassy plains, and water (with different colors indicating depth). Graphical enhancements to the environment also help the experience, with a shattering rain in the game's introductory stage and a spooky mist covering the mysterious woods. Even tiny details were added to enhance the fluidity of the game, such as when hearts and leaves (from slashed bushes) float to the ground, and when Rupees pop up and bounce to a halt on the ground. The only problem that I could see with the visuals is that some of the general art is designed simplistically, not to mention I would have preferred less super-deformity. But all in all, the colors and attention to animation detail really make A Link to the Past fun to watch.
One of the best things about A Link to the Past is its balanced difficulty. You won't be throwing your controller, but you won't be yawning and cruising either. Some of the dungeon puzzles get really stump you until suddenly a light bulb appears inside your head. Other puzzles will have you using trial and error to see which way this block should be pushed, or what color you should leave switches at. Aside from the dungeon puzzles are the boss enemies. Some of them require ninja-gamer reflexes and nerves, other require some brainwork as to how in the world you're supposed to hurt the thing. Many require both. But Nintendo did a good job of not letting it get wall-punchingly frustrating. If you work at it, you'll find yourself getting into a good boss-crushing rhythm and from there on it's just persistence.
It's only natural, then, that A Link to the Past will supply you with a healthy length of gaming, while managing not to drone on needlessly. Of course, if you've honed your skills and memorized every task, puzzle, and boss tactic to an extra-precise tee, you might be good enough to race through the game in 8 hours. Without, of course, getting all the extry items. But I'd recommend, as I always do, that you enjoy every thing the game has to offer, no matter how many times you've played it through. Stop n' smell the roses. Get the extra stuff. Talk to the townspeople. Enjoy the 16-bit makeover that Nintendo has applied to everything that has to do with Zelda. Take 20 hours, as I'd estimate, to beat the game as if you were a beginner. It's a fun ride.
With the next-gen Zeldas that have come and are coming out, it's easy to forget how beautifully simplistic but masterfully challenging (and most importantly, FUN) the old top-down style games were. While both NES games were classics in my opinion, this one classic is what made me fully respect Nintendo's masterful series. Sure the first two Zeldas were good, but this one did everything so much better -- and I'm not referring to the visuals here. This is a game that emits a certain charm that we've all come to recognize Nintendo for -- not the kiddy charm, mind you, but the charm of a fantasy world with challenge, simplicity and fun oozing out of every crack, rather than a deep intense drama. When I feel like playing a game just for the sake of playing and pure fun, I'd let even my all-time favorite RPGs lie down for a rest and hunt for my A Link to the Past. When you want complexity that's not really complex, go find the little green elf man. If you don't get what I just said, you will after revisiting this classic game.