Because it’s possible to download A Link to the Past onto a New Nintendo 3DS, I happily did so, and I ended up playing the game for the second time in six months.
After watching the Game Grumps playthrough of Zelda II (which was released in 1987), I now appreciate just how innovative A Link to the Past (released in 1991) truly is. Of course there are major benefits attached to working with 16 bits instead of 8 bits, but jumping from Zelda II to A Link to the Past is like jumping from the cinema of the 1910s to the cinema of the 2010s. Saying “the difference is incredible” is an understatement.
What immediately struck me when I launched the game was the color palette, which manages to be both charmingly pastel and brilliantly vibrant. The background music has mostly turned away from “catchy and repetitive” and shifted toward “unobtrusive and atmospheric,” and the sound effects, from the hefty swipe of Link’s sword to the wet squelching of his boots as he walks through puddles, are surprisingly well realized given the limits of the technology.
A Link to the Past is filled with unique and gorgeous details. When Link enters the Eastern Palace (the first dungeon), there are two large bronze monster statues staring back at him. Most players probably never spend more than sixty seconds in this room, but the decorative statues serve to establish the setting – an abandoned ruin where humans no longer walk – while building on the eerie ambiance created by the sonorous echoes of the background music.
There are a multitude of small touches like this in A Link to the Past, random glints of beauty that serve no other purpose than to deepen the world of the game. In Turtle Rock (the second-to-last dungeon), tiny black creepy crawlies skitter out of a newly opened doorway as if they’re desperate to escape a room that has been sealed shut for so long. Southeast of Lake Hylia, there is a creature resembling a Metroid floating in an isolated corner; and, when Link approaches it, it explodes into a swarm of baby Metroids. In the southern swamp, a purple rabbit(?) leaps in and out of the tall grass, and it will curse at Link if he cuts the grass out from under it as it’s jumping. At the base of a waterfall in the eastern foothills of Death Mountain, the king of the Zora will sell Link a pair of flippers, seemingly taking pride in the fact that they’re not cheap. In roughly the same location in the Dark World, a giant catfish sleeps at the bottom of a pool marked by a ring of stones, and it pops its head up and yells at Link if he throws something into its pond. None of these creatures appear anywhere else in the game, and they’re just five examples of the strange and wonderful things an adventurous player can uncover.
Shigeru Miyamoto has said that he envisioned the fantasy world of Hyrule as “a miniature garden that you can put into a drawer and revisit anytime you like” (source), and the message conveyed by the gameplay of A Link to the Past does in fact seem to be, basically, “Explore and you will be rewarded.”
A Link to the Past was the first Zelda game I played as a fully sentient being. A handful of critics have specified to A Link to the Past as the point at which the Zelda series started to turn away from its true potential as an open-world exploration simulator, but I think what these critics are missing (aside from the reality that different people enjoy different things) is that there are a lot of little kids playing the Zelda games. Whereas most adult gamers would see an irregularity in a wall and think, “Oh, I should try to bomb this spot,” a child who hasn’t been alive long enough to play that many video games is going to have to figure out the mechanics of the game environment for herself. If there are no hints at all, then the lauded exploration elements of the Zelda series may as well be nonexistent for many players.
My own experience as a baby gamer cutting her teeth on A Link to the Past was nothing short of transformative. Every time I played through the game I uncovered something new, and I truly believed that Hyrule was full of infinite secrets and endless possibilities. Like every Zelda game, A Link to the Past trains the player to look carefully and read closely, to pay attention to the world, to navigate by memory, and to try various solutions until something works.
There’s a pervasive pop culture trope that fictional geniuses like Sherlock Holmes are rare and special, but any good Zelda player employs similar methods of observation and deduction. Although I wouldn’t characterize myself as a particularly talented gamer, I still feel that A Link to the Past trained me to interact with the real world at a deeper level of engagement.
( Header image by Jay Epperson on Tumblr )