RetroSurfing: The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past

Recently, I bought a console that would let me play classic NES/SNES etc. games on my modern TV. I never owned either of these consoles when I was growing up – my first foray into gaming was with GameBoy Colour and Nintendo 64. RetroSurfing is my record as I journey through some classics that I missed the first time around.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess on the Wii was a watershed moment for me. The Wii generation was when I opened up to gaming as a whole instead of just a few core franchises, and Twilight Princess was the game I got with my console. I remember not really understanding what to do at first, the long opening feeling a little too drawn out, but there was something magical in the atmosphere. As I played more and more I fell deeper and deeper in love with the world of Hyrule and its myriad dungeons and temples. Getting new items and watching new possibilities unfold in front of me was exhilarating – I was hooked into the world of Zelda.

Following my venture into Twilight Princess, I began to explore all of the previous games in the Zelda series – there remain a few I have yet to play (namely the Oracles games and Zelda II), but they are generally considered the smaller or outlier games in the franchise. I had managed to make my way through all of the main games – apart from one. The spectre of A Link To The Past hung heavy over my Zelda history – often considered to rival Ocarina of Time as the best game in the series, it was one that I’d never truly sat down and invested my time into. That’s not to say I’d never tried. I have started A Link To The Past four times now – once or twice on the Wii’s Virtual Console, once on the Switch Online service, and now, finally, from the cartridge. These online services or virtual consoles are great in terms of making classic games more accessible, but they often feel a little temporary. I often find it difficult to commit to completing a game on them, and end up instead leaving a trail of half-finished retro games in my wake. When I was finally able to play SNES cartridges on my TV, finally committing to completing A Link To The Past was high on my to-do list.

Delving into the game, I find that A Link To The Past exists somewhat in a halfway point between the open, non-linear worlds the original Zelda and the more story driven, linear 3D games that would become the series’ norm until 2017’s Breath of the Wild returned the franchise to its roots. The story starts by throwing you right into the action as Hyrule Castle is under attack, but once you’ve finished the opening, the world simply presents itself to you, ready to be explored. While many secrets are at first inaccessible to you, you feel it brimming with possibilities – a tantalising upgrade like a piece of heart is placed in view, but with no clear way to access it. You feel excited about what new items you’re going to get and what new paths are going to open to you.

A Link To The Past also feels like the first Zelda game to have such a clear story. The lore that feels so ingrained into the franchise feels like it finds its origins here, in a tale of gods and magic, of sealed lands and forbidden temples. While the English name A Link To The Past is a nice play on words, the Japanese title, Triforce of the Gods feels like it more accurately summarises the atmosphere of the SNES’ Hyrule. Temples litter the land, and myths of sages and monsters are popular among the world’s people. You really feel like this is a land that exists in the shadow of the gods who watch from above. That well-crafted atmosphere then makes the journey into the twisted Dark World even more exciting and impressive. The enemies there are more threatening, the ambiance feels weighty and oppressive. You don’t want to spend long here – it feels wrong, and you need to set it right.

For me, it is the dungeons that make up the core of the Zelda franchise however, and I found that this is where A Link To The Past suffered however. While they are well-crafted on the whole, I often found myself frustrated with progression. While the early dungeons are pretty short, later ones such as the Ice Palace feel like they drag on forever. On the whole, I prefer Zelda challenges to be more cerebral – trying to figure out how to open that door, how to progress through that puzzle – but I feel like the difficult in this game is more action based. Link’s attack range is very limited, although this is mostly due to hardware limitations, which means that relying on action to crank up the difficulty feels like the wrong choice. While I can appreciate combat difficulty, here it just feels a little obnoxious – the enemies hitting hard is fine, but I don’t enjoy how much health they have. Having to hit the bosses eighteen times just feels like overkill – they are too spongey and I often felt like my time wasn’t being respected. I understand this is a personal preference, but it did impact my desire to play the game at times – I’d look at it plugged into my console and find myself putting off going through a temple because I simply couldn’t be bothered to go through it with a boss at the end.

Overall, I would definitely say I enjoyed my time with A Link To The Past, and can appreciate it as a masterpiece beloved by many people, but I can’t place it that high in my own ranking of the Zelda series. It was a great experience to go back and play it in 2021, but looking at it through these fresh eyes, I feel like the 3D Zelda games outclass what’s on offer here (even though that might just indicate that I have a preference for 3D games in general). I would still recommend playing the game to any Zelda fan, and in fact to any Nintendo fan however – while there were some things I didn’t love, I do think that it’s a great adventure well-worth a spin.

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