As I’ve said in the past, I review old games because nostalgia lies. While a good retro review takes a game’s history into account, it ultimately judges the title from a modern perspective. Just because a game was kick ass in 1989, doesn’t mean it’s still worth playing today. And if it is still worth it, I think it’s nice that there are places like JGR to call attention to that fact and encourage gamers to log off of Xbox Live for a bit and spend some time in the land of retro. Plus, making fun of the crappy ones is damn fun. What I’m getting at is that just because I talk about old titles, it doesn’t mean I’m just stating the obvious. With that in mind, please enjoy my hard-hitting, Woodward and Bernstein style exposé wherein I reveal that one of the most universally beloved titles in the SNES library is, in fact, a pretty good game.
If you haven’t been following my reviews sequentially like the dime-store pulp serials I imagine them to be, you won’t know that I, embarrassingly, had never played a Zelda game until recently. I wanted to tackle the much-lauded series in order, so I cut my teeth on the NES original. Loved it. Moved on to II. Not for me. And that brings us to Link to the Past, a fan favorite. Where Zelda II diverged unpopularly from its predecessor, Link to the Past returns triumphantly to the series’ roots.
Once again, it falls to Link to save Zelda and the citizens of Hyrule from domination by an evil villain. This time it appears to be the wizard Agahnim that has imprisoned the princess, however, I don’t think I’m spoiling much by revealing that our old pal Ganon soon emerges as the true puppet master. Gone are the sidescrolling and RPG-style leveling of Zelda II, this is the top down action adventure we fell in love with. It’s time to find a sword, run around some dungeons, and teach a giant pig thing who’s boss.
There seems to be some confusion as to whether this is a sequel or a prequel to the first game, but since you do the exact same thing in each, it really doesn’t matter. Like the original, you’ll be splitting your time between the Overworld and a series of dungeons. In the Overworld, you’ll wander around fighting low level baddies, collecting hearts for your health meter, and hunting down useful items. When you’re sufficiently psyched up, you can hop into one of the labyrinthine dungeons where you’ll stumble around randomly until you find the map and compass to guide you to the resident boss, whose defeat brings you one step closer to your inevitable duel with Ganon.
From a pure mechanics perspective, this is a complete retread of Legend of Zelda. But this time around, everything you loved from the original is bigger and better. The most noticeable enhancement comes courtesy of the SNES’s superior graphical power. Towns are characterized by lush green grass, shrubbery that blows in the wind, and plucky little chickens you can pick up and carry around for no particular reason. Wooded areas are shadier, with shafts of light shining through tree cover overhead. Whereas the NES title felt like a series of screens glued together, you can actually believe that this is a real town, where real people live. The dungeons have been overhauled as well. Gone are the simple cave walls and dull brick of LoZ. There’s a lot more color in these dungeons, and more wall decorations and other atmospheric touches as well, like statues and animated torch flames. The upgraded visuals also mean you’ll never be sure what’s going to come alive and attack you.
The next big improvement is that there’s just a ton more to do. You begin in the Light World; Hyrule as we traditionally know it. Here you have to complete three dungeons just to make your date with Agahnim. Only then does the game really kick into gear with the introduction of the Dark World, a more treacherous mirror image of Hyrule. Enemies are tougher, the geography’s harder to navigate, and “According to Jim” plays nonstop on every TV channel. This is a pretty big deal, because the Light World stages seem like an entire game in and of themselves. By the time I completed them, I felt like I had played a game almost as long as Legend of Zelda. But that’s when Link to the Past turns right around and says “Guess what, sucka? You ain’t seen nothing yet!” before kicking you into the Dark World and cramming seven more dungeons in between you and the road to victory.
You won’t have a prayer without help from the myriad number of special items, usually acquired as a result of one of the countless side quests from the innumerable horde of townspeople. Link to the Past wisely retains the only thing I liked about Zelda II, the interaction with NPCs. And interact you shall, because the farther you progress, the more necessary these extra items become. I groused a bit in my LoZ review about that game occasionally requiring you to uncover these “optional” secrets to move on. Link to the Past takes this concept to the next level, making your quest all but unbeatable unless you religiously obtain every possible advantage to make your character just barely strong enough to survive the next stage.
Luckily these items and bonuses are a blast to play with. Link gets the bow and arrow, boomerang, and bombs from his NES adventure, but he can also snag the hookshot (a grappling hook useful for crossing chasms and stunning enemies), a hammer, a flute, a magic cape, a butterfly net, a fire rod, and ice rod, three different “kill every enemy on the screen” medallions, and many others, including three or four upgrades each for his sword, shield, and armor. Most of these drain magic from your replenishable magic meter, which can also be improved. And of course, you’ve still got the traditional system of adding hearts to your life meter. By the end of the game you’ll feel like one badass little elf, and you’ll still have your share of challenges in the final dungeon.
The gameplay itself is uniformly excellent. There is a much greater emphasis on puzzle-solving in this installment of the franchise. Hidden switches, moveable statues, and false floors are far more prevalent than they had been in previous games. For example, there’s a type of enemy that always moves in the opposite direction you move. If you move toward the bottom of the screen, he moves toward the top. You move right, he moves left. So you end up in this odd, choreographed dance. If you allow him to face your direction, he’ll shoot lasers at you, but you’ve got to line him up in order to hit him with an arrow – the only thing that will kill him. Add two or three of these to a single screen and you’ve got an interesting situation. It’s not chess with Kasparov, but it’s much more intellectually challenging than LoZ where the most complicated thing you’d have to do to an enemy was attack him from the side.
The two worlds add an additional layer of complexity, as there are areas that can only be reached by traveling to a particular spot in one world, and then warping to the other. Dungeons are just hard enough to frustrate you right before you figure them out. The boss fights are also more interesting. Their patterns are trickier and certain bosses can be defeated most efficiently with certain weapons, further incenting you to find every one of them.
Other than the obsessive exploration aspect, Link to the Past addresses and corrects nearly every criticism I had of Legend of Zelda. Maps now show areas you haven’t explored yet in a darker color, making it worlds easier to know where you’ve been. Walls you can bomb now have more visible cracks in them. The Overworld map is much more useful, actually going so far as to number each dungeon for you. This makes your objectives clearer, so you don’t always have to rely solely on cryptic clues. Transportation is faster thanks to a helpful duck that flies you to useful areas (though this doesn’t work in the Dark World, unfortunately). And pressing select brings up the save menu, so you don’t have to die or cheat to access it.
Predictably, I’ve still got complaints. The biggest being this: Why in the hell do I need that constant annoying alarm sound whenever my health is low? Yeah, Miyamoto, I get it. I’m about to die. That’s the kind of thing I stay on top of. It’s not like a come across a heart and think “Gee, I should probably pick this up, but since I don’t hear any shrill beeping, it can’t be that important.”
Also, you can’t turn while you’re swinging your sword. So if you press a direction button quickly and start swinging at an enemy, only to realize you actually didn’t land that direction, you’ll be slashing at thin air while a gargoyle kicks the shit out of you. This gets to be pretty annoying. And a lot of the enemies are so fast that they’re on top of you before you can properly orient yourself, making it a chore to get enough distance to correct your direction without losing life.
Two final nitpicks: The color, while mostly fantastic, is odd when it comes to Link. His skin is orange, and from certain angles he appears to have a five o’clock shadow. Additionally, the item select sound is exactly the same as that damn Boost Mobile sound from those annoying commercials. Not the game’s fault, but grating nonetheless.
Technically, the game easily outstrips its forerunners. As I said, the graphics are much improved. Both the Dark and Light worlds are colorful and well-designed. Dungeons feel creepy and dangerous, every enemy looks unique and attacks in some oddball way, and each of your weapons gets a lovingly crafted attack animation. The catchy-as-all-hell Zelda theme makes a welcome return, sounding richer and more adventurous than before, thanks to the 8 extra bits. The dungeon tunes are well-written and set the mood perfectly, which is a blessing since you’ll be hearing a lot of them as you try to conquer each area. Sound effects are up to the usual high standards of a first party Nintendo title, in spite of the annoying low health beep and item select sounds. The control is largely swiped from the first game, but nobody should be complaining about that.
Not much else to say, really. Link to the Past does what every good game sequel should: it retains all the magic of the original, while adding some truly fun innovations to the formula. This game was the uncontested king of its franchise all the way up until the N64 era, and arguably beyond. If, like me, you’ve never gotten into these games, this is an ideal one to start with – even more so than the first. If you already played this way back when, or you started with one of the later titles, this one’s definitely worth the backtrack. As games go, it’s nothing short of timeless.
Everything you loved about Legend of Zelda magnified.
Like the original, the extensive exploration can occasionally be frustrating.