My first Zelda game ever was…A Link To The Past on the Super Nintendo. Despite having a little experience with playing the original NES release and its sequel Adventure of Link, I think they overwhelmed my preteen brain with their freedom and slight obtuseness. It’s when I picked up the third entry, that the series finally clicked and I understood the magical nature of Nintendo’s epic franchise. Comparing A Link to The Past to its predecessors would be massively unfair. After all, both games were released within the first 4 years of the Famicom’s release in Japan, coming at a time when the 8-bit games typical of the time were relatively simplistic and unable to convey the scale of narrative and gameplay we take for granted now.
My First Zelda game ever…
I only happened to have purchased A Link To The Past, thanks to a small amount of birthday money and a very enticing double-pack of this game and Mystic Quest (which as it happens, was also my first Final Fantasy, but that’s a story for another time). I knew of the scale and majesty of Link’s 16-bit adventure from seeing it fawned over in so many magazines at the time. After years of reading about it, I felt like I knew almost everything about it without even playing the game.
Despite this, nothing really prepared me for my first Zelda game ever. Those opening moments as you wake up in a house before exploring the grounds of Hyrule Castle to the soundtrack of a dark, foreboding score combined with the sound of a heavy rainstorm that is strong enough to penetrate the building’s stone walls and be heard within. It puts you into the game in an instant, and it’s probably Nintendo’s first real attempt at trying to tell a real story, and even in an age where technology has allowed to almost limitless scope in terms of presentation, this humble 16-bit release is quite striking in terms of portraying a sense of atmosphere. And it never really lets go of that, either.
It’s not just about the presentation though. These initial moments forgo the lengthy, overly-slow tutorials that would plague later Zelda titles, yet still effectively help to guide you into the controls and mechanics used throughout the game, offering a mix of textual instructions and subtle cues that nudge the player to use their intuition, without overwhelming them. The combat is a step beyond the previous games, the most interesting amendment being the fact that Link swings his sword with his left hand and holds a shield with his right. His sword swings arcs in front, which ultimately makes a difference when positioning yourself with respect to enemies. Some enemies are smart enough to be packing shields themselves, so the player very quickly realises that they have to tackle these enemies by positioning themselves in a manner that Link’s sword doesn’t just bounce off of an enemy’s shield. As for Link’s shield, by standing still the player can deflect certain enemy projectiles depending on the type of shield picked up. There’s a depth to Link’s basic combat abilities and that’s before you even delve into the secondary items available.
A Link To The Past is also the game that defined the structure of almost every game in the series until Breath of The Wild. You’re only just an hour or two into the game, thinking that you’ve already beaten what appears to be the game’s “Big Bad”, Agahnim, before being pulled into the Dark World you’d only been given a glimpse of previously, the rug is truly pulled under you. In an instant, Link’s quest just got bigger, the stakes much higher, and the main mechanic of teleporting between two alternate dimensions begin to be an integral part of things. Moving between the initial Light World and the deadlier Dark World is a game-changing moment. There is a real sense that things are getting a lot more dangerous from now on, introducing a wasteland filled with even deadlier enemies than before.
At least Link’s got a whole load of new tools to tackle these terrifying denizens of the Dark World. As well as familiar items from Link’s 8-bit arsenal, such as the Bow, Arrow and of course the iconic Boomerang; many new magical artefacts become available, either as part of the main questline or by trailing off the beaten track. This is the game that debuts the Ocarina, an item that would one day become of great importance in future Zelda adventures, but here it’s used a tool for travelling between particular locations. Amongst the many secondary items available are three different medallions that can be used to cast screen-filling spells, the Cane of Somaria is used to create movable blocks from thin air, while the Magic Hammer can stun enemies and knock down barriers. Each new dungeon brings a new item which usually gives the player a few options for entering new locations and finding more useful items and Container Hearts.
And speaking of dungeons, I think dungeon design absolutely peaked with A Link To The Past – For my first Zelda game, I did well do pick on with amazing dungeon areas. Each new dungeon is more or less split into a process of obtaining a new item, followed by a series of puzzles and battles that utilise it, before finishing off with a boss that requires the use of that same artefact to defeat. It’s a cycle that never fails to be engaging. The dungeons themselves are filled with clever puzzles and are so well designed that while you may be offered more than one path through them, it’s next to impossible to get yourself in a position where you are well and truly stuck. You’re never too far from a key that needs to be found, a block that needs to be pushed or a room that needs to be cleared of enemies. Dungeons now truly make the most of their verticality, allowing the player to fall through holes that occasionally lead to the floor below – Sometimes a thing that player needs to do intentionally to proceed. Each dungeon is perfectly paced, offering a challenge but not overstaying their welcome, something future Zelda games would occasionally forget (I’m looking at you, Ocarina of Time).
While as expected, completion of A Link To The Past’s quest leads to a happy ending, it feels sad in a way when you realise that the feeling of playing through all of these incredible moments for the first time, can never be experienced again, even through multiple playthroughs. Subsequent entries might well crib from some of the beats played by A Link To The Past, but they’ll never top the first time you teleport to the Dark World, the moment you realise Ganon is pulling the strings and of course the moment when you unsheath the Master Sword from its stone, clearing the fog of the Lost Woods and giving you the first taste of real power in the game. When the credits roll and you’re given reminders of the Hyrulian lives you’ve impacted throughout the hours you’ve spent playing, you can’t help but feel a sense of bittersweetness.
Looking at the entire Legend of Zelda series, you can trace A Link To The Past’s DNA deep within. No matter what Zelda game is your favourite, you can trace what makes it your favourite, right back to this 16-bit title. It might not offer you endless scale and freedom, voice-acted cutscenes and all of the other creature comforts that modern gaming provides, but this adventure makes superb use of its medium and it’s constraints to deliver a memorable quest that still has a lot to offer to newcomers and veterans alike. My first Zelda game ever is arguably still my favourite.