Written for XPGain, recreated with permission.
There is an inherent charm to nostalgia, one that grows fonder as time passes since its last indulgence.
It can be hard not to fall into the trappings of fond memories that surround the tropes and topics of childhood, and apply a rose-tint to anything that carry the pleasant memories attached to the sights, sounds, and thoughts that pervaded endlessly during fond playtimes. Happy memories rarely mesh well with stark reality, and sometimes going back to playing favored older games can sometimes feel like betraying a memory, as though intending to tarnish a happy memory by proving it irrevocably false. However, it can also be a learning experience, teaching the player to look at something from a new angle.
Playing through The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past feels that way. It’s an older game, no doubt, and feels the part. The enemy sounds and graphics are cartoonish, the stages are designed with very specific limits on progression, and the narrative is delivered with the same text-heavy stiffness that plagued a lot of early RPG and adventure games, mostly due to it being prior to the shift in writing to more multi-layered and crafted stories that have become common in modern titles. The enemy patterns are simple. The mechanics are introduced in play rather than in-tutorial. The item upgrades and secrets to find are sign-posted, but still hard to achieve without prior knowledge. For its age, though, it still accomplishes a lot of good.
Even though the enemy patterns are easy to learn, the way enemies themselves are laid out in rooms and the design of the puzzles in relation to the enemies, are constantly challenging the way a player has to think and behave in evolving situations. Certain enemies have to be handled by a specific item, but another enemy in the same dungeon is defeated by a completely different one. Little details throughout the dungeon can be investigated and explored, but some will lead players to dead ends, traps, and hazards. Enemy and player positions determine the outcome of fights just as much as faster reflexes or stronger items. Some skirmishes will boil down to which way the enemy is facing, or what tools the player has left after a particularly grueling dungeon run. And these are all positive traits, they’re elements of design that reward the player for playing. Not just in interacting with the mechanics, but engaging with them. The game cannot really be completed with a single effective strategy applied to all enemies because single strategies aren’t necessarily effective on all targets.
On top of that, there’s plenty of polish in all of the combining elements. The enemies are well-drawn, their audio cues are all unique and identifiable, the stage design masterful, the sprites are crisp, and backgrounds gorgeous. The bright enemy designs, cartoonish color palettes, and stark contrast of items and enemies from their surroundings are very easy on the eyes. In total, it is a very visually appealing game.
Little effort is wasted, things like cracks in the stonework and shadows on the floor reveal where hidden paths or secret items are hidden. There are little elements of 3D renderings or interesting effects that appear from time to time, but are sparingly enough to maintain the visual consistency. To accompany the visuals, the music is comforting, and the ambiance varied while maintaining the tone throughout, and little touches are sparing and well-applied.
Unfortunately, the age does show in several places. The lack of the third dimension makes the action feel a lot more remote. It feels slightly disconnected. The occasional boss fights and enemy surges are challenging to survive, but for the wrong reasons. Complexities and reflex options in modern titles are largely missing here, so any area that wasn’t achieved as planned often puts players on the wrong foot. It can be hard to improve on a bad run because the inability to improvise unorthodox strategies make the enemies hard to handle. Further, players who lack the burning desire to explore will often miss out on the power-up opportunities and items ferreted away in the little elements that the game never explicitly tells the player to explore.
Even when in the right mindset, there are still a few hazards players will need to be wary of. Enemy-thrown bombs or spears don’t really behave entirely like they should, leading to unnecessary or unfair-seeming damage. Sometimes projectiles thrown from “higher” or “lower” levels will connect, where others will not. The visual differences between these are minimal, so knowing where and when to use a certain item is never certain. Given that many of the puzzles are based on trial and error and pattern recognition, this can lead to some dungeons feeling like they’re about opening the menu, equipping an item, trying something, opening the menu, equipping a different item, trying again, and so on until they’re solved largely by having rubbed every bit of equipment against every bit of important-seeming object until something happens. While these flaws are largely invisible, they become very troublesome when contrasted with just how polished the rest of the experience can be.
Taken together, though, the whole game works. It doesn’t feel even slightly modern, nor is it really as fluid as it could be, but it’s a very well-polished game. Where the game has aged, it has done so gracefully. Where the cracks show, they largely speak to the period more than they are flaws with the game itself. It’s a beautiful game visually, a fun game mechanically, and an experience worth contemplating.
Despite its age, the mechanics almost can’t be recreated in modern games. For that reason, Link to the Past still has something to contribute to gaming. The lack of the third dimension and the limits placed on players will still giving them the opportunity to have every tool to succeed makes for an experience that isn’t entirely replicated in modern games. Even modern Legend of Zelda titles. The mind players need to have, and also the specific behaviors each enemy calls for makes for a wild, varied, and exuberant ride start to finish.
What it does well, it does very well. Where it faults, it still has something to teach players about their own play, but also about which strategies to avoid in the future. It’s a wonderful game, all told, and easily a classic worth recommending.