The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past Review
Posted by Damien McFerran
A link to perfection
It's no accident that when Nintendo decided to do a direct sequel to a Zelda title — well, as close to a direct sequel as the series is ever going to get — it chose The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past as its reference point. A Link Between Worlds is set some years after the events of the 1991 SNES classic, but it uses a very similar map layout and very effectively tickles that nostalgia bone, as well as providing enough innovation to stand on its own two feet.
As amazing as the recent 3DS outing unquestionably is, the level of hype which surrounded its release might not have been as high had it been an entirely new venture; the excitement which accompanied the game's launch speaks volumes for the level of esteem in which Link to the Past is held. In the Zelda canon — which isn't short of solid-gold classics — this 16-bit adventure is considered to be one of the very best, and playing it on the Wii U today proves that the years have done absolutely nothing to dull its dazzling brilliance.
The game reverts to a top-down viewpoint just like the one witnessed in the original Zelda (Nintendo had dabbled with a side-scrolling perspective for The Adventure of Link) and presents a world that is so fully formed and eye-catching that it puts its contemporaries to shame, which is quite an achievement when you consider that this was a very early SNES title. The chunky cartoon-like visuals have a solidity and definition that even the 3D Zelda titles have struggled to challenge, and the game's appearance has become something of a signature look for subsequent 2D outings — Link's Awakening, Oracle of Ages, Oracle of Seasons and Minish Cap all owe a debt to Link to the Past.
In many ways, Link to the Past was the Zelda game which would lay down the blueprint for other entries to slavishly follow. You explore a massive, sprawling overworld in search of your next objective, entering dank dungeons in the hope of claiming a new item which allows you to access other parts of the map or defeat certain enemies. The items contained within — which include a bow, boomerang, hook shot and fire rod — are usually instrumental in both completing the stage and defeating the boss which awaits at the end. It's a very early example of gear-gating, and has come to influence game design massively in the years that have passed.
What really sets Link to the Past apart from similar titles is the vastness of the world you're expected to explore. Hyrule is divided into distinct areas, each holding its fair share of secrets. These days, the term "open-world" can be applied to countless titles, and while Link to the Past might not offer quite the same freedom as the likes as Elder Scrolls: Skyrim or Fallout 3, it grants just enough to make you feel like you can deviate from the beaten path and discover something new or hidden. And of course there's that twist halfway through — Hyrule's Dark World doppelgänger effectively doubles the size of the game, not only offering new locations to explore and characters to interact with, but also opening up some ground-breaking puzzles which revolve around switching between the light and dark worlds in order to reach certain locations. These days, such mechanics might seem commonplace or slightly twee, but back in 1991 this was nothing short of revolutionary.
Link to the Past isn't without its faults. Sometimes the game leaves you high and dry without a clue about where to go next — so much so that the Western versions of the game were packaged with a sealed "hint book" which could be opened when you became hopelessly stuck. However, with the arrival of the internet — not to mention the godsend that is Miiverse — this isn't the problem it was back in the early '90s. With modern titles like Dark Souls providing an even more obtuse challenge and expecting players to share hints in-game or venture online to crack its secrets, Link to the Past feels surprisingly clear and straightforward in comparison.
Link to the Past is rightly considered a 16-bit classic and offers hours of engrossing entertainment and tantalising challenge. Not many games from twenty years ago still feel as fresh and tightly constructed as this; it represents Nintendo at its very best. Everything is so focused and finely-tuned that it's genuinely hard to see how it could possibly be improved upon. The release of the 3DS sequel could have been an event which highlighted the flaws of the SNES original, but in fact it merely illustrates how fine a piece of software it truly is. What we have here isn't just one of the finest games in the SNES library, it's one of the most engaging and captivating classics in the history of video gaming.