To celebrate the 35th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda, we're running a series of features looking at a specific aspect — a theme, character, mechanic, location, memory or something else entirely — from each of the mainline Zelda games. Today, Kate talks about one of the franchises' most iconic instalments...
I first played The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past in 2003, on the Game Boy Advance. Not the original, I know – but given that I hadn't figured out fine motor control when it first came out in '91, I doubt I would have been able to finish it on the SNES. Then again, I never finished it on the GBA, either. Technically, I never even finished the first temple.
Hold on! Put the pitchforks away! It gets better, I promise.
I spent roughly fifty-something hours on my little Game Boy Advance SP (with the eyesight-saving screen light) exploring A Link to the Past's world. From its atmospheric, rainy beginnings, to discovering (and quickly forgetting) my dying uncle in the bowels of the castle, the game grabbed me by the heartstrings and pulled. But I never became the Link of legend. Instead, I roleplayed as some chap with a sword and no clue, accidentally bumbling his way through Hyrule but never actually saving it.
You see, there was a bit in the Eastern Palace that I couldn't get past. It involved the darkness, and those horrible speedy cyclops-things, and my goopy, developing child-brain just couldn't figure it out. I wasn't a huge fan of the dark to begin with, and my clumsy, tiny hands found it far too difficult to evade these beasts before eventually succumbing.
Back then, I was bad at games, but I loved them. I would spend hours running around the world of Hyrule in Ocarina of Time, or exploring Peach's Castle in Super Mario 64. I preferred to play Mario Kart as a driving-adventure, rather than a race, spending my time following the tracks of Kalimari Desert and getting repeatedly told off for going the "wrong way". I wasn't as interested in meeting the games' goals as I was in adventuring, discovering, and plundering every nook and cranny of their universes. I had time back then, and racing to the end wasn't my priority.
As a result, I spent hours traversing the Light World before I even knew there was a Dark World. I could have drawn you a map of A Link To The Past's Hyrule with my eyes closed, but I couldn't tell you what it all meant. There wasn't a section of that overworld that I didn't know by heart – at least, the bits that I could access with the limited tools I had – but whole swathes of it remained a mystery, like the book on the shelf in the library, or the sword in the Lost Woods that I couldn't pull out. None of the characters would help me, not even the Fortune Teller, who would just tell me over and over to complete the Eastern Palace. But back then, that was enough. It might seem frustrating to be stuck at the very first temple, but I didn't mind. The adventure, for me, was in my own imagination.
Looking back on my experience with A Link to the Past as a kid, I realise how accidentally, quintessentially Zelda it was. Like the very first incarnation of Link's quest, I was exploring a world that was indifferent to me, that existed without me, and that jealously guarded its secrets like a dragon, refusing to give them up until I had figured out the exact puzzle answer that it wanted. I may have been the Link of legend – or, actually, the Lonk of legend, since the game let you name him – but I was a failure, and Hyrule remained closed to me as a result, a monolith of mystery that I couldn't get past.
In 2021, at the pestering of my partner, I downloaded the Nintendo Switch Online service that gives you access to a bunch of forgettable old NES and SNES games, and a handful of brilliant ones. A Link to the Past was nestled in amongst that clutch of eggs like a nugget of gold – and that meant it was time. Surely, in the intervening decades, I had learned enough about games to be able to finally beat it?
I was expecting A Link to the Past to have aged poorly, or to compare unfavourably with its descendants. How could anything stack up to the glory of Breath of the Wild, or the free rein of Wind Waker? Could it even rival Phantom Hourglass, the first Zelda game I ever completed completely solo?
You will probably not be surprised to hear that the answer is "obviously, you dingus", but I was. Despite being only the third game in the Zelda series, A Link to the Past sets the tone and the mythos for many of the games that followed it, but the most important thing it established was the duality of the lowercase-L legend of Zelda.
Some of the best games in Zelda's 35-year history deal with this before-and-after, good-vs-evil dichotomy. The most famous, perhaps, is Ocarina of Time's two worlds: the world of child Link, and the world of Adult Link. As a representation of the horrors of a world corrupted by evil, but also the horrors of ageing, Hyrule's two forms are starkly different and unsettling.
Likewise, Skyward Sword has the world above, and the world below; A Link Between Worlds has Hyrule and Lorule; Breath of the Wild takes place after the calamity, but has windows into the before-times through Link's memories; and Wind Waker has the flooded world and the palace beneath the waves, saved by stasis. Zelda's story, time and time again, is about showing Link not only what could go wrong if he fails, but what already did go wrong.
A Link to the Past's Dark World comes to you, at first, as a strange, Link's Awakening-style dreamlike accident. There's no way of knowing that the weird portal near the Tower of Hera will take you to another land entirely, nor that the game's pink-haired Link will be transformed into the Duracell bunny. The game up to this point has been pretty standard Zelda fare: killing monsters, exploring dungeons, evading all the soldiers who try to kill you on sight, and grabbing important jewellery out of conveniently-placed chests. There are loads of old men who give you cryptic quests without offering anything in the way of aid, and a princess whose defining traits include standing around, getting kidnapped, and saying "help me, Link".
Slowly, deliberately, the mystery of the Dark World unfolds, revealing it as the once-golden Sacred Realm, transformed into a place of nightmares by Ganon's evil influence. The Light World, despite seeming like the entire game at first, is revealed to be a prelude for the true story. It's a fakeout that can only be achieved following the relative normality of the first two games, a twist that relies on subverting the existing expectations of players.
Perhaps later Zelda games would have made it a much bigger reveal, like Ocarina of Time's reliance on expository cutscenes. But A Link to the Past, like most retro games, keeps its mouth largely shut – except for Sahasrahla's occasional
nagging help. Link is largely left to his own devices and expected to just figure it out himself, which is one of the big reasons that I struggled with it as a kid.
I had grown up on Ocarina of Time, where Navi tells you everything you need to know whether you want her to or not. I was more used to the hand-holding of subsequent Zeldas, and the tutorialisation that came along with the "new" 3D games, which were forced to teach their players how to move the camera in this bewildering dimension.
Entirely by accident, though, my time with A Link to the Past is a perfect echo of its own story. When I played as a child, I was naive, inexperienced, and weak, and A Link to the Past became a story about a peaceful(ish) world where nothing had gone completely wrong (yet). Zelda was still within the safety of the Sanctuary; the Light World was full of people just going about their lives. The mysteries of Hyrule were still mysteries, and remained just out of my reach.
As an adult – with not only decades of gaming experience under my belt, but as an actual games critic – A Link to the Past is, more simply, a game – and games can be beaten. A Link To The Past has a mostly linear path, and its dungeons rely on tropes that are easy to solve once you know how they work. My childhood experience was akin to finding a huge, tightly-locked door and speculating about what it hid; my adulthood experience is correctly guessing that the key is under the doormat.
There is, like with Ocarina of Time, some misfortune in my own dichotomy with A Link to the Past. Nothing is as sacred as the imagination of a child. The wonder with which I experienced Hyrule back then is pure magic; playing the same game as a jaded, game-worn grown-up is a series of doors to unlock. I consider myself lucky nonetheless: A Link to the Past is a colourful, tightly-woven tapestry of legends and adventure, a formative blueprint for the Zelda series, and a masterwork of design and self-directed discovery that remains unrivalled by any other Zelda game, barring perhaps Breath of the Wild.
There is a part of me that wishes I had played A Link to the Past upon its release, so that I could experience it untainted by a lifetime of untangling video game logic. But, just like Link discovered for himself time and time again, there are always consequences to rewriting the past. A Link to the Past is a legend, a near-untouchable part of my childhood, and revisiting those memories by blasting through it as an adult is an almost sacrilegious experience, familiarly unfamiliar each time I open the door to something new. But to finally solve the game's mysteries after nearly 20 years, and to discover its true depths, is a strangely perfect end that (magic) mirrors its own tale.