Five Reasons A Link To The Past Is Still The Best Zelda Ever
Alright, let’s start things off with some new reviews (including my first ever iOS review and a series retrospective):
Jetpack Joyride (iOS)
Grand Theft Auto Retrospective
Mercury Hg (XBLA)
Assassin’s Creed Revelations (Xbox 360)
Saints Row The Third (PC)
Corpse Party (PSP)
Once you’re done with those, scroll on down to my newest Zelda article.
Five Reasons A Link To The Past Is Still The Best Zelda Ever
It doesn’t surprise me at all that Skyward Sword is getting a lot of critical acclaim. If I could name one series that has kept its quality consistent with every iteration, that honor would probably go to Zelda.
But the praise has escalated far beyond mere “Game of the Year” status, or even “Best Wii Game Ever”….lots of people are calling this “The Best Zelda Ever” with honest conviction.
Perhaps this is just hyped up hyperbole, much in the same way people started off calling Final Fantasy XII and XIII “The Best FF Ever” until a sobering month or two passes by (you don’t want to know what they call those games now).
But as much as I would like to believe Skyward Sword succeeds in making the biggest and best leap yet in the franchise, it’s got a lot to live up to. Because for me, the greatest Zelda game of all time (and quite possibly my favorite game of all time) goes to the third game in the series, A Link to the Past.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint one specific reason why this game continues to maintain such a high scale for me.
So here are five tiny reasons that helped shape the game into a real legend.
It might be superficial these days to list a game’s visuals as its strongest selling point, but back in the early SNES days, everyone was dying to see what Nintendo’s newest system was capable of. Even Nintendo spent the bulk of their early advertising touting the system’s ability to display hundreds of colors and fancy Mode 7 effects.
While Mario and other games where taking advantage of the whole “look at this thing zooming up and flying right at you whoaaaaaa” effect, Zelda III’s visuals were much more subtle in comparison…and also more fantastic.
This became immediately apparent as soon as you started the game and walked out the door; the rainfall effects were simply revolutionary, creating an atmosphere that no doubt matched many of our young imaginations of what Zelda’s world looked like beyond its 8-bit barriers.
But the rain was just the first example of the game’s multi-layered effects; the shadowing of branches hovering above Link in the Lost Woods represented how deep the forest was, while witnessing the erupting volcanoes below Death Mountain introduced the concept of being dangerously high up. But the most notable feature was introducing a Light and Dark version of the world, which went far beyond a simple recoloring of the two maps.
Pink hair on Link aside, Link to the Past still holds up wonderfully today, especially when compared to first generation polygon adaption Ocarina of Time (but that’s usually the case between 2nd generation sprite-based games versus third and fourth generation polygon games…much like how Final Fantasy VI aged better than Lego Fantasy VII).
But if there was one factor that could compete with the visuals at the time, it was the soundtrack. Aside from the returning main theme, Link to the Past also introduced many melodies that have become a series tradition ever since, including Zelda’s Lullaby, Ganon’s Theme, and the Main Menu/Great Fairy Theme, not to mention set piece tracks like Hyrule Castle and Kakariko Village.
But the real standouts in the soundtrack are the dungeon themes; while much quieter and slower-paced then one would imagine in a game like this, the majority of the dungeon tracks are very subtle, creating a level of atmosphere that has rarely been matched in the preceding games. As far as atmospheric music goes, Link to the Past hit all the right emotional chords.
Which worked especially well considering…
3. The Dark Tone:
The Zelda series has always been a bit darker than the colorful candy-coated aesthetics of Mario (heck, the previous game featured Zelda falling into an eternal sleep due to a jealous brother, while Ganon’s minions hunted down Link to offer his blood to Ganon’s ashes in order to resurrect him), but Link to the Past was easily the darkest Nintendo game at the time, not to mention having a surprising amount of on-screen deaths for a Nintendo title.
Before the game even starts, you are shown the skeletal remains of Zelda’s father, while a helpless unnamed princess is sacrificed right before your eyes (more on that below). Minutes after starting the game, Link chances upon his dying uncle, who passes the sword and shield to his nephew, yet couldn’t live long enough to finish his last words (Zelda is his what? Sister? Nah…). Several other NPC deaths occur, including the priest who assisted in hiding Zelda, along with the titular princess herself.
Oh yes, you read that right; While the original game treated the Dark World as merely an alternate dimension that ran parallel to the Light World, a darker truth was kept relatively hidden in the North American version: it was also the land of the dead.
This little factoid was ironically brought forth by Nintendo Power during its monthly release of Link to the Past’s manga adaption, which features a sequence where Link comes across the spirits of his mother and father, who reside in the Dark World.
So if we take that into canon, then there is only one conclusion to make: Zelda Dies.
If that little nugget doesn’t leave you convinced of the game’s darker tone, then I’ve got another two words that will stir up the emotions of any 90’s gamer: Flute Boy.
It would have been the grimmest title in both Zelda and Nintendo’s history, were it not for a certain deus ex machina…
4. The Triforce Ending:
The Triforce has always served as the primary motivation for both the heroes and villains of the Zelda series…the latter want to use it to conquer the world, the former want to keep it away from them. While the princess herself is usually played out as Link’s ultimate goal, in hindsight she probably wouldn’t be in so much danger were she not eternally bound to the Triforce of Wisdom (just as Link possesses the Triforce of Courage, and Ganon the Triforce of Power). It would be a pretty interesting scenario if saving Zelda and obtaining the Triforce were not mutually exclusive…if Link had to choose, which would be his biggest priority?
In any event, assembling the completed Triforce (be it eight pieces, three, or just nabbing the whole thing at once) typically signifies the end of each Zelda game, with the heroes keeping its vast power safely secured.
But Link to the Past was the first (and so far only) game to pose the question: why not let the heroes use the Triforce? While this concept was in fact addressed during the Valiant Comics adaption I posted about previously, that story only got half the Zelda mythos right.
While it’s true that Ganon’s pig-like appearance was a manifestation of his greed and desire for power, that comic story also implied that even someone as pure-hearted as Link would succumb to the Triforce of Power. As interesting a concept as that might be, it’s always been officially established that all the pieces of the Triforce are capable of fulfilling one’s innermost desires, whether they are good or evil. This is why Ganon was able to steal one for himself and make use of its power…his hideous appearance is more his own doing than that of the Triforce itself.
So by that logic, why shouldn’t Link use the Triforce for good? That is exactly what Link decides by the end of Link to the Past, and as a result, we are treated to an extended ending sequence where all the tragic deaths and events are instantly undone: Link’s uncle, the priest, the Flute Boy, the princesses, all of them are brought back to life, the kingdom of Hyrule is restored, the monsters now live in harmony with humans…it’s about as happy an ending as you can get.
Some people may consider this a convenient hand-waving of LttP’s death count and dark tone, but for me it was the ultimate reward for the player: a chance to become the most powerful character within the game’s fictional setting.
While magical artifacts have commonly been depicted as taboo for any mortal, the fact is that Link represents the purest and most incorruptible template for a videogame hero…after all, he is at the core a visual avatar of the player, and usually it’s the player’s wish to “save everyone” to therefore “complete the game” (keep in mind this was back before Grand Theft Auto and its ilk proposed the idea of “kill everyone” to motivate gamers). It could have ended on a realistically sour note, but this is Nintendo we’re talking about. Just as a simple kiss brought Snow White back from the dead, we too hope for a happy ending in Nintendo’s titles, logic be damned.
Lord of the Rings may have established that “power corrupts” when it comes to mystical artifacts in fantasy settings, but Link to the Past also proved that “power saves”. It was a satisfying outcome to Nintendo’s most epic tale, and I hope we one day get to experience the power of the Triforce again.
5. Hidden Secrets/Easter Eggs
As a final tiny-yet-notable compliment, Link to the Past was also one of the first Nintendo games to feature several hidden secrets that served no purpose to the original game, but kept players on their toes with their randomness and humor.
One of the earliest examples is the Sign Post Guy; this man is sitting all by his lonesome, unresponsive to your constant button poking. Next to him is a sign that states his desire to be left alone, while also asking you not to mess with the sign itself. That was practically an invitation to pick up the sign and chuck it, and the results were quite amusing.
The game continued to feature bizarre moments like these, including some secrets that lead to years of interpretation (such as the old lady who could be turned into a fairy), or even factor into the game in creative ways (Blind the Thief‘s impersonation as a princess). There was even a hidden room dedicated to a Nintendo Power winner that few know exist even today.
And of course, it was Link to the Past’s oddball humor that introduced us to a force far more powerful than Ganon himself: The Cuccoos.
Like everything else, these small easter eggs paved the way for our young imaginations, and helped shape the future for Nintendo’s games, both Zelda and otherwise.