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Looking back on  A Link to the Past
Looking back on A Link to the Past Exclusive
April 22, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

April 22, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Design, Exclusive

Nintendo recently announced it's bringing a new The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past game to 3DS. Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander looks at the original Super Nintendo version to see why the game struck a chord, and what it means for games today.

In The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, most players' first real act, after waking up in the midst of a rainstorm to your uncle's departure on urgent business, is to get up and smash a pot against the wall.

Amid dramatic music in the moist dark, when you know incredible crisis is underway, you pause in your front lawn to pluck bushes. Maybe you didn't do it on your first playthrough, but who among Zelda fans can remember the actual first time? When we talk about A Link to the Past, the word "legend" seems to carry special weight.

It's the legend we're interested in, the siblings or friends we can remember playing with, bonding over the marvel of a Super Nintendo, the memory of the person who gifted it to us. The way its delicate world sprawled out in all directions, begging to be consumed and yet defying us in ways we'd never been defied before.

It's okay to hurl a chicken

Nintendo's announcement it would return to the world of A Link to the Past seemed, entirely by accident, to come at the best possible time, amid a lot of social media discussion (occasionally with acrid undertones) about the value of formalism amid new game forms, and a cleanly-split decision about BioShock: Infinite and whether its obeisance to shooter conventions harms its intentions.

Early Zelda games hurl a chicken into the face of "ludonarrative dissonance" arguments. In fact, whenever the subject of gameplay at odds with narrative emerges, I think of LTTP, a game where Link the hero trots into strangers' houses, smashes their crockery, loots their treasure, and somehow still feels untarnished. Where everyone who's ever played it probably knows how to aggravate a hen for the fun of it.

The game's occasional absurd divergences add to its charm. A surly thief character, found lurking in a woodland hole, hands you rupees unsolicited and asks you don't tell anyone -- "keep it between us," he urges, scowling. Bug nets and bee bottles become part of a hero's trusty arsenal. Aquatic lord Zora is more irritable than fearsome. And never does it occur to players not to suspend disbelief.

This is because the mechanical synchronicity LTTP achieved set the template not only for future entries in the storied franchise, but for other games that bear the permanent shadow of its influence. Dividing the game's world into light and dark was an ingenious solution to the problem of how to make the game feel big in just one megabyte (though even that was about double what was common for the SNES at the time).

But that choice also left an indelible aesthetic mark. It's one thing for games to ask you to save the world, it's another to show you what it looks like twisted by evil. LTTP's relatively-simple choice added an entirely new dimension to the urge to explore its world.

"It challenges you to defy its instructions"

Exploration could be seen as the game's primary mechanic, alongside combat and puzzle-solving -- the three married in a harmonious Triforce, where one always enables the other. You want to enhance your combat strategy so you can press further into the game world and dissolve its barrier-puzzles, and you explore the game world to discover the items and enhancements that will give you that power.

One of the most interesting things about the unprecedentedly large, intricate game world is that it constantly seems to be challenging you to defy its instructions. Its cliffs are rife with cracks, its hills full of platforms that perhaps you can't reach by climbing up, but might be able to land on by hopping down. Stones promise to be movable for yet-unknown reasons, and one bush like a thousand others could conceal a tiny passage.

You can often see areas before it's evident you can reach them, but there's always the promise that if you're just a little bit crafty, you can escape your linear instructions -- and be rewarded. Many players do the dark world's sixth dungeon before the fifth, and find even find that structure preferable.

Though you're intended to upgrade key bits of their equipment by tossing them into a Fairy Fountain, discovering you can do so always feels like stumbling upon a little secret reward for the risk -- especially as you need to confess abashedly to your callous toss before the Fairy will grant you the gift.

This encouragement always to be crafty, to duck expectations, even in the midst of such a sensible, harmonious ecosystem is such a large part of what gives LTTP its joy, and its occasional absurdities (mushroom brew?) give that all-important dialogue between the player and the system the friendly tone it needs to make you feel like a strapping hero with a child's courage and sense of wonder.

A screen from the upcoming Link to the Past 3DS game.

It's pure. Nintendo's brand relationship with its audience relies on promising that nostalgic sense of purity and magic, and sometimes it seems the company's had trouble translating that fully with new incarnations of its brands within polished (and perhaps overly-accessible) modern experiences. Taking us back to LTTP's universe is a welcome move, especially in these days of certain anxiety and cultural crossroads.

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Federico Fasce
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A Link to the Past was my first Zelda game, and maybe my favorite together with Wind Waker (a flawed game, I know, but one where the sense of an open, magic world was really strong).

I didn't love Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword and the DS episodes. But this second Link to the Past could be a great episode. I frankly hope so.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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a LTTP is one of those games where everything comes together.

The art direction, the gameplay, the music, sound and the level design are all a reflexion of each other. In classic Nintendo way, the enemies and environments looks and sound are indicative of their behavior and function, respectively.

Michael Pianta
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Good post. I agree with everything in it really. A Link to the Past is easily on of the best games ever made.

Also, regarding ludonarrative dissonance, I have also noticed that this game (and really many classic games) have very little dissonance. Mostly I think this is due to the simpler storylines not offering as many opportunities for such discrepancies. But in this case another element is in play that can be observed in many other games as well and that is the sense of humor. I think humor really diffuses ludonarrative dissonance, you can see it working in many games.

Tyler Shogren
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Minimalistic, but so complete. It reminds me of Einstein's razor: Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.

Zack Wood
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Woa, you make me wanna play the game! I haven't played a single Zelda/Link game to date, just because action-based combat is usually not my thing. But you totally sold me on it.

Isvar Horning
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I was eleven when I played Link to the Past, and I was so in love with the game, that my grades in school dropped because I was daydreaming all the time. When I heard years later that there would be a Zelda Game on the upcoming N64 I began saving my pocket money for over a year, selled self-made stuff and did garage sales to get the money for this console. I wasn't interested in anything but Orcarina of Time.

To this day I have very fond memorys of this two games - but after that no game, not even the other Zelda games, could hook me like this. It's a spark of magic I never found again.

John Flush
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Having played the original NES games, yeah both of them, I got a SNES for this game. Finding all the hearts, secrets, bottles, etc kept me hooked. The fact you could skip levels like you said (once I found the flame rod I usually just moved on until I had to go back and beat the boss - I did the Ice palace before the swamp my first time through - yeah, never again.) - It was amazing. Having played the original, throwing powder on the 'red bubbles' to reveal fairies that in the first game always stole my sword - sweet justice!

My wife replays this game along with me every few years - and she doesn't really play that many games. We played the GBA Minish cap as well - but it reeked of grinding to complete the whole thing (finding all the shells for random collectable chances - yuck). Getting everything in most zeldas since LttP is a chore.

LttP just feels *right* in size, complexity, and completion time.