I’ve seen my share of games across the ages. My first gaming experience was back around 1985 when my parents purchased our very first computer, the Macintosh 512K. And from that moment, I was hooked. I then quickly progressed to the Atari 2600, the Apple IIe, the NES, and eventually to a computer where you could actually make your own games in BASIC (which provided the inspiration for me to become a computer programmer). However, of all the systems I’ve ever owned or even laid my hands on, there was none more special than the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.
My parents bought it for me for Christmas of 1991, several months after its launch, and I remember my father and I playing Super Mario World together throughout the winter holiday break. In my mind, I lovingly call the days of the SNES “the Golden Era of gaming.” On one system, you had such wonderful titles from Nintendo, Rare, Squaresoft, Enix (then two separate companies!), Konami, Capcom, Maxis, and many more. Some of my best gaming memories came from this system, and even when I wasn’t playing, my imagination was running wild with dreams of the Dinosaur Land, Guardia (the AD1000 variant), Gaia’s Navel, and the bowels of Meridia.
Yet one of the games that would affect me most of all, a game that would speak to me like oh so few games would, came out in Japan in 1991. It would be my first Zelda game (though not for another year still); it would be The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
What was it that spoke to me about A Link to the Past? Gosh, where do I begin?
I remembered reading about the opening of the game before I actually played it for the first time. And emblazoned in the text of my magazine was the crazy idea that you could save the princess at the beginning of the game. It made it seem like you weren’t SUPPOSED to be able to do that! Yet there she was, just waiting for you in the first dungeon. Move over Mario and Luigi; I’m not going to drag your sorry behinds through eight worlds just to rescue some princess who doesn’t even look grateful when you save her; Link’s so awesome, he just dashes in and rescues her from the very get go.
Of course, it really wasn’t that simple, but my young adventurer could dream, couldn’t he?
What really impressed me about A Link to the Past was just how big the game was, big in the size of the world, big in the complexity of the dungeons, and big in terms of story. In its day and age, it was really something. It was perhaps the first game that I played where there was so much dialog and story crammed into that plastic cartridge, even if by today’s standards it’s just a mere drop in the bucket. And yet every couple of feet in the overworld, there was something entirely brand new to discover: a secret hole in the ground, a loose gravestone, a crack in the rocks, or an inviting cave to explore. It was so incredibly easy to get oneself completely lost in that world and then discover, six hours later, that it was already bedtime. But the world of Hyrule felt bigger and more alive than any other game I had played up until that point, and it completely sucked me into being an ardent fan of the series.
the world of Hyrule felt bigger and more alive than any other game I had played up until that point.
And the game did NOT make it easy on you. While certainly easier than The Legend of Zelda and MUCH easier than The Adventure of Link, the dungeons had their share of extremely difficult moments. Starting in the Tower of Hera, falling down to the 5th floor (and sometimes, unluckily, the 4th!) while fighting Moldorm proved to be a constant nuisance. The Swamp Palace proved to the first in a long line of complicated water dungeons. I learned to hate the Wallmasters of Skull Woods, who would constantly take me to places I did not want to go. Who could forget the absolutely devious crystal switch puzzle on the 6th basement of the Ice Palace? Misery Mire was a proverbial maze, and Turtle Rock threatened to use every last bit of magical power you had left. With a total of 13 dungeons (provided you count Hyrule Castle Tower), A Link to the Past still holds the record for being the Zelda game with the most dungeons… with the exception of the remake of A Link to the Past included with Four Swords, which adds an even more difficult 14th dungeon in the Pyramid of Power.
Yet the moderate difficulty was refreshing because you could easily scale the challenges on your own. One of my favorite pastimes in A Link to the Past was entering Turtle Rock and failing to heed the warnings telling me not to enter without a Green or Blue Potion to restore my magic. Making it through the dungeon without exhausting all of the magic decanters beneath the skulls requires knowing where you’re going and what you’re doing and isn’t a feat for the weary. I also had a fantastic time disregarding the “suggested order” of the dungeons and doing them out of order, something that The Legend of Zelda allowed as well. Since several of the dungeon items were either used in very special cases or weren’t even required at all to beat the game, there was a lot of freedom in choosing your preferred dungeon order. I definitely took it as a point of pride to know just how badly you could mess up the order and still beat the game.
Yet if the dungeons were difficult and the enemies fearless, A Link to the Past provided Link with perhaps a more impressive arsenal of weaponry with which to tackle them than any other game. With 28 different weapons and items (counting your sword, shield, and armor), many of which having many different upgrades and forms, Link had a variety of ways to take down his foes and conquer puzzles. Is there an invisible floor in the room? Feel free to use the Ether Medallion to make it appear for a second… or use the Cane of Somaria to push a block across it to see where it falls down. Is your shield insufficient to protect you from baddies? How about the Magic Cape or the Cane of Byrna? And if your swordplay isn’t enough to destroy your enemies? Why not unleash the power of Bombos? Or perhaps you should freeze them in place with the Ice Rod? Or maybe you just want to be devious and set free the Good Bee from one of your bottles? (And might I mention that about half of the items I just listed are not actually required to beat the game!)
A Link to the Past was also the inspiration for a good many tropes and memes that would ultimately find themselves reprising their appearances in almost every Zelda game thereafter. The Big Key was first introduced in A Link to the Past as one of the required dungeon items that needed to be obtained in each dungeon; however, surprisingly, the Big Key wasn’t used JUST for the room right before the boss; occasionally, they would move that door much earlier in the dungeon, keeping you from entering the last half of the dungeon before you were truly ready. The Master Sword was also birthed in this game, though its design in A Link to the Past differed from the classic blue hilt that Ocarina of Time would introduce and popularize. A Link to the Past would also give us items such as the Hookshot, the classic sweet-potato shape for the ocarina (though the instrument was just named the “Flute” in this game), the Mirror Shield, and empty Bottles.
Last but certainly not least, A Link to the Past also introduced the first true collection quest by hiding Pieces of Heart all over the map. Pieces of Heart would remain a mainstay in the Zelda games pretty much for the rest of the series (with the exception of the Four Swords titles, which followed the beat of their own drum anyway) and would stay true to four Pieces of Heart equaling one Heart Container throughout the series… except for Twilight Princess which would push that number to 5:1.
The game would also establish what would also be come to known as the Zelda Formula. While several of the handheld Zelda games would take the route of the original Zelda game by having eight dungeons with no particular element of plot being introduced along the way, A Link to the Past was the first Zelda game to follow the traditional plot outline that goes something like this:
- Link getting woken up out of bed.
- Something spurs Link into taking on an epic quest, usually having to leave a loved one to do so.
- Link must then go find three similar objects.
- The Master Sword reveals itself to Link, and Link pulls it from its pedestal.
- Link will encounter either the final boss or the guy pretending final boss.
- Something tragic and important happens.
- Link must then travel to N more dungeons in order to find N similar items (not to be confused with the three similar objects from earlier).
- Having found the N items, Link will journey to a castle in order to confront the final boss.
- The final boss fight will determine the fate of the Triforce and/or the world somehow.
Having just described A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, Phantom Hourglass, Skyward Sword and A Link Between Worlds (or at least fairly approximately), you can see how influential A Link to the Past was to the series. It provided a standard narrative in three acts. Act One shows the boy before he became a hero, Act Two is when he goes out and explores the world to discover the evil in the land, and Act Three is the beginning of the end as Link conquers the boss’ bastions of power and eventually the man with the puppet strings himself. It was the basic storyline that Zelda games would continue retreading through the present day.
The game would also establish what would also be come to known as the Zelda Formula.
A Link to the Past also houses one of gaming’s best and most elusive secret Easter eggs: the Chris Houlihan room. The room is a single cave-like dwelling that houses 225 rupees and a Telepathy Tile, which simply says, “My name is Chris Houlihan. This is my top secret room. Keep it between us, okay?” The mention comes from the fact that Chris Houlihan won a contest in Nintendo Power magazine in 1990 where the reward was to get a cameo appearance in A Link to the Past. Perhaps unfortunately, this top-secret room was practically a mystery for many years until the magic of the Internet distributed information about its existence. Getting to the room requires the use of a one of two subtle glitches in the programming that forces the game to load into a room that doesn’t exist within the memory mapping of the locations. In this event, the game auto-corrects by sending you there instead rather than dumping you into some garbage area like the 256th level of Pac-Man. Most Zelda fans who manage to find their way there do so with a note of pride and geek cred.
One of the last bits that I found truly inspiring about A Link to the Past doesn’t actually come from the game itself. I know full well that this will cause a small stir of controversy, but I for one absolutely loved the instruction manual that came with the game. The booklet was completely filled with official artwork along with concept artwork, and it tickled my imagination every time I took a leaf through it. Specifically, I completely relished the first six pages of the manual, which goes over in detail what was then the full history of the world of Hyrule up until that point.
While this would not cause much of a stir for many years yet to come, eventually those six pages would become the bane of existence for a handful of fanatics of the series. It wasn’t until Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask were introduced when the concept of the Legend of Zelda timeline would come into sharp debate amongst the people of the community. Ultimately, it would be discovered, now that the power of the Internet could bring together people from all over the world to share their Zelda stories, that the opening six pages of the manual were more or less the creation of exorbitant creative license by the folks at Nintendo of America as the manual’s description of history would end up conflicting with the backstory of the Master Sword and the Seven Sages of Ocarina of Time. Almost all who quested for the discovery of the timeline would end up rejecting every ounce of that manual, and some more extreme folk would ooze constant ire and hatred for Nintendo’s Treehouse (the localization department) and subsequently insist upon returning to the Japanese to discover a superior “translation,” even though a perfectly accurate translation of the manual text was never Nintendo of America’s true goal to begin with.
However, we’re still back in 1991, and, this early in the series, having all of those pages of history and lore filling my head made me fall in love with the world of Hyrule in ways that even games I have enjoyed more than Zelda could not do. A Link to the Past was the game that would excite me so much that, to this day, I have not found any other fandom that brings me more joy and pleasure. It was the game that started me down the road of living and breathing Zelda.
The Zelda train doesn’t stop here though. The world outside Japan would end up getting A Link to the Past in 1992, and it would be an epic event indeed. But that wasn’t the only thing that happened; stay tuned because next year is an exciting year for everyone.