Thursday, August 18, 2022

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

A Link Well-Kept

I am not a Legend of Zelda fan; there, I said it. My experience with Nintendo’s fabled franchise has, since I first experienced The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on the Super NES, been grossly inconsistent, although the first and only sixteen-bit entry of the series was positive for me, to the point where I would happily replay it throughout my early life as a gamer. Regardless of whatever adulation entries in the series would receive, in some cases near-universal, I would encounter serious issues of which I believe mainstream gamers need to be aware before playing. My latest experience with the SNES title subtitled Triforce of the Gods in Japan would be on the Nintendo 3DS’s Virtual Console. Does it still hold up today?

Before starting a new game, players can see the elaborate backstory on the Golden Land, the celestial land where the mystical Triforce lies, although the wizard Aghanim seeks to eliminate the descendants of seven sages sealing the sacred realm, among his last target being Princess Zelda, telepathically calling out to Link, who rescues her yet becomes public enemy number one in Hyrule. The narrative was definitely good for its time and has reasonable pacing given the game’s meager length, with Link himself receiving some background as to his ancestry, the bulk of scenes occurring after boss fights in Dark World dungeons, along with a satisfactory ending. There are some tried tropes such as a damsel in distress and legendary hero, but otherwise, the plot rises well above average.

The translation, however, is one of the game’s weak points, and largely fell victim to Nintendo of America’s draconian censorship guidelines that eliminated any religious references, such as Aghanim in the Japanese version being a priest allegedly with celestial origin. They even edited the Hylian language based on Egyptian hieroglyphs on the grounds it had religious references, despite its symbolism of a religion hardly anyone has practiced for millennia. There’s also a bit of awkwardness, for instance, with reference to the Sanctuary as “Sanctuary” minus “the”, which accounts for lines such as “This path leads to Sanctuary” and “The soldiers are coming to Sanctuary!” The writing was definitely a step above the NES Zeldas, but otherwise unremarkable.

The gameplay, for the most part, backs the experience well. Early on, Link receives his sword from his uncle, able to slash at enemies with it with a decent semicircular range in front of him, as well as to “charge” it and either keep it extended to poke at foes or execute a spinning attack, useful for when adversaries surround him. He also starts with three heart containers indicative of his health that, when depleted, mark his demise, with the biggest penalty of death being the player needing to restart from one of a few fixed points and have Link retrace his steps, with the player’s postmortem playthrough only partially recovering the Link’s life points.

Link also acquires a number of tools that can aid him in his crusade against Aghanim such as a boomerang useful for stunning most enemies from afar and making them more vulnerable to his melee attacks, not to mention collecting random drops such as health/magic point recovery and rupees in case they’re out of range. One particular tool that can actually be the difference between victory and defeat is the bottle, with Link able to acquire a maximum of four throughout the game, and can store things such as fairies that revive him with partial health when he dies, and potions that can fully recover his life points, magic points, or both.

Link does eventually acquire increases to his maximum health, first at the Sanctuary (or just “Sanctuary” as the translation terms it), and then from the various bosses he defeats at the end of dungeons, for a total of ten acquired as part of the main storyline. Twenty hearts is the maximum amount of health he can possibly acquire, with many quarter-heart pieces scattered throughout the Light and Dark equivalents of Hyrule, with the acquisition of any four of these lengthening his life meter by one heart. In contrast, Link has fixed magic points, although he can find a shrine to halve spell costs.

Dungeon bosses tend to involve some sort of trick to defeat them, most of the time through the use of whatever tool Link gains within their respective temples, and generally don’t take a whole lot of time to defeat, the same going for the final battle. While bottling fairies and healing potions can allow some room for error in those regards (though in some cases I actually took more damage from regular enemies and environments than many bosses), finding the bottles themselves may necessitate use of a guide, and inexperienced players in general might find it a tad difficult to go into the game blind with regards especially to the final boss. Regardless, A Link to the Past’s take on the signature series gameplay contains enough refinement to make it more than bearable.

As a Virtual Console game on the Nintendo 3DS, the sole sixteen-bit Zelda has a major enhancement in the form of the ability to create a single-slot save state, which in general nullifies whatever quibbles the player may have with the save system, enemies, and dungeon design, the last in particular being sometimes irritating, and as A Link to the Past doesn’t indicate when chambers have keys in them like Link’s Awakening and its remakes, using a key in the last dungeon on a door between two rooms reachable without one by stairs on the floor above can easily leave players lost. However, the puzzles are generally enjoyable and solvable without referencing the internet, and both the overworld and dungeons have helpful in-game maps. There are other issues such as the lack of fast-travel in the Dark World, but otherwise, the game’s control aspect rises moderately above average.

The franchise’s regular composer Koji Kondo provided the soundtrack, which has many signature themes such as the Light World overworld music, not to mention jingles such as the “discovery” and item acquisition tunes. The pregame backstory music appears in two different varieties, as well, and the Light and Dark World dungeon themes provide good ambience and mystery. “Zelda’s Lullaby” also made its first appearance, and other tracks prove solid such as the main Dark World music and its respective Death Mountain melody. Granted, the near-death alarm native to the franchise returns (which wouldn’t have been too annoying if it stopped after a couple of beeps), and there are other aural oddities such as the “Oof!” from soldiers that notice Link, but otherwise, sound is one of the game’s high points.

The visuals were well above average for an early 16-bit game, with vibrant colors and environments that appear radiant and contain unique twists such as the ringed designs of the trees, and there are some nice effects such as a few character sprites, namely the soldiers of Hyrule and maybe some NPCs, turning their heads, with Link’s sprite showing different moods as well, along with fluid animation for all models. There are some good weather and illumination effects as well, namely in the Lost Woods’ Light and Dark World variations. However, there is some rare slowdown when multiple sprites populate the screen, and some character sprites like Aghanim’s may look odd depending upon how you look at them, but otherwise, A Link to the Past was and still is a nice-looking game.

Finally, despite its scope, the sole sixteen-bit Zelda is fairly short, with skilled players potentially able to finish it in a little over six hours, but those who are new to it may take longer, with absolute completion due to things such as finding every heart piece and all tools possibly necessitating up to twelve hours’ worth of playtime, with little lasting appeal otherwise aside from self-imposed challenges.

When all is said and done, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, has, for the most part, and pun intended, stood the test of time, given its particular refinement of the signature game mechanics working far better than in its eight-bit predecessors and even many of its sequels on future systems, the effective puzzles which luckily don’t tax the mind, quality-of-life features such as in-game maps, the intricate story and mythos, and solid audiovisual presentation. Granted, it does show its age in a few respects, such as the potential difficulty of going into it blind, the possibility of getting stuck in the final dungeon, the awkward translation, and general absence of lasting appeal, but certainly doesn’t scream “the early 1990s”, and is undoubtedly the definitive top-down Zelda experience.

This review is based on a playthrough of a digital copy downloaded to the player’s Nintendo 3DS.

The Good:
+Refined Zelda gameplay.
+Great mythos.
+Excellent soundtrack.
+Good visuals.

The Bad:
-Might be hard to go into blind.
-Some occasional tricky dungeon design.
-Lackluster translation.
-Little reason to replay.

The Bottom Line:
The definitive top-down Zelda experience.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console
Game Mechanics: 8.5/10
Controls: 7.0/10
Story: 9.0/10
Localization: 5.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 6.0/10
Difficulty: Moderate
Playing Time: 6-12 Hours

Overall: 7.5/10

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