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Looking back on A Link to the Past

Nintendo has announced a new game in Zelda's Link to the Past universe. Leigh Alexander reflects on what made the original game world special, and why we'd welcome it especially these days.

Leigh Alexander

April 22, 2013

5 Min Read

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.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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