GAMING GREATS: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991)

Rod goes to Hyrule to celebrate a quarter-century of Link’s third adventure. 

Who made it?: Nintendo EAD (Developer), Nintendo (Publisher).

Platform: SNES, Game Boy Advance.

Format: Cartridge.

Released: November 21, 1991. 

25 years ago, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and it is one of my favourite titles in the longrunning series. At the time of its release, it was the third entry in the franchise. The Legend of Zelda (1986) and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1987) were sequential, with the Link featured in them being the same. Set in a period long before the previous two, the third game has you play as another Link entirely. If you thought that was confusing already, you haven’t seen anything yet; The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) is set even further back, acting as a prequel to the backstory of A Link to the Past. But, back in the early 90s, the timeline was very simple compared to how it is nowadays. All you need to do is ask the Angry Video Game Nerd to find out how complicated and chronologically-confusing things became!

While the first had a manual that told you what happened before the beginning of the actual quest, and an introductory screen of text giving you a basic outline of the story, A Link to the Past was the first in the series to go more in-depth about events that transpired in the past. This is done via an introductory cutscene, as well as the manual (remember those?!), telling the player about other aspects of the world, such as how the Land of Hyrule was created. If you don’t press anything and let the game run, you will be able to watch the aforementioned cutscene that talks about a Golden Power that is hidden in a Golden Land. People aggressively sought to enter this land but never returned once they did. An evil power begins to emanate from the Golden Land, and so the King of Hyrule commands that seven wise men are sent to seal the gate that leads to the Land of the Golden Power. Over time, these events became legend.

In the present, Princess Zelda has been imprisoned by an evil wizard named Agahnim, who came to Hyrule to unlock the seal to the Golden Land, and to get rid of the current King of Hyrule, Zelda’s father. He intends to send her to the Dark World, which happens to be the Golden Land. But first, he sends six Maidens – six of the descendants of the seven wise men, with Zelda being the seventh – to be imprisoned there within crystals. Link in this game has an Uncle (we never find out his actual name) who goes to the castle to rescue the Princess, telling Link to stay put, but he doesn’t do as instructed. Upon finding his Uncle, he sees he has been mortally-wounded in battle, and before he dies, he gives Link his sword and shield to rescue Zelda. After you escape the castle with the Princess, Link brings her to a Sanctuary where she will reside whilst Link searches for the legendary Master Sword.

This leads into the first portion of the game where Link, in order to obtain the Master Sword, must find three pendants located in three dungeons. The Pendant of Courage, the Pendant of Power and the Pendant of Wisdom. Link will receive these at the end of the final boss fight of each dungeon, along with an extra heart to extend your health, as in Legend of Zelda games past and present. Once you have all three pendants, you can then pull the Master Sword from its pedestal in the Lost Woods. Upon obtaining the Master Sword, you will receive a message from Zelda begging you to return to the Sanctuary. But by the time you arrive, Agahnim already has the Princess in his clutches once again. Link returns to the castle and battles his way to Agahnim, but he is too late, because Zelda is magically teleported away.

After Link fights Agahnim, who is actually revealed to be series regular “big bad” Ganon, he is teleported to the Dark World. In order to finally rescue Princess Zelda, Link must travel to seven dungeons to free seven Maidens who have been imprisoned by Ganon. Each Maiden will be released from captivity once Link has defeated the final boss of the dungeon in which they reside. The concluding fight with Ganon will then take place inside the Pyramid where Link appeared when he first enters the Dark World. The Dark World is a version of Hyrule that has a completely different look in terms of the environment, the buildings and the people you can interact with. The actual map of Hyrule is the same in terms of geographical locations. But not all of these areas can be accessed straight away. Link actually gets a taste of the Dark World earlier in the game when he has to find the entrance to the dungeon which holds the Pendant of Wisom; the final Pendant needed to obtain the Master Sword. An example of how different the environment looks is the location of the first dungeon. The path to get to it is drastically different and maze-like. Link also requires the help of a monkey to open the entrance of the dungeon as well.

The previous game, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, was a 2D sidescrolling affair. But A Link to the Past returns to the top-view perspective of the first, and the only thing carried over from the second is the ability to use Magic. A Magic Meter is located top-left of the screen, next to a box that shows what item Link currently has equipped. Beside that is the number of Rupees Link has collected, followed by an indicator of how many bombs Link has in his inventory. Then another which shows how many arrows Link can use, as well as one that shows how many keys Link has in his possession whilst in a dungeon. When in dungeons, you will find various items that are useful. The Map will show you the entire layout, with highlighted rooms that show where Link has already been, and blank ones to indicate where he has yet to explore. The Compass will show you where the boss is located. Small Keys unlock small doors, and Big Keys unlock doors to boss rooms, and the rooms where Link will find the special item of each dungeon.

The weapons Link discovers in his quest are the Fighter’s Sword, Master Sword, Tempered Sword, and Golden Sword. Range weapons are the Bow and Arrows, Bow and Silver Arrows, Boomerang, and the Magical Boomerang, which is red instead of blue and can travel the farthest. However, you have to do something specific at a certain point in the game, in a certain hidden location, in order to obtain the Magical Boomerang. And you also can’t go wrong with Bombs, which not only destroy enemies but can uncover secrets by blowing up cracks in the environment or inside buildings that you find throughout the game.

And as with other Zelda games before and since, you also find a variety of items to help Link throughout the adventure. Empty bottles can be used to carry Medicine of Life, Medicine of Magic and a combination of the two. Using a bug-catching net, you can capture Fairies to store in a bottle, which will replenish Link’s health, either by manually using it, or automatically using it after you lose all your health, provided you have it equipped as your current item. In the top-right of the screen are the number of hearts available, which are obviously an indicator of the status of Link’s health. At the beginning of the quest, Link will only have three, but when you defeat the final boss of a dungeon, you will obtain an extra. There are also Heart Pieces you can discover or be rewarded with. When you collect four of these, you will obtain another heart to add to Link’s life. Link can also discover items like the Shovel, which should be self-explanatory as to its function. Magic Powder is an item that has various uses with various effects as a result, and once you obtain this item, you can experiment in order to discover exactly what it can do. The Magic Mirror allows travel from the Dark World back to the Light World, and to return back to the Dark World, Link must touch the sparkling spot that has appeared. It can also allow Link to warp back to the entrance of any dungeon when used whilst inside one!

Then there are three Medallions Link can find. The Bombos Medallion allows Link to perform a magical spin attack where he sends out a ring of fire that cause explosions in every direction, causing enemies to be set alight. The Ether Medallion allows Link to create a pulse of lightning that attacks enemies, freezing those who don’t die outright, and it is a requirement of the game that you obtain this as it opens the sixth Dark World dungeon, Misery Mire. And the third one is the Quake Medallion that creates an earthquake by Link thrusting the Master Sword into the ground, which will only affect ground-based enemies, either destroying them or turning them into a Slime enemy, and this medallion is required in order to access the seventh Dark World dungeon, known as Turtle Rock.

You will also find items that function as both items and weapons, such as the Hookshot, which not only allows you to grapple onto specific things to bring you over to another section of the map, but can also hurt certain enemies, and is even crucial in a couple of boss fights, too. Pegasus Shoes are given to Link as a reward for obtaining the Pendant of Courage, and these allow Link to dash in a straight line, either horizontally or vertically, from one side of the screen to another if nothing is blocking the way. When you use the dash move, Link will hold his sword outwards and this allows you to destroy enemies as you dash through them. The only thing is you can’t change direction during a dash. A Lantern allows Link to light torches as well as for hurting enemies. And another is the Hammer, which allows you to flatten certain wooden stumps to access blocked areas, and to turn an enemy with a hard helmet on its head, known as a Helmasaur, onto its back so you can attack its belly to destroy it. Then you have the Ice Rod and Fire Rod items that also function as items and weapons, too, and shoot ice projectiles and fire blasts respectively.

The combat in A Link to the Past is very easy to get the hang of. You have standard melee attacks with your sword, and you can also do a spin move that requires you to hold the attack button down for a couple of seconds before releasing it to unleash the spin attack. But there’s more to combat than just attacking. Link obtains defensive equipment to prevent enemy attacks from doing damage, or reducing the amount of damage Link sustains. The Fighter’s Shield can block enemy arrows, and rocks that the Octorok enemy spits at you, but not much else. The Red Shield blocks what the Fighter’s Shield can, as well as small fireballs. The Mirror Shield blocks everything the previous two can, adding the ability to block laser beams as well. But when using any of these shields, make sure you don’t use a weapon as a projectile flies at you, because Link won’t be able to block it. Other things that provide defence against attacks are the Blue Mail and Red Mail, types of armour that Link can wear, that are much more effective than his standard Green Tunic. The Blue Mail reduces damage received from enemies by 50%, and the Red Mail is twice as effective.

The aforementioned Slime, Helmasaur and Octorok enemies, the latter being a recurring antagonist in the series, aren’t the only kinds you will face. There are various kinds of Soldiers who have been brainwashed, each with their own weapons and traits. The regular Soldiers just wield daggers, and don’t perform any attacks other than charging at Link when they see him. Sword Soldiers come in three types; the common Green, the stronger Blue, and ones that wear blue-horned armour and are really aggressive. They are able to defend against Link’s sword attacks so you have to strike them on the side of their body that doesn’t have the sword. All varieties of Soldiers can also wield Spears, Bows or Bombs. There are also varieties of Chain and Ball Troopers, named after the fact they use a spiked ball attached to a chain as a weapon.

More recurring enemies Link will fight include the Armos, which are statues that will come to life and attack once touched; the blue and red varieties of Tektite, which are spiders with one big eye that jump around the screen; Zora fish monsters that live in water and will attack Link by spitting fireballs at him; Wallmasters which are giant hands that will grab you and take you back to the beginning of a dungeon if you don’t dodge them; Moblins which were originally called Molblins, and function in the same way, except instead of having a bulldog head, they have  pig-like one. And finally the Lynel, who in A Link to the Past shoot fireballs from their mouths instead of shooting sword-like projectiles as they do in The Legend of Zelda. Some of the enemies making their debut in this one are the Poes, ghosts that appear in large groups and once defeated will drop Magic Jars or Arrows, and Buzz Blobs which will shock Link if he attacks with any sword other than the Golden Sword, unless you first stun them using the Boomerang. The only other weapon that can kill them without needing to stun them first  is an Arrow shot from your Bow.

What you get with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is a game that, at the time, was the largest Zelda title, with a lot more areas to explore just within Hyrule itself, let alone in the dungeons you enter. There are many secrets littered throughout the land, some of which are easy to spot whilst others require more perseverance. You could possibly finish the game and not find all of the secrets. Puzzles are also a huge factor in the Legend of Zelda games, requiring you to think outside the box to come up with solutions. Some are as simple as lighting four torches in a room to make that environment extend and reveal a door to go through. You will definitely find plenty of replay value to be had, if you’re someone who loves games where you explore and find trinkets. Hell, I didn’t even know you could obtain the red Magical Boomerang until many years after first playing!

What also makes these games great is Japanese video game composer and sound director Koji Kondo, who provided the music and sound effects for not only A Link to the Past and other Zelda titles, but many other Nintendo franchises as well. He has been with Nintendo since 1983, working on many games, most notably releases in the Super Mario Bros. and Star Fox series. I would argue that the scores he has provided throughout his career have been some of the most memorable and iconic in the history of video games. One of the most memorable sound effects has to be the one you hear when discovering a secret or obtaining an item, and one of the most memorable themes has to be his Legend of Zelda main title. And like film composer John Williams, when you hear a composition by Kondo, you can definitely tell who composed it.

In the days before Gamefaqs, Google and YouTube, finding solutions to games were done through calling a helpline or buying a magazine containing a guide. I remember when I first played this game as a kid, I became stuck trying to figure out how to enter the second dungeon, the entrance of which is blocked, and the only way to gain access is to translate an inscription. I found a tome called The Book of Mudora inside a house in Kakariko Village that was lying on top of a book shelf. But I didn’t know how to obtain it, even though the solution was so simple – use the dash move unlocked after possessing the Pegasus Shoes and knock it off! Surprisingly, it took a while for me to figure this out and is a good example of what you’re in for.

Overall, A Link to the Past is a bona fide classic that really needs to be played, especially if you’re really interested in retro games. Why do I consider this one of my favourite Legend of Zelda adventures? It is partly due to nostalgia, I must admit, but not in a “I think this is perfect” kind of way. Graphics and gameplay have been done better in later entries, yet those elements are still strong points here, and the gameplay is still satisfying for me. If you’re playing it for the first time, exploring areas and looking for secrets can be fun, and if you haven’t played it for a long time, then there’s joy in trying to remember where all the secrets are located. I would like to sincerely thank Shigeru Miyamoto for creating The Legend of Zelda franchise and for keeping us enchanted for so many years…

Useless Trivia

(Via Wikipedia)
  • Released to critical and commercial success, A Link to the Past was a landmark title for Nintendo and is widely considered today to be one of the greatest video games of all time. Over four million units of the game have been sold worldwide. A Link to the Past was ported to the Game Boy Advance with slight changes, and is available for the Wii, Wii U, and New Nintendo 3DS via the Virtual Console.
  • At the time, most SNES game cartridges had 4 Mbit (512 KB) of storage space. This game broke the trend by using 8 Mbit (1 MB), allowing the Nintendo development team to create a remarkably expansive world for Link to inhabit.
  • A soundtrack to Kamigami no Triforce, entitled The Legend of Zelda: Sound and Drama, was released by Sony Records in Japan on June 22, 1994. The first disc is 44 minutes long and features rearranged versions of a selection of the game’s themes, along with a bonus drama track. The second disc features 54 minutes of the original arrangements for the game and those of the original NES game, The Legend of Zelda.
  • A comic book adaptation of A Link to the Past illustrated by Shotaro Ishinomori was published in Nintendo Power that was serialized for twelve issues from January to December 1992. The comic was then re-released as a trade paperback in 1993. The comic is a loose adaptation of the original game’s story, featuring several plot changes and new characters.

Rod Petrie

Gamer since 1988 at the age of five. First system was the Nintendo Entertainment System. Favourite retro systems - NES, SNES, N64, MegaDrive, PS1, and PS2.

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