With Breath of the Wild arguably creating the most intense buzz for a Zelda game since the resounding praise for Ocarina of Time, it is easy to get caught up in the excitement– for good reason. The game is incredible! With the freedom to navigate every inch of land on the map in a visually stunning open world, filled with all the (nearly) endless hours of fresh Zelda-ing that we have all thirsted for over the decades, it is easy to champion this new gem as the most important installment in the series.
However, I’ve heard a lot of people making the argument that Ocarina of Time is actually the supreme Zelda game. At the end of the day, this is at least a partially subjective discussion that is nearly impossible to be fully objective about. When it comes to Zelda, I have found it’s hard to completely separate your personal feelings, stemming from the order in which you played the games and the corresponding nostalgia, from your overall opinion. However, when I hear people comparing OOT with BOTW, with a few others even chiming in with Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess— and the odd voice championing the odd complexity of Majora’s Mask— I can’t help but add one more point of contention to the debate:
What About A Link to the Past?
Personally, I like to move away from the rhetoric of comparing one game to another by which is the “best.” I know I’m not alone in believing that A Link To The Past might just be a favorite Zelda game, but I’d be surprised to hear if I was in the majority. Which I understand. For the modern gamer, A Link To The Past may seem like rather unassuming competition. However, when contextualizing the time in which the game was released, it is important that we don’t forget about the amazing contributions that it made to the series…
The first Legend of Zelda title builds an awesome foundation, and Zelda 2 makes some cool contributions, but A Link to the Past is the first to encapsulate nearly everything that makes Zelda iconic with precision… Rather than chime in with my opinion on why it’s “better” than any of the other Nintendo masterpieces, I’d like to focus this article on the iconic impact A Link To The Past made on the franchise moving forward, because many of these contributions have had a tremendous ripple effect on the greatness of the rest of the series.
Plot (And Side-Plots)
The storyline lays the foundation for all of its. The idea of a “light” and a “dark” Hyrule finds visually innovative ways of recurring in Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess, but it manages to be just as successful here, in its 2-dimensional inception.
By creating a map full of diverse geographical regions, populated by different species of friend and foe, and featuring unique puzzles, dungeons, and temples, the groundwork formula for a lot of the rest of the series is more or less constructed.
The storyline is one that becomes quite commonly referenced in future Zelda games, in one way or another: pass through 3 dungeons, get the Master Sword, save Princess Zelda, defeat 7 more dungeons, access the final dungeon, and defeat Ganon. Ocarina of Time and Windwaker follow this structure clearly and distinctly, but elements of this structure still exist in others– including, to some extent, Breath of the Wild.
As engaging as the storyline is, it is also just as successful to veer off into sidequests and extraneous adventuring. There are awesome hidden treasures, like items and weapons, that can only be found by exploring away from the storyline, which adds a whole lot of incentive to engage with a map that, for the time, was incredibly impressive– and in many ways still is.
Basically, A Link to the Past was the first Zelda installation to present an engaging story that is well designed with precise pacing while also creating a world that is alluring enough to veer off course.
What I love about it is that I always felt that veering off course feels just as valuable as staying on, if not more. Basically, the game gives you the freedom to strike your balance, which is a wildly enjoyable and liberating experience.
The later Zelda games take this aspect to new extremes. There’s a lot to draw on here. The Biggoron’s Sword. The elaborate, multi-layered side quests to obtain every mask in order to Majora’s Mask; thinking of you, Anju and Kafei. Breath of the Wild’s immense hours of micro-stories, shrine quests, and intense amount of Korok seeds. In my opinion, upgrading the Master’s Sword with the Tempered Sword through the Dwarven Swordsmith is as awesome as any of these. And that’s just one example.
Unlike a lot of 2-D adventure games, the difficulty is manageable. This isn’t the kind of game that consistently has you wandering cluelessly, but that’s not to say the puzzles don’t get extremely puzzling, and that the bosses don’t sometimes make you throw the controller.
In many ways, this is the closest to an “open world” that exists within the series until Breath of the Wild. Still, the major points in the storyline remain as some of the most epic in the Zelda series: finding the master sword, entering the dark world, and the Triforce sequence at the end… Beautiful, mysterious, strange, and incredible.
Music & Effects
The Super Nintendo allowed a little less freedom than Ocarina of Time in this regard. But the music’s importance in the gameplay takes on an epic level between the adventuring and the intense dungeons in Link to the Past. Link to the Past has an incredible sense of atmosphere, and the music plays into that in a major way; especially with the difference between music in the “light” and “dark” worlds. A diverse array of sound is created to suit very specific environments, and it adds an unforgettable element to the game. Obviously, this is an element of the Zelda experience which Miyamoto & co. have continued to prioritize.
Zelda’s Lullaby and the themes for Hyrule Castle and Ganon make their first appearance in this game, although they are certainly developed when they return in Ocarina of Time. To put it in perspective, although the sound quality is not allowed to be as crisp, some of the Zelda touring symphony’s most popular tunes come from A Link to the Past.
As far as the 2-Dimensional Zelda games go, this one makes the most profound impact on the rest of the series. The original Zelda is obviously important, and extremely impressive as an initial stab, but most of the best ideas from that game are perfected in LTTP. Link’s Awakening is fantastic, but it feels more like a spin-off from the series, and anything that “was just a dream” will be eternally annoying to a large amount of us. Still, the graphics are impressive, and they stand up as more-than-playable today. Atmospherically, it is amazing what is created within the constraints of what was available to game developers in the earliest years of the ‘90s.
Weapons, Equipment, and Conventions
The Master Sword, now one of the most iconic staples of the series, is introduced beautifully in this game. Honestly, is there a single item that is more quintessentially “Zelda” than the Master Sword? With the added introduction of the hookshot, and the first incarnation of boots that allow you to hover in open air, as well Link’s abilities to play music by harnessing the ethereal Ocarina and learn magic spells– it is safe to say that Link’s skillset and range of abilities get a significant makeover that will help him for generations to come.
Moldorms play a major part, Moblins take on their famous facial structure, and all sorts of enemies are created and added to the common Zelda repertoire.
Elemental dungeons are brought into play. 3-Dimensional graphics certainly allow these ideas to be taken further, but the introduction of forest, fire, and ice dungeons obviously prove to be important ones for the series. Locations like Lake Hylia, Kakariko Village, and many other aspects of geographical Hyrule are also added to the Hyrule landscape. As mentioned previously, the plot structure is repeated nearly verbatim in at least two other Zelda games.
To say that this game did not have a major impact on the elements of the legendary history of Link, Zelda, and Hyrule would be a statement based in pure ignorance.
The importance of these aspects should go without saying.
I mean no disrespect to the first Legend of Zelda game, which I have often cited as if it is nothing but a springboard for A Link to the Past. This franchise began by setting an extremely high bar; at one time, the first was the only home-console game to ever sell a million copies.
What makes this franchise incredible is that the bar always seems to get higher, and the next title almost always finds a way of matching or topping. After Skyward Sword, Zelda’s creators felt like the general “Zelda” structure, which was largely impacted by A Link to the Past, had exhausted its possibilities– especially in comparison with modern, open-world gaming.
In abandoning many of the “Legend of Zelda” conventions that have arisen of the years, Breath of the Wild returns to many of the other elements of Zelda games that have not been seen since A Link to the Past; a more open world concept, choice in the order of dungeons, and a world rich with hidden treasures, like weapons and equipment, that are fully optional.
Each time Link wields the master sword, uses the power of song, is pulled directly through the open air gripping the handle of his hookshot, or steps temporarily on open air thanks to fleet footwear– you have this installment of the franchise to thank. The generations of eccentric characters who continue to populate Kakariko Village, the view of Lake Hylia, and the sensation of gliding while grabbing the underbelly of a shrieking cuckoo– these are all products of the creation of A Link to the Past.
Choose any of the titles mentioned as this piece as the “best” Zelda game, and it would be hard to objectively argue with that. What cannot be argued, however, is the incredibly profound impact that A Link to the Past managed to have, and continues to have, on the masterful Legend of Zelda mythos that has created the most critically acclaimed and, arguably, most successful gaming franchise of all time.
It doesn’t have to be a competition, but in many ways, A Link to the Past simply can’t compare to the amazing 3-dimensional realities created within Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Windwaker, Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword, and Breath of the Wild. However, in other ways, they can’t compare to A Link to the Past; and each and every one of them owes a lot to the innovations and additions created within the framework of the 1991 classic’s exceptional gaming experience.