Becky Reviews Console Classics: The Legend of Zelda – A Link To The Past

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I have always been a PC gamer. My mouse and keyboard have never steered me wrong, and I didn’t grow up with a console, so I’ve never found the need to learn the finer points of a D-pad. The inevitable side effect of this is that I don’t have anything but a cursory awareness of old-school console games. My knowledge of the classics is limited to childhood memories of occasional dabblings at friends’ houses. Unless it’s something that could be played on a Macintosh Classic, it’s probably not something I played through.

Recently, my friends decided that enough was enough. A package appeared on my doorstep, containing an FC Twin Famiclone console and a mess of game cartridges. It wasn’t even my birthday.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be chronicling my maiden voyages through the console classics. I thought it best to start my education with something iconic. Join me now as I begin my epic journey with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.

I went into the game thinking it was going to be a big ol’ helping of nostalgic kitsch. I figured the geek community’s enduring love for the Zelda franchise was akin to the feeling you get when you tuck into a bowl of boxed mac and cheese. You know that it’s junk food, but it’s still incredibly comforting.

It wasn’t long before I discovered how wrong I had been. A Link to the Past is not junk food. It’s one of the most challenging, satisfying games I’ve ever played.

Within minutes, I was impressed by the graphics for this game. Yes, the graphics. Yes, I am talking about a game that has this guy as the protagonist:

Graphics technology has come a hell of a long way in the last two decades, no doubt. But keeping that in mind, I found myself really appreciating what the art department had done with the tools available to them at the time. The Kingdom of Hyrule felt like a place, not just an arbitrary environment tacked up around some puzzles. Even Link, with his blocky face and stubby legs, was notably emotive. He became a real character for me, one that I could cheer on and get behind. The cartoonish 2D environment may not seem like much, but I found that the artwork was a big part of why the game had aged so well. Last year, I reinstalled Diablo II in a fit of nostalgia, only to give up a couple hours in. The once cutting-edge 3D environments were spread so thinly across my giant monitor that they gave me a headache – and keep in mind, Diablo II is only eleven years old. A Link To The Past’s simple pixels have preserved its playability.

But enough about artwork. Let’s get to the story. In days of yore, seven wise men created a magical seal to lock away some UNSPEAKABLE EVIL. The seal held for centuries, right up until some jerkface wizard named Agahnim decided to ruin everything for everybody. Agahnim kidnaps the descendents of the wise men – all helpless damsels, of course – whom he needs for his nefarious seal-opening ritual. By the time Link comes into the picture, Princess Zelda is the only descendant who hasn’t been magicked away. After you bust her out of the dungeon, you’re tasked with recovering three magical pendants, which will allow you to claim the straightforwardly named Master Sword. Shiny weapon in hand, you’re off to slay the wizard.

I was amused by how little the RPG format has changed over the years. Complete a designated number of big quests, do a few side quests in between, then head off to the final boss fight. Even stuff like Dragon Age: Origins follows those rules. However, that familiarity made me cocky. There I was, lounging on the couch, smug in the promise of impending success, victory beer cooling in the fridge, when suddenly…the game didn’t end. After confronting Agahnim, Link gets teleported to an alternate reality tainted by the aforementioned UNSPEAKABLE EVIL, and there’s a magic mirror, and crazy monsters, and puzzles that can only be completed by jumping between worlds, and…that’s when the game really starts.

Getting through to the end wasn’t easy. I had arrogantly assumed that an old game like this would be a cake walk. Silly me. The puzzles can be devilishly tricky, leaving me to wonder how kids ever got through it in the first place. I had some friends over for dinner the other night, and after seeing the console, they asked if they could watch me play for a while. In time, all four of us – college graduates, mind you – sat on the couch in dead silence, stumped by how to get onto a platform. Seriously, if you completed this game as a kid, you were a stone-cold genius, and I salute you.

Though the lack of direction could be maddening at times (if only some of the blocks can be pushed, THEN WHY DO THEY ALL LOOK THE SAME?!), I have to say that there’s something gratifying about a game that doesn’t hold my hand. I realized how conditioned I have been to expect a certain set of events before a boss fight: an autosave, preceded by a cache of potions and an NPC saying something to the effect of, “Are you sure there’s nothing else you want to do before you go in that room?” There’s none of that in A Link To The Past. There are no save points. Hints are rare. You just stroll into a room and the door slams behind you. Bam. Good luck. Oh, and if you die, you don’t spawn outside the room. You start from scratch at the beginning of the dungeon.

Hardcore, yo.

That merciless attitude is what makes this game so enjoyable. Completing a dungeon is a near religious experience, and in turn, the rewards feel all the more sweet. After I got the Master Sword – which, by the way, has a ranged attack if you’re at full health – I was unstoppable (note: not literally). I cackled the first time I killed two guards from across the room with it. There are claims that I kept yelling “COME AT ME, BRO,” but I assure you that I’m more eloquent than that.

Before you think that I’m jumping on the “old games were so much better” bandwagon, let me state for the record that there have been advances in gaming that I am deeply grateful for. I hope that whichever game developer came up with the idea of the enemy health meter has gone on to live a contented life full of warm cookies, sunshine, and fat, happy babies. Scoff all you want, but a boss fight in which I can’t tell if my weapon is doing any real damage is a pain, especially when the animation for “taking damage” and “something bouncing off harmlessly” looks rather similar. More than a few times, I found myself running in panicked circles around a boss, scrambling for something in my inventory that actually had some discernible effect (I would like to take a moment to thank artist Zac Gorman for his comic about one item in particular; I never would have made it through the first fight with Agahnim if I hadn’t remembered reading it). I love a good challenge, but when you factor in the “no save points” element, the boss fights could be a bit mean. On that same note, taking a break from a frustrating puzzle is nigh-on impossible when you know you’ll have to travel all the way back if you quit the game. Say what you will about modern developers dumbing things down, but I stand heartily in favor of the quick-save.

The 16-bit ribbon that tied the whole magical package together was the music. Chiptunes can quickly drive me up the wall, but there’s something about Koji Kondo’s sweeping score that never gets old. The instantly recognizable “Overworld” theme does indeed inspire a longing for adventure, and it didn’t take long for certain musical stings to have a downright Pavlovian effect on me. Take, for example, the boss fight at Death Mountain, which my dinner guests watched me attempt for the first time (no pressure). My tongue was between my teeth as my thumb circled around the D-pad, desperately dodging the boss’s movements while trying to avoid plunging off the platform. My hearts were disappearing. My thumb was getting tired. Finally, with one swift stroke, I landed the final blow. The boss exploded. The final pendant fell from the ceiling. As the victory music swelled, my friend leaned forward and whispered with exaggerated severity: “Hear that? That’s all for you.”

And I felt like a freaking hero.

Next time: Super Mario Bros.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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