I've recently begun an impromptu marathon of sorts of the Legend of Zelda series. Since this is my first time playing these games (except for Zelda 2, which I've had for over ten years at this point and still haven't completely beaten...yeah...), I thought it might be fun to make a rambling chronicle of some of my thoughts on each game I play. So, without further ado...
A Brief Summary: Zelda 2
This game is basically Medieval Death Simulator 1987. It’s not so much that the enemies are difficult (though some of them are), but more that once you die, the game resets and you go all the way back to the very beginning (though you retain progress you’ve made towards leveling, completed bosses/levels/palaces stay defeated, and items stay in your inventory). Fighting your way back to wherever you were can get very frustrating after the tenth time. Also, good luck finishing this game without a walkthrough. There are numerous essential items, spells, and even location that the game really doesn’t clue you in on how to find. Also also, there’s next to no story in the game itself (though the instruction manual gives a bit of context if you have it). Taking all that into account, however, the game’s challenges are not impossible to overcome, and it’s highly rewarding every time you manage to snag a new item or defeat another boss. It also has a pretty big “open world” for its time that’s fun to explore. Furthermore, it has a surprisingly well-developed theme for a game with such a sparse story: that theme being one of maturing, accepting responsibility, and learning to survive in the “real” world. For instance, one small section of the map is identical to the map from the original game—implying that it was “kid stuff,” if you will, compared to the more expansive and challenging Zelda 2. In addition, many of the NPC’s have repetitive and utterly useless dialogue such as “good day” or “nice to meet you.” While this was no doubt done to preserve cartridge space, it gives the impression of being in a world where everything is routine and no imagination is necessary, and instills a sense of loneliness (since mot of your interactions aren’t meaningful)…which is what reality is like for many adults stuck in boring jobs. And of course, the greater difficulty of the game makes it seem to have much higher stakes than the original. All in all, this is not a bad game, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
A Link to the Past
A prequel to the original two games, LttP established the formula for most of the subsequent games in much the same way as Goldfinger established the formula for the later Bond movies. (Kind of an odd comparison, but just go with it. ) It’s also a huge step up from the prior games—the graphics look better, there’s an actual (albeit simple) plot and characters, it’s gameplay is more intuitive, and you can complete it without a walkthrough (though it can be a bit obtuse at times, so you may still want to consult a walkthrough if you really can’t figure out what to do).
The plot does a wonderful job of creating a fairy tale-esque atmosphere. You have to collect three items to gain a magical sword (three is a very common number in fairy tales), after which you must rescue seven maidens (the number seven and rescuing maidens are also classic components of fairy tales) who’ve been imprisoned by Ganon in an alternate dimension (fairy tales often involve a quest to defeat evil that involves travelling to a land with no clear physical connection to the real world). A number of smaller details along the way add to this, such as the witch who sells you healing potions, the pond fairy who gives you better items if you throw certain things into her pond (much like the fable of the Honest Woodman), and the dwarven smiths who will temper your sword if you rescue one of them. It also has the lack of emotional realism common to traditional fairy tales—the characters’ motivations are simple, they don’t change, and there’s no ambiguity about good and evil. Lastly, the ending is unambiguously triumphant—by obtaining the Triforce, you completely restore Hyrule, even bringing the King back from the dead. All these things together make the game very charming in much the same manner as Grimms’ Fairy Tales.
The simple graphics compliment that sense of charm very well. Much as the characters are simple, and the physics and biology are fantastical, the graphics are stylized and abstract. (Some time later, The Wind Waker took a similarly took a stylized approach to add a sense of innocence and charm to the game, from what I’ve been told.) As far as I’m concerned, LttP’s graphics compliment its story perfectly.
The gameplay, by and large, is great. You start with three hearts and no items. As you gain more health and items, you really start to feel your character progressing and improving, a point which is really brought out in the final dungeon, where you have to fight some bosses from previous dungeons—only to find that, at such a late stage in the game, they’re pieces of cake (despite having been quite challenging earlier). Unlike Zelda 2, you’re rarely faced with enemies who will simply cut you to shreds—to add challenge, you sometimes have to fight enemies whose abilities combine and play off each other in deadly ways, but you rarely, if ever, have to fight anything that’s insanely difficult to beat in and of itself. That makes the combat seem more “fair” and makes you strategize more. As for the bosses, they are all very outlandish and creative, and though I thought a few were too easy, and a few others were unfairly hard, by and large they were very satisfying to fight. On another note, the items are very well-utilized—typically, the item you collect in a given dungeon is essential to completing that dungeon. However, the items don’t become useless after you finish said dungeon—there are always other dungeons and locations that require the use of a given item. This also adds to the “exploration factor” of the game, since more areas will be unlocked the more items you have. That brings me to my last point—this game has an incredible open world for 1992. It’s big enough to get a bit lost without the map, there are things to find or marvel at in every nook and cranny, and you end up really wanting to explore the whole thing. Once you get to the Dark World, it gets even better because it becomes more challenging to navigate.
Another thing this game does well is the presentation of its story. After the intro, you learn an important piece of the plot or the backstory every time you beat a dungeon. Thus, by completing gameplay objectives, you are rewarded with more of the story. This is a very simple (in keeping with the fairy tale aesthetic) but elegant way to use the story to motivate you to play the game.
Lastly, the soundtrack is awesome. As evidence, I cite the orchestral versions of the themes used in A Link Between Worlds—they sound simply majestic.
In conclusion, A Link to the Past is an outstanding game with great design and a well-presented story. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys exploration/adventure, fantasy, or a good challenge.