By the time 1992 rolled around, the latest 16-bit videogame monster, The Super Nintendo, had already been making waves for a good year or so. I was pretty content for the time being in the consoles I already owned in a Nintendo, the classic front-load/blow on the cartridge kind, and a Sega Genesis, which wowed me with Sonic the Hedgehog. My parents made one thing clear: if I were to want another videogame console, I would be paying for it myself. I was twelve years old.
I can't quite recall the why in my needing a Super Nintendo, I suppose familiarity had something to do with it (and a smart marketing campaign by the "Big N" showing gorgeous graphics and established games like Mario). I'll have to assume it was just your typical kid reaction: this was the new toy that everybody wanted and I had to have it. For months I saved up my money to put it in layaway, then pay off the rest over the course of a few more months. I remember going to K-Mart, or maybe it was Wal-Mart, all those "marts" look the same, and seeing the box for the console with the inclusion of a game: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
Link...don't make fun of his ears.
Now I wasn't a huge Zelda fan. I played the first two on the NES, thought they were fine, but didn't go head-over-heels for them. Maybe that lack of familiarity with the games, and therefore the low expectations, is the reason why I played it non-stop for three days when I finally got it out of layaway months later.
Me: Holy crap!
Parents from other room: What?
Me: It's raining. Look at the rain! It's raining! It's so cool!
Parents from other room: That's great.
Ah, to be a kid again...to put this into context, the opening of A Link to the Past has you exiting your home in a thunderstorm. For some reason, it was just amazing.
And you don't even get a sword to mow the lawn with yet.
It wasn't just the rain, it was what Zelda has always represented: amazing atmosphere and a sense of adventure. You weren't just stepping out of your house into a rainstorm, you were stepping out into a whole new world. You could sense the tension and the pressure to follow your uncle, who left in the middle of the night and reach the castle where he is assumed to have gone as lightning blistered the sky and ominous music played behind it all. This was something new. This was more than a game with levels and coins to pick up. This was presentation to perfection.
For the first time, I grasped the concept of "mood" in a game. Videogames have always had a quality of an artistic design to them, and some have a certain tone, but here was something that was presented here in a far more cinematic fashion than I was used to. It had drama and weight to it all. You were the chosen hero, you just didn't know it quite yet, and you were set loose in a world of magic and lore. I remember spending quite a good amount of time just going through the instruction manual (back when manuals were a legitimate concept).
Pages and pages of Legend of Zelda awesome good time fun!
I relished in its art and the history of Hyrule that went on for a good number of pages, more than just what the game intro went through that's for certain. The sense of being transported was one thing, but to be transported and be given a desire and incentive to want to know more about the world and explore it is another. For Zelda, that sense went hand in hand.
What it came down to was the fact that A Link to the Past was the first time I was really exposed to a game with depth. Not in story, Zelda's stories were all pretty straightforward and I wouldn't come to appreciate story depth for a good year with role playing games, but depth in design. You could literally become lost in the world of A Link to the Past. The atmosphere and sense of grabbing a sword and not knowing what was around the corner was an aspect of gaming I really had never took part in and only fully appreciate in hindsight.
Power Rangers, form up!
So what is a "Legend of Zelda" game? Well, seeing as how A Link to the Past is pretty much the template for every Zelda title, it usually involves a lone hero in snazzy green cloth being a "chosen" one to rid the world of evil. It's your typical "Hero's Journey" that is seen in everything from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars. It takes place in the land of Hyrule and will often involve a Princess, who may need rescuing but is at least involved in the story somehow (that is the 'Zelda' of the title, you know), a Kingdom in turmoil and a lack of balance to the force... Trifoce that is (see what I did there?) The Triforce is what Steven Speilberg and George Lucas refer to as a "McGuffin" - that powerful, idol-like thing that grants power, everybody desires and is the point to the entire story. Someone in Hyrule is either after it or may already possess a part of and is bringing darkness to the land in order to find the other parts.
That's more or less it, but each Zelda retells the story and lore in a different way and with changes, not to mention alterations in the gameplay itself, such as A Link to the Past's traveling between a dark and light world (and Twilight Princess for that matter, though you can turn into a wolf in that one, in A Link to the Past you run around as fluffy pink bunny for a bit) or manipulating the world with a powerful object, such as found in Wind Waker's spells or Ocarina's music.
The games are also designed in a similar fashion. The land of Hyrule has the same types of areas in each installment, such as a desert or underwater caves, and in each there are dungeons to go into the retrive relics, find new weapons and become more powerful with. Oh, and bosses, you gotta have those. Once you collect everything, you face the evil, and that evil is usually Ganon who himself has had a history that's always changing. You see, the Zelda games aren't really connected, though there is the occasional reference here and there in one or two to another. The Legend of Zelda is exactly as Greek mythology is. It's often retold and reshaped over time and with each retelling. Each one is the same with variations and deviations.
I think it's safe to say that A Link to the Past got about all that right. So much so it's still compared to today, though often Ocarina is more referred to due to it being the first "3D" Zelda.
High atop Mount Doom.......................Exploring the Dark World................and Killing fools in dungeons.
Despite the similarities, it's hard to just not jump into a Zelda title. They ease you in and you grow increasingly stronger with the more areas you explore and things you find, which then lead you able to find and do more. They have an incredible balance of linearity with non-linearity that hit the right notes. In A Link to the Past, you had two forms of Hyrule to explore, a light and dark world, and each one offered new challenges to overcome. You did a lot of walking and backtracking, to say the least, and often would say things like this:
"Oh, I know where I can get a bottle...now how can I get that bottle...and where can I go to put something in it?"
"Wait...here I use this new thing I found and explore even more of the area and get to that ledge I couldn't earlier."
"See that cracked wall that I've been running by for hours now in the game? Now that I have bombs, I bet I can blow a hole in it and explore even more!"
Exploring and swimming in Zora's Domain....Master Sword Get.............and, as always, taking it to the boss.
A Link to the Past is a wonderful streamlined adventure. It's easy to get into and hard not to break away. It's also full of memorable moments, such as the "fat fairy," going to the dark world for the first time and stuck in a form that isn't yours, slipping in sliding in an ice dungeon, the mysterious boy playing the ocarina in the woods and the many, many bosses, not least of which one of the best final boss fights (that's plural) in the entire series.
I remember the first time I finally managed to get to the final dungeon - Ganon's Tower. It had been staring at me the entire game and every time I walked by, I kept thinking...."someday I'm going to go in there and kill the bastard." Well it took some time, as in years, for me to finally go in there and kill him because I never actually beat A Link to the Past the first many times I played it. Maybe I just got burned out on it, frustrated with it (keep in mind this was before the Internet and I had no strategy guide other than the occasional Nintendo Power issue, though I might have stopped getting those around this time) or just sidetracked with other games, but not until about two or three years later did I start up another game yet again, go through it all again and see it all the way through.
I do that with games a lot, actually. I'll always get real far, maybe to the final dungeon/boss, but never go back and just beat it. Maybe I just didn't want it to end.
This time I finally did, taking on the various bosses in the Tower and finally meeting up with Ganon for his final form at the Pyramid of Power. The music and setting was just...well...here, just watch:
Today's Kids Don't Get It
What's strange is that A Link to the Past blew me away yet I already owned a 16-bit console at the time. I had been playing plenty of 16-bit games by this juncture. This makes me realize that it wasn't so much the Super Nintendo's ability as much as it was the atmosphere and feeling I got from playing A Link to the Past that made such ain impact. To a kid, it all went hand-in-hand. Zelda was so amazing that the SNES was therefore amazing as well. It was amazing because of the SNES, my childhood immaturity couldn't separate the two and as a result, I became quite the proponent of the Super Nintendo during the infamous 16-bit Console Wars. In other words, kids identified with what they owned, they needed it to be "the best" so therefore they could be "the best" and "the coolest." Childish? Yes. Back then most certainly. Today's gamers have no excuse - this line of thinking still exists today in the form of the "fanboy." The average gamer is 31 years old. Grow up. But I've ranted on the lack of maturity and respect in gaming enough at this point.
It's no surprise that as great as the Zelda games always end up being, they are sadly not as relevant as they once were. That sense of adventure and depth has been done ten-fold in countless adventure and RPG games since the 16-bit era. Hell, some even feel A Link to the Past was "out-Zelda'd" in its own generation by another personal favorite game of mine, The Secret of Mana. Now gamers have a slew of expectations in what they want from their adventure games, just look at what Bioware and Bethesda has done in the past few years alone.
Plus A Link to the Past got a sweet-ass comic series in Nintendo Power. So eat it.
But something is lost in that process. The Zelda series was rich in texture and depth of design but it never tried to overindulge itself or try to do too much. It knows exactly what it is and wants to be: a simple, streamlined affair that naturally offers a "sense" of adventure rather than tell you how big of an adventure it is. It had a balance and didn't try and weigh itself down with plot twists, excessive characters and a billion sidequests with a hundred hours of gameplay. It was, and always has been, purposefully adaptable to all. Some see its lack of story as a fault, I see it as a focus: get to the adventure and have fun while doing it. The world and charming wonder of what's around each corner is all the depth it really needs. I do appreciate the story of Mass Effect and the endlessness of Oblivion, but in turn I appreciate all facets of videogames and looking at a Zelda game as "simple" isn't a fault, it's just another way of creating a game - there is no one way or rule to follow. Gamers today make that up to give excuses and pump their chests.
Zelda Addicts Anonymous
Since playing A Link to the Past, I quickly came to love the older Zelda titles on the NES, which I replayed and found a far greater appreciation for. Then came The Ocarina of Time and that pretty much says it all. Hell, I bought a whole console for that game alone. You have a handful of handheld installments too, notably Link's Awakening on the original gameboy and the Oracle of Season games on the Gameboy Color. Majora's Mask was a unique spin on the formula, though I've not quite warmed up to it as much as others have. In contrast, I have greatly warmed up to The Wind Waker, the only other Zelda game I can say gave me that original sense of wonder I had with A Link to the Past and The Ocarina of Time. Twilight Princess, the last Zelda title, looked great, implemented Wind Waker's battle system, but it didn't grab me as much. Maybe the similarity of the world to Ocarina of Time is what bugged me. Still...there has never been a bad Legend of Zelda game so criticizing it is completely relative to other Zelda titles.
Now we have Skyward Sword coming out. Deep down, I wish I could "feel" the way with today's games as I could with A Link to the Past. But once you really have that first encounter with a Zelda game, that feeling will likely never come again (and only Ocarina of Time touched on it, thanks to the world and game in full 3D blocky polygonal bliss as only the N64 could do). I secretly want it. I don't know if I would buy a Wii just for it, though. As a kid you didn't have those second-thoughts and guesses due to real-world responsibilities and priorities. I suppose it's less me saying the "feeling" isn't so much Zelda as it is just wanting to regress to that very first tmie I saw Link leave his home in the pouring rain and me yelling at my parents to come and see. It was less playing Zelda and, now to my realization, more just being a kid with a carefree perspective on things. My parents were probably balancing checkbooks and paying bills, I saved up my money easily due to no responsibilities and got a pay off with an incredible videogame. No matter how hard I might try, that will never come again. But at least I can still play my old game and forget about those real world responsibilities by going on adventures for a few moments at least.
Get that bitch a Triforce. Bitches love Triforces.