Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

How does one define perfection in video games? Is it recognizing how one game brilliantly executes its main goal? Is it simply returning to a childhood favorite again and again? Or, perhaps, is it something as broadly simple as doing everything right? In that case, it's difficult to imagine anything more perfect in the Zelda pantheon -- or perhaps even all of Nintendo's library --  than The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. There are a variety of reasons for this, but more than anything, it's timeless in its accessibility. Consider this quality when when juxtaposed to Zelda's other masterworks: Majora's Mask -- which I still consider the the series apex -- demands an entirely different style of play that can be too stressful, Breath of the Wild and even this game's sequel in A Link Between Worlds may stray too far from the series formula for some, Ocarina of Time suffers from the same graphical degradation as the rest of its respective generation, and The Legend of Zelda is too archaic and impenetrable by today's standards.

Only Link's Awakening for Game Boy may match it here, and as masterful as that game's bittersweet balance of infectious light-heartedness and gradual melancholy is, A Link to the Past is instantly superior for presenting the greatest opening in series history -- as far as Nintendo games go, only Super Metroid and Metroid Prime may surpass it, and A Link to the Past may even trump those with its own title opener. After the Nintendo logo flickers on screen with the gentlest of harps, a majestic three-dimensional Triforce morphs into shape, embedding within the game's logo as the Master Sword pierces through, a triumphant score celebrating our arrival into the latest Zelda adventure.

After creating our file, the game starts: waking from Princess Zelda's telepathic plea, you run off after your uncle in the rain and creep into Hyrule Castle's underground gutter. You're too late: your uncle has already succumbed to his wounds, but not before he entrusts you with the family sword. You charge through the sewer system and fend off brainwashed guards, rescuing Zelda from her isolated jail cell after a one-on-one duel with a ball-and-mace wielding knight. The only escape route lies within the throne room, so there's no choice but storming the main castle and fighting your way through. Pushing aside the ornamental shelf, the two of you stumble through darkness, overcome traps and whatever beasts lurk about before finally emerging into the sacred sanctuary. The elderly priest there will look after Zelda, but your quest of locating the three Pendants of Virtue and defeating Agahnim has only just begun.

It is the perfect condensation of direction and action -- yes, we are told where to go, but the mood and set-piece provided render it the most thrilling exploit. We sneak underground, break into a castle, and engage in a heart-pounding escape, accompanied by Koji Kondo's imposing, motivating score: an urging rain surge and a reckless, daunting siege on Hyrule Castle. It is the perfect marriage of gameplay and context: we emerge from the castle dungeons feeling absolutely invigorated, ready to tackle whatever comes our way. And what better outlet than the vast oyster of Hyrule -- Kakariko Village is our next destination, but why not venture into the Lost Woods and try our luck in finding the Master Sword? Or scaling the treacherous heights of Death Mountain? Or simply go around battling Hyrule's horde of possessed knights? Just observe how these duels involve the clashing and clinking of swords, emulating an actual sword-fight as opposed to simply hacking and slashing. Not that the experienced player won't eventually utilize other weapons as the game progresses, but there's a simple pleasure just in this.

A Link to the Past is perhaps the easiest of the three Zeldas hitherto -- your destinations are given to you via map,  and Rupees aren't nearly as much of a valued resource. When considering the original Zelda punished players a little too much, and Zelda II was too obtuse for its own good, this is swell, particularly when the difficulty is well-balanced here: boss fights and dungeons can still challenge, as does recklessly tackling Death Mountain or the imposing inhabitants of the Dark World. Like in the original Zelda, experimentation is key, but that there's far more condensed variety in both world design and required equipment means you don't have to fear getting lost or make sense out of every NPC or item that comes your way -- for instance, there are other items located within the overworld that aren't even necessary like the Bombos Medallion and Magic Cape, but they're fun to use, so who cares?

Whenever we do decide to engage with the main adventure, though, it wastes no time getting to the action: to the point, the dungeons. While careful to sprinkle overworld puzzle-solving so as not to induce burnout, A Link to the Past is an onslaught of spelunking, with dungeons free from the homogeneous restraints of 8-bit software and free to distinguish themselves, from stepping into the daunting Eastern Palace to navigating the maze of Skull Woods. No longer do they -- or the overworld, for that matter --- waste our time with guessing games in bombing walls, but showcase hints like crumbling interiors to keep us moving. We still get stuck, of course, but that speaks to their strength as well-designed levels rather than obtuse puzzles -- we are lost in either not paying attention or not racking our brains hard enough, a future trademark of the classic Zelda dungeon.

In kind, the overworld must be appropriately dense, and so that's how we end up with The Dark World: a warped reality of Hyrule we discover after the game's first act. Corrupt and sinister, hardly anywhere is safe in this nightmarish realm -- a fact firmly impounded when our first visit renders Link a helpless rabbit. But its connection with the Light World is what truly excels -- what affects the Dark World may affect the Link's world back home or vice-versa, be it granting access to certain dungeons or the fate of hapless NPCs lured by promises of treasure. In intertwining two worlds, this interconnected constitution conceives a daunting adventure we seek to discover the ins-and-outs of (an impression Nintendo did not soon forget: the same trick was used six years later to similar effect in Ocarina of Time, albeit this time via time travel).

All to that score! As touched upon earlier, A Link to the Past is perhaps Koji Kondo's best effort on SNES -- and when considering the likes of Super Mario World and Yoshi's Island, that's an insanely high bar to top. It is, for starters, where many recurring themes come to be: the very first instances of Zelda's Theme (later dubbed "Zelda's Lullaby"), Kakariko Village and the famous File Select/Fairy Fountain theme debut here, and it is perhaps no coincidence they're among the softest themes of all. File Select/ Fairy Fountain is particularly notable in always beginning our adventure with a touch of mystic wonder, perhaps rendering it the most nostalgic Zelda song of all.

Of course, with that stunner of an opening, let us not forget the game can be triumphant: the aforementioned Hyrule Castle theme is a winner, its crashing percussion instantly drowning us in its melancholic majesty. Meanwhile, while I consider the Light World Theme the very best iteration of the main Zelda theme -- a similar use of ear-grabbing percussion renders what's already gaming's most rousing theme into its most stimulating, vigorous version yet -- its famous counterpart within the Dark World theme is not merely the game's best song but possibly within all of Zelda. An imposing orchestra, an all-encompassing violin enraptures us into a world promising death, firmly sending the message that everything beforehand was just the warm-up; your real adventure begins here.

Other action setpieces excel at atmosphere: both the Rain Theme and its further elaboration within the Prologue demo excel at their respective jobs: the former silently urging you on into the search for your uncle, and the other indulging you of a grim backstory through violin. With the former only lasting so long, Light World Dungeon takes it upon itself as the atmospheric star, remaining one of the series' finest dungeon themes. Opening with an ominous crawl, its further echoes of sorrowful gloom successfully absorb you within the holy halls of Hyrule, now tainted with monsters seeking to end your life.

As illustrated by the rain theme above, even the game's shorter themes captivate in their respective duties; in my final case, mystery and enchantment within The Lost Woods, Sanctuary and Fortune Teller. Be it the Item Shop's enrapturing trance or Kondo's take on a frigid chorus for the Sanctuary, all radiate within their respective boundaries of warmth and chilling eeriness. Look no further than how The Lost Woods is one of the most commonly-cited forms of SNES yesteryear, its selection of flutes and violins rendering us frozen in awe even as thieves hound us and Master Sword knock-offs litter the forest. As children, we pause upon the budding glow erupting in our hearts; as adults, we linger to savor our fleeting nostalgia.

It is also, to my mind, the first masterful example of Nintendo storytelling through sound -- consider the aforementioned fog that pervades The Lost Woods prior to obtaining the Master Sword. Its presence is the only time this theme plays, highlighting the mystery of the fabled Blade of Evil's Bane, its majesty in woodland critters celebrating your arrival as you march your way towards its fabled resting place. When finally obtained, the fog dissipates alongside this mystic theme, the aforementioned Light World theme trumpeting through the unclouded woods. The mystery is solved, its purpose now complete as we head off to save Zelda, but I miss it already! I miss the song, I miss standing around the fog listening to it, I want it to stay forever!

There are instances of such engagement here and there -- Kakariko Village's occupation by soldiers elicits a similar response; knowing I'll never hear that theme again alongside the villagers going along their everyday lives does not leave me with very good emotions. Regardless, the point is Zelda's world has finally come to life -- we saw inklings of this in the first two Zeldas, be it Moblins who secretly supply Link with rupees or Ganon spies randomly assaulting Link in towns, but now an actual world is at stake. We wish not for Kakariko to suffer the same fate as Thieves' Town in the Dark World, nor do we wish for anyone to end up like the Flute Boy.

A Link to the Past is a tale that carries weight -- the first game succeeded in letting our own imaginations take the reign, but this game does that on top of providing an actual world: the random comedy provided is tied into sub-quests (a sign instructing not to speak to the guy alongside it makes for a good howler, but did you know he's actually a master thief? How'd he end up like that, we wonder), and the quest to save Hyrule is given purpose within its inhabitants (people are intimately familiar with Link, be it the elders of Kakariko Village or the rover beneath Hyrule Castle's Bridge; naturally, our minds scramble to provide backstories). Even the infamous Chris Houlihan room lends an enticing air of mystery -- given the average player in 1992 would have no idea it was named after a Nintendo Power contest winner, how on earth would they describe a treasure chamber activated as a glitch fail-safe the next day at school?

This is not to paint A Link to the Past as a excellent story in itself -- within that context, it's by-the-numbers and would again set the template for future games -- but it's how the game props itself that makes it so masterful: it is meaty enough as a game in itself to sustain our interest, and provides more than enough bounty for those that wish to penetrate its double-layered garden. The adventure is what matters, and so it's as accessible as you want it to be. When the only thing you can ding it for is Link's funky pink hair -- and even then, despite being obviously tied to limited color palettes, I'd never trade it for anything else -- we are left with nothing more than rock-solid perfection.

Screenshots courtesy of The Video Game Museum.

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