With The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds set to release this week, it’s an ideal time to reflect upon the game it directly succeeds in the Official Zelda Timeline.
Believe it or not, A Link to the Past was released in Japan almost exactly 22 years ago, in November of 1991. It took roughly another five months for it to make its way to North America, but I wouldn’t get my hands on it until Christmas of 2002, when it made its debut on the Game Boy Advance.
It wasn’t my first Zelda game, of course. When I was five, my Game Boy came bundled with Link’s Awakening — a game that thoroughly blew my mind at the time. Then, in 1998, when I was in the fifth grade, Ocarina of Time was released for the Nintendo 64, and I experienced a sense of pure joy and adventure like I never had before. However, for a number of reasons, A Link to the Past eluded me for over a decade.
When I finally got the opportunity to play, it immediately took me back to my time with Link’s Awakening. It was played from a top-down perspective, only in color, with prettier sprites and better sound.
Setting itself apart from my other Zelda experiences, A Link to the Past began in a decidedly dramatic fashion. Everyone’s familiar with that iconic opening scene, where Link is summoned in his asleep by the call of an imprisoned Princess Zelda. Upon leaving his home — through the dark of night, and the downpour of a raging storm — Link is tasked with making his way to the dungeon in Hyrule Castle where Zelda is being held captive by the evil wizard Agahnim.
Unlike later titles in the series, A Link to the Past doesn’t provide extensive, time-consuming instructions on how to play. You quickly and easily learn controls on the fly as you dash to rescue the princess. From the start, you’re thrown into the action and allowed to proceed without being stymied by prolonged tutorials.
There is no hand-holding here. And that might very well be what ALttP is most remembered for — its willingness to let you discover the world on your own, without any chaperoning. I think that’s what facilitates the rest of the game, honestly.
We often talk about ALttP in a way that almost makes us forget why it was so great to begin with. We all know we loved it, but we’ve conquered it, having pored over every nook and cranny. It’s easy to lose perspective of what it was like to play our first time.
In A Link to the Past, you are free to go just about anywhere you like. You can complete the dungeons in almost any order. And though you may find you’re too weak to venture into certain areas, there aren’t whole sections of the map blocked off just because you haven’t reached the part of the story.
These days, you see videos of people doing 90-minute speed runs, but that’s after years of memorizing puzzles, locations and everything about the game after countless playthroughs. When we all played for the first time, we had to explore and we had to think. We were adventurers and the possibilities were endless. We had no idea what was around the next corner. We didn’t know who, or what, was waiting to challenge us to physical and mental combat. Everything was a mystery.
I will never forget meandering through the fog in the Lost Woods, as I made my way through the thicket and into a clearing where I stumbled upon the Master Sword resting in its pedestal. That was truly magical. I felt as though I’d uncovered a secret, something I wasn’t meant to see.
That’s something that has permeated through the series, but is especially rife in A Link to the Past — that feeling that what you’ve discovered is hidden and special, even though it’s actually something required to progress. So as we return to that same era in Hyrule’s history, where the franchise established so much of its trademark charm, I hope there’s more magic just waiting to be found.
Did you get all that?