Second Opinion: Learning to Hate “Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past”

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An Old Love, Revisited

Dave’s article last Friday reminded me how much I loved A Link to the Past. The game was easily my favorite Zelda game and the only one I had played a significant portion of.   I had an original NES all the way back in ’85 but missed the boat on those early Zelda games (Excite Bike and Double Dragon ruled my world) and by the time I got around to them they just didn’t do it for me.   On the other side of the SNES was Ocarina of Time on the N64. between Navi, an obnoxious little sprite who would not leave you alone and playing musical notes on a flute, I never got into Ocarina.   Since the N64 was the last Nintendo product I ever owned, Ocarina was the last Zelda game I ever played.

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Ah, but A Link to the Past, here was a game I had very fond memories of: the hook shot! Collecting pieces of heart! The dark world! Maps! A pun in the title!  Although I wouldn’t learn the term until a decade later, Link to the Past was the 1st “sandbox game” I ever truly loved.  You could wander the world and find all these little nooks and crannies.  Lift a rock and find a stair case to treasure.  Bribe a waterfall monster and learn to swim.   Repeatedly abuse a chicken until attacked by a whole flock of chickens.  Or not, it was largely up to you.   When it came time to actually say something about the game though, I found I couldn’t really think of anything to say about a game I hadn’t played in 15 years.  So I downloaded an emulator and a ROM and plunked down $8 at Game Stop for a USB controller and set about playing A Link to the Past all over again.  But here’s the thing, I think I might hate this game.

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First off, I know I can’t complain about the games mechanics too much, it was designed to be played on a different controller than the one I am using and it’s entirely possible that with the old flat SNES controller in hand, the movement and fighting would be smoother and easier.  I suspect that this is not the case though.   The game seems to be built on a pretty finicky grid system , so if you’re not facing just the right direction or not lined up just right, your sword will fail to hit anything or your arrow will go zipping into the ether having juuuuuust missed.   There is little more frustrating than taking a swing at a dude only to have him plunk you instead because you weren’t lined up just right.   This frustration blooms into full on Rage Quit when faced with some of the bosses who’s movements are so fast and random and who’s weak spots are so small that hitting them over and over again without being killed (or bumped off some edge resetting the bosses health) becomes are herculean act of patience just to keep trying to get past him.

And good lord the urgent beeping of low health!   You start the game with only 3 hearts but even in the early going when it’s so so easy to be down to just one heart the beeping is there.   One of the big complaints about the 1st Fable game was that your advisor would frequently and verbally remind you that you were low on health.   This is nothing compared to the endless truck-backing-up beeps of a Link with low health.  I find that I start frantically searching for hearts, not for fear of dying, but just to stop that damn sound.  What was the purpose of this obnoxious beeping anyway? Was health such a new concept in 1992 that they felt that gamers would need a constant auditory reminder that their health was low?

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There are some things I’m having fun with though.  The open world is, as I remembered, a lot of fun.   This is especially true in the quest for more heart pieces.  For those who don’t remember, scattered throughout the world are quarter pieces of hearts, collect four and you get an extra heart on your health bar.  The designers had a lot of fun hiding these around.  Some are in caves hidden under rocks others are revealed only after you drain a lake or fall through some likely hole in the ground.  It’s just fun to try to find out where they’re hidden and how to get to them, plus everyone you collect gets you further and further from than damned beeping.

The design of the world is fun too.  It seems to be the Japanese version of Tolkein’s Middle Earth, you’ve got Mirkwood in the misty forest to the north, you’ve got the Shire in the idyllic little village at the center of the game and I’m pretty sure there’s a huge volcano somewhere in the Dark World.  And since it was made by the Japanese there are also huge scantily clad fairies to heal and comfort you.  There’s also the inventory system that, while crude, must have been a revelation at the time, featuring sub-containers within your bag and the ability to map an item to a hot key on your controller. Plus you get helped by a dude named Sahasrahla, how great is that name?

 

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In my grand replay I have just collected three pendants and claimed the Master Sword (it shoots sparkles).  The Big Bad has made his move and I’m off to rescue some ladies.     I’m not sure if I’ll have more to say on this game as I go along, but I wanted to get back to maybe hating A Link to the Past.   I’m kind of bummed that so far the game is far more frustrating than fun.  Some tasks have to be repeated over and over again to be accomplished, some castles and dungeons must be run over and over, through the same rooms, with the same baddies in them, to accomplish the goals of that dungeon.  Where all games like this back in the day?   Have I been spoiled by the vast amounts of content that can be built into today’s games? Surely Link to the Past was one of the deepest games of its age, but now the world feels small and repetitive.    So maybe you shouldn’t go back, maybe like an old girl friend we only remember the great parts of old games.   Maybe some links to the past are best left alone.

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