My exposure to The Legend of Zelda series has been woefully light. I’ve known of it for as long as I’ve been playing games but, while several of the titles in the vaunted series piqued my interest, I hadn’t had an opportunity to test my adventuring mettle with them. It took a Nintendo Online subscription collecting dust on my Switch and an upcoming Western release date anniversary for me to finally give the third title, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, a try. Though it’s viewed by many as a classic, does the RPG-adjacent title still hold up in this day and age so many years after its initial release? I was quite pleased to discover that the answer is a resounding yes, even for a Zelda newcomer like myself!
The story for A Link to the Past begins one stormy night in the kingdom of Hyrule. A slumbering Link is awoken by a woman’s voice calling out in his head, though his uncle promptly tells him to return to bed, even as the older man, sword and shield in hand, wanders out into the harsh weather towards the castle. Link follows his uncle into Hyrule Castle, only to find him after a horrific defeat. It is up to our intrepid adventurer to carry on in his caretaker’s stead, eventually coming to the rescue of Princess Zelda, who reveals that a most nefarious plot has swept over the kingdom. Link’s journey connects to a long-forgotten past, revolving around missing maidens and the bloodlines of sages and knights alike, spanning two similar yet eerily different worlds interposed on one another. Facing countless dangers along the way, it is up to the player as Link to succeed in his mission to return peace to Hyrule.
The plot of A Link to the Past is simply but succinctly conveyed through brief dialogue and cutscenes as Link continues his journey. I wouldn’t say it is an overly complex tale, but as far as classic fantasy stories go, the story beats are interesting enough to motivate you to continue through the title. You don’t get quite a sense of many characters, but they fill their given story roles nicely. I was somewhat disappointed at how little the female characters had to do in the narrative unless they were helpful fairies. Still, Zelda and the other maidens do provide Link with clues as to what he must do next whenever he encounters them and are integral to accessing the final dungeon, so it ultimately balances out. Though the characters only have minor roles, several NPCs are rather memorable for their sprite designs and little plot moments, too; the old man lost on Death Mountain or the dwarven swordsmiths most readily come to mind.
A Link to the Past features a surprisingly robust overworld to traverse as Hyrule is a large kingdom with many exciting locales to visit. At first, traveling from one area to another can take some time as you must contend with enemies as you go. Thankfully, you later gain essentially a fast-travel option once you acquire a certain magic flute item. Dungeons dot the land, too, each with a unique layout and environment and a boss creature that must be defeated to finally conquer the dungeon. Later on, Link gains the ability to travel to an entirely different dimension overworld called the Dark World that rests parallel to Hyrule, with its own locales of interest and dungeons to explore. Several discoveries in the Dark World and Hyrule require Link to pass between the realms using the magic mirror item or special portals. The way travel between the two is made so seamless is a testament to the game’s overall design.
A Link to the Past has no shortage of things to discover, both in the two overworlds and within the dungeons. I’ll admit to probably not uncovering everything of note during my initial playthrough. I know that I missed a few pieces of heart! I feel that wonder of discovery greatly helps instill a sense of adventure in the player. Puzzles must be solved to gain access to some areas or to advance in dungeons. While these provide a fair bit of challenge, they never stray into the “near-impossible” realm. Simply experimenting with various items and actions in your inventory will often help you figure out the trick to puzzle solving. There are special items collected within dungeons that will aid Link greatly and strengthen his abilities or provide him with a new helpful tool or weapon. These range from elemental magic rods to the always helpful Hookshot or boomerang. Sometimes, acquiring dungeon items out of order can even make traversing other areas easier and opens up previously inaccessible points of interest. These items prove to be necessities not only for puzzles but also for the boss fights.
Foes vary from weaker variations to more powerful ones, where your best bet is to try and avoid direct combat. I found boss battles to be engaging and akin to a combative puzzle. There is always a strategy involving using items to help make a boss fight go smoother that I enjoyed figuring out, even if it took me a while to successfully implement it. The final boss battle forces you to cycle through many different items and maneuvers in order to finally overcome it.
You can strengthen various weapons such as your sword, bombs, and bow and arrows throughout A Link to the Past by uncovering special areas, often helping to make future battles easier in the long run. Gear will also help you run faster, receive less damage, or help you move heavy obstacles out of your way as you advance throughout the game. For instance, the optional Bombos Medallion you can acquire is an excellent tool for clearing out monsters when a room requires it to gain further access. The more Link travels and uncovers throughout his journey, the stronger he becomes. A Link to the Past encourages and rewards exploration off the beaten path. Every successful dungeon cleared will also net Link an extra heart of health and restore him to fighting fitness, making him that much tougher for the next challenge aside from just acquiring a dungeon item.
Graphically speaking, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is rather eye-catching with colorful sprites and backgrounds. The level of detail in boss designs is fantastic. I quite like the various sound effects used during battle when Link performed special abilities. The soundtrack itself has some very catchy and memorable tunes. Both the overworld theme and the Dark World theme got stuck in my head whenever I heard them!
The button layout for playing the title on the Switch is simple to figure out, with buttons only being devoted to one task in the game, save the “A” button, which was a catch-all for every action not associated with battle or outright exploration. Want to interact with an object or talk to someone? That would be A! You filter through acquired items in your inventory to equip just one to Link, and then you can access the special property of said item by pressing Y. To use another item, you have to pause the game and cycle to the item you want to use. Fortunately, this freezes things in the middle of a fight. However, as there are some fights where you have to do so quite frequently, doing so constantly gets tedious, especially later on when you’ve collected quite a few items. Still, it wasn’t complicated to navigate. The most helpful feature for playing A Link to the Past on the Switch was the ability to suspend the game and save anywhere in seconds. This was quite the boon, especially before boss battles, as it kept me from having to constantly restart the entire dungeon over if I ended up being defeated during one.
All-in-all, I’m rather glad that my first exposure to the Zelda series ended up being A Link to the Past. It set up a solid foundation for the rest of the series in terms of core gameplay and overall design, especially the subsequent 2D entries. I’m now quite eager to have the chance to peruse more titles in the series! I’ll definitely look fondly back on this one. If you happen to own a Switch and are wondering what to do with a Nintendo Online subscription, I wholeheartedly recommend giving The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past a try. Like me, you may just come away pleasantly surprised!