A link to the dark world of the past changed Zelda forever

Image: Nintendo

To celebrate The Legend of Zelda’s 35th anniversary, we’ve launched a series of features looking at a specific aspect – a theme, character, mechanic, location, memory, or whatever else entirely – of each of the main Zelda games. Today, on LttP’s 30th anniversary, we’re reposting this report where Kate talks about one of the franchise’s most iconic episodes …

I first played The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past in 2003, on Game Boy Advance. Not the original, I know – but considering I didn’t understand fine motor control when it first came out in ’91, I doubt I could have finished it on the SNES. Then again, I never finished it on the GBA either. Technically, I never even finished the first temple.

Wait! Put the forks away! It’s better, I promise.

I spent about fifty hours on my little Game Boy Advance SP (with the screen light that saves the view) exploring A Link to the Past’s world. From its atmospheric and rainy beginnings to the discovery (and quick forgetfulness) of my dying uncle in the bowels of the castle, the game took me by the heartstrings and drawn. But I never became the Link of the legend. Instead, I played a guy with a sword and no clues, accidentally making his way through Hyrule but never really. economy this.

See, there was one end in the East Palace that I couldn’t pass. It involved darkness and those horrible fast-moving Cyclops, and my clumsy, developing kid’s brain just couldn’t figure it out. I wasn’t a big fan of the dark at first, and my clumsy little hands had too much trouble evading these beasts before finally succumbing.

This little!  Cursed be those damn Eyegores.
This little! Cursed be those damn Eyegores.

Back then I was bad at games, but I loved them. I would spend hours traveling the world of Hyrule in Ocarina of time, or explore Peach Castle in Super Mario 64. I preferred to play Mario kart as a driving adventure, rather than a race, spending my time following in the footsteps of the Kalimari Desert and being repeatedly berated for taking the “wrong path”. I wasn’t as interested in achieving the goals of the games as I was in the adventure, the discovery and the looting of every corner of their universe. I had time at the time, and running to the end was not my priority.

As a result, I spent hours roaming the World of Light even before knew there was a world of darkness. I could have drawn you a map of A Link To The Past’s Hyrule with my eyes closed, but I couldn’t tell you what it is supposed. There wasn’t a part of this overworld that I didn’t know by heart – at least, the pieces that I could access with the limited tools I had – but entire swathes of it have remained a mystery, like the book on the shelf in the library, or the sword in the lost woods that I couldn’t get out. None of the characters would help me, not even the fortune teller, who kept telling me to finish the Eastern Palace. But at the time, that was enough. It might seem frustrating to be stuck at the very first temple, but I didn’t mind. The adventure, for me, was in my own imagination.

Thinking back to my experience with A Link to the Past as a child, I realize how, accidentally, par excellence It was Zelda. Like the very first incarnation of Link’s Quest, I explored a world that was indifferent to me, that existed without me, and that jealously guarded its secrets like a dragon, refusing to give them up until I found the exact answer of the puzzle which he wanted. I may have been the Link of Legend – or, indeed, the Lonk of Legend, since the game lets you name him – but I was a failure, and Hyrule has remained closed to me as a result. , a monolith of mystery that I couldn’t get past.

Image: Nintendo

In 2021, under harassment from my partner, I downloaded the Nintendo Switch Online service which gives you access to a bunch of forgettable old NES and SNES games, and a handful of shiny ones. A link to the past was nestled in the midst of that clutch of eggs like a gold nugget – and that meant it was time. Granted, in the decades that followed, I had learned enough about games to be able to ultimately beat him?

I expected A Link to the Past to age badly, or compare unfavorably to its descendants. How could anything stack up to the glory of Breath of the wild, or the freedom to Wind waker? Could he even compete Ghost hourglass, the first Zelda game I ever completed completely solo?

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the answer is “obviously you nuts,” but I was. Although this was only the third game in the Zelda series, A Link to the Past sets the tone and myth for many games that followed it, but the most important thing it established was the duality of the lowercase L-shaped legend of Zelda.

Some of the best games in Zelda’s 35-year history address this before-and-after dichotomy, good versus bad. The most famous, perhaps, are the two worlds of Ocarina of Time: the world of Child Link and the world of Adult Link. Representing the horrors of a world corrupted by evil, but also the horrors of aging, the two forms of Hyrule are radically different and disturbing.

An actual screenshot of my eventual success in completing the Eastern Palace
An actual screenshot of my eventual success in completing the Eastern Palace

Likewise, Skyward sword has the world above and the world below; a link between worlds a Hyrule and Lorule; Breath of the Wild takes place after the Calamity, but has windows to times before through Link’s memories; and Wind Waker has the world inundated and the palace in the waves, saved by stasis. Zelda’s story, time and time again, is about showing Link not just what could be wrong if he fails, but what is it already made be mistaken.

A Link to the Past’s Dark World appears to you, at first, as a strange, Link’s Awakeningdreamlike accident of style. There is no way to know that the eerie portal near the Tower of Hera will take you to another land, or that the game’s pink-haired link will be turned into the Duracell Bunny. The game so far has been pretty standard fare for Zelda: killing monsters, exploring dungeons, escaping all the soldiers trying to kill you on sight, and collecting important jewels from well-placed chests. There are loads of old men who give you puzzling quests without offering any help, and a princess whose hallmarks include standing, being kidnapped, and saying “help me, Link.”

Slowly, deliberately, the mystery of the Dark World unfolds, revealing it as the once golden sacred realm, transformed into a place of nightmares by the evil influence of Ganon. The World of Light, although it appears to be the entire game at first, turns out to be a prelude to the true story. This is a fake that can only be achieved after the relative normality of the first two games, a twist that relies on subversion of existing player expectations.

Venturing into the Dark World for the first time
Venturing into the Dark World for the first time

Perhaps later Zelda games would have made this a much bigger reveal, like Ocarina of Time’s addiction to exhibition cutscenes. But A Link to the Past, like most retro games, keeps its mouth largely shut – with the exception of the occasional Sahasrahla. tenacious to help. Link is largely on his own and expects him to find out on his own, which is one of the main reasons I struggled with this as a kid.

I had grown up on Ocarina of Time, where Navi tells you everything you need to know whether you want it or not. I was more used to getting to grips with the following Zeldas and the tutorial that came with the “new” 3D games, which were forced to teach their players how to move the camera in this baffling dimension.

Entirely by accident, however, my time with A Link to the Past is a perfect echo of its own story. When I played as a kid I was naive, inexperienced, and weak, and A Link to the Past became the story of a (rather) peaceful world where nothing had (yet) gone completely wrong. Zelda was still safe from the Sanctuary; the World of Light was full of people going about their business. The mysteries of Hyrule were still mysteries and just stayed out of my reach.

It might look like a Daft Punk album cover art, but it's real key art for A Link to the Past, and it's hellishly cool.
It might look like a Daft Punk album cover art, but it’s real key art for A Link to the Past, and it’s hellishly cool. (Photo: Nintendo)

As an adult – with not only decades of gaming experience under my belt, but as a true game reviewer – A Link to the Past is, more simply, a game – and the games can be beaten. A link to the past has a principally linear path, and its dungeons are built on tropes that are easy to solve once you know how they work. My childhood experience was akin to finding a huge door tightly closed and speculating what it was hiding; my experience as an adult is to correctly guess that the key is under the doormat.

There is, as with Ocarina of Time, a misfortune in my own dichotomy with A Link to the Past. Nothing is as sacred as a child’s imagination. The wonder I experienced Hyrule with back then is pure magic; playing the same game as a jaded and game-worn adult is a series of unlockable doors. I consider myself lucky nonetheless: A Link to the Past is a colorful, tightly woven tapestry of legends and adventures, a training plan for the Zelda series and a masterpiece of self-directed design and discovery that remains unmatched by no other Zelda game, except maybe Breath of the Wild.

There’s a part of me that wishes I had played A Link to the Past when it first released, so I could experience it without being tainted with a life of unraveled video game logic. But, just as Link has discovered time and time again, there are always consequences to rewriting the past. A Link to the Past is a legend, an almost untouchable part of my childhood, and revisiting those memories by searching them as an adult is an almost sacrilegious experience, familiarly unknown every time I open the door to something new. But finally solving the mysteries of the game after nearly 20 years, and discovering its true depths, is an eerily perfect ending that (magically) mirrors its own story.


About Jason Zeitler

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