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A Link to the Past Uncovered, Part 1: How an Intro Began Redefining the Zelda We Knew

DESIGN IN ACTION: We commemorate the 25th anniversary of A Link to the Past’s release in North America by diving deep into what makes it great.

Analysis by Jeremy Parish, .

Design in Action is a weekly column by Retronauts co-host Jeremy Parish that explores games both new and classic, analyzing the way their various moving parts work together to make them great. Currently: A Link to the Past redefined Zelda games, and action-RPGs at large, 25 years ago. We explore why this 16-bit classic remains the standard for the genre.

The whole story was right there in the name of the game that kicked off the entire series: The Legend of Zelda. You, the player, controlled a nameless young elf (technically Link, but you could name him whatever) tasked with the rescue of an abducted princess, Zelda.

While some people skipped reading the game's gorgeous full-color manual that laid out the entire premise of the NES adventure and thus assumed "Zelda" was the hero's name — and what a surprise they must have experienced if they named their file ZELDA and jumped immediately to the devastatingly difficult Second Quest! — over time, it became a comfortable tradition. Link set out on an adventure in the land of Hyrule in order to save a princess named Zelda. The NES sequel, Zelda II, had a somewhat literal title: In addition to the Zelda you'd already rescued from Ganon's clutches in the first game, you also needed to save a second Princess Zelda, who had been ensorcelled to sleep for centuries.

By the time the third proper game in the franchise rolled around for Super NES, the Zelda games had been well established as a pillar of Nintendo's first-party lineup. Nintendo Power magazine had covered the games from top to bottom, merchandise for the games ciculated around retail channels to the delight of a million young fans, and everyone knew the score. You, as Link, would need to set forth to rescue Princess Zelda.

What we didn't expect was that this rescue would be literally the very first task set before us.

With A Link to the Past for Super NES, the development team at Nintendo EAD stepped back and gave some serious thought to the nature and direction of the Zelda games. The first two entries in the series both belonged to the action-RPG category, and both told the tale of a young hero named Link as he sought to rescue the Princess Zelda, but there the similarities ended. The original game had a top-down perspective and a heavy emphasis on tools and items; Zelda II took the form of a side-scrolling combat-centric platformer, eschewing gear in favor of swordplay and spells. On the other hand, Zelda II had more of a genuine RPG feel to it, with a number of towns dotting its world map wherein players could gather clues and gear with which to tackle the hazards of Hyrule.

Zelda II's change in style has relegated it to being the "weird" Zelda, the black sheep of the series. By no means was that a given at the time, though; the series could just as easily have stuck with the combat-centric side-on style. One could even argue that the Z-targeting and real-time action of the series' 3D installments (like Breath of the Wild) have a lot more in common with Zelda II's style than with the top-down adventures. But the iconic public perception of Zelda is that it plays out a top-down action-RPG, and that has everything to do with the decision to revert to the style of the original game with ALttP.

The Last Guardian: The Mysterious Castle

DESIGN IN ACTION: The Last Guardian's background story proves to be as enigmatic as its gameplay is predictable.

Still, right from the very beginning, ALttP demonstrated the designers' determination to take pains to create a friendlier, deeper, more refined experience. Where the first two Zelda games simply dropped players into the thick of things and said, "Figure it out for yourself," ALttP provided context and structure for the quest. And that's where Zelda comes in.

Here, Link awakens in his family's cottage in the dead of night as a storm rages outside, just in time to see his uncle take up a sword and lantern as the older man ventures into the dark. Link's uncle admonishes the young elf to stay in bed before ducking out the door, but as soon as you're alone you can begin wandering around. As in the original Legend of Zelda, Link embarks on his quest without a weapon; all you can do in your home is pick up and toss some pottery. There's nothing to be done except follow your uncle into the storm… where, again, all you can do is lift and toss shrubbery.

Where the world map in the original Zelda was wide open for you to explore before you even acquired a weapon, here the overworld proves to be cordoned off even more than the natural barriers of Zelda II (where a boulder and a high wall prevented you from ranging afield until you acquired the Jump spell). Soldiers block every route from Link's home save for the route to the castle — an artificial contrivance, but one at least justified by the narrative. Plus, the soldiers serve a dual purpose here: Besides obstructing Link's path, they also give helpful advice. If you somehow fail to realize that you can lift and throw shrubs, eventually the soldiers will clue you in when you try in frustration to push past them. They'll also give you info on game elements like the world map Link carries, which reveals the location of the castle relative to his home. And there's little question that your destination lies in the castle: Princess Zelda bombards you with telepathic messages (unlike the soldiers' tips, her mental transmissions aren't optional) urging you to make your way there.

You can see in ALttP's opening the seeds of oppressive game design habits to which Breath of the Wild's low-fuss openness offers a welcome remedy. In this case, though, the game doesn't use tips and messages as a crutch; while Zelda goads you toward the castle at the outset of the adventure, these pop-up missives only appear a handful of times throughout the remainder of the game, and always as brief notes at key moments. Their mandatory appearance doesn't function as a nag or nuisance but rather a convenience: They save you the trouble of returning to the village elder for pointers. Outside of Zelda's persistent calls to make your way to the castle, these tips appear once and leave you to go about your way.

Between the princess' solicitations and the optional advice of the guards, it should become apparent in short order that the key to entering the castle — whose main gates are, unsurprisingly, blocked by a pair of guards who send you on your way — is to sneak in through a back entrance. While hidden, Zelda's thoughts combined with the fact that your only ability in these opening moments is to pluck shrubs from the ground makes it pretty obvious that the way forward here is to remove a very conspicuously placed bush, which reveals a hidden tunnel. Inside, Link finds his uncle dying of a mortal wound; with his last breath, he gives Link his sword and a lantern and encourages him to save the princess.

Functionally, the introduction to ALttP serves the same purpose as the opening moments of the original Legend of Zelda: Link embarks on a quest, collects a sword, and maybe finds a tool or two to use as well. Here, though, the design leaves nothing to chance. If players somehow overlook the rather obvious cave entrance in the first screen of Zelda for NES, they'll wander helplessly through the overworld without the means to retaliate against foes. While some people have turned that into something of a challenge for the 8-bit classic — reaching Ganon without ever using a sword — the NES approach relies on players to exercise a certain minimum level of observance. Alas, time has proven that many gamers, especially those of a more casual nature, don't always find "obvious" visual clues to actually be obvious. While recent Zelda games have assumed the worst of all players, this particular entry gives you training wheels just long enough to let you get rolling on your own steam.

ALttP allows players to experience the same road to empowerment as on the NES — beginning as a helpless kid without so much as a sharp stick to wave around before eventually wielding an enchanted blade to take down the ultimate evil — but it leaves nothing to chance. The game is packed with hidden equipment to uncover and puzzles to solve, but at the outset, you can't possibly miss your essential starting gear. In later games, this sequence would involve a tutorial; here, however, you learn the ropes as you undertake your quest. It's a diegetic learning experience. Nothing in the game can harm you before you collect your uncle's weapon, and once you do arm Link, you face a gentle upward curve of threats as you seek to rescue the captive Zelda.

The prologue-cum-tutorial phase of ALttP functions as a microcosmic version of the original Legend of Zelda, really. From the outset of your adventure, you find a dungeon due north, acquire a sword by ducking into a dark entrance, defeat a boss, and rescue the princess. Here, the "dungeon" is Hyrule Palace, and the greatest challenge within consists of simply finding the path to the castle's actual dungeons where the princess is imprisoned. There are no puzzles to solve, and the guards who roam the palace won't attack Link unless he crosses their line of sight. In a sense, this is the earliest appearance of the series' ever-hated stealth sequences, though it's much less punitive than in later titles; your only penalty for being spotted here is that guards will rush you instead of passively letting you hack at their backs.

Hyrule Castle's large, interlocking design may take a moment to sort through, though several passages remain obstructed — including an enticing door on the parapets sealed shut with a wicked-looking magical barrier — which expedites the process of descending into the underground. Once you reach the dungeon proper, Link acquires his first key — essential for opening locked doors — and his first secondary weapon, a boomerang. In doing so, the game gives you a sampler of how most dungeons throughout the adventure will work. You collect keys to clear the way forward, and use sub-weapons to abet your victory. Most if not all dungeon bosses can only be defeated with the use of the sub-weapon located in their lair.

In this case, you don't have to rely on the boomerang; it's strictly optional. However, you'll have far better luck rescuing Zelda if you do make use of it. Her cell is guarded by a more advanced soldier who can soak up a remarkable amount of abuse and deals tremendous damage at a decent range by wielding a flail. It's difficult to dart in to land a blow without taking a reciprocal hit from his deadly ball-and-chain if you rely strictly on swordplay, but the boomerang has the ability to stun the gaoler long enough for you to duck in for an attack and step back to safety before he can recover and fling his flail at you. While this process takes a small amount of patience, this too has value: Enemies often have the same damage-recovery invincibility protection as Link, and combat in ALttP can't be brute-forced. Simply hammering the attack button won't work, and the quick in-and-out strategy that works best against Zelda's captor establishes the pattern that you'll be using throughout the game.

With the guard defeated, you can collect the dungeon's "big key"; elsewhere, big keys unlock the door to a boss' chamber, but here they allow you to liberate the boss' captive. Of course, the rescue of Zelda at this early hour isn't the end of the game; the quest has only just begun, and you have to physically lead the princess to safety back up through the dungeon and along a secret path from the castle to a nearby village. The underground escape route serves as your first real non-boss combat challenge, as the rats and snakes that populate the sewers move more erratically (and aggressively) than the castle's soldiers. On top of that, the tunnels are drenched in darkness, forcing you not only to switch your sub-weapon from boomerang back to the lantern but also to manage your magic meter (as using the lantern to temporarily light torches throughout the tunnels depletes a small amount of mana). It's a nice taste of the adventure ahead: The need to juggle equipment, manage resources, and balance combat with exploration. There's even a conspicuously damaged wall for you to return to break open with bombs later in the game, presenting your first glimpse of completist backtracking.

Once you reach the sanctuary and leave Zelda in what appears to be safety, the game properly begins. While this introduction arms players with an understanding of ALttP's mechanics and other basics, it also leaves behind a lingering question: What is there to do in a Zelda game once you've saved Princess Zelda? With the game's "main" objective seemingly completed, a new and more involved story unfolds as Link seeks to expose the truth behind the grim events that went down at Hyrule Castle to cause Zelda to become a prisoner in her own home.

Next week: A prologue as big as some entire games.

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Comments 19

  • Avatar for dekar346 #1 dekar346 3 months ago
    I love this series of articles.

    My experience with ALttP is pretty hilarious. I borrowed the cartridge from a kid I'd just met, and then he moved away before I saw him again. I never saw him again, and I still have it and he can't have it back.
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  • Avatar for PlatypusPlatoon #2 PlatypusPlatoon 3 months ago
    A Link to the Past and Resident Evil 4 have the strongest introductory chapters of all the games I've played through - well-crafted experiences that I've gone back to probably a dozen times in both cases, often without bothering to play through the rest of the game afterwards. I think what sets these two introductory scenes apart from most other games is the sense of urgency. You're immediately given a concrete task to perform, with some supposed actual stakes on the line (your uncle's well-being here, and the fate of a sleepy village in RE4). There's immediate tension to the proceedings, along with a great mix of game mechanics that guides you but doesn't hold your hand too much, giving the chance to get your own bearings and making you feel like you're in control.

    Man, typing that out is just making me want to play through those two introductory chapters again now.Edited April 2017 by PlatypusPlatoon
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #3 NiceGuyNeon 3 months ago
    Ooooh. I was gonna start Paper Mario but I decided I'm going to play Link to the Past for the first time alongside this article. SKEWL IS IN SESSION!

    I put off LttP because of BotW. But I'm literally hanging onto that game because I don't know how I'm supposed to transition to other 3D games now. 2D has been easy. Different style. I'll continue it with a first time playthrough of this game!
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #4 LBD_Nytetrayn 3 months ago
    One facet I like is that if you decide to leave the lamp in the chest in Link's house, they find multiple other places for you to get it, even potentially putting off your acquisition of the boomerang as a result (if I remember correctly).
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #5 SatelliteOfLove 3 months ago
    An entire article will be devoted to the shocking "Pink vs Blond" debate. :P

    Have never played this one (nor Zelda II). I figure I should fix this sooner or later.
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #6 Vonlenska 3 months ago
    I probably spent more time poring over the manual's gorgeous art and (for the time very) detailed backstory than I did actually playing the game. I've probably reversed that by now with subsequent replays, but I'm not even sure.

    I think the music and sound direction played a huge part in setting the game up. I can't really remember the intro without hearing the ominous music leading up to the castle, the atmospheric thunderstorm, the somehow stern patter of the soldier's font sound and, finally, the bombastic fanfare on entering the castle itself. It all does a wonderful job making the player fully inhabit the scene.
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  • Avatar for ChrisOwens1980 #7 ChrisOwens1980 3 months ago
    I got the strategy guide through nintendo power and read it cover to cover multiple times before I ever played the game but it was still a mesmerizing experience that is one of the best gaming memories I have.
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  • Avatar for damienolenick07 #8 damienolenick07 3 months ago
    @dekar346 i let my friend borrow ALttP, and I moved away without getting it back. The subject was brought up a few years ago and I believe he still has it.
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  • Avatar for link6616 #9 link6616 3 months ago
    I first played this on the gba port. For some reason I never quite found the snes version as appealing despite being a rather direct port.
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  • Avatar for AudioVisualExperienc #10 AudioVisualExperienc 3 months ago
    Deleted April 2017 by AudioVisualExperienc
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  • Avatar for docexe #11 docexe 3 months ago
    Nice analysis. I haven’t commented much lately, but I really enjoy this series of articles. I’m glad to see this week’s column dedicated to this game. A Link to the Past was my favorite Zelda game for decades (and I say “was” because Breath of the Wild is on its way to dethrone it from that position).

    Thinking about it, in terms of design the introduction of BotW is kind of similar to the introduction of ALttP. Both confine you to relatively small areas of the game world and teach you the ropes mostly in a diegetic kind of way. The game still gives some instructions and pointers about what to do and where to go, but otherwise leaves you to your own devices for the most part. It strikes that delicate balance between ensuring that the player gets the necessary skills to progress through the rest of the adventure without feeling excessively “handholdy” about it.
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  • Avatar for benjaminlu86 #12 benjaminlu86 3 months ago
    A thought occurred to me a few weeks ago and I realized I couldn't think of a single game that has "copied" the top-down action combat of Zelda 1/LTTP/LA. Ocarina of Time has had plenty of imitators, Dark Cloud being a famous early example, but I can't recall any rip-offs of 2D Zelda. Am I just hopelessly uncultured and inexperienced or is this real? Can anyone think of 2D Zelda-likes?
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  • Avatar for GamerInNameOnly #13 GamerInNameOnly 3 months ago
    Game design of the first generation snes software (in general, sorry pilot wings fans) was profound. Tight mechanics, engaging tactics, sublime sound (some of which has yet to be duplicated in any format, vis a vi this'game's credits!). But it will always be the smaller details, those ascetic imprints (if you will) that left an indelible impression. Stuff like the idiosyncratic wrr-rrr-rp of a charged sword embellished by little stars dancing to and fro off the blade or the atmospheric. evocative drop drip cave piece *or* the symbolism in what has to be one of the most powerful scenes of all time. The dark world's ominous yet wistfully majestic golden power backdrop (which if that's not chll inducing I dont know what is) Currently Nintendo is making a different set of strides, but really back then they were a masterclass in design and I don't know if I'll ever quite see such detail again.Edited April 2017 by GamerInNameOnly
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  • Avatar for odaiba-memorial #14 odaiba-memorial 3 months ago
    @benjaminlu86 Final Fantasy Adventure and its sequels (Secret of Mana/Seiken Densetsu) are the only ones that immediately come to mind to me. They feature a top-down world map format and real-time combat, but with the addition of RPG mechanics such as attack, defense, weapons, armor, etc -- they are Square games, after all.
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  • Avatar for GaijinD #15 GaijinD 3 months ago
    @benjaminlu86 I think you're just not remembering. Off the top of my head, there's Golvellius, Neutopia, and The Magic of Scheherazade. I'm sure there are plenty more that I'm not remembering, at least some of which I'll think of immediately after posting this comment.
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  • Avatar for Mooglepies #16 Mooglepies 3 months ago
    Nice article, for a game I adore. One fairly minor nitpick though - where you say "Most if not all dungeon bosses can only be defeated with the use of the sub-weapon located in their lair. "

    This isn't actually correct. It's actually the reverse in most cases, although the dungeon often requires the treasure to get to the boss in the first place, and the bosses will often be much easier with the treasure. No light world bosses require the treasure from their dungeon to defeat, and only two are required in the Dark World. Link's Awakening was also poor on that front but it was Ocarina that really began the trend of every boss fights being formulaic in that way.

    The introduction segment to LTTP is very well designed, and it gets you into the game and learning its systems very quickly, which I think is something that got lost in Zelda in recent years. I understand why this is the case (games as a medium got more complex and required more tutorials to compensate) but I find LTTP a much more fun game to replay as a result.
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  • Avatar for JamesSwiftDay #17 JamesSwiftDay 3 months ago
    The banner image, clearly not from the actual, non-modded Link to the Past, is blowing my mind.
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  • Avatar for JamesSwiftDay #18 JamesSwiftDay 3 months ago
    @benjaminlu86 Sega's Story of Thor / Beyond Oasis was a blatant 2D Zelda clone from back in the day.

    3D Dot Game Heroes is one of the modern ones based on 2D Zelda, though it was basically a tribute.Edited April 2017 by JamesSwiftDay
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  • Avatar for ironjoe99 #19 ironjoe99 2 months ago
    @nimzy

    Me too! I was so relieved as a kid to find out he survived. Turns out he was just revived by the Triforce but to 10 year old me he was just hiding out somewhere.
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  • Avatar for Hoolo #20 Hoolo 2 months ago
    @benjaminlu86 Crusader of Centy is one of my favourite examples, a Zelda-like game that takes Link's subweapons and replaces them with... animals? It's pretty bonkers, but also great fun, and the music is really good (Noriyuki Iwadare, I believe). Would recommend.
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