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.
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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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