A Link to the Past Uncovered, Part 2: A Prologue That Spanned the World

DESIGN IN ACTION | Link's journey across the entirety of Hyrule was in fact just the beginning of a much larger adventure.

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 Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past kicks off with an introductory sequence unique within the series. It's reminiscent in many ways of the opening mission that would appear in Final Fantasy VII a few years later: A fast-paced lead-in to the game, its story, and its mechanics that moves things along briskly and only gives players a change to rest and begin to soak in the world afterwards.

But this late-night journey to retrieve Princess Zelda from a prison beneath her own palace ultimately offers only a fleeting glimpse of the full scope and mechanics of A Link to the Past. It's a mere lead-in that soon unfolds into a proper prologue, one in which players experience a fuller taste of the overall game while laying the foundation for the adventure ahead. The remarkable thing about the expanded prologue sequence that follows the introductory quest is that the development team structured it in a way that, in a player's first time through, makes it feel like it comprises the full extent of the game.

The "prologue" to which I'm referring isn't formally designated as such; I'm referring to the portion of the game that falls between sequestering Princess Zelda at the shrine in the woods and Link's return to Hyrule Castle to take on Agahnim. Nintendo's designers cleverly crafted this phase of the game in a way that makes it feel like a full, self-contained adventure, culminating in what appears to the the final boss encounter. The player follows a trail of hints and breadcrumbs across the entirety of Hyrule, completing several dungeons and literally exploring every corner of the world map before collecting the legendary Master Sword and taking on the evil being who has (or appears to have) masterminded the game's events. In truth, you've only completed about a third of the game's tasks by the time you face Agahnim, and you've only seen half of the world-but your tasks are presented in a way that the true scope of the adventure only begins to become apparent as you approach what appears to be your ultimate goal.

A Link to the Past's Hyrule felt huge! Until...

The original Zelda for NES featured an open world design in which players could venture practically anywhere from the outset. Aside from the final dungeon (which couldn't be entered without collecting a complete Triforce from the eight dungeons scattered across the land) and a handful of places that required the use of a raft or ladder to reach, Link could go anywhere he wanted from the moment the game began. Zelda II, on the other hand, had a more rigid structure akin to that of the Dragon Quest games: Massive portions of the map were gated away to be inaccessible by barriers that could only be passed with the use of special tools and spells. With A Link to the Past, Nintendo split the difference; this version of Hyrule felt largely open, as with the first game, but within the world you would constantly encounter small areas barred by temporary obstacles.

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.

It's difficult to say precisely what ALttP's greatest design accomplishment was; it did so many things brilliantly. But if I were forced to narrow it down to a single feat, I would probably point to the subtle interlocking puzzle that was the game world. Even discounting the interwoven connections of the Dark World (which is a topic for a future column), Hyrule in ALttP somehow managed to combine free-roaming adventure with thoughtful divisions and barriers designed to give the creators a certain high-level control over player progression.

The prologue phase of the game demonstrates just how extensive, and how seamless, the development team's predetermination truly was. Link constantly encounters walls and blockades that prevent him from exploring certain caves, from acquiring obvious but inaccessible items, and from ranging along every single tile of the overworld at liberty. Despite this, you feel like you've seen the whole of Hyrule by the time you collect the Master Sword. The mandatory flow of the game and the obvious path of NPC hints and suggestions are designed to lead you across the full expanse of Hyrule: You begin just north of the center, at the shrine, before being told to traipse over to Karariko Village to the west. From there, you head to the far east side of the map to meet the village elder, Sahasrahla, and complete the first proper dungeon. With that task complete, your next objective is the dungeon at the southwest corner of the map... though Sahasrahla suggests you check out a cave in the southeast corner first, and in any case you can't enter the second dungeon until you swing by the library south of Kakariko Village. And from there, you have to navigate Death Mountain (to complete the third dungeon) and the Lost Woods (to collect the Master Sword), which together comprise the northernmost quarter of the world map.

That accounts for all of Hyrule, really, so your march through the gates of the castle to take on Agahnim (hidden in the sealed chamber you couldn't enter during your opening journey to rescue Zelda) feels like a sort of climax. You've explored the kingdom, conquered the dungeons, beaten bosses, collected medallions, and acquired the legendary Master Sword. Sure, it's a short adventure, but what else could there be left to do?

There's so much to find in A Link to the Past.

Of course, there are a few giveaways that the quest is far from over. For starters the Moon Pearl, which several NPCs mention in your trek to the third dungeon, seems important. It prevents Link from being rendered defenseless in the Dark World. Yet you never really need to use it to complete the medallion quest; in fact, you can complete the third dungeon without collecting it at all. And during your brief sojourn into the Dark World, you might happen to take a look at the world map and notice it's subtly different now from the map you've been using, but just as large, even if you're stuck n Death Mountain for the moment. And what of that strange glowing structure in place of the Tower of Hera you might glimpse while in that parallel realm?

These mysteries suggest a grander quest, and so too do all the things left undone. What about the bridge blocked off on Death Mountain by wooden stakes? What about the Heart Pieces you've spotted by can't reach? What about the NPCs who pine over unresolved personal matters? And then there are the non-diegetic cues, like the fact that three dungeons feels awfully small for a sequel to games that had eight or nine main dungeons apiece. Not to mention all those empty spaces in Link's inventory...

The initial items fill a few inventory slots, but not all of them...

In other words, attentive players probably weren't suckered into thinking the encounter with Agahnim represented ALttP's endgame. Yet at the same time, the medallion quest certainly gives that impression. It spans the whole of Hyrule. It forces players to learn the topography of the land, demands they develop strategies for dealing with enemies, and even gives them clues for how they're meant to properly navigate what will shortly become a profoundly convoluted virtual world. The early portions of the game are dotted with tantalizing treasures hidden in plain sight, and many of them can be acquired before returning the Hyrule Castle. You can snag the Heart Piece on the desert cliff when you venture outside of the second dungeon (which, rather than consisting of a single contiguous structure as in previous games, sprawls across several separate buildings - a design concept that becomes quite prevalent in the main quest's dungeons). You can collect a high, out-of-reach Heart Piece in the Lost Woods by hacking at bushes to reveal a hidden alternate entrance to a thief's lair (again, a skill that later becomes mandatory). And so forth.

By the time you do take back Hyrule Castle from the wizard's forces, you've developed a firm grasp on Link's capabilities. You've increased his skills and tools and health. And most of all, you've become an expert on the land of Hyrule.

All of these factors become essential as you venture into the real meat of the game, because once you destroy Agahnim, the going becomes far more difficult. Enemies hit harder. Puzzles require expert use of tools. And most of all, navigating the intricate interconnections between light and dark worlds demands intimate knowledge of the realm's topography. In a way, Link's quest to defeat Agahnim plays out as a microcosmic version of the original NES Zelda quest, wrapped up in the RPG elements of Zelda II. But once ALttP kicks into high gear, the adventure becomes bigger and more devious than the 8-bit entries in the series ever dreamed of being.

Next week: A trek into darkness.

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Comments 12

  • Avatar for dr134 #1 dr134 A year ago
    Great series of articles.

    Playing ALttP is one of my best gaming memories and these articles have brought all those images and feelings back.
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  • Avatar for sketchlayerjosh #2 sketchlayerjosh A year ago
    This sort of "complete three-act story as tutorial" structure works really well in terms of teaching the players about the game without making it explicit that you're doing so. I'm thinking of Final Fantasy as well, and its effective intro.

    Where the later Zelda games fail in this respect, even when they try to do a similar thing, is that they give you the miniature *story* in the tutorial, but don't back it up with a miniature version of *gameplay.* Skyward Sword, for example. The tutorial there has the three-act narrative structure (Wake up and meet people - Where's your bird? - The bird race), but it's not reflective of the rest of the gameplay. There's no dungeon, no boss, nothing to really find via exploration except for rupees that you can't use because the stores are conveniently closed.

    Going back to Final Fantasy, while the initial quest is much shorter than something like Link to the Past's, it still serves as a microcosm of the game to follow. "Go to a town - Traverse through an overworld, fighting monsters - Explore a dungeon with a boss at the end." The rest of the game (heck, the entirety of *most* Final Fantasy games) is that same structure, broken up into little episodic chunks that each advance the story a little bit. It's a self-contained, yet satisfying story that teaches you the rhythms of play that you'll be repeating throughout the rest of the adventure. A Link to the Past does this as well. Yes, the story continues after the prologue, but your main objective until that point of "Find Princess Zelda, defeat Agahnim" is wrapped up.

    When you think about it, this episodic structure is present in most successful games. Ubisoft-style games are the same, except it's "Tower to unlock an area - Exploration of that area - That area's story mission." Maybe as gamers we crave that small, repeated rhythm. Perhaps that's what (non-BotW) modern Zelda games forget. The tutorial sections seem interminable. Partially because, well, they do go on a bit. But partially because they don't follow a narrative rhythm that indicates to the player how far along in that sequence they are. Hence the "When will this tutorial end?!" feeling of Twilight Princess and the like. Also why people often give up on big RPGs like the Elder Scrolls games. As a culture that is so used to stories that are structured in the same way, once we fall out of that structure it can feel like no progress is being made. Which is why games like Link to the Past, with its very clear "collect X doodads" structure, are so satisfying.

    Anyway, great article Jeremy. Lots to think about.Edited April 2017 by sketchlayerjosh
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  • Avatar for Mixingmetaphorsoup #3 Mixingmetaphorsoup A year ago
    @sketchlayerjosh Not just the first Final Fantasy! I wouldn't quite call the first half of FFVI a prologue as much as this part of LttP is, but it does very much have that fake ending, and the structure of the game fundamentally changes. I could point to other times in the first half of FFVI that work as narrative endpoints as well, such as the return to Narshe.
    Or, of course, in FFVII, the whole introduction of the game, culminating in the motorcycle chase and leaving Midgar, is probably the most famous example. Shinra Tower certainly FEELS like an endgame dungeon.
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  • Avatar for donkeyintheforest #4 donkeyintheforest A year ago
    "But once ALttP kicks into high gear, the adventure becomes bigger and more devious than the 8-bit entries in the series ever dreamed of being."

    ...and yet everyone says Breath of the Wild is the true realization of what they dreamed of for the original Zelda, and it's way bigger than Link to the Past. So hyperbole, yes, but still great haha
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  • Avatar for Mooglepies #5 Mooglepies A year ago
    Good analysis. The more subtle gating early on in the game in the light world acts as a good introduction for what you see in the dark world too - and they lead you to make mental checklists of "I must come back here later". Particularly true with the Eastern portion of lower Death Mountain (can be entirely skipped in both light and dark world) and the mysterious use of hammer pegs everywhere in the light world.

    "But once ALttP kicks into high gear, the adventure becomes bigger and more devious than the 8-bit entries in the series ever dreamed of being."

    Nintendo were much better at gating/guiding players by the time LTTP came out, so I'd say this is both true and not true. The ability to see (and hear) bombable walls in LTTP and the decreased importance of bombs generally made LTTP much more easy to understand than Zelda 1, and there were way less obtuse hints left by NPCs as well. Almost everything in LTTP makes sense as it is at least consistent with the rest of the game... with some notable exceptions.

    Any plans to talk about the randomiser that's quite popular at the moment? I imagine it would be at the end of the series but just curious.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #6 NiceGuyNeon A year ago
    Like I wrote in last week's article, I'm playing along with these articles for the first time (a personal USgamer Plays or whatever it was called back then).

    I'm literally at Aghanim (however you spell it) and so far I can see how much it influenced some of the later entries. The three dungeons and then the big twist? That happens in both Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess too, and only then does the adventure REALLY get going in both games.

    I'm coming into A Link to the Past with full general knowledge of how the series works and a lot of the twists and turns of the game. But much like I do with the classics I've played, I go in with an eye towards history. Link to the Past has a formula, and I like it. That's an understatement, I love the Zelda formula. These first three dungeons felt like introductory sequences, much like in Ocarina of Time the first three dungeons felt introductory and simple and had you as a child hero. Much like in Twilight Princess the first three dungeons basically led up to what was to be some showdown only to see, nope, the real quest starts here.

    There's definitely a lot more to see once I clobber that wizard, but this is a sublime game and I'm glad this series of articles finally led to me playing it.

    EDIT- Clobbered him. Dark World. 7 Maidens. ON IT.Edited April 2017 by NiceGuyNeon
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  • Avatar for odaiba-memorial #7 odaiba-memorial A year ago
    @Mixingmetaphorsoup It might be because we skipped FF II, III, and V in the US, but a lot of people don't remember that "fake endings" were a FF tradition long before VI!

    FF II has the main and supporting cast celebrating the villain's defeat with a ball at Hilda's palace, only to have a former ally -- missing and presumed dead for the whole game -- show up and announce he would be taking the evil Emperor's place as ruler before wreaking havoc on the city with dark magic.

    FF III didn't have a false ending, per se, but one of the game's most memorable moments was when you learned that the large mass of land that formed your initial world map was but a small continent floating in the sky above an ancient world long since devoured by endless waves -- of course, your party recedes the waves and explores said ancient world for the remainder of the game.

    FF V's "false ending," especially, gets unfairly overlooked in my opinion, and was probably just as effective as VI's was, if for different reasons. The game's first act consists of the typical "save the crystals" FF plot, only for our heroes to helplessly watch as they reach each crystal just in time to see them shatter. When it's revealed the amnesiac party member was from another world, the party travels with him to his planet to help take down the ultimate evil in the game's second act, which eventually leads to a party member's heroic sacrifice. Climbing Exdeath's castle sees the "comic relief" right-hand sidekick to the villain seemingly banished to the Void for good, and the heroes band together to defeat Exdeath once and for all (as far as they know). They are then transported back to their own world, and they hold a celebration at the castle of Tycoon (a callback to FF II's false ending, it seems). But something's wrong... the two worlds have merged, and Exdeath's fiends still roam the planet. Exdeath wasn't dead at all -- cue third act.

    FF doesn't do it so often these days, but back in the classic 8 and 16-bit eras, fakeout finales were a Final Fantasy signature.Edited 4 times. Last edited April 2017 by odaiba-memorial
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  • Avatar for Mooglepies #8 Mooglepies A year ago

    Link to the Past was the foundation structure for lots of the games that came after it, possibly to the detriment of the series as a whole, as I think it really got them stuck in a rut for a while. That being said, it was only really the case for the mainline series - portable entries didn't go along with it.

    The amount of people who worked on LTTP who occupy senior roles with Nintendo even now is pretty high, which explains some of it.
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  • Avatar for matt-b #9 matt-b A year ago
    @NiceGuyNeon This was my favorite Zelda game until BotW came out because I feel it had perfected the pacing. It had the perfect initial time-to-sword length (something which would get longer and longer and LONGER), an excellent prologue that felt natural and not as a caged-off separate gameplay experience, a number of interesting plot developments, incredible dungeon and world design...just home runs all around.

    Like@Mooglepies said, they did SO WELL with this game that they forced themselves into the same mold for DECADES. The biggest failure with this strategy was the addition of more complex controls (which in and of itself isn't a bad thing) but they expanded that time-to-sword factor exponentially and turned the natural feeling prologue section into an all-out tutorial which was completely unrelated to the larger focus of the game...just makes it difficult to get going, whereas LttP just starts off so quickly and moves so well.Edited April 2017 by matt-b
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #10 NiceGuyNeon A year ago
    I've only played Minish Cap for portable games, but that probably isn't a good example since it was Capcom developed. It was good though. I'm still torn on exploring the DS games on Virtual Console just to see what they're all about.

    I do like how quickly you're thrown into action in LttP. There's no lengthy exposition and awkward out of place instruction with characters saying "press this button to use your sword."

    I definitely see the formula copied in OoT which handled it really well, and Twilight Princess which was my fave Zelda until Breath of the Wild. But Twilight Princess was the first game with a 5 hour intro period before you enter a dungeon. Storywise it follows OoT and LttP with three dungeons and then boom, twist. But structurally I agree, the tutorial started in TP and continued in Skyward Sword were excessive. They did a great job of setting up plot and characters, especially in SS, and the dungeon design was brilliant in both, but they should have handled them more organically like in BotW.

    In OoT, Majora's Mask, and Wind Waker you're in action almost right away and hitting on something important within minutes.

    As for Breath of the Wild, it basically starts with a tutorial but handles it all so organically that you don't even notice. That would have been ideal for both SS and TP I think.

    But I've enjoyed every Zelda I've ever played so I'm just glad to be experiencing another great one with LttP. The pacing in this game is lightning fast so you're never wasting time. By the time you hit the dark world you have half of the maximum hearts so you feel powerful too. I like that a lot.
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  • Avatar for matt-b #11 matt-b A year ago
    @NiceGuyNeon Minish Cap is great and so is Link's Awakening. The DS entries are good albeit a bit quirky. They are certainly worth playing.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #12 NiceGuyNeon A year ago
    @mattb0527 cool. I'll check them out sometime after LttP then.
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