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Old 01-11-2012, 11:20 AM   #1 (permalink)
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How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

I wrote this article last year, but it seemed worth posting here in light of (1) A Link to the Past's 20th anniversary and (2) people's complaints about Skyward Sword and its "talky shrew."


The band Marillion was formed in the late '70s, a progressive-rock-inspired outfit in an era where punk had made prog as unfashionable as disco. Under the guidance of lyricist and singer Derek W. Dick, AKA Fish, the band signed a contract and released four excellent cult-hit albums throughout the first half of the '80s. Eventually, Fish went his own separate way, so Marillion recruited one Steve Hogarth to replace the fan-favorite frontman, bringing to the band both a softer sound and far less cynical lyrics. Many fans were put off by the change and felt Hogarth a poor replacement, regarding Fish's seven-year tenure with the band as the 'true' Marillion.

That was 1989. At this point, Hogarth has been with the band three times as long as Fish, producing more than twice as many albums as the original front man. And yet some diehards still cling to the assertion that the Fish-led line-up is the only 'real' version of Marillion, despite the fact that Hogarth's era is several times more authentic by any tangible measure. I don't share their perspective, but at the same time I can't simply dismiss that particular point of view, either. You see, I feel more or less the same way about The Legend of Zelda.

There's a hard demarcation in the Zelda games, one that's as much spiritual as it is technological. The series changed when it made the jump into 3D, and not just because of the more convoluted controls or expanded combat options. It's a self-evident change. 1998's Ocarina of Time is essentially the quest from its Super NES predecessor, A Link to the Past, reworked into the shape of a grand polygonal epic. And it is grand indeed -- a groundbreaking work that defined the shape of games to come. And yet, brilliant as it is, I find far more satisfaction in the more modest rendition of those same concepts as they're seen in A Link to the Past.


Link's sole 16-bit outing is every bit as substantial an adventure as his later journeys, but it manages to be fast-paced and uncomplicated in a way that subsequent chapters abandoned in the move to the third dimension. The game looks simpler than Ocarina or Twilight Princess, but those works aren't particularly more complex than A Link to the Past. And while it does feature less intricate combat mechanics, most of the advantages its successors offer are generally superficial: A sense of grandeur, vaster spaces, more impressive presentation.

But is there really a meaningful difference between the Hookshot as seen in A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time? Not really; it's just as useful in the former as in the latter. No, actually it's more versatile in A Link to the Past, as it can be put to use without the need to stand helplessly in first-person mode or juggle a fussy lock-on reticule. You also never need to spend time spinning around in search of a Hookshot-friendly hot spot, whereas Ocarina's attempt at immersive design frequently forces you to stand stock-still as you examine a room in search of a small ledge or convenient grappling point.

The Ocarina approach isn't inherently flawed; it's just the victim of certain compromises that are necessary to transform a work on Zelda's scale into the third dimension. It creates a more convincing sense of reality and place, but in doing so it also places an obfuscatory veil between the player and the game -- a compromise of interactive immersion. A Link to the Past offers a satisfying directness at all times, whether in swordplay or dungeon design. But it doesn't lack for technique. Link may not have Z-targeting to allow him to dance gracefully around a foe, but his distinct way of wielding a sword (left-handed, always swung in an outward arc) has a definite impact on how players approach enemies. It's a thorough realization of the swordplay mechanics seen in games like Ys, and perhaps as a nod to Falcom's Zelda-esque action-RPG, Link can even walk around with his sword brandished straight ahead to take a poke a foes by walking into them (a decidedly weak poke, at that).


A Link to the Past wastes no time with tutorials or drawn-out introductions. Link awakens in response to a psychic cry for help and finds his uncle already setting out into a dark and rainy night to heed the same call. Players are free to wander around the environs of Link's home, but eventually the path leads forward to the castle, where Link finds his uncle mortally wounded. He takes up his guardian's weapons and mission, and the adventure begins.

Even accounting for pokey players like me, who insist on exploring every nook and cranny before moving on, the time to sword acquisition is less than five minutes. That's considerably slower than in the original Legend of Zelda (walk ten paces, enter cave, grab sword), but vastly snappier than in more recent Zelda games (includng Skyward Sword, which forces players to suffer through a clumsy bird race before their quest begins properly).

This no-nonsense approach to advancement characterizes A Link to the Past from start to finish. Dungeon's don't lack for traps and hazards and puzzles, yet each one can be completed fairly efficiently. Even the trickiest labyrinth (the slippy-slidey Ice Palace) zips by in no time at all compared to Ocarina's Forest or Ice Temples or Twilight Princess' later dungeons. Yet despite their seeming brevity, there's no shortage of challenge to be found. Enemies pack more of a punch than in any 3D Zelda, and many dungeons feature the same intricate puzzles as in the sequels: Multi-floor layouts and special items and powers wound into convoluted knots and spirals. Yet they seem to breeze past because of the no-nonsense visual design of the game. There's no pausing to get a sense of space, no searching around for key interactive points in the environment, no trudging back and forth between multiple locations. A Link to the Past works on the same principles as great information design. There's a clarity of purpose and a straightforwardness of presentation that minimizes confusion and makes every moment of the game feel like it's laser-focused on maximizing player enjoyment.


That precision-targeted fun was diminished in subsequent Zelda games; it's an inherent result of the move to 3D visuals. This isn't some neo-Luddite screed against 3D visuals, because they offer as many benefits as detriments. Wind Waker remains a stunning game a decade later, and its excellent visual design causes its most potent moments to be far more memorable than anything that played out in A Link to the Past's humble sprite-puppet theatre. And it's not just the passive, cinematic sequences that resonate in that game; powerful as Ganon's final demise was, few Super NES games even began to dream of offering moments as arresting as the player's exploration of an underwater palace frozen in time. The Zelda series' turn for the polygonal has led to moments of brilliance.

Still, the modern games lack a certain something, and I don't think the technology is entirely to blame. Oracle of Ages and The Minish Cap demonstrate the quirks of modern Zelda despite sharing the same basic technology and interface as A Link to the Past. No, the series' move to 3D simply amplified the issue, which is that the template for Zelda games was established in 1992 and Nintendo has trouble moving beyond it. Since the Super NES, every chapter of the Zelda franchise has been an variation on a theme.

A Link to the Past, on the other hand, was pure creative synthesis. The first two games, The Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link, didn't feel much like a series. They were bound more by superficial elements and themes than by core mechanics and design; we accepted Zelda II as a sequel because it came in a classy gold box and starred a sword-swinging elf in green, not because it played at all like The Legend of Zelda. With A Link to the Past, Nintendo brought the disparate inspirations of 8-bit Zelda together into a perfectly unified whole. The interface and visual perspective were rolled back to resemble the original game, but the complexity and role-playing feel of Zelda II became integral to the action. Link gained a respectable array of swordplay techniques, a magic meter, a succession of usable items integral to navigating each new dungeon and battling its master, and an increased reliance on the aid and input of his fellow Hylians.


This design made for an extraordinarily compelling game, one that offered a delicate balance of action and adventure. Unfortunately, it's so delicately balanced that its sequels have seemed loath to change the general structure and flow of A Link to the Past's blueprint for fear of upsetting the precarious arrangement on which the series stands. Aside from a few offbeat outliers -- namely Majora's Mask, Four Swords, and this game's own sequel [edit: or not, if that timeline is to be believed...] Link's Awakening -- the Zelda franchise has all but fossilized around the general design pattern of A Link to the Past. As such, actually isolating what made the game so remarkable and refreshing in its time can be a mildly taxing effort. The Zelda formula -- which is to say, the structure and relationship between progression, puzzles, and items introduced and perfected in one fell swoop with A Link to the Past -- has become so common, so rote that it can be hard to imagine a time in which it felt revolutionary.

And in truth, maybe A Link to the Past never really did feel revolutionary. This isn't to say it wasn't groundbreaking or influential; rather, the entire affair is saturated with an uncanny humility. Its rounded, friendly graphics put players in charge of a pink-haired moppet battling chubby knights amidst pastel forests of toy-like trees. Its action moves at a measured pace with a leisurely flow determined by the player's eagerness to either advance the plot or hunt out side quests and hidden treasures. A Link to the Past is gentle, unthreatening, harmless -- hardly the words one uses to describe a radical. Yet beneath its soft exterior, this is a game that unflinchingly codified the action-adventure (not action-RPG) genre and locked down the rules not only for its sequels but for countless imitators and derivatives as well.

Despite all of this, A Link to the Past also stands triumphant above 20 years of offshoots to follow as a masterpiece, as well as a rare act of sleight-of-hand: A game that calls the shots yet always lets the player feel in control in ways its successors could never quite master. It's hardly the only 'real' Zelda game to have come down the pipeline through the years, but to many it will always be the lone original in a roomful of imitators.



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Old 01-11-2012, 11:42 AM   #2 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

Link to the Past will always be the best Zelda game ever.
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Old 01-11-2012, 03:58 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

well, its really all opinion.... because none of the zeldas kept my attention like windwaker did, yet thats the one everyone hates.
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Old 01-11-2012, 04:14 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

It's not my personal favorite, but you can't deny that it's still the best implementation of Zelda's structured adventure concept.

And it's ok katz I like Wind Waker too.
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Old 01-11-2012, 04:23 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

For me it's a tie between this and Ocarina of Time. Both were just masterpieces.
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Old 01-11-2012, 04:33 PM   #6 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

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For me it's a tie between this and Ocarina of Time. Both were just masterpieces.
Agreed although Skyward Sword is getting up there too.
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Old 01-11-2012, 06:41 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

Zelda 2 ftw, I know it's not a master piece like LTTP, but for me, the funnest.
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Old 01-11-2012, 08:42 PM   #8 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

I'm not a big fan of the Zelda series, but I do like Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, and Twilight Princess. I absolutely can't stand Zelda 2, Majora's Mask, and Wind Waker.
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Old 01-11-2012, 09:34 PM   #9 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

For the record I enjoyed Windwaker and Phantom Hourglass. Minish Cap too.
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Old 01-11-2012, 10:11 PM   #10 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

Wind Waker was my favorite for a while until I played LTTP and Ocarina. One thing I love about Wind Waker is the whole islands thing. Each island was pretty unique and there were a bunch of side quests. I'm seeing that in Skyward Sword where you can fly to different lands.

Minish Cap is my favorite original handheld Zelda game (Excluding Ocarina 3DS). I didn't like Phantom Hourglass mostly because the controls on the DS are meh.
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Old 01-11-2012, 10:19 PM   #11 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

For anyone who didn't notice in the other topic Majoras Mask is on ClubNintendos site atm. It's basically free if you already buy Nintendo games and register them on the site.
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Old 01-12-2012, 12:47 AM   #12 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

A Link to the Past is my favorite, followed by Majora's Mask, followed by Phantom Hourglass and Minish Cap.
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Old 01-12-2012, 01:16 AM   #13 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

Quote:
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I absolutely can't stand Zelda 2
Nub.
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Old 01-12-2012, 09:20 PM   #14 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

i don't get it.
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Old 01-14-2012, 09:07 PM   #15 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

My favorite is Majora's Mask, followed by Zelda 2.
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Old 01-15-2012, 10:22 PM   #16 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

What I heard in Japan there coming out with a Hyrule Historia book that will explain about Link and Zelda's timeline and what game came after which.

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Old 01-15-2012, 10:25 PM   #17 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

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Originally Posted by AlmightyPineapple View Post
What I heard in Japan there coming out with a Hyrule Historia book that will explain about Link and Zelda's timeline and what game came after which.

Are you gonna do a review?

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  Sure, give her a few minutes to copy and paste one!
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Old 01-16-2012, 12:33 AM   #18 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

The timeline is already out, it's been out since around Christmas. This is the official timeline, it's just been translated and had images added in.


I feel kind of like Nintendo just trolled me.
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Old 01-16-2012, 10:47 PM   #19 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

Hero is defeated? What now?

Also- I'm still confused by the whole Zelda II thing regarding the wizard's curse. Was that a different Zelda, or did it just happen sometime after the events of the first game?
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Old 01-16-2012, 11:06 PM   #20 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

I was just reading in an old Nintendo Power last night that the Link in LTTP was a different Link altogether. I imagine that this has changed since then, but I thought I'd mention it.
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Old 01-16-2012, 11:10 PM   #21 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

I thought all the characters were different people from different generations?
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Old 01-16-2012, 11:14 PM   #22 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

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I thought all the characters were different people from different generations?
Apparently there are eight Links spanning three alternate realities that spread from one constant reality. (not counting the red/blue/purple tunic Links)
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Old 01-16-2012, 11:17 PM   #23 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

Lol I always just arranged my timline based on how old he looks.

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  I lol'd. I kind of wish it were that simple.
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Old 01-16-2012, 11:21 PM   #24 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

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Lol I always just arranged my timline based on how old he looks.
Yeah, so they've done plenty of games where Link is either a child or a young man, (sometimes both) but I say they should break out an older Link and experiment with basing a story around an adventure-haggard veteran.

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  agree
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Old 01-16-2012, 11:24 PM   #25 (permalink)
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Re: How is Zelda: A Link to the Past Different From (and Better Than) Its Sequels?

An old Link would bring me back to the series. I feel like they abandoned their core fanbase by making Link a child.
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