Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (GBA/Nintendo)
by Josh Hsieh


Legend of Zelda - A Link between Legend and Life?

Consider how quickly the metropolis of Pompeii became the necropolis of Mt. Vesuvius, and witness the ashen statues of no greater a work of art than the human being itself. So it is that we are left only with mere images of the former person. Unfortunately these images leave us as uninformed of the person, as we would be by the following description of the Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. “A cartridge videogame for the Gameboy Advance that packaged a slightly updated version of the Super Nintendo classic, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, with a 2-4 multiplayer game called The Legend of Zelda - Four Swords - developed by Capcom as a part of their contract with Nintendo to make third-party sidebar Zelda games for the Gameboy systems.”

True as it may be, it would not render the true form of the game, indeed nothing would but a resurrection of the game itself. But how does one resurrect a human? The Raelians reveal that though the human body may decay, the human spirit could transfer into a new medium: a clone of one’s human body. But what if your clone was a mini-you missing two fingers, and had really dim vision and only one ear. That is roughly the fate that has befallen Link in his the transition from the SNES to the GBA. Despite the flaws of the medium, it still ranks among the most sublime of portable gaming experience. That is because the essence of the game is a masterpiece.

Thus, to some, particularly that recent generation of gamers weaned on 3D gaming, A Link to the Past will be a new discovery. Yet to others gamers born in the 8-bit era, it will be a recovery of the golden era of gaming not unlike the fabled golden land for which Link is destined. I speak of the mastery of 2D gaming that was, and through the GBA is, the16-bit era. One can see this clearly in A Link to the Past, although a front lit screen would have helped.

Little more than a decade has passed since the 1991 release of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on the SNES, and nothing has been lost on the game’s appeal, thanks in no small part to its tight and innovative gameplay mechanics, which translate perfectly to the less than perfect 4-button GBA since the original only utilized four of the SNES controller’s buttons. The B button wields Link’s sword, the A button his secondary item, the L button the map, and the R button to run, lift, push and pull. Suffice it to say Link moves with great ease through a huge bipolar world split between light and dark, good and evil.

It is not the mere size of A Link to the Past’s huge gamemap, however that is of value, because in itself it is just a border filled with empty space. Miyamoto’s achievement in the original Legend of Zelda was the diversity of the terrain, objects, enemies, and the tools of interaction between them and our intrepid hero Link. On a gamemap as large as that any turn-based role-playing game, it didn’t cop out and make you fight enemies you encountered in the global map on a separate screen, it let you fight your foes then and there, on the very ground where you found them. Though somewhat muddy, the 8-Bit Nintendo’s graphics were enough to let us see into the world Miyamoto envisioned.

But it was Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past that fully realized Miyamoto’s vision in 2D. No mere update of the original concept, this time around the land of Hyrule is split into two global maps, the light world and dark world, which collectively contain a total of 12 cavernous labyrinth maps filled with a hoard of evil creatures commanded by a boss monster. As fits Miyamoto’s vision for a sprawling, virtual interactive world, A Link to the Past focuses on puzzle-solving that require you to rearrange your environment. Thus, it is not the bosses who present the main challenge, but the labyrinths' puzzles themselves. The exception may be the final boss Ganon who, as The Ocarina of Time informs us, was unsatisfied with his lot in life as the only male in a tribe of shapely nomadic women, forgoing the round curves of his olive-skinned kinswomen for the equilateral sides of a shimmering golden triangle, otherwise known as the Triforce. Obviously, Ganon isn’t about to hand over the Triforce without a fight, hence his treacherously designed dungeons, which are equal parts, jigsaw puzzle, maze and Gauntlet. While this is to the detriment of Link, it equates to a big interactive puzzle that is to the benefit of the game.

Let me define interactive as the ability of the character to touch the environment. Link can push, pull and cut with his hands and sword, which is one dimension of interactivity. There is another dimension for every item in his arsenal, which is both expansive and diverse, making the game very malleable. This interactivity builds off what was pioneered in the original Legend of Zelda. A Link to the Past offers all of the walls to bomb and blocks to push of its predecessor, plus a bag of rocks to chuck, trees to dash, things to hook, and switches to weight down, all possible through items you must find, and often fight for, in the game. The greatest innovation, however, is the magic mirror that teleports Link between the light and dark world. There are some locations in the light world that are impossible to reach, so you have to look into the mirror which warps you to the dark world courtesy of a cool distortion effect, and then go to the mirror image of that unreachable position and warp back to the light world and then it is done. To make the mirror fit into the game, the two overworlds, well, mirror each other, sometimes subtly and other times obviously. The result is that the player must really take note of and interact with this environment, which is very innovative and very cool. And it doesn’t stop with the mirror. You can pretty much do a million things with every weapon, allowing for multiple combinations. The puzzles require you to use multiple tools to solve them, so don’t expect any of the tools to end up as window dressing on your item screen.

And herein lies the beauty of the game design: the puzzles are integrated into and designed around the environment, but they are also the means by which Miyamoto makes the environment interactive. In other words Miyamoto’s playground is 100% efficient. Like the proverbial Chicken and Egg, I don’t know which inspired the other, but I do know that the integration of action and puzzle-solving restrain an extreme of either genre, and arrive at a balance that is in my opinion the ideal of the adventure genre.

[Next: where two or more]




Release Date
December 3rd, 2002


[part one]

[part two]