keskiviikko 29. elokuuta 2012

REVIEW - The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past | SNES | 1991

GENRE(S): Action / Adventure
RELEASED: November 1991
AVAILABLE ON: SNES, Wii Virtual Console
DEVELOPER(S): Nintendo
PUBLISHER(S): Nintendo

"Zelda III", as it was informally called, was the most ambitious project Shigeru Miyamoto had involved himself with 'til 1988. After finishing his work with Super Mario Bros. 3, which in itself was a huge breakthrough game in its genre, he immediately started working on what was to become Link's next great journey, and how it would differ from its predecessors, and what kind of trends it would set. He focused on Zelda so strictly that he even passed on the development of a few Mario titles - with the exception of the 16-bit Super Mario World. By the time Super Mario World was finished, it had already been decided that the third installment in the Legend of Zelda franchise would also be a 16-bit game. The long-anticipated prequel to The Legend of Zelda finally hit the shelves in Japan just in time for Christmas 1991, and just like the very original game in the franchise, the game took every technical advantage of the platform it was released on - it was a mindblowing, extremely influential epic. The best part: it still is. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is not only my favourite game in the Legend of Zelda franchise by far, it's also one of the best video games of all time, and one of the great titles that made the SNES the most formidable video game console of all time.

The true gold standard

Years ago, Hyrule was barely standing as famine and plague had fallen over the lands. Then, a wizard named Agahnim appeared and used his magic to cure the land, becoming a hero and securing a place in the royal court of Hyrule. Now, Agahnim has usurped the throne and put in motion his grand scheme; break the seal the Seven Sages made centuries ago, and thus release his master - Ganon, the King of Darkness - from imprisonment. Princess Zelda, who is one of the direct descendants of the Seven Sages, and is now being held in the castle dungeon, telepathically calls out to a warrior sworn to protect the land. As the warrior dies in the line of duty, he passes on his sword and shield to his nephew - Link. The young boy sets out on an epic adventure beyond space and time to rescue the descendants of the Seven Sages, including Zelda.

Shall we begin? For sure.
The first interesting point I'd like to make is that I know exactly how I would've kicked off this review a year ago - you see, I did consider reviewing The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, but figured I'd have to do the rest as well, and I simply didn't want to. This is what I would've said: "Frankly, I think that The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is the only true masterpiece in the Legend of Zelda franchise, which makes it even more similar to Super Metroid than it already is, since Super Metroid is the only true masterpiece in the Metroid franchise." Well, I'll have to get back to Metroid later, but what I would've said about The Legend of Zelda, that has to be reflected on a bit more seriously. You see, a year ago me calling this game the only true masterpiece in this series, meant that I hated the other games, all of them. That's why I didn't want to review them. In time, my desire to finally review A Link to the Past got the best of me and I simply had to murder my pessimism, prejudice and hate towards the franchise - and whaddaya know, I already found a great game I never truly appreciated before in the original The Legend of Zelda! What it got going for it back in 1986, being so innovative and all, yeah, it could be considered a true masterpiece. I would even consider it a true masterpiece... IF A Link to the Past didn't exist. It wipes the floor, ten fold, with both previous games. It wipes the floor with most 16-bit games, and finally, it wipes the floor with dozens of today's finest. While The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time consistently bores me, occasionally even downright disgusts me with its visual style and never ceases to amaze me with all the wasted hype behind it, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past continues to be a visually satisfying, epic and exciting journey I would gladly embark on over, and over, and over again.

After the experimental Zelda II, Shigeru Miyamoto figured the third game should be a return to the roots, which would be fitting 'cause the story was written as a kind of a prequel to the original - it is still a subject of debate whether it has anything to do with the original story or not - but, what would a Zelda game, especially one to relaunch the franchise on a new platform, be without a fistful of never-before-seen features? Enter multi-level dungeons occasionally split into several separate buildings, diagonal movement, updated weapon, item and mana systems, and finally, most importantly, the concept of two parallel worlds to explore, which has since been rehashed in many individual, successful games, great franchises such as Silent Hill, Legacy of Kain and Castlevania, and which has also remained a trademark in the Legend of Zelda series. Reflecting on all of this and all of the other elements that make this game so huge leaves me without a fuckin' clue how in the hell they fit it all in such a small cartridge. And, if a '91 game looked this good, why in the hell did a whole lot of bigger (in bit size), later games look so damn ugly? Perhaps I don't wanna know. Industrial secrets. Real hush-hush.

The Hyrule Overworld in the game is kind of influenced by the one we travelled back and forth in The Legend of Zelda. Some of the same paths are there, even some of the same secret locations are there - not the same secrets, though - and key locations such as Death Mountain and the "Rupee-rich beach" are placed the same. Of course, A Link to the Past is a very different and more interactive game, so there are towns, castles and other inhabited areas which weren't in the original game. I know I already said this, but the game looks awesome, and I have nothing to add - just look at the screenshots and think a moment. This game was made over 20 years ago, it utilizes an updated, semi-scrolling version of the screen system from the original game and has a huge amount of those screens (two worlds, remember?!) and it drains a lot out of the SNES' capacity with its occasional Mode 7 effects and those multi-leveled dungeons I mentioned. If The Legend of Zelda was a marvel to behold, then A Link to the Past is a detective comic to behold. Eh heh heh heh heh... that was one horrible joke, I'm sorry. But, uh, I guess you get the idea.

The Legend of Zelda never lacked good music, but it did lack diversity before A Link to the Past came along. It was a capacity-related quirk, of course, but that doesn't make it any more acceptable to one's ears. Koji Kondo worked his ass off with this game, coming up with several different themes for several different environments - the palaces, several different parts of the Overworld including the magic forest and the village of Kakariko, and also, the caves and of course, the Dark World, and different parts of the Dark World, and whatnot. In addition, the game has such a fast tempo in comparison to its two slow-churning predecessors that you can't possibly get tired with the music. Most of it's awesome to boot, one of Kondo's finest collectives. The original themes from the first game are resurrected magnificently, and I'm starting to enjoy the iconic main theme again.

Yeah. Who's your dentist?
What is it that makes The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past so great? What's the secret behind its lasting appeal? I do not know a sure-fire answer to that, but I do know things I like about it - although it would be easier to name things I don't. Whereas Zelda II had all these half baked RPG elements in it, A Link to the Past steers the franchise away from the role-playing mold, further than it had ever been at that point, but it does feature NPC's and dialogue, and sees the return of shops, and might look like a traditional 16-bit RPG at first glance. Just imagine this game in 2D, and you'll find a game much closer to Super Metroid than to any role-playing game of the 16-bit era - it's an adventure, in which key items dictate the order of your progress. Just like in the previous games, it's just a bit different. A bit different, as in less cryptic. Thanks to the addition of deep dialogue and an in-game world map, you never have to wonder where you have to go next, which key item you need to get to your next destination, or what the hell is going on in general. If all this sounds too easy for people who conquered the first two games - I don't believe you beat Zelda II before you prove it - let it be known that The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past has many secrets, as well, secrets all of which aren't indicated in any way by any NPC (most of them are, so listen to what people say to you!). These secrets might not be all that crucial to your progress, but they're sure as hell essential to know.

The first hour of the game is a scripted tutorial sequence all new to the series - and if you're going cold turkey from the pair of NES games, you're going to need that tutorial 'cause Link has a whole array of new tricks up his sleeve, which I will try to break down in a moment. After that, you're free to explore Hyrule as far as you can without the help of key items acquired later on. You can go straight for the first palace if you want, but all players with some self-respect will surely go for the available secrets first, and they might find them just by walking around enough. Walls that can be bombed to heck are clearly indicated - you need to find the bombs first, of course - and there are peculiar looking bushes hidden in corners just screaming out "there's a hidden passage under me!" After you're done with the intro, you have four full hearts of health; if I'm not totally off the chart, you are able to increase your max health up to six hearts before you make it to the first palace. Just a little example how far you can go just by "stepping off-road" a bit. Heart containers are still generally left behind by fallen bosses, but the world is full of well-hidden heart pieces, of which four make up for a full heart container. After nearly each palace, you are able to find more secrets as your new key item grants you access to a whole lot of places, meaning it's perfectly natural to spend hours between dungeons doing something entirely else than you're supposed to be doing. And it never gets boring, that's the best part; on the contrary, you'll be jumping out of joy once you realize you're finally going to be able to lift that boulder out of the way with the glove (POWER GLOVE!) or drive that annoying stake to the ground with the hammer. Which reminds me, the first thing you need to do when you start to play this game is surrender most logic - if I really needed to go somewhere, I don't think a five-inch wooden pole sticking out of the ground would stop me.

"Dude! I'm being attacked!" "By who?" "THE
FLOOR!" "Wow, that's some excellent level
design!" "...WHAT?!"
When you're done exploring (most of) the Light World, after the third palace and the one extra boss that follows you'll be able to explore the Dark World as well. The Dark World is structurally very similar to the Light World (since it's a past version of it), but there are some fundamental differences, and some items can only be found in one or the other. More than often you'll find yourself spotting a peculiar spot on the Dark World map, such as a well-placed circle of stones and teleporting back to the other world to see what stands in its place. You can only teleport from Light to Dark via a teleport square, but you can come back from the Dark World at any time using a magic mirror, and use the temporary teleport square the mirror leaves behind as a quick port back if you made a mistake. It's a very intricate system, difficult to explain, and it's easy to be led to believe that the designers must've made some mistake with it. There simply MUST be some way to fool the game and get somewhere you're not supposed to get at a specific point in the game, there MUST! ...But there isn't. 'Cause the game is fuckin' genius. OK, there is at least one glitch I know of, to be perfectly honest, but it's still fuckin' genius.

I have a bad feeling about this.
Wanna hear something even more genius? Well, let me tell you about the dungeons in the game. At the very first glance, they look like updated versions of the dungeons in the first installment. The rooms are no longer strictly shaped, and you can't see everything just by taking one quick look at the screen. But, it all goes much deeper than that. The dungeons in this game are like giant puzzles, from the beginning to the end. At first, you'll be fine as long as you concentrate on what you're doing and where you're going - but keep in mind that the Light World strongholds are like practice for the real thing. The palaces in the Dark World are HARD, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if you need a pen and paper to jot down every route you've taken, every floor switch you've stepped on, every "block switch" (you'll see) you've hit, and every hole you've fallen down... or of course, a walkthrough, if you're in for exploration, not puzzle-solving on a giant scale such as this. The dungeons look crazy, they are crazy, and the closer you get to the end of the game, the crazier they get. It isn't all limited to multiple floors, the floors also have multiple levels, million doors to pass through and enigmatic passages. It's very easy to miss something, and if you've missed something to the point you can no longer proceed, don't be surprised if it all depends on some really simple matter. Just double-check EVERYTHING, from doors to walls to holes, to places you could go to by using your key items. Some of the palaces follow elemental themes, such as the palace of water and the palace of... here goes... ice. I know you're thinking that this isn't a platformer, how in the hell is ice a problem in this game? Well, it just is. Diverse level design is one of the keys to this game's bombshell reception when it came out... as well as Link's design as an action hero.

Link came a longer way than he necessarily had to from the tails of Zelda II to A Link to the Past - yeah yeah, he's not the same Link, I know. Maybe that's the official explanation as to why he's suddenly such a badass though this is supposed to be a prequel to the first game. At first, you can do little besides picking lightweight stuff up and throwing it around, but once you gain the sword, shield and lantern, you can do a lot. First of all, your shield reflects most head-on projectiles. The advantage of diagonal movement enables you to shield yourself from just about every arrow, spear or fireball (once you've upgraded) - it takes a little practice, of course, and won't do you much good when surrounded, which you often are. You have a special area attack, and once you gain the Master Sword - an important plot element - you'll be able to use the classic sword throw attack, provided your health's at maximum, and it actually works unlike in Zelda II - just at an approximate 50% efficiency. Dying often is not an impossibility, actually it's a probability 'cause the game can be quite unpredictable at times. Just like in the first game, if you die in the Overworld you'll be hauled back to a safe place - you can choose your starting point from a few options, though. If you die in a dungeon, you'll start at the beginning, with all the items you've gathered still in your possession. However, if this game worked exactly like the first two games, it would be simply impossible to beat. Magic bottles let you store potions, and more importantly on my account, fairies. A stored fairy will resurrect you and rejuvenate your health up to seven hearts automatically at the event of your demise. Having at least one along at all times will tip the scales to your benefit by a huge shot, so don't underestimate the power of fairy dust.

Seriously, what's up with Nintendo and eyeballs?
Carrying mana over from Zelda II was a good idea to further diversify gameplay, and heavily upgrading the system was an even better one. On your travels, you will find a few spells you can use in tight situations and to solve some certain puzzles, and you will need mana to use many key items as well. As the game progresses, you can lower mana cost with a a hidden upgrade and enable multiple uses of the same expensive spell off the same meter. In case you're wondering, using an arrow no longer costs you a rupee like it did in the first game, which was quite retarded now that I think of it. The arrows are items just like bombs, and they're always found in sets of five to ten, they're not nearly as easy to run out of as in The Legend of Zelda. Now that I got to it, your money limit is increased from 255 to 999, and money is one thing you CERTAINLY won't run out of, IF you're of the explorer type at all.

What else? Well, maybe I could mention the enemies, since they've been in the shadowy spotlight in the last couple of reviews. Generally, the enemies and their behaviour is just fine by the ways of a genuinely challenging game. There are many enemies that will annoy you to pieces, like the Wallmasters (which are more like "Ceilingmasters" this time) and any flying bastards, especially in the Dark World where just one of their wandering projectiles can smack you in the ass and take one to two whole ticks of your health at once - it takes an eternity to upgrade your armour to the point these enemies are no longer an immediate threat. The worst of the lot are these orb-shaped enemies with legs, that the dungeons are crawling with, that are constantly trying to push you into chasms. They're a nightmare in hordes. Well, perhaps EVEN worse is the Anti-faerie, that not only damages you on contact, but also takes away your mana, and it's a bitch to hit since the only thing that works on it is the clumsy key item Magic Powder. The good thing about it is that it turns into a regular fairy upon defeat. Fairy? Faerie? Nah, I don't give a crap.

Don't I know those guys from somewhere?
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is a very difficult game, but during most of your travels, it indeed shows you the way. When in doubt, you can always explore for secrets that might help you. If finding secrets don't cut it, you just have to push forward, and you'll get there eventually. The difficulty level of boss fights changes constantly, there are relatively easy boss fights even towards the end of the game, most of those boss fights also consisting of encounters with classic Zelda enemies, updated to the point that these encounters are quite damn epic at their best. It all comes down to whether or not you can push the final boss back to the pit where he came from, and that's definitely not easy - you won't just need everything you've got, you need pretty much everything the game's got. So, do not underestimate those secrets! ...I can't imagine anyone not enjoying searching for them.

This was my eighth trip through "Hyrule '91", but only the second trip which has come to an actual conclusion. Everything I've ever said about the game still rings very true. Well, perhaps there are some issues that bother me, but in the end game, they're so small and insignificant that there'd be no point going over them in a written review, they're exactly the sort of things that I created the Ups and Downs system for. They have a risk of ruining the tone of the review, which is supposed to be a very upbeat one - The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is a true 16-bit milestone, which all gamers need to experience for themselves.

+ At last a great story which is easy and fun to follow
+ Excellent graphics and music
+ The magic of exploration...
+ ...Which expands to two worlds
+ Innovative level design (which might get on your nerves from time to time ;) ) in both interior and exterior areas
+ Great puzzles, that sometimes have the most humiliatingly simple solutions
+ The game offers us a guideline to follow, which does not limit the open-world experience

- Environmental controls, specific info below
- Swimming is a constant struggle throughout the game
- Narrow walkways (from which you can fall down) are very unforgiving with the addition of fully diagonal movement; be patient, big-thumbed people
- Moving stuff - such as statues or blocks - is slow to initiate and execute, and tediously precise to boot

< 9.7 >

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