In a realm beyond sight,
The sky shines gold, not blue.
There, the Triforce's might
Makes mortal dreams come true.
Here at Retro of the Week, we talk about retro games a lot, but why do we yearn for these titles so? Is it simply nostalgia? Some of my earliest memories include playing video games on my dad's NES. One title that always stuck out to me was The Legend of Zelda. To my young mind, it probably had more to do with the slick golden cartridge than anything else, but though I didn't really get how to play, I did enjoy swinging that sweet, sweet sword-gun.
Press the fast forward button on your VCR and set the clock to the 90s, when the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was king. When I got The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, memories of that older game came flooding back, and I knew this would be the start of a whole new era for me.
Unlike many games from the NES era, A Link to the Past included a pre-game introduction, which caught the player up to speed with the story so far, rather than a boring attract mode demo. Set to an exciting and somewhat frantic musical background, the player is thrust through the mists of time to ancient Hylia, a world wracked with war, a time when the mythical Triforce was highly sought after by the various tribes of people. The game then catches you up to speed on what is going on in Hyrule today. The evil wizard Agahnim has been abducting girls from all around Hyrule, and casting his evil magic on them. Who is this masked man? Where did he come from? And why is his name so cool? This will all be revealed in time, but first…
Please help me…
Whoa. Rescuing the princess may be a bit trite and cliched, but dang. I immediately cared about her plight, and moreover, wanted to save her. Here is a woman convinced she is going to die, and with no other option, she tries to telepathically call out to someone--anyone to save her! This is powerful stuff here.
And as if that weren't enough, immediately after setting out on your quest, you find your uncle dying at the bottom of a well. The man who has cared for you, given you the only bed in his house, and kept you safe all these years now sits before you, a crumpled husk. But Link doesn't have time to weep for his lost family. He must push onward to save his princess, for that is his sole purpose now.
The Hero's triumph on Cataclysm's Eve
Wins three symbols of virtue.
The Master Sword he will then retrieve,
Keeping the Knight's line true.
He enters the castle, and finds it crawling with soldiers, their bodies twisted by Agahnim's evil magic. When I was younger I used to find delight in killing these easy and foolish enemies. Now that I understand who and what they are, I try to avoid them as much as possible, since these are the very people I'm trying to save, but they've had their minds influenced by the evil sorcerer. Truly, we should weep for these poor souls.
As the game progresses, you find that rescuing Zelda was the least of your worries. She encourages you to find the three Pendants of Virtue, and retrieve the Blade of Evil's Bane. On Cataclysm's Eve, Link heads to the Lost Woods to draw the mythical Master Sword. Although the woods are fraught with dangerous monsters and thieves, Link navigates through the winding paths and blinding mists to find his prize, and heads off to fulfill his destiny.
The scope of this game was epic for its time, and even today, the story feels much more grandiose than what the Super Nintendo's 16 bits and 224 scanlines could show. From the plight of the good citizens of Hyrule, to the corruption of the crown, with a little imagination, one can find themselves absorbed into the world of Hyrule. Just who is Sahasrahla? What is his connection with those in the castle, and how did he know of Agahnim's impending betrayal?
And what of those poor souls who dared venture into the Golden Land, seeking their destinies? Surely there were some good among them, and we even know of at least one boy who accidentally wandered into a portal, having his body transformed into a disfigured representation of himself. These people had no idea what awaited them in the Realm Beyond Sight, they thought they were travelling to a Golden Land, but instead found themselves in an evil reflection of Hyrule. A cursed plane, that can only be called the Dark World.
After Link fights his way through the upper levels of Hyrule Castle, where the guards have been heavily concentrated, and monsters abound, he hears an evil chant as Agahnim begins his spell, ready to bring Gannon back to Hyrule. Although he rushes into the inner sanctum, he is too late. Helplessly, he watches as Princess Zelda's body disintegrates, and with it, the seal that had held Gannon at bay. The Great Cataclysm has begun.
With the Master Sword at his side--or the Magic Net for some reason--Link faces off against the most wicked and malevolent foe he has ever known. The wizard is strong, but in the end, is no match for the Hero of Hyrule. He is slain, but as Link delivers the final blow, he is ripped from reality, and finds himself in the barren, evil plane of the Dark World.
When first encountering the Dark World, one cannot help but feel the chill as Link stands on the Great Pyramid, looking over Death Mountain. Even the sun here has little effect on the darkness covering this land. Link's journey has just begun.
As fun and difficult as A Link to the Past has been to this point, it is not until after the battle with Agahnim that the game truly takes off. The nine dungeons of the Dark World have increased the stakes in every way, with more enemies, more treasure, better music, and of course, bigger bosses.
None of this poses a problem, however, as the game handles so incredibly smoothly, it never feels as though you're simply tapping buttons. You are Link, and you are running through this dungeon as if it could be the last thing you ever do. Combat is fast, and enemies swarm you from all around, but with the right equipment and knowledge, besting them is never an issue.
But don't think it's easy. The equipment list in this game is huge, and some items, such as the Cane of Byrna, or the Bombos Medallion, are optional but bring another level of complexity to the game, giving Link new powers and stronger ways to defeat the forces of evil. Many items are awarded as prizes in dungeons, hidden away by those who feared their power. Some are rather mundane, found anywhere from libraries to forests to under bridges. What you find and when all depends on how careful you are as you travel through the twin worlds of Hyrule.
In 2002 this game was re-released on the Game Boy Advanced, along with the new adventure, Four Swords. I won't go into detail on Four Swords today, but the GBA version is a very nice option for those wishing to explore Link's trials on the go. The art is very much the same, although some things have been changed for the smaller screen.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is a one of a kind experience, and although it rarely gets as much attention as its younger brother, Ocarina of Time, I fully believe that it is a quality game that stands the test of time. It's a great starting point for those who have never played a Zelda game, and if you've never played it, you should. Much of the story of Ocarina of Time was expanded from plot points and histories found within this game.