I’ve finished my 233rd video game. Here are my thoughts:
I’ve tried many times to find the magic in the Zelda series, and it has almost never worked for me. Yet every few years, I find myself drawn to step back into the shoes of the legendary hero reborn.
The opening minutes of A Link to the Past are atmospheric: running through a rainstorm to find a secret entrance into the castle. This short dungeon tutorializes the basic elements of the game just before releasing me into Hyrule to discover the rest on my own. It’s a perfect introduction to the game. But every time that I finish that opening segment (and I’ve tried several times over the years)… I stop playing.
Why can’t I get into the Zelda franchise?
My problem with A Link to the Past seems to be a personal one. The game looks, sounds, and feels so much like the best of its JRPG contemporaries. My instinct is to play it like a JRPG, but it’s not trying to be that kind of game.
In games like Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy, the relationship between time spent and forward progression is generally predictable. There is always forward progress. I don’t mind getting lost in those worlds because by the time I find the next boss I’m better off for having taken a detour. If I get lost in a Zelda game, I’m likely to come back down a few hearts with nothing to show for it.
Speaking of getting lost…
One of the greatest strengths of A Link to the Past is it’s setting. Hyrule is a compelling world to explore. It is simultaneously the friction pushing against your progress and the reward for surmounting the challenge. I was surprised by how much there was to see. The game feels bigger than its technological limitations. But sometimes, I’m not sure how to get to the point on the map where the next McGuffin is. I should be persistent in that moment, but often the narrative was just too sparse to pull me forward.
I want to be very clear that I think the game is brilliant. If I would have been able to play this game when it came out in 1991, I would have been blown away.
In 2022, however, I finally managed to play this game to completion… with some help from a guide and frequent use of emulator save states.
Playing with a guide significantly changes the nature of the Link to the Past play experience. By removing much of the friction, I gave up some of the triumph of discovery in return for a more streamlined experience. It’s likely that I robbed myself of some of the satisfaction of beating the game, but I would have bounced off of the game otherwise. I’m pleased that I got a chance to experience this game that has delighted so many adventurers over the past 30 years—and has eluded me for just as long.
So if I rank this game less favorably than you might, remember that the number is a reflection of my gaming preferences and experiences. Feel free to drop into the comments and tell me about your experience with A Link to the Past.
I’ve tentatively ranked it 115 out of 233.