The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past review
Blast to the Past
The Legend of Zelda series has a special place in the hearts of many Nintendo gamers across the world. Starting back on the humble NES the first adventure shook the gaming world with its open ended exploration, clever puzzles and challenging enemies. After an ill received Zelda II the series returned on the SNES and went back to its roots. Now GBA owners get to taste the magic of the third entry of the series with this wonderful port that also brings along some extras for good measure.
There are effectively two games on board here. One is more-or-less a direct port of the original SNES game, and the other is a new multiplayer game with a new antagonist and mechanic. But first we'll look at the ported game as that is the real meat on offer here.
A Link to the Past is a clever combination of elements from the first two NES Zelda games. The overworld/dungeon, combat and puzzles are clearly from Zelda I, but then we have a magic and village system lifted out of Zelda II.
You start the game during a stormy night where you receive a telepathic request for help. Your uncle warns you to stay indoors when he heads out. Promptly choosing to ignore the advice of your elder (because it wouldn't be much of an adventure if you stayed in bed) you'll grab a lamp out of the chest and head out into the night. After breaking into the castle the adventure starts rolling as you fight off guards with a recently acquired sword and shield combo. At the heart lies a battle against a returning evil and a hunt for the sacred treasure of the Golden Land - the Triforce. A nice backstory with some interesting elements but it's not as strong as it could be.
Combat itself is pretty satisfying. As per 2D conventions, sword fighting is pretty simple as you simply hammer the B button to repeatedly swing your sword, or hold it to charge a stronger spin attack. You can mix in some assignable items like the boomerang or arrows to counter more difficult foes or to exploit their weaknesses. The shield is quite interesting as it's actually automatic. Link will block frontal attacks by himself as long as he is not in the middle of another action, which frees up a button slot for other things.
Enemies pose quite a fair threat in this game. Early on you'll fend off castle guards and then will move on to a wide variety of enemies, like rock spitting octoroks, bouncing tektites and those pesky moblin that would like nothing more than to spill your blood. You'll often be attacked by notable groups and the damage can mount up if you're not careful. Bosses are also fairly imposing figures, taking on the usual large appearances and having the damage output to suit. Each one has a weakness that usually revolves around whichever special item you picked up in the dungeon itself, but even with that figured out it won't be plain sailing. Alttp also tends to be more reserved with its healing items, especially since money (rupees, in this case) is generally not that easy to come by.
You can expect a fair amount of hazards to worry about too. Crumbling floors, spike pits, falling boulders or a passage that is home to oversized spheres and few small safe spots. When travelling the lands and the dungeons you have to watch your step as traps can lay around and catch up, which tacks onto the damage taken from the enemy forces.
Take care you don't get flattened.
Game progress is done by locating the dungeons dotted around and clearing them out by beating the boss of each one. In addition to enemies and traps you also have various puzzles to figure out. There's a solid range of these too that will test you as you progress. Some will require you to slide blocks around, light empty torches brackets, hit switches at specific points or fire projectiles in a set manner. Your mind's not at risk of imploding at cryptic overload but these puzzle elements are pretty good and act as another concept to keep gameplay varied.
Item usage plays a role here. During your journey you will pick up usable items like a bow, boomerang, bombs, bottles etc. At any given time you can assign an obtained item and use it by pressing A. Many items have limited uses gauged either by indepedent supply numbers or the magic gauge. Being limited to one item assignment at a time seems restrictive, but ultimately I felt the game design was set in a way to avoid over excessive switching.
Hyrule is a pretty large kingdom to explore. Once past the castle you have all sorts of locations to check out, like the nearby village, the local graveyard, the mountains and the desert regions. Each place is fully fleshed out, like the village having a number of houses you can dive into (and optionally ransack), villagers to chat to and landmarks to visit. It's easy just to go off exploring if you wanted to, and it's such a wonderful place to do so that it feels deeply rewarding.
In fact, successful explorers might just come across actual rewards if they search hard enough. Find a special fountain and you might get to upgrade some of your equipment. Bolster your carrying abilities by chucking rupees in a pond. Play an archery game or a maze game. Find an item that casts a magical shield. Searching high and low yields many rewards that can help in the main quest, although you'll likely have fun just wandering to the far flung corners of Hyrule anyway.
There are actually two similar overworlds in this game. Hyrule is considered the light world, but so far into your adventure you'll come across the dark world. With the help of a special mirror and set portals you can move between the two worlds and doing so will be vital to proceed. The two worlds have a similar structure but many objects are changed and/or moved around. Kakariko village is a charming little community with friendly people (aside from the ones who call the guards on you). It's counterpart in the dark world is a ruined village with few friendlies and little of value left. It's a great system as switching between the two offers the potential not only to open up paths to the next dungeon but also to reach areas that at first glance might not look accessible.
Suffice to say that the game will last quite a while. The main quest alone is quite lengthy with a large number of dungeons and simply getting to them through the overworld can be challenging. Then we throw in the minigames, sidequests and simply exploring the land for all its little secrets. You'll be at this for some time.
Helping now... backstabbing later.
When you get bored of the single player (eventually I guess it'll happen) there's the new Four Swords part. This is a multiplayer game requiring multiple people with their own GBA and game plus associated link cables. Here you get to participate in special dungeons. The number is surprisingly few but makes for some interesting conflicts against the enemy and each other.
See, that's the point of Four Swords. You have to work together to reach the end, but you're also competing to collect force gems. A former buddy can become a backstabber in an instant if treasure appears, but differences have to be put aside when danger or a puzzle comes. It's this unique combination of co-operation and competition that makes it so engaging.
Item management is generally more restrictive than the main single player game though, as you can only carry one item at a time. It's a feature designed to reinforce the multiplayer component though so it's easily forgiven and might even enhance the experience. If you lack the item then you're relying on your buddies to open the way for you.
Other elements are very similar to its single player counterparts. You have the same combat and puzzle concepts, albeit altered slightly to match up with the multiplayer aspect. I must say that I had a hard time understanding how a multiplayer Zelda could work, but this is the perfect vision of how it should work.
The game uses two distinct visual styles, with one for each game. The mix is pretty odd but in terms of technical brilliance I don't really have any complaints.
A Link to the Past has a decidedly darker, muddy appearance to proceedings. The sprites all look very nice though and the whole earthy feeling feels quite fitting. You'll come across some quite interesting character designs and the way people react and move around is good. The world of Hyrule and the Dark World have been crafted very well and make both worlds even more a joy to explore.
Four Swords opts for a much brighter appearance edging closer to that of Wind Waker. Everything is so crystal clear and well defined, with a generally sharper display than the single player. Dungeon design is pretty solid though understandably less varied than the much larger alttp game. In all I prefer the earthy tones of the single player, but the FS graphics are still good anyway.
Sounds are pretty win-win across both games. The music score is brilliant with some epic music numbers pumping out as background tunes as you tackle the dark forces. ALTTP makes exceptional use of this as the range is more widespread to cover the spectrum from the pleasantness of Hyrule to the darker depths of the dark world, but FS matches up the correct tones well too. Expect Link to be pretty vocal too as he yells and grunts during his fights.
This game easily ranks up there as one of the best adventure games around even being set in the realms of 2D. With the added bonus of the fun, if slightly limiting, multiplayer we have one wonderful gaming experience on our hands.
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