NA Release Date: April 13, 1992 (SNES)
Initial Playthrough: c. 2003 – 2004 (GBA)
Replay: c. May, 2020 (3DS Virtual Console)
Finally, a shot at redemption. For me, LTTP has always been something of a sacred cow. Recall that I ‘came up’ playing OOT and LADX, so all the old-guard Zelda fans spoke in hushed voices of their reverence for the series’ lone SNES entry. It’s mystique was only further enhanced by my sole hands-on experience with the game: I was house/dog-sitting as a young kid for some neighbors across the street, and they had LTTP. I was only able to watch the intro, then boot into some random save file and mess around with it before my time was up, so the game remained something exotic and removed for me.
Thus, when it was re-released for the GBA, I jumped at the chance to finally delve deeper into the history of my favorite game franchise. While LADX had been this delightful handheld romp through a small island though, LTTP proved to be a harrowing experience for this young gamer. I struggled mightily, even with the abundance of ASCII-wisdom which flowed strong from ye olde GameFAQs. At last though, my toil was nearly through. I had reached Turtle Rock, and Zelda would soon be free to aid me in finishing my quest… Or at least she would have been, if I ever finished that dungeon.
Somehow, after all the struggle, I just never got around to knocking out the last few stages… the longer I waited to return, the harder and less fun the game seemed in retrospect. I’m pleased to report however, dear reader- that said wrong has finally been righted. My first impression is that LTTP is not at all undeserving of the praise it has received. It certainly is the pinnacle of 2D Zelda, something I must admit despite being a huge fan of the early handhelds. So with that preamble, lets jump right in.
The Big Country
This game feels enormous, even now. All you have to do is look at the overworld. A quick search suggests that an overworld (Light or Dark) is a square 4096 pixels on a side. Consider that Link himself is 32 px tall x 24 wide, so he fits into the map nearly twenty two thousand times. If we consider that there are actually two overworlds to explore, we top out at roughly 43.7 kilolinks (SI abbreviation: kLnk). That’s not even including the dungeons (of which this game has more than any other in the Zelda series!), whose area is more labor-intensive to calculate so I won’t bother. All of this to say- Hyrule feels truly large here, and not just large but full.
I say ‘full’ because there are so many distinct locales. Kakariko Village, though modest in its trappings compared to what you’d find in even the most obscure of Bethesda’s digital watering holes, is expansive and full enough to really feel like a bustling little township. Its merchants, fortune tellers, overgrown lawns, and a nearby library really make the space feel like it has a purpose of its own, outside of what Link needs it for at any given moment in the progression.
Similarly Hyrule Castle actually feels like it should- a labyrinthine collection of rooms and passageways connecting the throne room to a courtyard and even a (lower-case ‘d’) dungeon. What players were once supposed to accept as representations of these things (a castle, a town, a forest) have actually been built up with enough extent that for the first time the scale is almost believable, which is a real lift for the immersion.
A Link to the Tropes
It has been illuminating to play this game immediately after OOT. With the games experienced adjascently, it becomes painfully obvious that the framework of Ocarina is shamelessly pilfered from LTTP. The progression of three initial Important Items Found in Dungeons which grant access to the Master Sword and a plot twist, followed by seven additional Important Items Found in Dungeons in some dark facsimilie of the original overworld which themselves grant access to Ganon’s Castle… yeah. You see it now?
I can’t knock it, though. The early dungeons help you get your sea legs and introduce you to the topography just enough so that you’re not totally lost when the ‘real game’ starts. Beyond just the game’s superstructure though, the other ties that bind this to nearly every game which follows are the musical cues. LTTP features the first time we hear Zelda’s Lullaby, Ganondorf’s Theme, the Hyrule Castle motif, and the Fairy Fountain Theme. These have become melodic cornerstones and I’d not realized how far back their origins reached. The Dark World theme is also a personal high point for me, though unfortunately it’s much less used in subsequent works.
One thing that didn’t carry through to the 3D games? A bunch of the optional items. How many of these look familiar? Magic medallions sortof showed up in OOT, but spellcrafting has never really been a big focus for Zelda. In that vein the rods are also largely a ‘classic’ item, alongside the capes and canes as well, not to mention the mirror. As much as many of these did not survive to the modern iterations, there have clear throughlines from the original LOZ up through even some recent handheld entries. The hookshot is a notable counter-example, I’ll grant.
I’d mentioned prior that if there were a most-Zelda-y Zelda, it would essentially reduce to a throwdown between OOT and LTTP. While LTTP certainly has a strong argument regarding plot sequencing and music, for me personally, the tie goes to OOT because its visual style unarguably informed the artistic basis of nearly every game that followed (-even Toon Link is more OOT than LTTP). Speaking of which, let’s take a minute to dig in on the topic of visuals.
Beauty School Dropouts
Something I’ve never quite enjoyed about LTTP are the sprites. Overall, I think the colorful, vibrant design is on-point, consistent, and generally pleasant. Particularly for an SNES game, the colors really pop. Unfortunately, they missed the mark for me on the most important one: Link!
While the Green Clothes sprite is pretty standard fare as far as the associated official artwork we’ve seen of Link up until this point, they made his hair (in the sprite) pink! I couldn’t say why, but once you see it you can’t un-see it. I used to think it was maybe just like the brim or bottom of his hat…? Nope. If anything- the spite gets more garish as you upgrade to the superior mails. Blue Mail isn’t bad, except now he’s got lime-green gloves- but Red Mail just goes for it with a purple hat to match the pink hair.
To date, I do not understand this decision. I went ahead and re-colored the above image with yellowish/blonde hair like we now normally think of Link having, and I guess it wasn’t that much better, but anything’s a step up from that cotton candy dye job… (Slightly Related: there’s also the goofy retcon explaining the sprite-mirroring which is pretty eye-roll worthy.)
All I Want Is to Be Left Alone
After spending a solid 20+ hours in-game, I think I’ve finally put my finger on why I always had an underlying sense of unease while playing LTTP, and that’s the pervasive an unceasing combat elements of the game. When you’re crawling the Light World overworld, for instance, maybe you just took out a slew of soldiers along with a hinox or two, all while dodging incoming fire from some nasty zoras and timing your slashes at those crows just right- phew! But… oops, you made a wrong turn? Have to backtrack one screen- guess who’s waiting for your? All those exact same dudes.
There’s no reprieve from it, with the semi-exception of Kakariko (and even then certain watchful citizens will narc on you to the soldiers, so you’re fighting there too). I suppose I just felt like I spent a lot of time mowing down enemies, and you never really have much to show for it, short of clearing that one section of screen for that particular instant. They’ll all right where you left them as soon as you return. This ended up really discouraging me from exploring more than I otherwise would because I felt like the enemies were plentiful, fast, and the tougher ones able to really ding your health if you weren’t 100% on all the time.
As a result, there were a few parts where I got stuck (more on that later) because I hadn’t randomly encountered the particular treasure required to proceed since exploring the map was such a total slog. Dungeons are even worse, as you might (reasonably) expect. I don’t mind challenging enemies, and in fact I understand how difficult combat is a highlight for many players, but there has to be a line. Later in the game, infinitely respawning wallmasters could frequently be found with indestructible beamos and winders… The dungeon design is really quite ingenious across the board, but I felt like I could seldom take a moment to appreciate the design and just wander the halls; instead I’m constantly on the lam, trying to avoid getting beat up by same onslaught of tiles and stalfos variants ad infinitum in some vain attempt to get the lay of that particular underworld.
A Little Help, Please?
As a result of being reticent to explore, I struggled at several points in the game. Most notable was later in the playthrough, when I’d finally found a rhythm, and it was time to head over to Misery Mire, which requires the Ether Medallion to open. Now, I’d found the Quake Medallion already, so I recognized the meaning of the symbol, but where to find the medallion? Jump cut to hours later of combing the overworld hunting for the damn thing, when I caved and looked up where it’s found.
I was unhappy to do that, since I’ve been trying to avoid guides, but I don’t have a lot of spare time and to waste more hours wandering aimlessly felt like the bigger loss. The complaint here is that, as in most games of this vintage, there’s not much of a support system to help you when you’re stuck. I tried the fortune teller, but that just kept pointing me to side-quests. Even bigger than this particular grouse is the gross lack of exposition in older games like these. Some of this derives perhaps by virtue of the genre: action-adventure games are about exploring and discovering secrets, so you’re encouraged to just try a bunch of things, eventually stumbling upon extremely helpful tidbits, like magic powder turning bubbles into fairies!
But other places the ‘less is more’ approach rings a little hollow. For one, none of the Maidens even have names? Seems odd that these very powerful, important persons would at least be named characters, particulary when each one has some unique and often detailed context for the larger story to provide to you. I guess the fact that you never see any of them again post-rescue renders the need for names somewhat moot, though.
Another event which was striking in its abruptness and lack of explanation was the bizarre fate of Flute Boy. After you find him in the Dark World, he tells you where you can find his flute in the Light World and gives you a shovel to dig it up and return it to him… but when you finally get back to him:
But it looks like I can’t play my flute any more. Please take it. If by chance you go to the village I lived in, please give it to a tired old man. Please let me hear the sound of the flute one last time…”Flute Boy’s Final Words
…and upon hearing his flute played by this helpful stranger, the dude up and turns into a tree.
I often wonder (as is the case of catfish in the circle of stones who gives you the Quake Medallion) if there is some underlying Japanese folklore or cultural reference which helps some of this type of content make a little more sense. If there is one regarding Flute Boy though, I’ve not heard it. Other translation notes: the “tired old man” mentioned is his father (who Link may or may not have met in LW Kakariko earlier), making FB’s phrasing a little strange considering he’s moments away from having Arbor Day be the highlight of his year…
The motif here being the lack of exposition/explanation, whether due to translation issues or not, can be a real hindrance. My final example of this comes at nearly the very end of the entire game- the final battle with Ganon. To defeat Ganon you need to progress through the various stages of the battle, then when he starts switching off the lights, you gotta nail him with a silver arrow to finish him off. At that point, nothing else will do- it’s the only way to beat the game. While I’ve not done any exhaustive search, over my playthrough I had nobody casually mention to me that ‘the strongest arrows are made from silver’ or that ‘evil beasts fear silver weapons’ or any other such helpful innuendos. So, unless you stumble upon them, how are you to know that’s why you can’t finish off Ganon?! Just seems like a pretty crucial point to left unsaid to the player in some way/shape/form…
The Dungeons Are Very Good
If it seems like I’m coming down a little hard on this venerated classic, I don’t mean to. When you don’t have the benefit of nostalgia for experiencing this game in its time, some of these things sortof stand out as odd decisions in retrospect. What needs no defending or justifying is the dungeon design, however.
Whether it’s the Thieves’ Town dungeon with its huge cavernous rooms to navigate, or descending the punishing depths of the Ice Palace, each space has a very distinct character not just in the look, but often in the puzzle or combat dynamic as well. Another example is the multiple entrances of both the Skull Woods and Turtle Rock, and the latter’s platform-on-rails navigation gimmick- each dungeon is truly unique and not simply a re-skinned or re-shuffled collection of the same couple of rooms. Subtle touches like the parallax motion of the ground below large holes that lead to the floors below caught my eye as really impressive feats for the console at the time.
Similarly, what’s the fun in a wonderfully designed dungeon if the boss is a big anticlimax? LTTP certainly delivers on this front: the maddeningly erratic path-walking of Moldorm kept punishing me for what felt like forever, until I realized that every fall from the battle platform reset the bosses health. This is ingeniously frustrating, as hitting the weak spot on the critter’s tail isn’t too tough- it’s very doable. But doing it six times in a row without falling, that’s what the game demands of you, and that’s a real challenge.
The setup for the (I thought, quite difficult) encounter with Blind the Thief is also pretty clever, wherein he masquerades as the dungeon’s Maiden and asks Link to escort him out, only showing his true form when forced to step into direct sunlight. It’s a small touch, but it’s just interesting enough to break the monotony of simply throwing open the boss’s lair at the end of each dungeon and slashing away.
I also really enjoyed the designs of Helmasaur King and the similarly-styled Trinexx. The former is a big, beefier version of a commonly-encountered enemy, which lends the universe a little more depth by suggesting these various hostile creatures floating around don’t exist in a vacuum but perhaps originate from somewhere and may have their own social structure. Trinexx seems to deliver on both the ‘turtle’ and ‘rock’ components of its associated dungeon, and calls on Link to channel his inner mage by blasting away with the fire and ice rods to get the shy fellow to come out of his shell for a final showdown.
I could go on- nearly every boss is quite memorable, and each serves as a clever combat puzzle in their own right. One note: I found the experience to be somewhat less enjoyable as the frenzied Boss BGM droned on infinitely in the background. Maybe that’s just my fault for taking so long to lay them out? It’s also strange that the music continues to play after the boss is defeated (but before you collect the heart piece)…
Wrap-Up: Winners and Losers
Winner: The Zelda Logo. This is the first appearance of the Girvin-designed logo which would grace essentially every subsequent release thereafter. The design itself has really become synonymous with the franchise, so it’s pretty fitting it makes its first showing with such an iconic entry.
Loser: Quirky-Ass Localization: Famously this game’s Japanese title is “Triforce of the Gods,” but was changed oveseas to “A Link to the Past” to avoid any explicit religious references. Even then, Link performs the sign of the cross while he gazes up to the heavens, not to mention hangs out in a church, because I guess those were not as on-the-nose? Still, the title is pretty great even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense in relation to the game itself.
Winner: Zelda. I felt she had a lot more agency in this game, given that she drives a lot of the early action is actually present in the Sanctuary for a while. Also: I think her sprite looks like a big tiered cake which, given what happened to Link’s sprite, we’ll chalk up as a win.
Loser: Book of Mudora. I always thought this was such a cool item- a tome containing ancient Hylian lore which is itself magical enough to unlock the spell medallions. It never appears anywhere else in the series though, which seems like a waste.
Winner: Dead-Or-Otherwise-Wronged Minor Characters. All these people come back as a result of Link’s wish on the Triforce to undo all of Ganon’s evil. It’s reminiscent of the mega-happy ending from Wayne’s World. Cheers to your now-good heath,
Priest Loyal Sage, Link’s Uncle, and Flute Boy!
Loser: Agahnim’s Magic. Battling the
priest wizard introduces a famous mechanic of the series- volleying some energetic projectile between two combatants until someone slips up and takes the damage. It’s fun, to be sure, but way less important (and more prevalent) enemies in the game have magic that is immune to this apparent defect (Zoras, Goriyas, Stalfos, Wizzrobe, etc.).
Lots of ink has been spilling waxing on the virtues of LTTP, and it appears your humble author is no exception. It may not be the most beloved or praised entry in the series, but it might just be the most important. Taking the foundational concepts of LOZ and expanding them to new environments, adding dozens of new enemies, items, weapons, and combat techniques showed the world what to expect from a new Zelda game.
It demonstrated to phenomenal effect the proof-of-concept that the franchise can constantly innovate and challenge players in countless new and different ways, but still not lose the almost intangible feel and flavor of what it means for something to be a ‘Zelda’ game. Link’s latest adventure in BOTW looks almost nothing like LTTP, and that’s sortof the point- that’s its legacy; the boundaries have been stretched and pushed and broken through again and again, but each time in the service of recapturing that feeling of adventure and exploration that forms the backbone of the entire series.
Link’s Awakening (NS)