The pursuit of perfection? It’s like chasing the ultimate hit



The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1992)

Have you ever left your clamouring fans guessing as to what you were about to do next? You’ve thrown out a few whimsical anecdotes, witty one-liners or even some attention-grabbing dance moves, and all eyes are on you. But where do you go? How do you improve on your strong start? You’ve simply got to take what’s worked before, roll with it, improve upon it as much as you can, and slam dunk it into everyone’s face, be they haters or be they raters. That’s the way to keep the frothing masses entertained.

Not that a company like Nintendo would have to be told that – they’ve wowed and re-wowed the crowd a hundred times before, even when the know-nothing no-marks were scratching their heads and about to open their ill-informed mouths. When the seminal Super Mario Bros. was followed up by this sort of goofy, offbeat sequel, budding Mario watchers were left bemused. Then came Super Mario Bros. 3 to remove all doubt that Mario was a big-hitter – and Super Mario World took some further excrement in the mouths of those who would be quick to judge.

It’s even going on to this present day. Take a look at the home console releases of one of my favourite little gaming series, Punch-Out. Or should that be Punch-Out!!? The NES “original” is regarded as an all-time classic, but many detractors began wagging their tongues at the SNES arcade-faithful follow-up. The Wii version developers took this potential fan mutiny on board and crushed any squalls of rebellion with the 2009 entry to the series, one of the finest games around for me.

Shows what people know, eh? Well, maybe, but looking at social networks or comment sections of news articles or even just taking a look at what people around you are saying may be enough to convince you quite otherwise. Word of mouth still stands for a lot in gaming. So really, it’s most soitainly not a bad idea in gaming to listen to popular opinion to see where the money and critical acclaim is going to fall.

Which all makes the build-up to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past’s release very interesting indeed, assuming you’ve got cowpat for brains. Both of its NES predecessors sold and reviewed very well, but we know now that Zelda II was quite a departure and still serves as that wild mare who feeds separately from anything else in the series. That is, unless that frightfully odd Tingle Rupeeland game was even more different, but when did we ever take Tingle’s presence into any more consideration than we were forced into doing? No awkward little Tingles in the NES games, just tough difficulty and large worlds to explore.

In any case, I’m sure the majority of players who played both the first two games of the now blister-poppingly popular Zelda series were hoping for sequels more in the vein of the original expansive adventure rather than the somewhat unforgiving side-scrolling job, right? They had their prayers answered when shots of A Link to the Past surfaced: as embarrassingly fruity as it is to say, I’ll bet it looked just like the colourful, grand adventure that the lads at Nintendo envisaged when they were making the original Legend of Zelda. Actually I know this as a stone cold fact because Shigsy had told me so on the phone, over twenty years ago now. What a feeling that must have been for them, eh? Like seeing your child morph from excreting unaided to heading up a team of suits overnight – and we can let Zelda II be the awkward, moody teenager years and write them off.

Everything is an improvement here, and I do mean everything. Graphics, story (including amounts of text as well as grammar and spelling all round), items up for collection, length, even accessibility, the whole lot. As per, you are Link, the chosen one sent on a journey to draw the legendary Master Sword and use it to defeat Agahnim. But, in one of the best plot twists in gaming (especially of that era), finally getting to Agahnim and taking him down merely starts the real plot of the game. Then, Link’s grand task is to fight through the twisted Hyrule equivalent known as the Dark World.

In one of the not-so-hot plot twists that Zelda games suffer their fair share of, however, Agahnim is merely a patsy for our old porcine friend Ganon. But it’s okay because it means, spoiler alert, you’ll get to bring the game’s proceedings to a conclusion by slicing up an overlarge blue pig rather than lamely using a Bug Catching Net to bounce magic back at a mildly oxygen-starved wizard.

The dungeon count is strong with this one, it’s got to be said – you’re looking at ten full dungeons, then the final castle. And that’s ten dungeons, not seven dungeons with three Ice Caverns or the admittedly cool pirate hideout you got to visit in Skyward Sword, none of those – it’s ten dungeons and the items alongside them, waiting to be found. Whatever about the necessary dressings of sound, music and graphics that mark A Link to the Past out as a 16-bit game, it’s probably this huge augmentation in the number of items that heralds the biggest improvement this game possesses. They may not all be double useful, but they’re all there for you to track down and collect.

And that’s the beauty of this game, really – there’s always something new and interesting to do, whether that be going after optional items, collecting Heart Pieces, playing mini-games, farming rupees, upgrading items including your stores of bombs and arrows, it’s all there in front of you. And the game becomes fairly non-linear once you reach the Dark World, which adds immensely to this game’s mightily strong replay value: you tend to develop a shopping list of three or four things that you can do once you’ve got yourself another dungeon item – and by God, will you want to get out there and do them. It’s an engine that most other games really struggle to race, even something as sprawling and as vibrant as the Grand Theft Auto series. And I can’t really explain it, but it’s this motivation and compelling feeling to keep going that A Link to the Past absolutely nails.

Honestly, about the only criticism that could legitimately be made of this game is that there could have been a little more music. But the radical and tubular Dark World theme by itself is enough to force even an irascible beacon of negativity like me to shut my mouth. In fact, just about any possible naysayer will find something in this game, even just some moment, that’ll inevitably stop their gums from flapping. We’ve all seen how Ocarina of Time has come in for a bit of a flak these days, following the near-universal critical acclaim it received on release. Ah ha, so it was overrated all along! Fancy that!

Whatever about the N64 Zelda though, I can’t say I’ve ever even seen any kind of similar hate campaign targeting A Link to the Past. That tells its own story, because it’s not as if this game isn’t frequently rated as the best, even if it seems that Ocarina of Time still wins the lion’s share of the Zelda polls these days. Being truthful, there are some other games that I do prefer to A Link to the Past, like Secret of Mana and Puzzle Bobble (you heard me). But objectively speaking? This game is the best there’s been, and probably the best there ever will be. The absolute best. Nothing tops this.

10 October 2014

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