When you ask fans of The Legend of Zelda what the best game in the franchise is you’re bound to get a smattering of answers. It’s a loaded question, one that often involves diving into nostalgic childhood memories. Yet every time I see a ranking of the Zelda games there are usually two at the top: Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past. While Ocarina is my favorite game of all time I had never played its most direct competitor, a gap in my gaming experience that has always left me feeling somewhat out of the loop from the series’ history. A couple of weeks before Breath of the Wild released I decided to rectify this and downloaded A Link to the Past from the Wii U’s virtual console. Yet despite its legacy, or perhaps because of it, I didn’t finish the game and have spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out why.
The main reason I love The Legend of Zelda franchise is for its fantasy. The various universes of each game aren’t just richly detailed and realized. They are fantastic, outlandish, even sometimes garish, but most of all they create a potent atmosphere. Whether it’s sailing a vast ocean, soaring through the sky, or riding a sand seal across a desert, the most satisfying part of any Zelda game is the thrill of getting lost in an unbelievable world.
In contrast to this, A Link to the Past’s version of Hyrule felt surprisingly flat. At first I thought this might have to do with the switch in camera perspective. The first Zelda I played was Ocarina of Time, so to me 3D Zelda has always made more sense than 2D. Maybe I just didn’t get the camera angle. Yet I played A Link Between Worlds on the 3DS and loved that game, even fell in love with its world like the 3D ones.
I wasn’t pulled into the world. I didn’t feel the same kind of wonder that I did while sailing the King of Red Lions like a pirate across the Great Ocean in Wind Waker or traversing the gloom saturated dark world in Twilight princess. After the introduction sequence in A Link to the Past, players are given free rein to explore, but it’s not hard to see almost the entirety of Hyrule within a short span of time and that process felt like it was lacking a tangible mood or atmosphere. There is depth to the way players interact with this world as discovering items allows Link to reach new areas, but I didn’t get lost in the adventure of learning more about an intriguing, fantastical world. Hyrule in A Link to the Past felt unimaginative in comparison to its successors. This is not meant to be a criticism of the game as it utilized the processing power of a much weaker console. In fact the intricacy of the world is a credit to the developers’ creative design. It just didn’t capture my imagination the way my favorite Zelda titles did and, unfortunately, these were the games I was primed to think about while playing.
Let me make one thing clear: I enjoyed the time I spent with A Link to the Past. The dungeon design and overall gameplay interactions are smart, fun, and creative. It is so well designed fundamentally that even twenty-five years after its release it is still satisfying to play. I’m able to appreciate it for laying the foundation of what would become my favorite series. What I’m trying to figure out is why I gave up halfway through the quest.
Ultimately, I think it came down to expectations. I tried not to let the years of hype affect my experience, but how could I not? Every step of the way I was waiting to see what would turn it all around and make this game into something memorable, a quest I needed to complete. That didn’t happen though because every time I did something I felt like I had already done it before. Lifting the Master Sword out of its resting place in A Link to the Past didn’t have much of an impact on me because that moment felt more epic in different entries I’d already experienced. It didn’t matter that this was technically the first time it happened in the series because I couldn’t get past that abstract sense of appreciation into actually feeling something about the game. I know it isn’t fair to hold it to the same standards as its successors, games I played many years before and that used A Link to the Past as a template, but it’s also difficult to ignore the past fifteen years of my gaming experience and pretend like I’m experiencing these events for the first time. That, coupled with my struggle to feel excited about the game world, left me uninspired to complete Link’s journey.
I keep coming back to this “sense of wonder” that I usually feel when I set foot in Hyrule. The place becomes so real to me it’s like I’m there, like I’m actually Link. After working my way to the halfway point of A Link to the Past however, this connection just never developed. So I put the controller down. Hopefully I’ll come back some time with fresh eyes and a more open mind. For now though I’m content with moving on from Zelda’s past and into its future.