Backtracking is a blogging project that I’m embarking on in 2024 in which I will play one game from each year since I was born. My goal is to engage with games I’ve never played and divert some of my attention away from new releases and towards older titles. I hope to cross off some major backlog items, learn more about the influences and intertexts that informed the games I grew up with, and practice my analytical skills. I’m using US release dates as the relevant year for my selections.
Why I Chose This Game
A Link to the Past has been a source of curiosity for me for many years now. Nintendo games weren’t a huge part of my earliest gaming memories, with the notable exception of the Super Mario Bros. cartridge that was one of the first to grace my GameBoy Color. Besides that, many of my earliest video game experiences were with PC titles or on the PlayStation, the first home console I owned.
Surprisingly, I never sat down to play through a Legend of Zelda game until the summer of my sophomore year of college, when I bought a used Wii console with the intention of poking my head into a parallel world of video games that I’d missed growing up. I’ve worked my way through a number of Zelda titles since then, mostly played via re-releases with added conveniences. There are a few I’d still like to get to, but none loomed so large on my backlog as A Link to the Past.
A Link to the Past appears is widely regarded as the originator of the Legend of Zelda formula that carried through into multiple console generations of subsequent titles. I don’t feel like I can comment on these claims without starting all the way back at The Legend of Zelda (the first in the series), but A Link to the Past clearly includes all the core elements. It’s an object of immense nostalgia for some folks, a formative experience for many who played it near its release. It casts a shadow too big to ignore.
I also think it’s a perfectly fitting way to start my Backtracking project: with an earlier title in a series that resonates with me today, a connection back to its roots… a link — if you will — to the past.
What I Thought
Imagining that I have anything especially insightful to say about A Link to the Past is a little ridiculous. Even arriving at it with a modern perspective is not especially novel, as it’s still popularly played and replayed and watched and speedrun to this day. It sits at a crucial turning point in the series’ lineage. It’s a refinement of the previous two titles, using the power of a new console to realize a much more detailed and complex world. But it’s also the crystallization of an identity that would define the series for two decades to follow, bringing in iconic elements like the Master Sword and recurring themes like travel between parallel worlds.
I’m a fairly casual fan of the series, but it’s one I return to often to visit pieces of history that I missed during a childhood spent on PlayStations and PCs. Perhaps the most remarkable thing I encountered was how elegantly guided the game could be. A Link to the Past guides its players with only only map markers, sparing dialogue, and a scattering of hints (some of which require greasing the palms of NPCs). Despite a few especially convoluted interactions, almost every puzzle or challenge I encountered in the game felt solvable with enough intuition and experimentation. On many occasions, just before I became frustrated and looked up a solution, I would find a hint or a secret or a missed detail that kept me engaged with the puzzles being presented.
I leaned on the Switch SNES emulator’s Save State feature in the later in the dungeons to avoid losing several minutes on every boss attempt. But despite those particular moments of heavy progress loss, I found that I rarely needed them for anything else. With a few exceptions (looking at you, Ice Palace), most of the dungeons provided some tools to replenish resources after a death, or shortcuts to reach the boss room more easily.
One of the most fundamental conceits of A Link to the Past is the Dark World, a parallel dimension that overlaps the overworld of the game. It provides a dramatic degree of complexity and challenge to traversing the world and brings gravitas to the apocalyptic stakes of the game’s adventure. I was regularly surprised with how carefully crafted and gated off the world was, driven by access to new tools discovered in the dungeons. The Dark World is enigmatic and scary, and much more compelling to explore than I expected. I’d love to find an analysis of its imagery, which feels as if it draws from a wide variety of influences (the gorilla statues adorning the Dark Palace, the enormous pyramid in the middle of the map, the alien-looking bones in the forest). Overall, I can see why the overlapping worlds concept was compelling enough to be remixed in so many future titles.
My primary takeaway from playing this game is that I underestimated the elegance of the player guidance and direction in games of this age. While some boss fights were a miserable trek from the entrance, others had cleverly-placed exits to the overworld that moved the respawn point. While some hints were entirely insufficient, others were subtle and helpful, rewarding my attention to detail. I consulted a walkthrough only a few times, and each answer I got was one I had already been very close to finding on my own. I ultimately leaned much more on save states than walkthroughs.
I’m not about the become the “games were better when they didn’t hold your hand all the time” guy, but I think I have a keener respect for the subtleties and depth of player guidance in earlier games. Popular titles of the 80s and 90s had reputations for being heinously obtuse, but I think some of the more elegant design elements are often glossed over as less remarkable by all but the most enthusiastic. A Link to the Past isn’t a breeze today, but with save states, it’s extremely playable and enjoyable.