Review by Mariner
"That's one small step (backwards) for Zelda, one giant leap for the SNES"
How does one write such a review? How does one begin? We can start by declaring this one of the three best games available on the SNES. Its game mechanics are all but flawless, creating a smooth and exciting game that never slows down or gets boring. We can compliment the somewhat unique design, the essence of which was never quite captured by the numerous clones it spawned. And we can gush over all the little cool things, like the epic story and excellent rendition of the Overworld theme. That's a good way to start, as it is all very relevant and important to understanding why this game is so well loved. Too bad there's also a downside, albeit one seen by very little. This is Zelda reborn, but not quite reborn in the way it should be.
As such, this isn't going to be your typical review. If you've never played the original, or gone to a Zelda fansite, or read a Zelda instruction manual for fun, or come up with theories of who Agahnim is, or play all the games at least once a year, this review isn't for you. Likewise, if you are one of those ''elite hardcore'' gamers who think gameplay is always the only thing that matters, then you might as well stop reading now. I won't focus on the fun of the game, because you have 30 other reviews for that. I won't go through an exhaustive review of the mechanics of the game for the same reasons. This review is only for people who might possibly care about Zelda as more than just a videogame franchise, people like myself. It's for people who may want to learn about the design and ambience of the game, and see how it could have been better.
But it should be noted that there are aspects that are not only as good, but better than the original two games. The story, for one. Legend of Zelda introduced Hyrule, Adventure of Link told the Triforce's tale and Link's role, and now we focus exclusively on Ganon. His story is told this time, through the scribe who wrote the legends given to us in the instruction manual. The tale of the Imprisoning War (otherwise known as Ocarina of Time) describes his rise to power, his greed and brutality, and how he was finally defeated after devastating the land. And now, he wants to return, and will use any means and any ally available. Thus, the wizard Agahnim, the only other major villain in the main Zelda saga, comes to Hyrule, saving them from a drought. But it's only a ploy to gain the king's trust, and soon he is running Hyrule. He uses his powers to send the maidens, including princess Zelda, to the Dark World, the once golden land that is now Ganon's realm. These maidens hold the power to break the seal on the Dark World, enabling Ganon to return and cause the Great Cataclysm. But a hero, Link, steps forward. Yet he is too late to stop Agahnim, and is sent to the Dark World. Our valiant hero takes it upon himself to rescue the maidens and destroy Ganon. It's actually quite good. Finally we see the depth and subtle nuances that the Zelda saga promises, and the story finally catches up to the atmosphere. We see a true history of Hyrule, a true sense of continuity, and a true glimpse at the complexity of the Triforce and Ganon, Link, and Zelda's connection to it. Combine it with AoL and OoT, and you have the central core of a series with far more depth than most people realize.
Then there's the music. I'd rank this as the best version of the Overworld theme ever, and the short yet exciting opening fanfare really catches the mood of the game. Meanwhile, the Dark World theme perfectly complements the Light World, providing a darker, stranger, yet still upbeat tune that sticks with you throughout the game. The castle music is intense and epic, the lost woods is mysterious, Agahnim's theme is foreboding, and the Maidens' theme (Zelda's lullaby!) is far superior to the N64 version. Dungeon music is a mixed bag, as the light world dungeons were very nice although the dark world ones were a bit lacking. Describing such music cannot give it justice, and all I suggest is that you keep the sound turned up while playing this game, listening to some excellent songs that really reflect Hyrule.
Ah, but still the game falters. Not because it was bad, but because it lost its Zelda core. It pretended to be a sequel to the original, yet it lost many of the effective elements that made the sequel so amazing.
For instance, this is still the only game in which I had no problems finding all of the pieces of heart. Such a quest should be mind-numbing, impossible for all but the most dedicated folk. Instead, they were in all the obvious locations, practically sitting out there with a giant sign pointing out its location. A piece of heart should be a reward, not an expected gift. The feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment is lessened severely when they are all so darn easy to find. In my mind, Zelda should be about exploration, like the original. One should spend plenty of time simply roaming the overworld, checking every nook and cranny, becoming lost, looking around, and become intimately familiar with your surroundings by the end. In this way, the game draws you in, immersing you in the land and making every last detail important. Yet in this game, the truly inventive and exciting discoveries were few and far between, as far too often the piece of heart is in a rather obvious hiding spot. Oh, it's not horrible or anything, and there were a few well hidden pieces, but it could have been much better.
Or maybe it couldn't, as the overworld was too bloody small. This is Zelda; it should be huge! What happened to the massive 128 screen land of the original, or multi-continent spanning Adventure of Link? Instead, we get a measly 8 or 9 unique areas, without much to look at in any of them? Please. The lack of a massive, well designed overworld with numerous screens is by far my biggest gripe with the game. I love exploring the world of Hyrule. I love randomly running around. Yet here, my favorite part of the game was reduced to mere running to the next location. And no, the fact that there were two overworlds did not help in the least. After all, they were quite similar, and so you are less likely to fully explore the Dark World. What a complete waste. Even the Game Boy games had larger and better designed overworlds than this.
A similar loss of exploration occurred in the dungeons. Rather than the maze like labyrinths of the original, we get simple linear boring dungeons. There is one set path through each level, and any branches end relatively quickly. I got lost a total of once, in the ice palace, and that was it. Outside of this one palace, you never have to study your map and try to guess where the next room is. You never have to guess where to bomb, or which rooms are important and which can be bypassed, or where that item is. Instead, virtually every level is the same pattern. Find the map, then compass, then big key, then item, then use item to progress through level, then fight the boss. I don't care how well loved this game is, such simplistic dungeon crawling is beneath the Zelda namesake. And it is sad to see that this has become the norm, with no return to the original style in sight.
And if that's not bad enough, this game couldn't rely on the brilliant design and awe-inspiring expansiveness of the levels like Ocarina of Time did. Quite simply, level design was boring. Rather than brilliantly layed out rooms and intricate attention to detail, we got bland rooms after bland rooms. Tell me, how many of these rooms stood out as particularly cool or amazing, compared to, say, the twisted hallway in the Forest Temple or Dark Link's chamber in the Water Temple? Instead, we got simple screens with haphazard architecture and obvious puzzles, eliminating a good portion of Zelda's charm. They all seem to blend together, and you can't pinpoint any areas that stand out. Moreover, the overall design of the levels are lacking. There seems to be no purpose or goal in how they were created, and were simply not original or inspiring. Rather than keeping me interested in the dungeon itself like in virtually every other Zelda game, I was trying to push through them as quickly as possible. Of course, there are exceptions (like the ice palace or Ganon's Tower), but some were just really basic (the 3rd and 4th crystal dungeons were particularly generic), filled with nothing but boring rooms and stale enemies.
Yes, stale enemies. Back when the original Zelda came out, the commercials seemed to focus on the enemies, telling you all about octoroks and tektikes and so forth. The instruction manual came with detailed drawings of all enemies, and told you a little bit about them. What do we get now? Bouncing rocks, a few random soldiers, and boring floating bubbles. This may seem petty to some of you, but I actually care about little things such as this. The worst offender is the armos. In the original, they were mysterious sentinels turned into stone long ago. Now they're merely bouncing statues. Sigh... Bosses are just as bad, very few of which were as cool and as impressive as they could be. I want Gleeok back, not that pansy looking dragon thing in the 7th crystal dungeon. Speaking of which, the enemies weren't as fun to fight as they were in the original. Fighting soldiers, wizrobes, and that stupid dragon requires nothing like the finesse and skill of the original darknuts, lynels, and gleeoks. Even though LttP seemed to focus on action more than the original did, it wasn't even as good.
There's another (very) minor point that irks me. See, Nintendo generally has a knack for keeping your game running smoothly and quickly. For instance, Pegasus boots and your flute allow you to move through the land quickly, eliminating a potentially boring walk. But they missed the boat with your secondary item. The R and L buttons are not used for anything; why not have them scroll through your secondary weapons? Considering most of the time you will be using the arrows, hookshot, or mirror, and all of those are right in a row (assuming wrap-around), this would be so much quicker than having to pause and manually move through your items. I'm surprised Nintendo missed something so obvious.
Of course, behind all of these complaints lies a very, very good game, one I play regularly. It's almost perfect, and is one of the best reasons to own the SNES. By any normal standards, this game deserves all the praise it can get. But Zelda games, to me, should not conform to merely the normal standard. No matter how great this is, it simply doesn't live up to the perfection of the original and Ocarina of Time. Nintendo moved away from the pure adventure of the original, turning the series into an action/RPG hybrid that, although not bad by any means, is missing some of the original's charm. And even this new hybrid doesn't compare favorably to OoT and Majora's Mask, as it seems too generic in design. Even while loving this game, I yearn for the original. Rather than the supposed masterpiece so many claim it to be, Link to the Past could have been much better.
Final Score - 9.0
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 04/03/03, Updated 04/03/03
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