Review by Overdrive

"Excellent effort that still seems a bit lacking"

There comes a time in a young man's life where the call to action consumes his very being — when the threat of impending doom is enough to rouse him from blissful slumber and cause him to rise above his humble stature and become a legendary hero.

That never happened to me, which makes me all the more jealous of Link. An unimposing little fellow, he's been a hero in roughly a gajillion video games, as he's evolved from the physical equal of tiny slimes and bats to a brave warrior skilled enough to dispatch multi-headed dragons while barely breaking a sweat. Out-of-shape computer geeks like me can't compete with that....we can only control Link and pretend we're him for a blissful few hours.

And I have done that many, many times, playing most of his Legend of Zelda games more than once. I've always felt that his two NES outings were two of the top efforts of that generation — so well-designed that even now, well over a decade after their release, they still seemingly still show no signs of becoming past their prime.

However, Link's SNES adventure, A Link to the Past, doesn't quite match its predecessors. Don't get me wrong — I find it to be an excellent game....I just find it easier to criticize than either Legend of Zelda or Adventure of Link.

Nintendo did an admirable job of making sure A Link to the Past wasn't a carbon-copy duplicate of its predecessors, but in some ways, that leads to the game's problems. On one hand, there are a number of neat innovations, as well as dungeons that are far more atmospheric and appealing than those in the two NES games. However, there also are a few tedious fetch-quests and some of those innovative dungeon ideas simply fall flat.

None of those negatives are apparent as the game begins. The soon-to-be-hero Link is woke up by the telepathic voice of Princess Zelda, begging him to help. The lad sneaks out of his house to follow an uncle, who apparently also heard the voice. Unfortunately for Link's elder, he apparently has no skill in melee combat, as when the youngster next meets him, he's laying wounded in a sewer under Hyrule Castle. Link grabs his uncle's sword and heads out to rescue Zelda.

It doesn't take long for him to outmaneuver Hyrule's collection of inept soldiers and free the princess from her captivity in the bowels of the castle dungeon, but that's just the beginning for him. Keeping Zelda free is easier said than done, as the dark forces led by the vile Ganon and his wizard sidekick Agahnim will be a thorn in Link's side for the duration of his first (and only) SNES adventure.

Helping Link as he romps through a goodly number of dungeons and caves will be a slew of items, nearly all of which will be of use more than once. A mirror offers transport from Link's world to a parallel dimension he'll spend a good deal of the game's second half journeying through. To prevent that world from corrupting him and transforming him into a helpless critter, he'll need to find a magical pearl. Other items are more often used to solve puzzles or get past pitfalls. The hammer pounds stakes into the ground, while the hookshot can grapple virtually anything to propel Link over cliffs. A number of these items give A Link to the Past's dungeons an element of problem-solving that goes far beyond simply pushing blocks to open doors (although that “puzzle” makes its appearance more than once).

Some of these dungeons seem near-perfect. The Ice Palace confronts Link with a number of twists and turns, including a late puzzle that forces the player to backtrack a good ways to find an alternate path. Misery Mire has a non-linear design, giving Link a lot of latitude to explore and only keeping a few key rooms initially barred to him. A handful of the early-game dungeons, while simplistic, also contained their share of charm, reminding me of graphically-enhanced versions of those in the original games.

Unfortunately, other dungeons came out a bit flawed, as it seemed Nintendo started running out of good ideas later in the game. While the boss fight in the Turtle Rock dungeon is one of the best in the entire game, getting to it is an arduous task that revolves around creating blocks for transport, magically opening doors and hoping Link can get to them before they close, forcing him to start over. Another dungeon also is somewhat of a “one-trick-pony”, as much of its difficulty lies in Link having to constantly be on the move in order to avoid Wallmasters to avoid being unceremoniously carried back to the entrance.

Dungeon designs aren't the only aspect of A Link to the Past that's a mixed bag, as the bosses range from wonderful to merely ordinary. It's hard to imagine that great fights against Turtle Rock's three-headed dragon, the near-invulnerable Moldorm or evil ol' Ganon, himself, could be in the same game as a giant moth whose main threat is caused by its good fortune to reside in a spike-laden room with a floor composed of conveyor belts. A handful of other bosses seem a bit redundant, as one seems little more than an enhanced version of the Patra mini-bosses in the original Legend of Zelda's final dungeon, while the fight with Blink the Thief could best be described as a confrontation with a mobile Gleeok.

Still, I have to say these dungeons and their bosses composed the most enjoyable moments in A Link to the Past. Most of their flaws were more than counterbalanced by the sheer amount of fun I had meandering through them, searching for the path to the boss and hoping I could find the necessary items to access it along the way. While the game's overworld areas both give Link plenty of stuff to do, those tasks are not nearly as addictive.

Pieces of heart containers (to give Link more life) are scattered all over both overworlds, while treasure chests overflowing with rupees are even more common. Link also can (and in most cases, must) find a trio of magic spells, a quartet of potion-holding bottles and a vast assortment other doo-dads and gizmos, many of which were mentioned earlier. Some of these items are found in dungeons, others are located in the game's numerous caves, nooks and crannies.

However, others force the player to undergo a number of less-than-enthralling tasks. I wasn't overly fond of spending nearly a half-hour repeatedly playing a digging game until I finally obtained the randomly-placed special item located in its field. It also got old to repeatedly throw money in one fountain to earn the right to hold more of certain items.....or to throw virtually everything I owned into other fountains in the hope a couple of them would be magically upgraded.

Still, while I definitely found A Link to the Past to have its share of annoying traits, it's hard for me to be too harsh on it. One thing I've always treasured about the best role-playing games and adventures is their ability to make me feel like I truly was exploring a vast land full of surprises. Many games don't succeed in that regard, but this one does. It seems that virtually every screen in both overworlds has some sort of secret — it's just a matter of collecting the proper tool to find it.

And A Link to the Past also is extremely atmospheric, possessing great music and surprisingly good graphics for an early-generation SNES game. Starting out with a “dark-and-stormy-night” intro, the game moves on to unforgettable locales such as a mist-coated forest, desolate desert and, my personal favorite, the Death Mountain region. In both overworlds, this area is similar, forcing Link to navigate his way through a convoluted, maze-like series of caves, hoping to find his way to the top of the peak where, undoubtedly, amazing secrets await.

While A Link to the Past doesn't quite match the overall excellence I found in both Legend of Zelda and Adventure of Link, it does deserve credit for, at times, achieving a level those older games couldn't reach. With a handful of excellent, creatively-designed dungeons, as well as a few bosses that provided far more entertaining opposition than any I'd taken on in the series' previous games. I just wish things could have turned out a little better, as there were a few dungeons and bosses that were less than memorable, while many of Link's overworld tasks can feel like busywork, rather than an actual fun experience.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 03/17/06

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