In which the series establishes, and settles into, its comfort zone.

LTTP's main title screen on the SNES

Released: 1991 (Super Famicom), 1992 (Super Nintendo Entertainment System)

All right, now we’re talking. While the NES Zelda titles were groundbreaking for their time and hold a special place in the heart of many an 80s kid, it wasn’t until A Link to the Past that the series really found its footing. This game would establish the basic format that nearly every installment would follow until 2017 when Breath of the Wild deliberately shook things up. As one of Nintendo’s flagship franchises, Zelda has consistently provided a showcase for the technological advances of every new console, and that tradition started right here on this opening screen. The triforce tumbles into view as simple (but eye-popping at the time) 3D polygons, the iconic Master Sword makes its first appearance by plunging directly into the title letters, and a sweeping vista opens before us in the system’s brilliant new 15-bit1 color palette. Bold, heroic fanfare plays on the soundtrack, allowing us to hear actual instruments for the first time in the series rather than the charming but primitive wave generators of the NES. We’re off on an incredible new adventure! Maybe we’ll even make it through a dungeon or two this time!2

Development background

In 1988, Nintendo started developing a new Zelda game for the Famicom/NES, but changed the target platform to the shiny new Super Famicom/SNES a year later because really, why not? Zelda no Densetsu Kamigami no Triforce (The Legend of Zelda: Triforce of the Gods) would arrive in the U.S. with the updated title A Link to the Past, yet another alteration to remove religious references. The game shipped on an 8-megabit cartridge (most previous SNES games had only 4) to provide enough storage space for the epic adventure.

The story

A segment from the introductory cutscene

Unlike the simple text crawl of the NES titles, LTTP gives us a fancy slideshow to fill us in on the backstory. The art style here is curiously realistic compared to the cartoony sprites we’ll see in actual gameplay. This opening cutscene gives a pretty good overview for anyone who wants to jump right into the game, but the manual has an excessively detailed version in case you ever wanted to know three different ways to say the villain’s name, among other trivia: “The name of this king of thieves is Ganondorf Dragmire, but he is known by his alias, Mandrag Ganon, which means ‘Ganon of the Enchanted Thieves.’”

Basic synopsis, combining both sources: Three gods—embodying Power, Wisdom and Courage—descended from a distant nebula to create all life on the world (later in the series they’ll be restyled as goddesses and given names), and left behind a small bit of their essence in the Triforce, a powerful artifact that could grant wishes to whomever touched it. The Triforce was hidden in the Golden Land, which many fruitlessly searched for over the centuries until Ganondorf Dragmire / Mandrag Ganon / Ganon of the Enchanted Thieves stumbled onto it, murdering his entire gang of thieves to be the one to set hands on it.

He wished to rule the Golden Land, and did such a great job of ruling it that it promptly filled up with evil monsters and became known as the Dark World. Ganon led this army of monsters to invade Hyrule, leading to the bloody Imprisoning War which ended only when seven wise men were able to magically seal the entrance to the Dark World, locking Ganon and his followers within. Things got back to normal and Hyrule enjoyed centuries of peace. Then weird plagues and droughts befell the land, and only a wizard3 named Agahnim who showed up with suspiciously convenient timing was able to stop them. He took up a position as the King’s advisor and quickly got to work on a mysterious but clearly evil plan involving the descendants of the seven wise men and the King’s daughter, Princess Zelda. That’s where we come in.

Oh, and all of this takes place long before the events of the first two games, predating the “original” sleeping-beauty Zelda whom we failed to save in Zelda II, even though that game said all Hyrule’s princesses were named Zelda after that Zelda. If the timeline is starting to feel confusing at this point, just wait, my friend.

How far can I get before I die?

More than twice as long as my last two outings, and I probably could have made it a while longer if I’d wandered a bit more instead of heading straight for the first dungeon. But ah well.

I enter "DENNIS" as my name.

Now you’re playing with DENNIS. SUPER DENNIS.

Link hears Zelda's voice in his head as he lies asleep

The game opens with Link asleep in bed in the house he shares with his uncle. Muffled raindrops can be heard as a voice speaks in Link’s head: Zelda, telepathically reaching out for help from the castle dungeon4. She tells him that Agahnim is trying to break the seal into the Dark World and alludes to nefarious business with other “missing girls.” Link’s uncle tells him to stay put and marches out of the house with a sword and shield in hand. The game gives me control at this point, so of course I disregard his advice immediately. I hop out of bed, grab a lantern from the chest in the corner, and run out into the stormy night.

Link steps outside into the stormy night

This is the kind of dramatic introductory sequence that the first two games could only dream of. Thanks to the huge leap in technological capabilities, we got to watch the dialog play out between Link and his uncle instead of just reading about it in the manual. The game can layer rain over the scene and cast everything in dull, grayish light. The sound of the rain is much sharper and louder now that I’m out of the house, and all the sound effects can play at the same time as the music, which is an excellently ominous track of shuddering strings. Although the art is still blocky and pixellated, there’s no longer any confusion about what I’m looking at onscreen. The world feels solid and physical now, thanks in a large part to shadows and depth. All of this makes for a much more emotionally gripping experience—I really feel like I’m running out to confront danger in the dead of night, and I have no idea what I’m about to get into.

Link finds a secret passage into the castle

Of course, I’ve played this game quite a few times, so I actually know exactly what I’m about to get into. Specifically, I know where to find the secret passage into Hyrule Castle, hidden under a bush along the moat. If I didn’t know this, though, the game is helpful enough to hint at its existence with the stone path leading up to it.

Link's uncle lies dying in the castle sewers

Tough luck, Uncle Mustache. I find him right away, slumped against a wall in the sewers, having fared even worse than I did in Zelda II. He hands over his sword and shield—since he clearly doesn’t know how to use them—and seems just about to reveal something important about Zelda and me before he trails off and dies5.

There’s a lot of speculation about what he was about to say (the Japanese text says “you are Zelda’s…” which only adds to the confusion), with the possibility that Zelda is Link’s sister being most prominent. You can imagine why. But there are no surprises or revelations about Link and Zelda to come later in the game, so it was probably meant to be something like “you are Zelda’s only hope.”

Anyway, sad to see a good man go like this, but on the plus side, a sword and a shield! We’re ready to rescue ourselves a princess!

Hyrule Castle acts as a sort of practice dungeon, and mostly establishes the pattern that later dungeons will follow: explore, find a map, find a compass, find a unique item, fight a boss. The map shows you the layout of the dungeon, the compass provides extra info for the map, the unique item is needed to reach the boss, and (usually) also to defeat the boss. That’s the basic setup for a Zelda dungeon, and it works well enough that over two decades of Zelda games will continue to use it from LTTP on.

Hyrule Castle is a bit more lightweight. There’s no compass and no real boss. But we do get a boomerang!

Link finds the boomerang in a chest

And we get a sort of miniboss, this morningstar-wielding knight guarding Zelda’s cell. The boomerang freezes him in place, though, so he goes down fairly easily.

Link faces off against a morningstar-wielding knight

After the knight hits the floor, we’re able to free Zelda. Meeting her this early in the game is a big departure from the first installments; in those, she didn’t interact with Link at all until the very end. This is a good storytelling choice, since we have an actual relationship with her and will care more when she gets to be a damsel in distress later on. Again. Giving Zelda almost no agency at all is a much poorer storytelling choice, but unfortunately it’s going to be a while before the series challenges that convention.

Zelda greets Link and worries about her father

Zelda fears the worst for her father, and for good reason. Good thing she didn’t see this surprisingly dark moment from the opening cutscene:

The king's skeletal remains sit upon his throne

I can’t tell if the skeletonized king on the throne is meant to be symbolic, or if Agahnim straight-up murdered him right where he sat and left him on display to cruelly taunt his former subjects. This guy does not mess around. Foruntately, someone cleaned the room out before Zelda and I get to it, as both thrones are empty6 when we push aside the royal crest and escape through a secret passage.

Link and Zelda escape through the sewers by lamplight

Navigating through the darkened passageways by lamplight is another cool show-off moment for the new graphics hardware. Getting attacked by rats out of nowhere is less charming.

Link gets some exposition in the Sanctuary

It’s not long before we make our escape into the Sanctuary, which is clearly a Christian church (complete with pews, stained glass and organ music) but, of course, carefully avoids any explicit references to religion. Here we meet the Loyal Sage, who offers some friendly exposition and marks our map with the location of our next goal, a descendant of the seven wise men who lives in Kakariko Village.

Once I step out of the Sanctuary, I see 16-bit Hyrule in the daylight for the first time. The soundtrack blares with a vibrant rendition of the classic overworld theme. The world is now mine to explore freely! So, like the bold adventurer I am, I just head straight to the spot marked on my map.

I reach Kakariko Village in short order. Unlike the interchangeable villages in Zelda II, Kakariko feels like a distinct place, with calm string-laden theme music that evokes an endless summer afternoon. Kakariko will return in many Zelda games to come; it’s usually the first place you go once you’ve completed the introductory segment and are able to explore the wider game world. The map marker leads me to the descendant’s wife, then his son, who marks my map with his actual location, in the Eastern Palace on the other side of the game world. On paper, this kind of constant detouring sounds tedious, but it’s an improvement in many ways from the aimless wandering that characterized the first games. The series will come to rely on it too heavily in time, but we’re a long way from that point.

The village and its environs are full of hidden treasures to find, side quests, and minigames, but I’m eager to prove myself in a dungeon so I take off to the east. Along the way, I find a wanted poster for myself, complete with a charming little pixel-art mug shot.

Link reads a wanted poster for himself

This is a fun world-building touch, and helps explain why every soldier I find along the way is going to immediately try to murder me. And hoo boy do they come close to succeeding. Between angry soldiers and various returning overworld monsters like Octoroks, I make it to my contact by the skin of my teeth.

Link meets Sahasrahla in the Eastern Palace

His name is Sahasrahla, and he’s lying low in a room with a bunch of braziers and a “please bomb me” cracked wall. He obliges me with more exposition about the three Pendants of Virtue that I need to track down in order to get my hands on the Master Sword that I’ll need to fight Agahnim, and then—wait for it—he places some more markers on my map.

The world map shows the location of the three pendants

You know what, though, I can understand why the designers wanted us to use the map so much. Look at that Mode 7 goodness! Clearly they wanted to show off the new tehcnology. We’ve come a long way from the in-game map of the original Zelda.

A single green dot on a gray rectangle

It might seem like I can choose the order in which I get the pendants, but nope, I have to get the one in the Eastern Palace first. On the plus side, I’m already here, so I can at least get in the door before I get myself killed.

Link avoids rolling boulders in the Eastern Palace

Like the “palaces” in Zelda II, there’s not much sign of any royalty living here, unless they’re the ones throwing these huge bowling balls down a narrow hallway for fun. I have some trouble timing out the boulders and I take a few hits, but I make it through the gauntlet. I feel determined. I’m ready to take this dungeon on.

Link enters a room full of scattered bones

I enter a room full of scattered bones, the doors slam shut, and I’m faced with a sqaud of reanimated skeletons (“Stalfos”). They’re surprisingly agile for some punks with no muscles; when I swipe at them with my sword, they leap backward to avoid the strike. I try to freeze them with my boomerang, but while it does hurt them, it doesn’t stop their movement. And so, this happens.

RIP, Super Dennis. At least you got farther than the second room of a dungeon this time.

Things I liked

  • The basic Zelda formula, all tied up neatly in a 16-bit bow. It’s the same well-tuned gameplay loop that hooked me in the first place, and I still find it fun all these years later.
  • The opening sequence. It’s probably my favorite intro of the series: it drops you into the action quickly, it’s got a wonderfully tense energy, and it teaches you everything you need to know to play the game.
  • Everything about the presentation: the character and environment designs, the animations, the sound effects and music. Nothing feels constrained by the old technology; it simply feels like a style.
  • The use of verticality in dungeons, which makes them feel more like real buildings and less like a series of arbirtarily-linked rooms.
  • Zelda being around for us to interact with directly.

Things I disliked

  • The heavier emphasis on lore and exposition. While I like that most of the story is now in the game itself instead of in the manual, the strongest story moments are when the game shows us something, like Uncle Mustache’s last words. But when it stops everything to tell us something, I find my eyes glazing over. I’ve played so many Zelda games by now that the various plots really blur together. Backstory can be fun, but it doesn’t raise the emotional stakes of the adventure very much.
  • That’s…pretty much it? This game has aged really well.

Was that a fair death?

Yes. I clearly walked right into that Stalfos, probably hitting the attack button a moment too late. Taking on groups of enemies is not my strong suit, so I’ll have to watch that in the games to follow.

Stray thoughts

When it comes to long-running game series, the third time really is the charm in many cases. Super Mario Bros. had two good first outings (whichever way you define the second game) but found its perfect blend of preceisely refined platforming and semi-linear exploration in its third release. The vast open worlds of The Elder Scrolls didn’t really become playable until Morrowind started to rein things in from procedurally-generated sprawl. Castlevania also experimented with some weird curveballs in its second installment before returning to form and fine-tuning the experience for its third NES title. After you’ve found your groove, though, where do you go from there? The Zelda series did something a little unexpected: it went small. Tune in next time for the Game Boy classic Link’s Awakening.

  1. Yes, the SNES had a 16-bit processor but its graphics chip supported 15-bit RGB color, which is a little confusing. It means there were 5 bits for each color channel (red, green, and blue) allowing for a total of 32,768 possible colors. 

  2. We won’t. 

  3. A priest, in the original Japanese. 

  4. The various incarnations of Zelda often have vaguely defined magical powers like this, and I wish the games would explain them a bit more. 

  5. Actually, he gets better—we see him again in the end credits. 

  6. What happened to the queen? Zelda apparently has the same missing-mom problem that plagues Disney princesses.