Whenever the question of what the best Zelda games are comes up, I immediately think of Zelda 3. That's what everyone knew it as before it had an official name. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is not a sequel to Zelda II, but it is the 3rd Zelda game. It's more of a sequel to a game that had not been made yet, Ocarina of Time (we used to call that Zelda 64). It was first released on the Super Famicom in Japan in late 1991, and later on SNES in NA in Spring 1992. LttP was a return to form for the series after Zelda II, the first 16-bit Zelda game, and one of the most influential games of all time. It has been the template for most Zelda games since it was released almost 28 years ago.
A Link to the Past takes place in the “Hero is Defeated” timeline. Best timeline? Best timeline. In this branch, Link is defeated by Ganon in the final battle of Ocarina of Time, Ganon unifies the Triforce, and Zelda and the Seven Sages seal Ganon and the Triforce in the Sacred Realm (AKA the Dark Word). In A Link to the Past, Ganon is still sealed in the Dark World, so he creates an avatar in Hyrule to help him break the seal, the evil wizard Agahnim (priest in Japan). Agahnim kills the king of Hyrule, throws Zelda in a dungeon cell, takes over the throne, and uses his army to capture the descendants of the Seven Sages, which he plans to sacrifice to break the seal preventing Ganon from escaping the Dark World and invading Hyrule.
It's pretty amazing how well LttP works with the story of a game that wouldn't come out for another 7 years. The only thing missing is the Kokiri, Zora, and Goron descendants of the sages. Out of all the Zelda games that are directly related to another game in the series, this one works the best.
So what makes LttP one of the best games of all time? It's not just one thing. Everything just comes together so well. I don't think everything about the game is perfect, but I do think everything in the game works together perfectly. The graphics compliment the world design, the music does a great job setting the mood for each area, the world opens up as you get new items and learn the rules of the game at a great pace, and the difficulty always feels just right.
LttP also strikes a great balance between telling you where to go and letting you discover things on your own. The first few hours of the game are a perfect example of this. The game starts with Zelda telepathically talking to Link and telling him where to go. When you step out of Link's house, Royal guards are blocking all paths except the one to the castle. You're free to explore the castle, just like any other dungeon, but there is only one way out. Once you make it out of the castle, Zelda marks where you need to go on the map, but you're free to explore wherever the few items you have can take you. As you progress through the game, you get less hints and directions, because you don't need them then.
Since this game’s progression is so much more story-driven and dependent on acquired items than Zelda I, overworld exploration does feel much more linear and restricted, especially in the Dark World. There wasn't much keeping you from exploring nearly the whole game world right off the bat in Zelda I. You can still spend a lot of time running around exploring in between dungeons, though. Before you even step foot in the first dungeon; there’s items and heart containers to find, minigames, and Kakariko villagers who’ll tell you stories that flesh out the world. I love just running around after each dungeon and seeing what I can find with my new items.
The Dark World (not to be confused with Lorule from LBW) is the corrupted version of the Sacred Realm. It looks like a postapocalyptic version of Hyrule, but it's more like a parallel dimension. The general layout of the map is nearly identical to Hyrule, but there are new obstacles blocking your path. Some of them require you to use Dark World dungeon items, and others require you to switch between worlds to get past them. You can get to some spots in one world that you can't in the other world, so these puzzles are all about figuring out when to switch to the other. There are some 2 part world switching puzzles in which you have to figure out how to switch back so you end up on the other side of an obstacle, but they are very few. You can't simply switch to the Dark World by using an item, like you can to go back to Hyrule, so it feels like they could never get too creative with these puzzles. Both worlds are always reset when you switch, too, so these puzzles are rarely about doing something in one world which affects something in the other, like the past and future in Ocarina of Time. The Dark World was a cool idea, but it feels like it wasn't used to its full potential, and was done better in OoT. The best part about it isn't the puzzles, it's the fact that it gives you another overworld to explore and 8 more dungeons.
A Link to the Past has some of the best 2D Zelda dungeons in the series. I feel like the rate at which their difficulty and complexity ramps up is perfectly balanced. You start out with fairly straightforward and linear dungeons. They have simple torch lighting puzzles, a few locked doors you need to find keys for, and they don't require a lot of exploration because they're pretty small. Things really start getting crazy in the Dark World, though. Dungeons get much bigger, with lots of floors, layers of elevation, mazes, clever puzzles, and of course, tougher enemies. I found myself having to take a minute to plan out exactly how I was going to tackle some of the rooms in the last few dungeons because they have strict timing requirements and the enemies are relentless. I also love how LttP makes you think about the dungeon like a real 3D space. It's not just about the room you're in and the 4 rooms around it. You also have to think about what's above and below you.
While LttP's controls are a gigantic step forwards from Zelda I's, I feel like the SNES controller was not used to its full potential. I like that Link can now move in 8 directions instead of only 4, his normal sword attack is a 90° slash instead of a stab, the new spin attack is great for dealing damage, and that the Pegasus Boot's dash is always available on the A button, but L and R are only used to toggle between the full and zoomed in view of the map. They're not used for anything during gameplay. I would love to be able to put some items on those buttons, like the C buttons in OoT. There's a lot of going to the menu to switch items in the last few dungeons, and the final phase of the Ganon battle is all about switching between the fire rod and the bow, too. It seems weird to me that L and R aren't put to better use.
LttP's graphics were never technically impressive. They use a lot of flat colors and low detail sprites, and the framerate often dips when there's too much going on. But they stand the test of time because their simple style works perfectly with the light-hearted tone of the game. I feel like this may have been overlooked or forgotten over time, but this game is very humorous. There is a cartoon logic to the animations and situations in the game that's really funny when you stop and think about it. Link's icon on the map has his hand pointing downwards as if to say “you are here”, Royal guards flutter in the air before they fall off a ledge, enemies die in a skull shaped puff of smoke, and Link's face turns red and he gasps for air when pushing an object he can't move. Apples fall off trees when you run into them, Link talks to Zelda and Sahasrahla through what's basically and intercom, and there's a bunch of fake Master Swords all over the Lost Woods. This game feels like a comedy at times.
So why is Link's hair pink? Someone asked Miyamoto once, and he didn't remember. I guess it's just for readability. Link's skin is pretty tanned, and the brim of his hat is dark orange, so brownish blonde hair, like he had in the artwork at the time, would have probably been too close to one of those colors to use on such a low resolution sprite. That's probably why the red tunic has a purple hat instead of a red one, too. Pink is just too close to red.
I think the soundtrack is amazing, but I'm not exactly going to listen to it in my car or anything. All of these tunes have been orchestrated and re-recorded so many times, it kind of takes the punch out of the originals. I do think this soundtrack does a great job of building atmosphere in the game, though. From the mysterious and mischievous Lost Woods theme, to the tense violins of the dungeon theme, to the wonderful new remix of the classic Hyrule overworld theme. They all set the tone just right for what you're doing in each environment.
This game is a masterpiece. If you've never played it, you should do that. It's on all Virtual Consoles and on the SNES Classic. But is it the greatest Zelda of all time (GZOAT?)? It's really tough for me to pick a favorite Zelda. If you asked me what my favorite was back in 2002, right after I played it on GBA, I would have said LttP without question. Now, I'm not so sure. I really love A Link Between Worlds, and I think I have to replay Link's Awakening and Ocarina of Time to refresh my memory. I'll let you know.