January 6, 2014

The Legend of Zelda: More Than One Link to the Past

With The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds making waves on the 3DS, its only fitting that we take a moment to recognize the accomplishments of its direct predecessor. 1991's A Link to the Past was not only one of the SNES's best-selling games, it also marked a watershed moment for the Zelda series, defining many key features and mechanics fans may have come to take for granted. This single game, in many ways, was to the Zelda series what Symphony of the Night was to the Castlevania series, or what Solid was to Metal Gear. A Link to the Past saw the essential spirit and core gameplay elements of Zelda finally solidify, providing a successful model that would inform all iterations to come. There is no overstating how instrumental it was in shaping the modern franchise.

Consider what "Zelda" meant before 1991. All we had were two games: the original The Legend of Zelda and the oddball sequel Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. The first was an exploration-based fantasy adventure with an overhead view, which was involving yet limited by primitive technology. The second game was a side-scrolling action-platformer, and a wild departure from the original. The questions of "What is a sequel?" and "What is Zelda?" were still very open.

A Link to the Past was a return to form, taking influence from the original and transforming it into something greater -- much in the same way one might talk about the relationship between Super Mario Bros. 3 and its own original ancestor. Even though A Link to the Past is looked upon favourably by fans, I still feel that the depth and scope of what this game established for the series is rarely appreciated to the extent it deserves. The sheer amount of familiar staples that this one game brought is staggering, and maybe even a little disheartening.

In this article, I hope to expose just how much the series owes to this classic SNES title -- not to belittle later games, but to give credit where it is due.

What's in a Name?

Before A Link to the Past, the Zelda logos looked like this:

The Legend of Zelda    Zelda II The Adventure of Link 
Now, it looks like this:

A Link to the Past logo

And it's looked more or less like that, ever since. Although background elements of the logo have adapted over time, such as colour scheme and additional imagery, A Link to the Past marks the first time this distinctive lettering was used -- and it stuck. Every game since has used this large "ZELDA" lettering as its logo.

Tools of the Trade

Zelda Pegasus BootsZelda Power GloveZelda ShovelZelda Hookshot
Zelda Big KeyZelda Ocarina

Have you ever...
  • Donned a pair of enchanted boots and dashed through swaths of enemies or a crumbling wall?
  • Equipped a strengthening gauntlet which imbued you with the power to lift heavy rocks?
  • Dug for buried treasures with a shovel?
  • Reached faraway spoils, or crossed gaping ravines, with the use of the grappling Hookshot?
  • Won a pair of Flippers from a friendly Zora, allowing you to swim?
  • Searched a dungeon desperately for the Big Key, which would let you unlock a special chest and the final boss door?
  • Managed a supply of bottles to contain potions, fairies, or bumble bees, etc.?
  • Played a magical ocarina?
Then you did it first in A Link to the Past. That's where all of these iconic Zelda items stem from.

Ever taken one of those precious tools and tossed it faithfully into a conspicuous pond for good luck? Did a magical creature or fairy pop out, rewarding you with an upgraded version of that item? Thank A Link to the Past for that upgrade.

Those Who Live by the Sword


Link's signature spinning attack was first developed for his SNES incarnation, as was an early prototype for the Hylian shield's Triforce and wing motif.

The Master Sword, probably the most unifying object in modern Zelda outside of the Triforce itself, also originated on the Super Nintendo.

The convention of using your sword to cut through bushes and tall grass in the hopes of uncovering hidden rupees or secret holes also became commonplace in A Link to the Past. How much time have you spent hacking away at local shrubbery? Now you know why.

Foundational Principles

A Link to the Past is the first game in the series to feature this creative idea: two versions of the same world to explore. The land of Hyrule had a "Light World" and a "Dark World," and each was closely related to one another yet oddly different. Navigation, puzzle-solving, and story advancement required deft mastery of the exploitation of relationships between both sides. This back-and-forth "world-hopping" gimmick has been echoed in such games as Ocarina of Time, the Gameboy Oracle games, The Minish Cap, and Twilight Princess. It works, but too much of a good thing quickly starts to feel derivative.

Before the player was given free reign to bounce between both realms at will, one had to complete three introductory dungeons and collect three magical doo-dads, which permitted access to the Master Sword and free realm-hopping ability. Again, it seems Nintendo decided "Why fix what ain't broke?" Off the top of my head, I can roughly recall this structure lifted directly from A Link to the Past and plunked into Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess.

It's the Little Things That Matter

Collecting four "Pieces of Heart" to complete an additional notch on your life meter? Thanks, A Link to the Past.

A bustling village named Kakariko? Thanks again, A Link to the Past.

That unmistakable music that plays on the opening menu screens and hidden fairy fountains.

The eerie, droning tune leading up the the final battle with Ganon.

A boss battle in which you must swipe your sword to reflect magical projectiles back at the enemy.

Although the Fire Rod and Ice Rod were converted to elemental arrows for the bow in some games, the concept remains the same: torch or freeze targets from a distance.

Striking a Crystal Switch, causing a gate to open or blocks in the floor to raise and lower: yep, A Link to the Past, yet again.

...And of course, one of the most popular Zelda tropes of all, the chickens. Do not attack chickens if you want to live. Yes, A Link to the Past first taught us this as well.

Edit: Reader TreTrodoToxin4 reminded me in the Reddit comments that A Link to the Past was the first of many games in which Link begins his quest unconscious. That guy's always sleeping in, how could I have missed it!

There may yet be more aspects of this amazing game to which Zelda owes its legacy -- one might reference the rotating, laser-firing Beamos statues, or the Mirror Shield -- but these are minor details. What is clear already, is that A Link to the Past represents an incredibly significant time for these games. Nintendo wasn't just crafting one specific game, they were drawing blueprints that would impact an entire franchise for decades.


  1. I thought the spin attack was in the original Zelda...

  2. oh, crap, I was thinking energy shots when your health is full, my bad.

    1. Yep, the projectile shots while at full health were there from the very first game. The spin attack was original to A Link to the Past. :-)