Link to the dark world of the past changed Zelda Forever

Image: Nintendo

To celebrate the 35th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda, we’ve launched a series of features that focus on a specific aspect – theme, character, mechanic, location, memory, or whatever – from each of the major Zelda games. Today, on the 30th anniversary of LttP, we re-publish this article in which Keith talks about one of the most iconic parts of the franchise …

I played for the first time The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past in 2003 on the Game Boy Advance. I know this isn’t the original, but given that I didn’t understand how to control fine motor skills when it first appeared in ’91, I doubt I could have finished it on the SNES. However, I did not finish at the GBA either. Technically, I never finished the first temple.

Wait! Take the pitchfork! It’s getting better, I promise.

I spent about fifty hours on my little Game Boy Advance SP (vision-saving backlit screen) exploring the world of A Link to the Past. From atmospheric, rainy beginnings to finding (and quickly forgetting) my dying uncle in the bowels of the castle, the game grabbed my ears and pulled… But I never became a legendary link. Instead, I played the role of some guy with a sword and not understanding anything, accidentally clumsily making his way through Hyrule, but in fact never saving It.

You see, there was something in the East Palace that I couldn’t get through. It had to do with the darkness and those awful fast cyclops, and my dumb, developing baby brain just couldn’t figure it out. I wasn’t a big fan of darkness to begin with, and it was too difficult for my clumsy tiny hands to dodge these beasts before they eventually gave up.

That's not a lot!  Curse those damned Eyegores.
That’s not a lot! Curse those damned Eyegores.

I played games badly then, but I liked them. I would run for hours around the world of Hyrule in ocarina of time, or explore Peach’s Castle in Super Mario 64… I preferred to play Mario Kart as an adventure, not a race, I spend my time on the trails of the Calimari Desert and receive repeated swearing for driving the “wrong path.” I was not as interested in achieving the goals of the game as in adventure, discovering and plundering every nook and cranny of their universes. Then I had time, and the race to the end was not my priority.

As a result, I spent hours traveling the Lightworld before even knew was the Dark World. I could draw you a map of Hyrule A Link To The Past’s with my eyes closed, but I couldn’t tell you what it was all about. meant… There was not a single part of this outside world that I did not know by heart – at least the parts that I could access with the limited tools I had – but whole parts of it remained a mystery, like a book on a shelf in the library, or a sword in the Lost Forest that I couldn’t get out. None of the characters helped me, not even the Fortune Teller, who simply told me over and over again to complete the Eastern Palace. But then that was enough. It might seem annoying to be stuck in the very first temple, but I didn’t mind. The adventure for me was in my own imagination.

Looking back on my experience with A Link to the Past as a child, I realize how accidentally typically Zelda it was. As in the very first incarnation of Link’s quest, I explored a world that was indifferent to me, existed without me and which jealously kept its secrets like a dragon, refusing to give them away, until I figured out the exact answer to the puzzle that I wanted it to. I may have been the Legendary Link – or, in fact, the Legendary Loncom, as the game lets you call him – but I failed and as a result Hyrule remained a closed one to me, a monolith of mystery that I couldn’t help but pass. …

Image: Nintendo

In 2021, pestering my partner, I downloaded the Nintendo Switch Online service, which gives you access to a bunch of forgotten old games for the NES and SNES, as well as a handful of shiny ones. The “connection to the past” lay among this clutch of eggs like a nugget of gold – which meant it was time. Of course, over the past decades, I have learned enough about games to be able to finally back off?

I expected that “Link to the Past” would age poorly or not compare with descendants. How could anything fit perfectly Breath of the wild, or freedom of action Wind waker? Could it even be a rival Ghost hourglass, the first Zelda game I completed completely alone?

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the answer is “obviously you are a dingus,” but I was. Although only the third game in the Zelda series, A Link to the Past set the tone and myths for many subsequent games, but the most important thing it established was the duality of the Zelda legend with a lowercase L.

Some of the best games in Zelda’s 35-year history deal with this dichotomy of before and after, good and evil. Perhaps the most famous are the two worlds of Ocarina of Time: the world of the child Link and the world of Adult Link. As a reflection of the horrors of a world tainted by evil, as well as the horrors of aging, the two forms of Hyrule are completely different and unsettling.

Actual screenshot of my successful completion of the East Palace
Actual screenshot of my successful completion of the East Palace.

Same way, Heavenly Sword has a world above and a world below; connection between words there is Hyrule and Lorul; Breath of the Wild takes place after the disaster, but Link’s memories have windows to the past; and Wind Waker has a flooded world and a palace beneath the waves, saved by stasis. Zelda’s story shows Link over and over again that could will go wrong if it fails, but what already did go wrong.

A reference to the dark world of the past comes to you as strange at first, Link’s awakening-style fabulous accident. It is impossible to know that the strange portal near the Tower of Hera will completely transfer you to another country, or that the pink-haired Link will turn into Durasella the rabbit in the game. Up to this point, the game has been pretty standard for Zelda: slay monsters, explore dungeons, dodge all the soldiers who are trying to kill you on the spot, and grab important jewelry from conveniently located chests. There are dozens of old men who give you mysterious quests without offering anything to help you, and a princess whose traits include standing by, being kidnapped and saying, “Help me, Link.”

Slowly, deliberately, the secret of the Dark World is revealed, revealing it as the once golden Sacred Realm, transformed into a place of nightmares by the evil influence of Ganon. The light world, although at first it seemed like a whole game, turns out to be a prelude to the true story. This is a bogus that can only be achieved with the relative normality of the first two games, a twist that is based on subverting existing player expectations.

Travel to the Dark World for the first time
Travel to the Dark World for the first time

Perhaps later Zelda games would have made this much more prominent, such as how Ocarina of Time relied on explanatory cutscenes. But A Link to the Past, like most retro games, keeps its mouth shut for the most part – except for the occasional nagging help. Link is pretty much on his own and is expected to figure it out on his own, which is one of the main reasons I struggled with this as a kid.

I grew up on Ocarina of Time where Navi tells you everything you need to know whether you want it or not. I was more accustomed to what the subsequent Zeldas were holding in their hands, as well as the training that came along with the “new” 3D games that had to teach their players how to move the camera in this amazing dimension.

However, quite by accident, my time with A Link to the Past is a wonderful echo of my own history. When I was playing as a kid, I was naive, inexperienced and weak, and Link to the Past became a story about a peaceful (ish) world in which (so far) nothing went completely wrong. Zelda was still in the safety of the Sanctuary; The Light World was full of people who were just going about their lives. Hyrule’s secrets were still mysteries and beyond my reach.

It may look like a Daft Punk album cover, but this is the real key art for A Link to the Past, and it's pretty damn cool.
It may look like a Daft Punk album cover, but this is the real key art for A Link to the Past, and it’s pretty damn cool. (Image: Nintendo)

As an adult, with decades of gaming experience behind me and a true gaming critic, A Link to the Past is simply a game and games can be beaten. A reference to the past has mostly a linear path, and its dungeons rely on paths that are easy to solve if you know how they work. My childhood experience was akin to finding a huge, tightly locked door and pondering what it was hiding; my adult experience is right to guess that the key is under the rug.

As with Ocarina of Time, there is some mishap in my dichotomy with A Link to the Past. There is nothing more sacred than the imagination of a child. The miracle with which I then experienced Hyrule is pure magic; playing the same game as an adult exhausted by the game is a series of doors to be unlocked. However, I feel lucky: A Link to the Past is a colorful, tightly woven tapestry of legend and adventure, the founding blueprint for the Zelda series, and a masterpiece of design and self-discovery unmatched in any other game. Zelda. excluding, perhaps, Breath of the Wild.

There is a part of me that regrets not playing A Link to the Past since its release so that I can experience it untainted by a lifetime of unraveling video game logic. But, as Link has found time and time again for himself, rewriting the past always has consequences. “Connecting to the Past” is a legend, an almost inviolable part of my childhood, and returning to these memories by breaking through them as an adult is an almost blasphemous experience, familiar to me every time I open the door to something new. But finally solving the mysteries of the game after almost 20 years and uncovering its true depths is a surprisingly perfect ending that (magic) reflects its own story.

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