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SummaryPerfecting the formula
The GoodThe first Zelda was an amazing game that defined its own genre while keeping fun and playability higher than ever before. Afterwards, Adventure of Link tried something different, but most fans reacted badly to its RPG elements and side-scrolling combat. Link to the Past goes back to the roots: it is one of those games that doesn't really innovate, but takes an existing concept and builds a nearly flawless playing experience on top of it.
Everything we loved in the first Zelda returns with triumphant fanfares. Like before, the beauty of this game lies in its perfect balance. It is evident in every aspect of the game: there is balance between exploration and steady advancement, acting and thinking, following a prescribed route and experimenting, creative playing and mechanical actions. There is a lot of everything, and nothing ever gets in your way. You accept the rules of this game gladly, without reservations, and happily play along.
Unlike other games that force the player along a series of linear stages, Link to the Past is pretty much open to you nearly right away. After the initial quest you are free to wander around Hyrule doing whatever you want. Attention to detail is overwhelming: there is something to do or find in every corner of this world. Even though there is a clearly outlined set of objectives, you are never required to follow it without being able to do something else. Often it becomes more fun just to explore with your own goals in mind than just tackling the dungeons. There is always something to unlock and collect, and combing the world for heart fragments may become a source of joy on par with the game's ultimate mission.
The gameplay really hasn't changed that much, but everything has been more finely tuned. Combat, for example, is more enjoyable thanks to Link's new multi-directional abilities. Arrows are real items now and can be stacked just like bombs. There are new magical abilities that come complete with a mana bar. There are all sorts of nifty items used both for overcoming obstacles and in combat. Enemies have become trickier and a good knowledge of your arsenal and manipulation is often required to emerge victorious. In short, Link to the Past did everything to transfer the mechanics of the first Zelda intact and enhance them the best way possible.
Hyrule is also significantly more lively than in the first game. You can enter houses, talk to people, and generally behave like a civilized person. Instead of one world there are two - the regular Hyrule and its dark version. In the end there isn't as much difference between the two as there is, say, between Britannia and the Underworld in Ultima V. Still, there are some interesting puzzles that involve going back and forth and unlocking inaccessible areas in both worlds.
It goes without saying that the new console's capabilities led to a graphical overhaul. The result, however, is more than just a prettier game: it is a game brimming with detail, manifested in the lovingly crafted locations and singularly impressive enemies. The first Zelda fought valiantly against the constrictions of its hardware, squeezing out every ounce of graphical juice out of it. Link to the Past embraces the new technology, and its visual charm hasn't lost its impact even today.
The original Zelda was an open-ended game. You could just wander around and get lost in the vastness of its world. The downside was that you had to do a lot of exploration not because you really wanted to, but because there was hardly anything to guide you along your path. Link to the Past solves this problem in a simple and elegant fashion: it gives you a detailed map you can use at all times and marks your next destination on it. This doesn't detract at all from the game's open-ended nature, since you can still go wherever you want at any time, but it also doesn't force you to aimlessly wander around until you realize where you should be heading. I wish every game designer had thought of this.
The BadIf Adventure of Link tried to depart from the series' nascent formula, Link to the Past is pretty much a by-the-book adaptation of the first game. As it often happens with sequels to truly great games (especially those followed by controversial installments), the developers were very careful not to stray at all from the winning recipe, and it shows. New gameplay elements are mostly enhancements or tweaks of old ones, and the formulaic structure of the adventure hasn't changed a bit.
I can't say I cared much for the Dark World. By the time you gain access to it the whole journey already becomes slightly tiresome, and there isn't enough of a contrast between the two worlds to provide much refreshment. It would have been cooler if they introduced a visually drastically different environment to provide more variety. I also wish they got rid of the screen-by-screen progression, since fighting constantly respawning enemies can get annoying after a while.