Friday 8 May 2015

Snes Review : Legend of Zelda : A Link to the Past (Game 080)

How does one of the greatest games on the Super Nintendo, manage to tell a beautiful story while also maintaining a sense of exploration. Its all  down to The Hero's Journey.

Developed By Nintendo EAD
Published By Nintendo
Released in 1991.

It's hardly an accident that so many Games in the 'Zelda' series start in familiar surroundings. Be it the not-too-subtly named Outset Island of 'The Wind Waker', a warm friendly tree house in 'The Ocarina of Time' or a cosy bed, secure in the middle of a thunderstorm as shown in 'A Link to the Past'. From the very first game in the series we are forewarned that a dangerous world lays just beyond what we are comfortable with. There's a big adventure to be had Link, you just need to look outside your door. As Guardian journalist Keith Stuart once remarked, a 'Zelda' game is "not simply a role-playing game that includes a bit of exploration, it is a game that asks you to remember – as Miyamoto famously does – what it was like when you were a kid and your neighbourhood was a place of wonder and mystery, and there was something interesting around every corner".

While technology limited the 8 bit 'Zelda' games' scale and their ability to tell an expansive story, Links arrival on the Super Nintendo provided  Miyamoto (with debut writer Kensuke Tanabe and Yoshiaki Koizumi) the opportunity to tell the legend that was always intended to be part of the 'Zelda' games. It was a system that allowed them to create arguably the industry's first masterpiece. A perfect mix of technical wizardry, engaging game play, exploration and storytelling. 

It seems impossible to think of a Snes collector that wouldn't cite 'A Link to the Past' as one of the finest games on the system. In fact more than twenty years later, the game is still regularly included in many a "greatest games ever" list. The game received a near-perfect score from Japanese magazine Famitsu and it is even Reggie Fils-Aime's (CEO of Nintendo of America) all-time favourite game. With the critical praise came commercial success and this landmark Nintendo has title sold over 4.81 million units worldwide.

There are many reasons why the game is so universally adored. It obviously looks incredible, with Tsuyoshi Watanabe's adorable characters inhabiting detailed yet varied environments. The visuals set a benchmark for all other Snes games to follow and despite its release early in the Super Nintendo's lifespan few later games ever measured up to the standard set. Returning to the overhead view of the original 'Legend of Zelda', 'A link to the past' has some of the most immediately recognisable sprites of any Snes game, art that has become absorbed into pop culture. While it doesn't push the Snes, its subtle use of the machine’s unique graphical features makes for a wonderful treat for the eyes. The ears too are equally blessed, with music to match the sensational graphics.  The fact that so much of Koji Kondo's music is recycled and remixed in modern 'Zelda' games proves just how powerful and emotive the melodies in 'Link to the Past’ are. 

But it is not just the music that can be found in later games in the franchise. When you look at the 'Zelda' series as a whole it's amazing just how many echoes of 'A Link to the Past' there are. This was the first game to include heart pieces, it was the first to have bosses that could only be beaten by using the most recently procured item. For the first time the games protagonist Link could walk in diagonals and he had even leant to run. Items that are now common place in the series also have their origin in the Snes 'Zelda' game; the hook shot and bottles made their debut as did the Master Sword with the ability to perform different sword attacks.  
The game was even the first in the series to include a parallel corrupt world. The game's Light World and its Dark World are almost identical in layout but each use differing texture tiles so they feel like very different locales. Evidently, this was a design choice made solely to free space on the already stretched to capacity 8Mbit cartridge. As a result  the Dark World exists in the game's ROM only as an "overlay" of the Light World.  However regardless of the technical reasons why the dark world mirrored the geography of the light world, the inclusion created a precedent that would exist in the majority of 'Zelda' games to follow. 

When you consider its legacy, it's obviously that 'The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past' served as the template for the whole series. Some even criticise later sequels as just being 'Link to the Past' remakes, which can hardly be too bad a thing when you consider how fantastic this game is. 

However, the greatest gift given to the 'Zelda' series by this Snes iteration would have to be a the incredible way it allows story progression while maintaining a sense that you could go anywhere in the world.  It sounds like an easy thing to do but these two things are actually at odds with one and other. Unlike film where the audience is passive, the player should always feel like their action is the prompt for the story moving forward.  As Yuji Horii puts it, "I think the most important aspect of game design is to immerse the player in the game’s universe and make them feel like they’re actively driving the plot. That’s the reason I won’t risk having the protagonist speak, even though it would make writing the story much easier."

However, in a open world game like 'Link to the Past', how can developers progress a story when they have seemingly no control over where the player chooses to go or what they intend to do? The answer of course is to limit the player but not allow them to realise they have been constrained. To force them down an invisible corridor and have them unconsciously follow the path that suits the story. Much like dungeon bosses only being beatable using the weapon found in the big chest nearest to them, levels in ‘A Link to the Past’ can only be opened if the previous stage had been completed. Often level entrances are obstructed by objects that can’t be removed with anything other than one specific item, creating forced linear progression within an apparently open world. A player could see a temple or palace way before they could step inside. Player limitation may seem obvious and standard practice to a modern player but in 1993 it was comparatively new, especially in such a transparent way. In the original Nes game 'The Legend of Zelda' for example, there were far less constraints. A player could, if they wanted, struggle in a later dungeon straight away, or do the levels in the order intended. Often this was accidental though, as the game had such poor sign posting and it was never very clear where the player should go.. While this was confusing and frustrating for the player it didn't really have an adverse effect of the story, since the tale told in the 8bit original 'Zelda' game was so simplistic:  Save the princess from a green pig like villain and on the way collect yellow triangles. Miyamoto readily admits that in his early games, technical capabilities had suppressed his desires to tell a story.
 “I’ve never been able tell the best story in the games I’ve made [on the NES]" he once claimed. "The stories of [8bit] Mario and Zelda titles have always been supplemental to the actual gameplay. But Action games should have stories attached to make the experience more interesting." The instruction manual may have expanded the story in the original 'The Legend of Zelda' but for Miyamoto this simply wasn't good enough. "A player should know the world, know the characters, know the story as they play not have to find the background motivation in the game's literature. I actually really dislike taking control away from the player and telling them the story. I want to do everything I can to ensure they feel like they’re in control, that they are making [the story] not being told it. I want to let players enter the castle themselves, if possible. I want them to be [in] the story".  For series producer Miyamoto, it wasn’t until ‘A Link to the Past’ that story telling while playing the game possible. For the first time, the story evolved within the game and it grew while the player explored.

It's a classic tale, so classic in fact that it follows "The Hero's Journey" narrative frame work to the letter.  Originally identified by the American scholar Joseph Campbell, “The Hero's Journey" uses the finest works of drama and myth to determine what makes the perfect adventure story.  It charts various stages an archetype known as "The Hero" must go through before overcoming a challenge, and victory will benefit not just our protagonist but also a larger group, tribe, or civilisation. Before glory though, Joseph Campbell argues that "The Hero" must pass through numerous stages. 

The first is labelled as THE ORDINARY WORLD. It sees our hero introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with them. They are shown against a background of familiarity and warmth, which in Link's case would be his cosy bed in his twee cottage. However, something shatters this comfortable situation in the second stage, known as THE CALL TO ADVENTURE.  Link hears the voice of Zelda calling to him and as a result he has no choice but to take on the adventure. He initially seems positive overcoming simple obstacles, but the next defined stage on our hero's journey will see his REFUSAL OF THE CALL.  The Hero is suddenly confronted with the enormity of his adventure, doubt caused by witnessing another character fail. For Link this would be his slightly pathetic uncle, who ventures all of two metres into the first dungeon. Regardless, his failure causes Link to recognise the uncertainty and danger ahead, making him question if he is fit for task. That is until he has a MEETING WITH A MENTOR.  In this section of the adventure our hero comes across a seasoned traveller of the worlds, much like the Loyal Sage or Sahasrahla, who gives them advice and encourages them to CROSS THE THRESHOLD and venture alone. This transition and true start, equates to Link beginning his search for the pendants in Light World. Here "The Hero" meets ALLIES, TESTS AND ENEMIES, such as the Zelda, the game's initial Hyrule dungeons and their bosses. 

In the APPROACH section of the classic tale The Hero and their newfound allies prepare for the major challenge which Joseph Campbell calls THE ORDEAL.  This occurs near the middle of the story, when the hero must confront death and face their greatest fear.  It wouldn't be a leap to say that this in 'A Link to the Past' would be Links transition from Light World to Dark. Zelda has been captured, the Loyal Sage is dead and Link is trapped in a bleak imposing world that he neither understands nor is strong enough to confront. Fortunately, out of this moment of great adversity comes a new hope. Joseph Campbell suggests there is THE REWARD given to The Hero, won by them facing and overcoming THE ORDEAL. For Link the Master Sword serves as a suitable aid to allow him to take on the challenges along THE ROAD BACK.  This stage could be considered to be the various dungeons of Dark World as Link attempts to rescue the Seven Maidens and return to Light World.

This second half of the story is the point when "The Everyman" truly becomes "The Champion".  He becomes gifted and able, becoming stronger by passing each additional obstacle that stands in his way. But this strength is needed if our hero is to overcome the LIFE AFFIRMING CHALLENGE. 

According to the rules set out by "The hero's Journey" story blueprint, at the climax of all great adventures, “The Hero” is severely tested one final time. It is the point in the story when "The Great Villain" and "The Hero" meet.  As a result of this meeting a harmonious state of equilibrium is restored.  Because of the hero’s action, (in our case Link defeating Gannon) the conflict at the beginning finally gets resolved; Gannon's death and Zelda's rescue has guaranteed peace to Hyrule.
In the closing credits of 'A Link to The Past' we witness the last stage in "The Hero's Journey", known as the RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR.  The Hero returns home bearing a treasure that has the power to transform the world, in the same way that he has been transformed. You could jump to the conclusion that this treasure is the restored Triforce. This is afterall a power so great that it can turn the Dark World back into The Golden Land and bring the Loyal Sage and the Flute child back to life.  

If it's adhesion to "The Hero's Journey" is to be believed, perhaps the enduring appeal of 'A Link to the Past' is simply because it tells the perfect story. The beautiful graphics, music and sound are wonderful but the reason we play a narrative based game is to be told a good story and clearly this is what 'A Link to the Past' offers. In this incredible game, Miyamoto and his time have wedded exploration to narrative. 

There is simply so much to discover in ‘A Link to the Past’ and it is scalable depending on how much time you wish to invest. A skilled player only interested in the story could finish the game without ever doing the side quests, never looking for heart pieces and having no need to find hidden bottles. There are even medallions, weapon upgrades and hidden rooms that need never be found if you don't wish to explore. But to do so would limit the amount of time you spend playing 'A Link to the Past' which would be reducing the amount of time you get to enjoy one of the greater games ever made. 

At the time of release, Tezuka the director of 'A Link to the Past ' said that his team "wanted it to be a game you could play over and over again".  More than twenty years later, my desire to play this game annually suggests that maybe they had achieved this goal. While I can play 'A Link to the Past' on six different machines, there's something to be said about experiencing a game on its original platform, with its original interface. However it's great to know that there's affordable ways for people to play this game without paying the incredible prices the cartridge on its own sells for on eBay. Because, be in no doubt, 'A Link to the Past' is one of those rare works of art that transcends taste and refuses to age. It can and should be treasured by everyone.

For those new to the game I envy you. You are much like Link at the start of his adventure. There is an incredible adventure awaiting you, a fantastic world to explore and a wonderful legend ready to be told. 

Where did I get this game?

There was an odd sense of relief when I was given this game in near Mint condition for Christmas one year. It was a game I had as a child, and I longed to re-own ‘A Link to the Past’ more than I did the other games in my long lost collection. Perhaps it’s because I know the game so intimately, perhaps it just reminds me of my happy gaming youth. Or perhaps, simply, I wanted it so desperately because it’s undeniably one of the finest games on the Super Nintendo.

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