Part of the reason Ocarina of Time was a perfect conversion into 3D was due to being built upon a solid foundation. Some have even flatly stated that Ocarina of Time is just a variant on the A Link to the Past formula. With Ocarina of Time being an imitation of that and the following 3D games until Breath of the Wild an imitation of Ocarina, it’s easy to view A Link to the Past as the first ‘true’ Zelda experience – the original game holds up well enough, but A Link to the Past is where we see the familiar structure take over. Being the only 2D console Zelda game in this style puts A Link to the Past on a special pedestal.
There’s something about the top-down gameplay of the classic Zelda games that will always speak to me. Sword and shield battles with the option of strafing are fun, but the simple act of positioning Link just close enough to hit without being hit carries a unique and quick charm that few modern games capture. Options like tossing out a boomerang to freeze an enemy and then following up with a quick slash make battles short and sweet.
A Link to the Past may not be as long as those which followed, but it still feels loaded with content. A lot of this difference has less to do with there being fewer places to explore and more with a sense of scale. From Ocarina of Time on, The Legend of Zelda series captures a sense of exploring a huge world. A lot of this scale comes about simply by making it take longer to get between points of interest. That’s not to say that scale is bad – I do love the 3D Zelda games – but A Link to the Past offers a sense of immediacy between destinations. It’s like comparing Chrono Trigger to future JRPG games. This experience feels tightly woven, where every inch of the journey has been planned and fully realized.
The dungeons in A Link to the Past may not be as iconic, but this again has to do with a sense of scale. Few great experiences in gaming fall apart faster than getting stuck in a modern Zelda dungeon. This can become a mad race of retracing your footsteps to see what corner you missed. With some of the trickier dungeons, this can become a nuisance. A Link to the Past has the same experience, but the simple navigation makes it much easier to get a sense of where the right path forward could be. This tight design even carries into the outside world – there is some reason for each section to exist, whether it be a path to the next dungeon, a special item, or a piece of heart. Taking the time to check never feels like too much of an investment, even if it turns out you’re missing a necessary item to proceed.
A Link to the Past established a lot of the Legend of Zelda staples, and this is a clear example where the initial development was handled perfectly. In fact, I’d argue A Link to the Past, like most SNES games, aged better than its sequels during the Nintendo 64 era. This is where we get heart pieces scattered across the world, the hookshot, the Master Sword. The Dark World is an obvious precursor to Ocarina of Time’s two ages. This is where the series solidified the idea of taking the dungeons in a certain order due to the items contained within. This was even the first to really capture a sense of Hyrule and its lore. While I never want to credit something purely for innovation, that is only in the case where those innovations have been outright improved upon. A Link to the Past both evolved and excelled.
A Link to the Past is the Zelda series at its most focused. This set the foundation for so many action games which followed while being one of the earliest games to truly capture a sense of going on an epic adventure in a defined world. It’s the same Zelda everyone has known and loved through its many iterations, so it easily deserves praise for both setting the scene and doing it well.