Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 100, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

A Zelda game that changed everything? Now I've heard it all.

I’m ranking the top-101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

The original Legend of Zelda, released for the Nintendo Entertainment System, is a lovely little game. It had an open-world, and while it was a tiny one by today’s standards, by those of 1986, where so many games were based on arcade titles and you couldn’t even return to areas the screen had scrolled past in Super Mario Bros., it was sprawling. For some, this is still how Zelda is supposed to be: you’ll be shocked to discover that you’ll hear more about this idea later on, when Breath of the Wild gets a turn in the spotlight.

Me, though? I love a good Zelda dungeon. The open-world nature of the original was lovely, and it’s still fun to return to whether you’re playing the normal difficulty quest or the more treacherous one you discover access to after completing the game the first time. The dungeons, though, are a bit lacking. It’s a lot of moving from one room to the next, with the occasional maze-like element thrown in, but the puzzles are lacking or nonexistent, and straight combat or guessing which wall you can blow up with a bomb are often the solutions to everything.

This, to me, is the massive change that Super Nintendo classic A Link to the Past brought to the table in 1992. The dungeons, while still a bit simple by today’s standards, required more from the player. They also gave more, as they had more distinct personalities, rooms of differing sizes and shapes, a wider variety of enemies and puzzles, and bosses that took more time to figure out how to defeat, because they themselves were more complex creatures — and a lot larger, too.

This is in addition to the larger, more complete story, far more items and uses for them, and the addition of an actual populace to Hyrule outside of old dudes hanging out in caves. The localization is far better, too: the original Zelda, famously, has just an awful localization, and while it didn’t keep the game from being a hit or from remaining a classic, it’s always a plus when you don’t have to wave away issues like that one in order to enjoy something. In a similar vein, some of the guesswork of what to do with items and what they were capable of was removed: exploration and experimenting remain encouraged, but now you can figure out a lot of what an item might or might not do without having to read the game’s manual first.

“Well Marc,” you’re thinking. “If you love Link to the Past so much, what is it doing here at number 100 instead of being unveiled later?” Well, hypothetical argument, let’s bring some clarity to the process here: if a game is on this top-101, then I adore it. I played far more than 100 Nintendo games to make this thing exist, and they’ve developed or published hundreds and hundreds beyond those. Games I love were left off. Being in the bottom tier of the 101 best things Nintendo has ever had their name on should be cause for celebration!

And also, Link to the Past was only the best Zelda game until the next Zelda game released. And through that realization comes the explanation for why it’s “just” number 100 on this list.

There are a whole bunch of Zeldas now. There are so many of them, and such a grand foundation of expectations of what kind of experience you’re going to get from a Zelda title that the franchise has built up, that it is extremely difficult for a title like Link to the Past to remain anywhere near the top of the heap as more time passes. What was revolutionary in 1992 feels pretty standard (for Zelda) in 2020. This is true to the point that I almost — almost — included Cadence of Hyrule, a rhythm-based Zelda entry developed by the makers of Crypt of the Necrodancer instead of Link to the Past. Cadence, developed in partnership with Nintendo, understands everything that makes Link to the Past (and 2D Zeldas in general) great, but it introduced a new way to experience the franchise, and there is a lot to be said about that when “a new way to experience Zelda” is also a fantastic way to do so.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Link to the Past has its strengths, and there is still reason to revisit this specific slice of Hyrule: that’s why it’s still on this list, while there are other Zelda titles, 2D and 3D and 2.5D, too, that cannot say the same.

You get two worlds to explore, for one. There is your standard “light” world, with it’s extremely famous theme song, and then there is the “dark” world, with its less famous but in my opinion better theme song:

The game still functions, expertly, as an introduction to the concepts of 2D Zelda. You are thrown right into the game, too — no lengthy, Skyward Sword-esque preambles and forced tutorials, just an uncle, his sword, his dying wish, and the knights who killed him setting their sights on you. The story unfolds from there, dungeon by dungeon, until you realize there is a lot more to this than a wizard showing up and Hyrule’s knights beginning to act strangely shortly afterward.

The initial three dungeons are simplistic, but that’s to introduce the game’s many mechanics to you, and give you familiarity with combat, puzzle-solving, and exploration. They aren’t outright easy or unenjoyable by any means: they serve a purpose, and they serve it well, and they prepare you for the more difficult dungeons ahead, in the same way that traversing and exploring the “light” world looking for its secrets prepares you for the more violent, grimmer, and nastier “dark” world.

You can complete this game while collecting everything in it in just an afternoon, which isn’t a knock against it. There is something to be said about this kind of experience and the satisfaction you can glean from picking it up and putting it down the same day you start it, especially now, in a time where massive AAA-caliber releases dominate almost everything about the market. More smaller-but-excellent games in the classic Zelda or Wonder Boy style, please, and maybe without them all needing to be developed by indie outfits that grew up on and miss the existence of those types of games.

That’s a large part of why Link to the Past still resonates today. The pacing is excellent, both in terms of how quickly you get into things and how progression through the game naturally teaches you about how this universe works and how you can act within it. Its only real flaws are that, again, the dungeons (outside of a few late ones, notably the still impressive Ganon’s Tower) remain a bit simplistic because of how they’ve advanced in the franchise as a whole, and the “hook” of the game and its story doesn’t match up with the 2D entries in the series that would come later. There’s still so much to love here, though — all of this talk of simplicity and whatnot is relative to what one of the absolute giants of the industry managed in the nearly 30 years since this game was released. And while nostalgia might play a bit of a role in our remembrance of just how good this game is, even sloughing off that nostalgia and embracing A Link to the Past for what it is today leaves us with a wonderful experience that should bring you joy whether it’s your first or fiftieth playthrough.

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