Sunday, January 22, 2012

Review: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (WiiVC/SNES)

Should we review old games as artifacts or in the same light as their contemporary brethren?  Even if a new title is released with decidedly retro stylings, does its position upon release matter more than any time in the future?  The relevancy of art often fluctuates based on where a society or individual is in their lifespan at a given point in time.  I wonder how people 10 years from now will view retro-styled games produced in 2010, 2011, or 2012.  Will they be seen as artifacts the same way as games from the 1980s, or has this pixel-art fetishism somehow put things on an even keel?

I've now played every console Legend of Zelda game with the exception of Skyward Sword.  Most recently I took my maiden voyage through the oft lauded SNES entry: A Link to the Past.  It's impossible to view this game in a vacuum where I can unremember collecting the Triforce some 7 times prior.  Yet it's also unrealistic to expect this game to be iteratively better than say, Twilight Princess.  Considering these factors and most of all my general adoration for the Zelda franchise, I was still truly stunned to find myself in an early dungeon of LttP almost totally lacking the desire to continue forward.  Ultimately I did push on, partly due to my self-inflicted charge to finish games that I purchase, but also because I possessed optimism that this version of Hyrule could grow on me.

LttP is the template for almost every Zelda game that has followed it.  I had assumed that these precursory duties belonged to N64 showpiece Ocarina of Time, but now understand that game more for what it did to change how the series' core mechanics were implemented.  The structure of the Zelda game and its modern tropes fall square on LttP's shoulders.  Master Sword?  Check.  Parallel worlds?  Check.  Spin attack?  Check.  Some of these traits are more integral than others, but my point is to illustrate how far-reaching and specific LttP's role as a mold for the franchise was and how difficult it is to play in 2012 as anything other than a piece of history.

In light of Nintendo's recent bend of pedantic in-game instructions for how to use Wii controls, it's refreshing to play a Zelda game that hearkens back to simpler times when you could press "start," enter a cave, pick up a sword and begin an adventure.  A pitfall of this strategy is that it requires a high level of preconceived curiosity and exploratory desire on the part of the player that is more difficult to achieve when the world is somewhat familiar and lacking the visual "awe" factor that usually accompanies these flagship titles at initial release.  Additionally LttP offers a decent amount of player choice, which is always neat to see in older games, but once again this relies heavily on your own initiative since the game merely suggests where to try next, rarely narrowing where you can actually explore.

Put in perspective of the whole Zelda bloodline, LttP feels the most unique in its dungeon layouts.  You know the drill when it comes to the objective list in a given dungeon: fight enemies, locate map and compass, unlock doors, pull switches, discover special item, and defeat the boss.  However, the physical blueprints for these levels use verticality to add a dimension that was not a part of previous 2D Zeldas (I can't speak to DS entries).  This is implemented in individual spaces with ladders and staircases that lead to higher ledges and walkways, but also on a more macro level with the dungeons being multiple stories high.  In a single room this changes the way you approach enemies, perhaps prompting you to remain on higher ground, hurling pots at enemies below instead of jumping down into a sword fight.  Considering the entire dungeon as a puzzle, some rooms are placed directly above others, encouraging you to blow holes in the floor to gain access to depths otherwise unreachable.  This puzzle design sensibility has been carried into the polygonal Zeldas out of necessity to make a compelling three-dimensional experience.  In LttP the verticality feels truly innovative; it's version of Hyrule might not be "round," but it's definitely more than just a flat surface.

I began to approach sitting down to play more LttP similarly to filling out a Sudoku, as it required me to be in the mood for solving that particular brand of puzzle.  I feel a little bad constantly conjuring up references to other Zelda games in this review, but how else can a game like this be evaluated in 2012?  It's a franchise so staunchly rooted in its formula that it would almost be like writing a Madden review that doesn't acknowledge the previous year's game's existence.  Often with Zelda games, style differentiation is enough to warrant giving each entry a try.  Nintendo consistently trots out top-notch art direction no matter how underpowered the hardware they work with may be.  Perhaps Zelda games really are meant to be played exclusively around the time they originally come to market.  This allows enough time between doses to build the demand for a new version, while the visual changes make things appear just different enough to distinguish it from the last one.

On the other hand LttP is still a game worth playing on its own merits, as many of my gripes are personal in nature.  Uncovering the original appearances of so many Zelda standbys was a pleasant surprise.  The overall difficulty was spot on.  There's little more thrilling in an action sequence than besting a powerful foe by the skin of your teeth, which LttP offered more than a couple times.  I wouldn't say the game ever really got its hooks in me, but it came closest with its brainteasingly tricky puzzles.  I faulted LttP's early game for asking the player to bring too much curiosity to the table, but once I began accomplishing the games tasks, their occasionally harrowing nature had me intrigued enough that I was eager to see what else those clever Nintendo developers had up their sleeves.

Completing Twilight Princess granted me with a cautious optimism for the future of my beloved franchise, but A Link to the Past has left me with a sense of acceptance that Zelda is what Zelda is.  What it is is something pretty grand though.  It may be built around a formulaic structure, but it's a system that works.  My only fear is a personal one: that I've exasperated this series' magical hold on me.  Though, since I've laid out that I think these games are optimally played when they're most current, I suppose I should withhold judgment until reporting back post-Skyward Sword.  The fact that I'd even seek to play more Zelda after this must count for something, right?

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