The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Game Overview by Mike Finkelstein
Nintendo has created a number of seminal titles. It's not hyperbole to say that the whole of the video game genre would look very different if Nintendo hadn't produced their games that essentially redefined genres. Where would platforming games be if Super Mario Bros. hadn't changed all the conventions of the genre. Where would exploration adventures be if we didn't have the one-two punch of The Legend of Zelda and Metroid. Those early games do feel old now, but their influence on the games to come cannot be understated.
Of course, Nintendo also had a habit of taking genres they perfected and them improving them all over again. Super Mario Bros. took the crude platforming games of old and refined the mechanics into something fun and playable, but then Super Mario Bros. 3 completely reinvented all the basic conventions again into something so smooth, so playable, that it's still considered one of the best games in the series, decades later. And Nintendo would also do this same feat on the SNES with the Zelda series.
It's not my intention to cover the whole of the Zelda series here on this site -- we're a Castlevania site, first and foremost, and our perspective is always how media influences our favorite series, and then vice versa. But there is no doubt that what Nintendo did with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past had an outsized influence on the exploration genre, both 2D and 3D, to come. Do you get to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night without A Link to the Past? I would argue no.
To begin, Nintendo's third Zelda game obviously influenced the Metroid team. A Link to the Past put greater emphasis on the items and upgrades you got, with a more diverse line up of what you could collect and how to use it. Experimentation and sequence breaking were concepts that you could play with in the game, using items in different ways to go out of the prescribed order of the game, playing it your way each time. Lord knows I would do that, ignoring the second and third dungeons in the Dark World to grab the upgraded sword to make my questing easier, and I'd do it over in dungeon six to get the magical cane before going to five, letting me skip half of the block puzzle there. These options made the third Zelda game more fun and improvisational than it would let on.
You know what took those ideas and then ran with it even further? Super Metroid, a game where it feels like you were encouraged to sequence break and experiment. Items and abilities are laid out and, sure, there's an "expected" way to do things, but if you don't go in the right order there's nothing stopping you from playing around to find alternate paths, to grab things in a different order, to play the game your way. That's the direction Nintendo pushed, and Super Metroid perfected it.
Of course, because A Link to the Past walked and Super Metroid ran (or speed boosted), Symphony of the Night could soar. Alucard has so many abilities, so many things he can pick up and learn and use, and not all of them are laid out in the game, underlined so you know to do them. You have to experiment, to find new things, to play your own way. And if you happen to find sequence breaks? Very rarely does the game get in your way. You can wing smash around the castle and find new paths to your heart's content. And the whole second castle is entirely free form, allowing you to play in ways that only Samus with her full kit of gear had seen before.
Which, speaking of, do you get to the Inverted Castle of Symphony without first passing through the Dark World of A Link to the Past. Nintendo's third Zelda game introduced a concept that blew the collective minds of gamers back in 1991 and 1992. You play through the whole first part of the game, lead up to the villain that's be set up as the big boss of it all, only to reveal there's a whole second world that's been waiting there in secret, ready for you to find it. And that's when the game really begins.
While you can probably think of a number of games that have last sections that come out of nowhere, bonus new areas added on to stretch the end game, A Link to the Past had an entire extra world. That was such a massive jump and you have to think there were designers on the game laughing with glee at the thought of how gamers would react when they suddenly realized their entire game had just opened up. And that's what happened with Symphony of the Night, which presented an entire complete game right up to the point where you had to fight Richter Belmont, only to realize an entire second half of the game was waiting. IGA and his team at Konami played the same trick as Nintendo all those years earlier, and they had to have the same amount of glee over it.
Of course, it absolutely helped that The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was a phenomenal game to play in its own right. It took the base of the original A Legend of Zelda and, while ignoring Zelda II (which, at the time, gamers weren't too sad about), improved and expanded on everything that made the first game so great. Refined controls, improved graphics, a fantastic soundtrack. It took the core concept of the Zelda series and made it better. This was the game that every top-down Zelda would be compared to for the rest of the series. This was the 2D game that fans loved, and it still sits near the top of many best-of lists.
In the wake of the original Zelda there were a lot of games that tried to take the formula and remake it. There were the Neutopias and Golden Axe Warriors, games that said, "we can do Zelda, too." But then Nintendo came back with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and said, "do you think you can do this?" And they couldn't. Even now, this is the game Zelda-like games are compared to and it's just so darn good.
A Link to the Past to Super Metroid to Symphony of the Night to Metroidvania. That's the progression and you don't get to where we are now with the genre with each of those steps in between. All credit is due to Nintendo because it's their masterful games that helped to set the standards for where Konami could go.