I had a discussion a few months back with one of my students about the perfect video game. It's odd, but both our minds went strait to The Legend of Zelda series. He went for Ocarina of Time and I opted for A Link to the Past. Perhaps this says more about our respective ages than anything else. Still, I thought it was high time that I go back and revisit The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
So what did I come up with? I have a special relationship with this game, and that may cloud my judgement, but I thought I'd take an honest stab nonetheless. First, the statistics, I beat the game in nine sessions with three deaths. That's considerably quicker than when I was eleven. The leading causes of death were inattention due to food and drink and blazing ahead without due caution. The leading time savers were prior memories of the game and a refusal to panic under pressure, particularly during boss battles.
I was struck this time by how decisive that last point was. Looking back, I knew at age eleven that all the bosses followed set patterns and required the use of the dungeon item to defeat (except in the case of Turtle Rock). I think the key reason that I died so many times was panic. The bosses move fast with plenty of flashes and bright colors. When you're a kid and you've worked hard to best all the dungeon puzzles to get to the end, it's easy to lose your head (like Blind) when the fire works start. Given that these games were made as amusements for children, I realized this time through that the panic-inducing elements were intentional. This was an age before before any kind of "A.I.," so there was no question of the computer actually "outsmarting" the player. Instead, bosses were given patterns that would be difficult for a youngster to quickly analyze and then given a "smoke-screen" of colors and sounds to mask that pattern. After repeated trials, players were eventually expected to learn the pattern and thus defeat the boss. Simple and elegant, but definitely a factor in replay value. I remembered most of the patterns (Turtle Rock threw me for a loop), but realized that I'm not as quick as I used to be. The fact that the bosses due so much damage with each hit kept an element of danger that made re-play fun: I might know how to beat the boss and yet lose due to my fumbling fingers.
Following patterns and testing motor skills are all well and good, but I could get that out of Angry Birds. What makes A Link to the Past worth playing after all these years, let alone daring to make it a contender for the archetypal game? I think the answer comes down to story and world. Other games, making use of modern technology, are capable of telling far more complex and gripping stories, but there's something attractive in the simplicity and atavistic purity of The Legend of Zelda. We have the hero, the quest, princess, wise old man, the sword in the stone, and the elixir all stark and undisguised. That Neo-Platonic purity spills over into the world of the game. There is a castle, a town, a mountain, a forest, a desert, and a swamp. This world of light has its shadow side, the Dark World, and passage between them is as easy as staring into the looking glass. A Link to the Past remains above all the sophisticated machinery of game play and moral complexity that modern games boast to connect with what Tolkien saw as the chief pleasures of Fantasy: escape and consolation. A new world is presented to us, familiar and yet seeming newly-minted, with a hero who promises to set all to rights in the end. Playing A Link to the Past, in a little way, presents us directly with that escape and consolation. It is a world, a fairy tale, in miniature. I don't know that this gives it any claim to the title of "the best video game ever made," (we'd need pages of criteria to define that) but that's what I found this time through and that's perhaps, at last, what there is to find.