Linking To The Past – The influence of a SNES classic
[Originally printed in games™ 191]
25 years on from its release on our shores, The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past remains as relevant as ever as a touchstone for developers. We caught up with a few indie RPG makers to reflect on the importance of one of Link’s greatest adventures and how they have tried to build on it
“It’s one of those games that I’ll go back to, maybe not on an annual basis, but maybe every two or three years and complete again, just because it’s damn near close to a perfect game.” So says Alex Preston, founder of Heart Machine and creator of Hyper Light Drifter, one of the most striking and engaging tributes to the classic Zelda RPG style in recent memory, about his experience with The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past. And it’s an experience that many of us share. Even after 25 years, the SNES instalment in Link’s ongoing adventures in Hyrule remains an incredibly important touchstone for the industry, a mainline for inspiration and a foundation upon which great innovation can be achieved. We only need to look at the revival of the 2D, pixel art RPG as a genre to see that this is the case.
“I invested way too many hours into it when I was around 12 years old, in the only console I have ever owned, a Super Nintendo,” remembers Javier Giménez, CEO of Digital Sun, maker of the upcoming Moonlighter. “I loved the game so much that, even if I remember quite a lot about it, I remember the feeling of happiness even more.” There’s certainly a lingering feeling of wellbeing and goodwill towards A Link To The Past, that’s more or less true of most Nintendo hits from the era, perhaps stemming in part from playing it at a younger, more innocent age. All the developers we talked to could recall fond, sometimes life-changing, memories of their first experiences with the game.
“I remember pulling the cellophane wrapper off that golden SNES box and sacredly placing the cartridge into the system,” recalls Nathanael Weiss, creator of the upcoming Songbringer. “My parents made me earn half the money needed for anything I wanted to have, so the games I owned were few and each of them cherished with reverence. Memories come to mind of exploring and enjoying A Link To The Past’s delightful and seemingly gigantic world.”
This is a feeling that has remained fairly consistent through the lifespan of the Zelda series, so we asked our panel of indie developers what they felt it was about this particular entry that has helped it to stand out from the crowd. “The kingdom of Hyrule was a character in and of itself,” offers Mayhem In Single Valley developer Brian Cullen. “It was packed full of secrets and colourful characters that were intricately interwoven with Link’s abilities. I was especially blown away by how something like an innocuous rock on the opposite side of a stream could provide fresh opportunities after Link was rewarded with a new inventory item or power. It was particularly impressive how Link could jump between floors or grapple across previously inaccessible sections of the game. Everything just flowed and evolved seamlessly.”
“The biggest aspect that makes this game timeless is the simplicity in the design,” adds Preston. “It’s not just the gameplay and how that’s designed, but also the aesthetic of the game, the art direction of all of the sprites and the tile work. There’s a simplicity to it and a striking type of design to it, and it’s not pushing for realism.” It’s for this reason that Preston feels that A Link To The Past has remained somewhat timeless despite its two and a half decades of existence; it knew what it was and that it was the very best version of itself, whatever the restrictions of the hardware.
“When you know your limitations you can do a lot with that. You can strengthen the components of your design that really matter the most,” he adds.
“I also loved how what seemed like an incidental quest could reveal an entirely new mechanic,” Cullen says. “Like when freeing the flute boy’s bird provided Link with the ability to fly to any region. The entire game was a perfect orchestration of special items, magic, mechanics, characters, and story; where your efforts were rewarded with new layers of interaction and exploration, often between worlds or within familiar scenes.”
Meanwhile Giménez still appears to be captivated by the pure adventure of the experience, saying, “I still remember how I felt whenever I found something new, or unlocked a new area, the sense of discovery and freedom was marvellous and I had never experienced that in a game before.”
“There’s really only been a few instances of that throughout my life that I’ve experienced with a game,” Preston continues, spinning out from the idea that A Link To The Past was a rare example of a fully realised and complete world. “Ocarina Of Time was that same kind of experience or in that vein or realm, to a much larger extent where I felt like I was exploring this entire world and I could do anything and there were so many possibilities. I’m just ensconced in this place.”
But what of A Link To The Past being timeless? How does the rest of our indie development panel feel about that aspect of the lasting A Link To The Past legacy? “It’s got to be the level of quality, the time and energy, the attention to detail that went into making it such a solid title,” thinks Weiss. “It shows that if you put all you can into something, it can still shine even decades later.”
“As in any other form of art, what creates a classic is pure quality,” says Giménez. “Time passes slower for a movie like Citizen Kane simply because of how good it is. The same happens with A Link To The Past; it’s great on so many levels that the memory of it remains.”
“Like any piece of classic music or art, each element of A Link To The Past was created with equal care and attention and then reflected upon and re-designed until the entire package was watertight,” Cullen concludes. ”Craftsmanship like that does not age and I believe that is the reason why A Link To The Past is timeless, and it’s also why it was the first game I re-visited (on YouTube) when designing my latest project.”
Which brings us nicely on to why we chose these particular developers to speak to about A Link To The Past in the first place; how they looked to emulate and perhaps even improve on what Nintendo achieved over 25 years ago. The idea of actually improving on perfection seems to amuse Preston. “Gosh, A Link To The Past is a near-perfect game and I don’t claim to have a game that’s anywhere as good as it,” he insists. “As proud as I am of the game that we made, you know Nintendo had an experienced staff there and they made something that is beyond incredible. So, I’m lucky to be even a fraction of that level of design and sense of adventure and all of the things that it infused into it. For me, I really just wanted to put my own spin on certain aspects or take things that I didn’t love about certain games or that I wish were in that game and put it in ours.”
A big part of that has been bringing some modern sensibilities and technology to bear that simply wouldn’t have been available at the time, let alone implementable on the SNES hardware. As it was, the SNES cartridge for A Link To The Past has been expanded from the usual four Mbit to eight Mbit (a whole one MB by modern calculations). Compare this to the list of technical elements that Brian Cullen has implemented in Mayhem In Single Valley and it seems almost archaic. “I aimed to push the level of physics-based environmental problem solving contained in A Link To The Past,” he begins. “Aesthetically, Mayhem In Single Valley uses modern mesh warping for swaying trees, stencil shaders for pixel-accurate shadows, physics-driven particles, AA filters that maintain crisp pixel edges, complex layering interactions, and more. I also use the Fmod sound engine to allow sound and music to play a more pivotal role in the game world. Using the functions of a cassette player and collectible mix tapes the soundtrack will be interactive and affect stats and abilities, where techno music will boost Jack’s speed while ambient music might reveal hidden items that sway to its rhythm. Jack will also be able to use a beat box to record and playback sounds to trick enemies and solve puzzles.”
Similarly Songbringer is making big leaps forward in sound design to complement the fact that its worlds are actually procedurally generated, even though the base exploration mechanics are heavily rooted in Zelda fundamentals. “All the music for the dungeons is rendered 12 different times for each of the 12 music notes,” explains Weiss. “That way each dungeon can have a slightly different vibe depending on your world seed. My dungeon one might be playing in the key of C# while your dungeon one plays in F#. This causes the game’s download size to increase, but it adds an appealing layer of quality that I think modern gamers will intuitively resonate with, if not be consciously aware of. Though it would not have fit onto a cartridge.”
“There are a lot of good things that designers have figured out. Like save systems, inventory management, dynamics of AI, aesthetics in some ways,” adds Preston. “Trying to understand and learn from those lessons and instil those into our game design was important.”
Weiss offers an example from his game; “In Songbringer, there are multiple ways to get past the gate blocks you will encounter. For example, the heat tiles, which knock you back if you don’t yet have heat armour, can also be crossed by eating a cactus, using the level two blink orb, or by damage boosting yourself across the gap. By creating multiple ways to solve the same problem, I hope to empower players to overcome the challenges they face in various ways. As a game designer, that means players can break Songbringer, but that’s okay because it was always intended to be played in multiple ways.”
And that for Weiss is the key way he wanted to forge a new path based on what Zelda had done before. “This player empowerment is how I want to enhance on what Nintendo achieved,” he explains. “On Songbringer’s first screen, you can head in any direction. You can complete dungeons out of order, you can beat the game without completing all the dungeons, and most importantly, you can beat the game without the sword.”
The other element that’s come with time – beyond the technical aspects of game design and the easier access to resources – is that the games industry has matured in its storytelling scope and the themes developers feels they can now tackle with their work. A Link To The Past tells a classic hero story of good versus evil, which is another important reason why it remains so timeless and approachable after quarter of a century. These modern spins on Zelda often look for some other directions they can take the narrative, not least because using Zelda as their foundation gives them a firm base from which they can leap forward with more confidence.
“The unique visual perspective of the top-down RPG provides a privileged window into the lives of the character’s that inhabit it,” Cullen observes. “While Zelda works perfectly at what it does, I wanted to make an RPG that dealt with contemporary issues and more enduring issues relating to the struggles of everyday life and family. By re-visiting the retro RPG genre I could make use of that privileged perspective.” And this is a really interesting concept, that the top-down view could almost be seen as god-like or at the very least voyeuristic. In Mayhem In Single Valley, it’s the story of a boy dealing with family disharmony, anxiety and a character who is reluctant to accept the call to action that Link was so happy to leap out of bed for.
“RPGs exist in a liminal space between being very representational of the world – full of places, people and things – and existing as symbolic or iconographic presentations of the world, especially with regard to pixel art graphics and the reduced amount of visual information they provide,” continues Cullen. “In this way, retro RPGs perfectly reflect how we live and exist in a halfway space between virtual worlds, such as in online gaming and social media, and our more direct everyday lives. Mayhem In Single Valley‘s story explores themes relating to artificially constructed realities and for the reasons outlined above the pixel art RPG genre felt like the perfect fit.”
“There’s nothing wrong with a good versus evil story. There are some really good ones out there, but for me those aren’t the stories that I want to tell,” Preston tells us. “I live in a world that’s very grey and there are a lot of different motivations to everyone’s actions and I feel like those are important stories to tell as well. Even in a fictitious way, it reflects more upon our experiences in life in the day-to-day feelings. We have our villains and everything, but our villains can be sympathetic in many ways or you might even start to understand the psychology of their pursuits and their actions whereas in something like Zelda or older stories, simpler stories in games, it’s very much ‘this guy is an evil demon’. Okay, well that’s fun and there are fun-ass stories that way, but again I don’t want to tell that story. I want something with a little more nuance and relevance to what I experience and what maybe other people share and experience.”
There are a number of classically-inspired RPGs that have either appeared in recent years or are close on the horizon, each of which seems to be attacking the genre while draped in the comfort blanket of A Link To The Past, knowing that if all else fails, so long as they can steer close to Nintendo’s SNES classic, they can’t be too far wrong. But what of the future? For his part, Hyper Light Drifter creator Preston thinks there’s more potential in this particular format of game. “It’s kind of like painting where, sure painting is a 2D process on a canvas and there’s various canvasses you can use,” he muses. “It doesn’t always have to be an actual canvas; it could be wood or paper or something else. There are certain people who view that as a limitation, but infinite possibilities for painting still exist in fine arts or even in digital format. There’s amazing 2D art still happening everyday, at all times, by a bunch of amazing artists and I feel the same way, but to an even greater and more complex extent, with 2D games.”
“I think the best way for the RPG genre to make a real impact both on players and, if possible, the history of gaming is to expand the emotional and conceptual scope of the human stories being told,” is Cullen’s take. “While independent movies have succeeded in addressing modern topics and matters of the human condition, games – the fantasy RPG genre in particular – could benefit from a more introspective, philosophical, and contemporary take on the stories they tell and the mechanics used to tell them.” Importantly, he still loves this genre and that’s what is driving his analysis and criticism of the form. “I very much enjoy the pure fantasy genre and for me it provides a sense of true immersion beyond what any VR experience has provided so far; so the criticisms and hopes I have covered here are born from a place of love for the genre rather than anything else.”
“Personally I would love to do more games that have ARPG mechanics, or managements mechanics, or pixel art, or rogue-like elements, but not all those at the same time again, we should try new things,” says Giménez of Moonlighter, while Weiss is already thinking about expanding on his Songbringer debut. “I’ve already got plans for more games in the series,” he enthuses. “The Milky Way galaxy of 13,000 years ago needs saving, man!”