It says quite a lot about the quality of the game that A Link to the Past’s contributions to The Legend of Zelda franchise are still, more or less, relevant to this day. While both A Link Between Worlds and Breath of the Wild took steps in pushing the series forward, denying A Link to the Past’s influence on the games that came before would be foolish. This was the entry that gave dungeons proper puzzles, started (but not yet solidified) the trend of dungeon items being used against bosses, and established the “Zelda Formula,” a structure which saw the majority of games being split into two key sections. Along with the many gameplay additions, A Link to the Past brought with it a more focused narrative that worked to expand the lore and mythology of the series.
While both The Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link had a clear mythological identity, the first two installments’ faith felt more analogous to Christianity than the wholly unique religion found in the rest of the franchise. The Triforce clearly always played a divine role in the series, in both it how it was utilized in the first two games along with its appearance, but it wouldn’t be until A Link to the Past where the Triforce would be fully fleshed out into more than just a godly symbol. A Link to the Past establishes the Triforce as a tangible object rooted in divinity, coveted by all. It’s through the Triforce’s expanded role that the series gains adequate context for the conflict between Link and Ganon while also making A Link to the Past feel classically epic in nature.
More than anything, it’s A Link to the Past’s narrative structure which allows the game to properly establish a more focused mythos for the franchise. While Link is already on his adventure by the time players take control of him in The Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link, A Link to the Past opens with a literal call to adventure, the first step in the Hero’s Journey. In the middle of the night, through telepathy, Princess Zelda calls for Link to come rescue her in Hyrule Castle’s dungeon. Upon being told by their uncle to stay inside, the player is then given control of Link and tasked with disobeying his mentor figure to rescue Zelda. Through spiritual aid, Zelda leads the player to the castle’s secret entrance where Link meets his now dying uncle who bestows upon him his sword.
Although Link’s Uncle is really no more than just a means of giving Link a sword as far as the gameplay is concerned, that doesn’t mean his minimal role isn’t impactful or devoid of thematic relevance. While there’s no emotional attachment in his death for the player, the act of passing his sword onto Link is quite ceremonial given the context. Despite not being in any true danger, Link proves himself by avoiding the guards, braving the storm, and finding a hidden passageway into the castle. The entire opening works in service of Link “earning” his sword. In The Legend of Zelda, he’s simply given it inside a cave while he begins with it in The Adventure of Link. A Link to the Past uses its introduction to establish a scenario where Link proves his worth and takes up his Uncle’s sword as his last will and testament.
From there, Link rescues Princess Zelda, escorts her out of the castle, and leads her to a Sanctuary where she takes refuge for the game’s first act. Now having rescued the Princess and inherited his uncle’s blade, Link is properly set out on his adventure to retrieve the three Pendants of Virtue so that he can wield the Master Sword and defeat Agahnim. It’s in leaving the Sanctuary to go about their quest that the player crosses the first threshold in the Hero’s Journey, properly beginning their adventure.
It should be explicitly stated that this threshold is for the player and not Link since the key difference signifying A Link to the Past opening up is the storm’s clearing. Realistically, Link would be familiar with a clear-skied Hyrule whereas someone playing the game for the first time wouldn’t. Worth noting, however, is that Link is still very much a blank state at this point in the series so, in a way, this first threshold still counts as far as Link’s arc is concerned since he’s less of a character and more of a vessel.
The order in which the three Pendants of Virtue are attained are also worth making note of as they lend themselves to a subtle arc of sorts for Link/the player. The first pendant Link is tasked in finding is that of Courage. Courage is a theme that will go on to play a large role as far as future iterations of Link are concerned so it’s only natural A Link to the Past kick off with Link proving his bravery. Although the Eastern Palace lacks elements that would traditionally test one’s bravery, it housing the Pendant of Courage still works as an extension of the opening.
Link proved his bravery earlier by entering Hyrule Castle swordless and then helping Princess Zelda escape at the expense of being labeled a criminal by Hyrule. Now, in a worse situation than he’s ever been in, he still agrees to help Zelda, braving a dungeon so that he can obtain the Master Sword and defeat a wizard terrorizing an entire country. The narrative doesn’t need to make a note of Link proving his bravery since the context of the adventure up to that point already does so.
Tucked away in the Desert Palace, the Pendant of Power actually does have some synchronicity with the actual gameplay. As the Pendant of Power, it’s natural to associate it with swordplay. Even though the dungeon itself doesn’t emphasize action any more so than usual, it is the third major dungeon in the game, (counting Hyrule Castle,) so players should be expected to have a better grasp of the combat by this point. Whether intentional or not, the Pendant of Power’s placement makes sense within A Link to the Past’s overall structure simply due to the fact that it gives players enough time to adjust to the combat and understand how to properly fend for themselves.
Of all the pendants, the Pendant of Wisdom at the top of the Tower of Hera feels the most appropriately placed in regards to context and dungeon. By this point in the game, players have taken on more than a few puzzles and should have a grasp of what A Link to the Past expects from them. This is reflected in the Tower of Hera’s main puzzle: obtaining the Moon Pearl. It is incredibly easy to miss the Moon Pearl and simply head to the Boss fight, but previous dungeons will have bestowed upon the player the wisdom to know and understand that Boss Keys serve dual functions. Not only do they open the door to the boss, they also open the dungeon’s biggest chest, giving Link access to a new item.
Once Link retrieves all three Pendants of Virtue, and ideally the Moon Pearl, he can then head into the Lost Woods to pull the Master Sword out of its pedestal. Scenery wise, the Master Sword could not be placed in a better location. Traversing a fogged, labyrinthine forest only to be greeted with a serene grove filled with animals is the perfect place for a legendary sword to sleep. It’s mystical in nature, surrounded by nature. The scenario is only made better by Link needing to transcribe the text on the Master Sword’s pedestal with the Book of Mudora before he can actually wield it. As the Japanese script reads:
“When the ‘Great Catastrophe’ befalleth, the ‘Hero’ carrying three crests shall come, and by those hands shall be drive out the sword. That person will be one who doth carry the blood of the Knight Family.”
The inscription itself adds a considerable amount of weight to the story up to that point. The Japanese text implies that the Great Catastrophe has begun in earnest and time has effectively run out, or is running out, to stop Agahnim. Should Link return to the Sanctuary after obtaining the Master Sword, the priest who was taking care of Zelda will reveal that he failed in keeping her safe before dying. As the Sanctuary was also one of Link’s spawn points when booting up the game, along with serving as a quick way to regain health, there is a substantial feeling of loss in the priest’s death, at the very least eliciting some sort of emotional reaction from the player if only one out of convenience.
Link storming Hyrule Castle to rescue Princess Zelda effectively signals the beginning of the end for A Link to the Past. Even with the Master Sword in hand, Link fails in rescuing the Princess, fails in stopping Agahnim, and fails in saving Hyrule. At the end of the boss fight with Agahnim, Link and the player find themselves at the lowest point of the Hero’s Journey. Not only have they failed, but they’ve also been transported to a separate world entirely: the Dark World.
A perversion of the lush and full of life Hyrule, the Dark World is a land rampant with monsters and desolation. It is a completely warped version of the overworld players have gotten used to for hours. In many ways, the Dark World is analogous to a journey through the Underworld for Link, a staple of classic storytelling. To make matters worse, should Link not have the Moon Pearl, he’ll take the form of a defenseless rabbit in the Dark World, preventing him from attacking and requiring him to use the Magic Mirror to go back to the Light World in order to grab the Moon Pearl from Hera’s Tower.
It’s only through that Moon Pearl that Link is able to retain his true form in the Dark World, allowing him to rescue the seven maidens Agahnim kidnapped so that he can finish his quest and save Hyrule. Depending on how the players takes Link’s loss to Agahnim in Hyrule Castle, the Dark World’s narrative can be seen as a prolonged atonement where Link makes up for his failure to prevent Zelda’s capture. As is to be expected from a metaphorical journey through Hell, the Dark World sees a difficulty spike all around. Enemies are more aggressive, puzzles aren’t as clear cut, and dungeons are substantially longer.
As Link rescues the maidens locked away in the Dark World, it’s revealed “the sacred land where the Triforce was placed” before Ganon took hold of the Triforce and corrupted the land into the Dark World. This context gives the Dark World an even more hellish personification since it’s confirmed, in text, to be a literal corruption of a sacred land. With this in mind, Link’s goal becomes more than just saving the maidens and stopping Agahnim. He’s now responsible for bringing balance back to the divine order of the world by stopping Ganon, retrieving the Triforce, and undoing his wish.
After rescuing all the Maidens, the road to the final step in Link’s Hero’s Journey takes him to Ganon’s Tower where he confronts Agahnim one last time only to learn that Agahnim and Ganon were one and the same the entire time. From a narrative perspective, this allows there to be a deeper bond between Link and Ganon before heading into the final fight. Ganon isn’t just a random villain showing up for the finale as he was actively working against Link the entire time, albeit disguised.
The actual final fight with Ganon is very mythological in nature since Link is required to use a mix of the Silver Arrows and the Master Sword to defeat Ganon. While also being a reference to the original Legend of Zelda, the silver arrows simply add another layer to the story’s structure. The Master Sword alone wasn’t enough to fell Ganon in Agahnim’s form so of course Link would require another mystical weapon to help finish the job. Link obtaining the Silver Arrows is even Arthurian in concept, requiring Link to toss his arrows into a Fairy’s pond within the Pyramid of Power.
Upon finally defeating Ganon, Link is welcomed into the Triforce’s chamber where it’s revealed that the Triforce “is the ‘Golden Power’ of the gods.” It can be taken for granted considering later games frequently make mention of the goddesses, but this is the first explicit in-game mention of Hyrule being a polytheistic world outside of A Link to the Path’s Japanese title, Triforce of the Gods. Not only that, it’s confirmation that multiple gods to in fact exist in The Legend of Zelda’s mythos. Fittingly, Link coming in contact with the Triforce fills the criteria for the Gift of the Goddess within the Hero’s Journey where the hero receives a reward for their actions. In this case, Link wishes for the world to return to the way it was before Ganon began terrorizing Hyrule, also fulfilling the criteria for the Hero’s return at the end of their Hero’s Journey.
Before the credits roll, the player is shown the result of Link’s wish. Characters who died come back to life, order is restored to Hyrule, and the Master Sword is returned to its pedestal, never to be touched again. While that last part is certainly debatable considering the chronology of the series and how future games link back to A Link to the Past, it doesn’t change the fact that A Link to the Past is mythological in structure from start to finish and that its structure contributed greatly to how future games would approach the series’ lore and narrative. It is a tale that is epic in its most traditional sense, giving players the chance to live out a Hero’s Journey all while establishing a mythological identity for The Legend of Zelda as a whole.
As Koji Kondo’s score plays over the credits, slowly easing into a rendition of the series’ main theme, it becomes abundantly clear that The Legend of Zelda’s mythos is more than just a few Christian references with mentions of a Triforce here and there. It’s a fleshed out, fully realized world with something meaningful to say. Whether it be about the nature of man or what it means to be a hero, A Link to the Past takes a serious attempt at expanding the Zelda lore and it does so spectacularly. A Link to the Past is a complete redefinition of The Legend of Zelda’s world, elevating the series to a new standard entirely. One rooted in myth.