The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was released in 1991. It featured a fascinating variety of enemies to fight, dungeons, weapons, magical goodies, and a hero whose name was definitely not Zelda (I know, right?). Visually, it was stunning, the game’s artists coaxing the limited hardware of the age into displaying refined beauty, something the 3D games of the franchise wouldn’t achieve until Windwaker, 11 years later. What excites me most, however, is not the game’s aesthetics but rather the depth of worldbuilding that was achieved on the Super Nintendo’s 3.5MHz CPU and 128kb of RAM. With today's rise of low-budget, small-team indie studios, there is something to be learned from this 25-year-old title.
You could say we have truly found a LINK to the past.
Please don’t fire me Ken I need this job.
A Link to the Past opens with the hero, Link, being called upon to save the world. There’s a bad wizard man, a magic seal, and glowy triangles: Hyrule needs a hero! In my previous article, we looked at how design decisions in Super Mario World helped to create depth in what could have been a sterile platformer overworld. A Link to the Past, with its action-RPG format, features an overworld that players can interact with in exactly the same way as the dungeons that are contained within it - we’re encouraged to explore both thoroughly. More importantly, it’s an overworld filled with locations that we end up visiting again and again.
Like all RPG games, A Link to the Past is full of characters that the player can talk to. Like all good RPG games, these characters aren’t there just to give plot exposition or quests. Most of them have their own backstories and personalities. As characters that exist in a fictional world, these personalities and backstories contribute directly to the worldbuilding as a whole, and as such this character exposition is a valuable NPC function - even if, due to technical limitations, their dialogue is limited to a few sentences at a time. What’s impressive about this game is how efficiently characters are used. Some may perform multiple valuable functions in their brief encounters with the player.
There is the sick boy in Kakariko Village, who tells players that he’s caught a bad cold ‘from the evil air that comes down off the mountain’, giving the player some personal exposition as well as plot exposition about the state of the world. He then uses this sickness as an excuse to lend players his bug-catching net. In two paragraphs of dialogue, players experience depth of character, learn more about the world, and are given an item - three functions that could have been performed by three individual characters, but here are performed by a single NPC. This consolidation of tasks means less time designing and producing sprites, less work finding a place for the character to stand, ensuring they fit in with the surrounding world, and so on. This sort of efficiency is essential when time and money are driving factors.
I’m also impressed with how well this efficiency is disguised. Some emotive smoke-and-mirrors, such as a soothing soundtrack, cute character sprites, and well-written dialogue keep the player’s attention focused on the moment at hand, ensuring that they’re unlikely to see the design within this encounter. These interactions rarely feel rushed or sterile in A Link to the Past, and this speaks to the quality of the game’s immersion.
Backtracking in games is often considered negative. Whether it’s the result of incorrectly paced goals or simply a badly thought-out fetch quest, being forced to return to areas that have already been explored can frustrate players. In the RPG format, however, it’s often unavoidable. These games can have dozens of quests for players to complete, and technology puts a limit on how big a virtual world can be. A Link to the Past prevents the world from feeling stale by having it evolve over time, as the actions of the player and the course of the plot start to impact the kingdom - and this is, again, done with a focus on a shorter development time and less memory usage.
The citizens of Hyrule are involved in the majority of these environmental changes. There are two lumberjacks cutting a tree beside the forest, initially each with a single line of dialogue. One mentions that the tree they’re cutting ‘feels strange’, while the other warns the player of a dangerous fog that covers the nearby woods. Once the player has taken the Master Sword from the forest, the fog lifts. If the lumberjacks are approached again, they’ll thank you for making the forest safe again and express an interest in visiting it. Later on, when the big bad Ganon shows up and starts doing his thing, the lumberjacks mysteriously vanish. Given that they’re the only sentient beings in that particular area, their absence is easily noticed by the player. These two quirky NPCs have three different states, and we see a three-stage progression as they respond to the events in the world around them.
The environmental changes are not especially impactful or nuanced. The game relies on the cumulative effect of many small and simple examples of change to create a bigger sense of a responsive world. If we wanted to replicate this in a contemporary indie game, it would be a matter of writing a line in a dialogue text file to trigger after the Master Sword is found, then disabling the lumberjack objects after Ganon appears. By using text instead of voice-acting - then a requirement, now a stylistic and budgetary choice - it’s possible to instantly implement changes to dialogue. And by making changes to the scene while players are absent from the immediate area, the departure of characters needn’t be animated. The NPCs can simply be removed from the scene before the player's eventual return. The work of 30 minutes to contribute to the creation of a world that seems to respond to the actions of the player.
There will always be a place for independent developers. There is a space, outside of the profit-hungry big studios, where experiments can be done and (often) good games can be made. These will always be cottage industries. One or two people in a bedroom or lounge, working with a pocketful of time and money to create something. Efficiency is what will get that product made. Getting the most done with the smallest amount of time and effort. Bundling responsibilities and giving them to a single character. Creating the biggest desired effect with the least work. There’s a lot to learn from A Link to the Past - and a lot we can improve on. What are some lessons from older games that you’ve brought forward into your own development process? Let me know in the comments.