The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is one of my favourite games of all time. But I don’t remember if I’d read the comic as it was serialized in Nintendo Power when I was a kid or not. We had a big gap in our Nintendo Power subscription for a reason that I no longer remember, after all. But, thankfully, I didn’t need to hunt down a string of old Nintendo Power issues to read this comic when I was given a newly run print edition of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past comic as a gift.
A Link to the Past is the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) instalment of the popular Legend of Zelda series of video games. In the game you play as Link, a young boy who travels the land of Hyrule and a hidden dimension known as the Dark World on a quest to stop evil from overrunning Hyrule. As far as gameplay goes, this game was something of a return to form for the series, since its basic mechanics are much more similar to The Legend of Zelda on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) than those of The Legend of Zelda: the Adventure of Link. Gone are the side-scrolling and experience point systems of the NES sequel and once again there’s the exploration of a huge map in a 3/4 top down view.
Story-wise, A Link to the Past sees Link first gathering the relics required to unlock the sacred Master Sword so that he can fight against the evil wizard Agahnim. Unfortunately, this battle ends in something of a draw and Link is thrown into the Dark World, a place that has been warped by the evil heart of the game’s main villain: Ganon.
In the Dark World Link uses the items and skills he’s acquired on his quest so far to retrieve the 7 crystalized maidens (the last of which is Zelda herself) so that he can destroy the seal on the fortress where Agahnim is now hiding. Having done so, Link faces off against Agahnim once more, only to have the wizard reveal that he has been Ganon the whole time. Link then faces Ganon in a final showdown in which he defeats the brute and brings light to the Dark World and restores peace to Hyrule through the sacred power of the Triforce.
All of that probably sounds all right for something that you’ll be mostly playing through instead of reading through. So then how does the comic book tackle this very “single player” sort of story?
Simple. Shotaro Ishinomori just made up more story.
Making a Video Game into a Comic Book
One of the strengths of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past comic is that there really isn’t much deviation from the path that you take in the game. Link still goes and finds the pendants to reach the Master Sword, and then he still rescues some crystallized maidens so that he can ultimately save Zelda, face Agahnim, and fight Ganon. The differences between the game and the comic come in when Shotaro Ishinomori adds in a small cast of support characters.
So, instead of following Link alone as he goes from place to place saving and slaying, more emphasis is placed on Link as the unlikely hero. In the comic, Link is portrayed as the boy who is thrust into the role of hero without really knowing the first thing about sword fighting or ancient evils.
But, thanks to the team that Ishinomori adds into the story, the burden of improving and learning all of these things is taken off of Link’s (and the reader/player’s) shoulders.
So, for example, when in the game the player would have to just look at the in-game map and find the next dungeon, Ishinomori has the team tell Link through the same sort of telepathic stones featured in the game.
And, for those instances when Link faces an enemy that’s particularly tough, Ishinomori has introduced Roam. Roam is a character who’s an older and much more experienced fighter who has some relation to Link as a fellow descendant of the Knights of Hyrule who comes in and saves Link.
Since he has these supports and doesn’t need to become the powerhouse that players almost inevitably become by the end of the game, Link’s shortcomings in the comic are usually used for slight comedic effect. But because we don’t see Link becoming as powerful as he gets in the game there’s never a sense that he can handle himself all by himself. So, when Link’s up against incredible odds (as he inevitably has to be every now and then — this comic is still a shonen hero story), there’s still quite a bit of tension and excitement around the question of how he’ll get out alive.
Getting out Ahead of the Games
What’s really remarkable to me as a fan of the Zelda series, though, is that some of Ishinomori’s ideas come up in later Zelda games. The best example of this is the team that Link has working with him to stop Agahnim and, ultimately, Ganon.
In just about every Zelda game there are a few characters that you interact with regularly, but it’s not until (and since) Twilight Princess that you have an actual team of people who act as an organized resistance to the evil looming over the world and who are dedicated to giving you direction and advice.
This comic, (aside from the 80s cartoon segments in the Super Mario Bros. Super Show), is also the first time that Link’s accompanied by a fairy who helps him along his way. Since the comic’s original copyright is for 1991, the same year the game was released, and Ocarina of Time wasn’t released until 1998, it definitely seems like Ishinomori was the first to bring a few ideas to the series that have since become iconic.
A Word on the Art Style
The art in this comic isn’t particularly anime-esque as is the case with the manga versions of the other games in the Legend of Zelda series. Instead, it’s got a slightly more Western feel to it (though it’s still tinged with the playfulness of Akira Toriyama and the colourfulness of Studio Ghibli). I think that this look gels quite well with the story, since it complements the series’ roots in a mix of European and Japanese romances (in the old sense of the term) and lore.
Ultimately, the strength of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past comic is just how well Shotaro Ishinomori managed to take a video game with a fairly generic story, add a few elements, and make something that’s somehow more archetypal and more relatable.
The addition of the support characters like the team that helps direct Link (made up of the old sage Sahasrahla, a woman and child from Kakariko Village, and an inventor) and the mysterious fighting ace Roam somehow elevate the archetypical hero’s journey story found in every Zelda game just from being generic to being something enticing and compelling. That is what, I think, makes The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past comic stand out as such a great re-imagining of the game.
If you’re a Zelda fan or just enjoy a ripping heroic yarn, pick this one up. If you’re a major Zelda fan or really interested in fantastical adventure stories, you’ll probably keep it around for quite a while.