[one_third]Many would have you believe that stealth was the product of The Legend of Zelda leaping into the world of polygons but, in actuality, it’s been a mainstay of the franchise since A Link to the Past…[/one_third]
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is perfect. In both style and execution, it defined what a Zelda game is and laid down the foundation for all subsequent titles in the series. It benefits from designed simplicity; the overhead perspective and screen segmentation allows every element of a room to be seen at once, which means puzzles are instantly seen and understood without the need for fumbling in a first-person perspective to try and understand the layout and objects of the room.
This sense of pace and precise design informs every aspect of A Link to the Past and it’s here, in the very beginning of the game, where Nintendo introduced stealth to the series in its most simple form. Much like the rest of the game, it’s a quietly efficient and understated moment of stealth in a series that has ranged from frustrating stealth gameplay to mind-numbingly simple stealth gameplay.
That this segment appears in the opening minutes of play is even more surprising. Where later entries would pour reams of expository text onto the player before they even got the chance to move Link, A Link to the Past starts almost instantly. A storm rages outside of Link’s home where he is awakened from his slumber by a telepathic message from Princess Zelda. His uncle tells him to stay inside and goes off towards the castle and – bam – the player is in control. Naturally, Link promptly ignores his uncle’s advice and heads towards the castle to slip inside through a hole in the ground. Inside, he finds his uncle wounded. He gives Link his sword and asks him to rescue Zelda in his stead. All of this happens in about ten minutes.
Not only that, but Link is now in an honest-to-goodness-dungeon with keys, a dungeon map, treasures, and enemies aplenty. It’s here, in this cavalcade of gameplay developments and information overload, that A Link to the Past introduces its single stealth mechanic – line of sight.
It’s very simple, but it’s one that’s understood by players almost instantly. If Link approaches an enemy from behind, they won’t notice him. If he successfully manages to walk around and behind all enemies in his immediate surroundings, Link can make his way throughout the dungeon relatively unharmed. With an overhead perspective, and the numerous different statues and blocks that litter the castle, it’s remarkably easy to achieve this, and the guards’ narrow line of sight provides enough flexibility to correct any of your mistakes before it’s too late.
Should you be spotted, the guards do a little jig on the spot, the noticeable sound of armour chinking together rings out, and the guards swarm towards your position. Dealing with one enemy is relatively simple, provided you’re in the right position and Link’s outward swinging arc hits the correct point, but three enemies at once is a little bit more tricky, as your sword hit their shields and bounces off.
Should the enemies finally overwhelm you, you must start from the very beginning of the castle with no significant penalty or loss other than having to traipse through previously explored rooms. Zelda will remain at the very bottom of the castle, waiting in her cell, unharmed. All of your progress – the chests that were opened, the doors that were unlocked – will remain the same. The enemies will respawn, though, meaning that while exploration is encouraged, carelessness is not.
If he successfully manages to walk around and behind all enemies in his immediate surroundings, Link can make his way throughout the dungeon relatively unharmed
This mechanic cuts down on needless exploration and encourages skill over memorisation and repetitious backtracking. An interesting wrinkle, – or cheat – as some would say, crops up when the player realises they can move up to the second floor, walk out on the balcony, and step back inside of the castle, essentially resetting the starting point where Link appears if killed and skipping a room entirely in the process.
The rest of the dungeon entails rescuing Zelda and leading her out of the castle. While both Link and Zelda are technically sneaking out of the castle, there isn’t a noticeable stealth-like mechanic in place to reinforce this. While you do light torches along the way to help you see in the darkness of the lower levels of the castle, there are no enemies lying in wait for you other than rats and a few guards.
You’re not tricking any clever guards with your wicked cunning or laying traps to entice them into situations where you can strike. Stealth in A Link to the Past is not as complex as that. In fact, the stealth included in this specific moment is so basic and unnoticeable that some would be hard pressed to even label it as anything resembling stealth, but it’s there… in the shadows. Which seems appropriate, really.
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Nintendo was already asking a lot of the player in the beginning of the game, which is greatly appreciated looking back in context, and to include a complete and nuanced stealth system on top of the base Zelda gameplay would have been a bit too much to handle. Later games in the franchise would go on to develop the line of sight mechanic, but it was in A Link to the Past where the first inkling of Nintendo’s shadowy inclinations were shown. It seems fitting that such a complete and effortless game would have a similarly simple and easy to understand stealth moment.