Link to the Past is overrated. If you read that statement and made the assumption that I'm not a typical Zelda fan, you're right. The Zelda games weren't my favorite NES titles, my favorite Zelda game isn't Ocarina of Time, and after watching Zelda's quality steadily deteriorate over the past few years I've completely lost interest in the franchise. But there's no denying Zelda has had her share of memorable moments, and I'm sure die-hard fans have a hard time picking their favorite. Link to the Past is one of the more popular choices for the best Zelda game ever, despite the fact that better installments were made in the years following Past's release in the early '90s. I thought about that for a minute, remembered how little I cared for it as a kid, and wondered what I missed when I played it all those years ago. So I decided to play it again, only to find it was every bit as boring as I remembered it. Between all the great games I suppose one is bound to get all the attention, but I strongly disagree with Past's status as the best Zelda game ever.
With that said, this game did get a few things right. First, the graphics: they're fantastic, especially for a first-generation Super Nintendo title. There were some clever puzzles here, too, and sometimes they weren't limited to the dungeons either (finding some of those warp tiles was a real challenge). Third, this game introduced several songs (Kakariko theme, which sounds better in later incarnations; fairy fountain/game select theme, Zelda theme, Ganondorf theme, etc.) and locales (the aforementioned Kakariko village) that would become staples of the Zelda franchise. There's a decent story here, too; Ocarina of Time made better use of the story (I prefer time-travel to the parallel universe theme found in Link to the Past), but Past deserves credit for being the first to use it. Finally, Link to the Past introduced the light/dark world concept, which was re-used in a good deal of Zelda games that followed. Now that I've got that out of the way, I'll move on.
One of the things Link to the Past really didn't have was a good soundtrack. If you were like me and didn't spend much time looking for extra pieces of heart, a good deal of your time was spent in the dungeons, listening to those two horrible dungeon themes. A lot of the other tunes aren't that great either (such as the death mountain theme, which sounds like it was plucked right from Star Wars) and some are just plain annoying (Sanctuary; fortune-teller; opening-scene rain music). Other tunes include the Kakariko village theme, which as I said before sounds better in other games; fairy fountain theme, which is okay; and the Lost Woods theme, which really does sound like Christmas music. Appropriate for Secret of Mana's Crystal Forest, maybe, where you actually meet Rudolph and Santa Claus, but not for an important moment in the game (which has nothing to do with Rudolph and Santa Claus). Anyway, there's nothing really special about this soundtrack, just one average tune after the other, all the way through til the end credits where you're rewarded for slogging through the game with nothing more than a limp version of the Zelda overworld theme. The only two songs that save this soundtrack from utter lameness are the Hyrule Castle theme, which is cool, and the fantastic Dark World theme. There are lots of great video game soundtracks out there. This isn't one of them.
I wasn't even that impressed by the dark world, which was (is?) generally considered to be one of the game's high points. As a plot twist, it was executed rather well; being sent there certainly took all of us by surprise. And some parts of it actually look creepy - particularly the Lost Woods (though the music does a great job to ruin the mood here). A lot of it doesn't. The pink clouds on Death Mountain, the blue and red trees, the yellow grass, and Link's pink bunny alter ego just look out of place. The dark world is just too bright and colorful to really be dark. Later installments took this concept of a dark world and refined it, which yielded some great results. In Ocarina of Time, for example, the first thing you see when you leave the Temple of Time is the marketplace overrun with zombies. There's no lame Star Wars-themed music to ruin the moment (no music at all, actually), no genetically mutated chickens running around to get in your way, nothing to detract from the experience. It's dark and desolate, and sufficiently creepy to get the point across without overdoing it by changing the entire world map. Majora's Mask also had some really nice touches; the best are the villagers' reactions to the moon near the end of the three-day sequence.
The overworld isn't that great either. Lots of bushes and trees, with some enemies and random houses, but there isn't much to do except dig up patches of dirt, smash little poles, and pick up rocks to find stuff ("explore"), which after a while becomes really boring. To make matters worse, you can't get anywhere fast. So while you're trying to get from A to B (which takes a while, even if you run), the only things you have to keep you occupied on your way are the aforementioned random houses and bushes, and occasionally some enemies (usually palace guards, or sea anemones). The huge world map is obviously intended to encourage the player to go exploring, but for those of us who were never interested (me), traveling quickly becomes a tiresome chore. Thankfully you're given a crude mode of transportation (bird) that takes you to several locations on the world map, which eases the pain a little bit. For all the criticism given to Ocarina for its mostly empty world map, I find a lot of the same problems here: lots of empty space, sparsely populated with enemies and points of interest. The difference is that Ocarina's map is much smaller (and all of the objectives in the first part of the game are relatively close to each other). So you won't have to spend a half-hour making your way from one objective to the next, but once you get a few bombs you can still go searching for hidden secrets (mostly cows in underground grottoes).
There are also plenty of small details that Link to the Past is lacking. I'll start with the mini-games. There aren't any real standout mini-games here, like the fishing mini-game from Ocarina, and Past isn't stuffed full of them the way Majora's Mask is (which also happens to have the best clutch of mini-games in the series). A few of them are actually pretty good, particularly the 15-second race and the archery contest. But the treasure chest guessing game and the digging game are so terrible that they rank among the most irritating, repetitive mini-games not to make onto one of those "top 10 worst mini-games" lists. The purpose of those tedious exercises, like a lot of mini-games in the series, is to get a piece of heart - and it can take hours. Another small problem here is the bosses. Past's bosses are downright generic: two worms, three eyeballs, a moth, a blob, and a rock (or whatever Trinexx was supposed to be). Compare this with the robust boss lineup of, say, The Legend of Zelda and it's no wonder that Past's forgettable bosses have almost never been reused in other games. Another trivial issue that always bothered me was Link to the Past's placement of the Master Sword. Past's Link finds the sword in the middle of the woods somewhere; in Ocarina of Time it's sealed inside of a sacred temple. In my view the Master Sword is given much better treatment in Ocarina.
Perhaps my biggest problem with Link to the Past was its dungeons. Yeah, there are more dungeons in this game than any other (including the bogus "trainer" dungeon at the beginning), and Past managed a significant improvement over the first Zelda game by introducing the concept of multiple-level dungeons. But I've always been partial to the 3-D dungeons: they're more immersive, the puzzles are frequently more challenging (the Water Temple from Ocarina and the Stone Tower from Majora's Mask come immediately to mind), and the dungeons are generally much more distinctive than their 2-D counterparts in Link to the Past. That the dungeons are interchangeable is even more noticeable when revisiting the game after having played through some of the later installments a few times. So despite the fact that the dungeons in Link to the Past were an impressive achievement, they're just another aspect of this unbearably mediocre title that have been outclassed by later installments in the series.
While Link to the Past isn't terrible, it just doesn't measure up to some of the better Zelda titles (yes, that includes everyone's other favorite Zelda game, Ocarina of Time). For every one aspect of the game that is well-executed (puzzles), there are several others that are sorely lacking (soundtrack, bosses, cutesy graphics, overworld). I played this game soon after it came out, and I didn't really like it. All these years later, I still find it really dull, especially when compared to other Zelda games that came out afterward (Link's Awakening, and particularly Zelda's two installments on the N64). But still, year after year this game somehow manages to find its way onto just about every top 10 list out there (including yours). I don't get it. Link to the Past is a decent title, but it doesn't deserve its "classic" status. It was a step in the right direction for the franchise, and it was certainly an improvement over the first installment, but Link to the Past is hardly the definitive Zelda game.