Despite being the third entry in the series, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is the prototypical Zelda game. It takes elements from both the original and even Zelda II, adds in a lot more narrative, and the result is one of the greatest SNES games of all time, and perhaps one of the best games ever, period.
A Link to the Past goes back to the overhead view of the original Zelda, but the world is much less open from the start. Instead, you will visit a series of dungeons, each with a special item that often allows you to access new areas of the map. Eventually, you discover a second, dark version of the world, allowing even more exploration. The overworld serves as both an area of combat and an area to find secrets, of which the game has many. One new feature is Pieces of Heart, four of which combine to grant an entire heart container. There are more than 20 of these to find, as well as a handful of optional items, making thorough exploration quite rewarding.
The game features a dozen dungeons, several of which you can approach out of order if you are so inclined. The dungeon design is extremely solid, with a mix of combat and puzzle solving. Most of the dungeons have a strong running theme, and they all feel unique. Some, like Turtle Rock and its track-and-platform mechanic, are like nothing else of its time. Others, like the water puzzles in one of the middle dungeons, require careful planning to solve.
Unlike its predecessors, A Link to the Past has a significant amount of story and lore. The first two games’ stories were mostly limited to the instruction manuals, but here you have a full intro and a decent amount of plot exposition. NPCs are scattered about the world, telling you about the lore as often as giving gameplay hints. This is the introduction of numerous Zelda concepts that would become fundamental to future stories, such as Ganon’s original identity as Ganondorf the thief. It’s well-told, and not presented in a way as to slow down the game.
What makes A Link to the Past a true classic is that it simply has no flaws. Probably the worst thing about the entire game is one obnoxious puzzle, and even that can be easily bypassed by retrieving the item from the next dungeon in sequence. The game is exquisitely paced, the difficulty ramps up steadily, and it never stops being fun. It sets the standard for all future Zelda games, and it holds up amazingly well more than 20 years later. A Zelda fan should not miss this one.