Reflections on the aLttP Randomizer

One of the more challenging hacks for me to approach for my research was the A Link to the Past Randomizer – a hack of the Super NES game The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. This wasn’t because the game was difficult (like several of the Super Mario 64 hacks I encountered) or based in a game that I had never played. Quite the contrary, actually, I have invested hundreds of hours into both the core game and the hack.

My main concern, actually, was the fact that the Randomizer is quite different than the other hacks I’m studying: it is more of a reshuffling of the core game rather than a self-contained game in and of itself. Crimson Echoes and Pokemon Prism, for example, are sprawling narrative hacks that aim to essentially build a sequel or prequel to an existing title. Despite their immense scope, they’re actually quite easy to play and document in a linear fashion, keeping track of elements as they emerge. Even some of the more conceptually daring hacks I’ve encountered – such as Kaze Emanuar’s attempts to embed one game (Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker) within the framework of another (Super Mario 64) – are pretty self-contained. They’re generally easy (and short) to play through, and are straightforward in their approach to mechanics and levels. The Randomizer, however, frames itself as a way to refresh the core game instead of making a new one. It doesn’t present too many new elements to the player, but moves everything around to create new challenges and diffuse game mastery.

A Quick Summary

Before talking too deeply about the hack itself, however, I think it would be a good idea to provide a simple summary of the core game – The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. The third entry in the Zelda series, and the second top-down adventure, A Link to the Past follows a simple narrative in which Link (a sword wielding hero) tries to rescue Zelda (a stereotypical damsel in distress) by defeating Ganon (an evil wizard). Ganon has control of a powerful artifact called the Triforce, which he used to create a “Dark World,” full of greed, evil, and generally not-so-nice things. To defeat Ganon, Link has to collect three pendants, retrieve the legendary “Master Sword” from its resting place, collect seven crystals, and then enter the villain’s evil lair to defeat him. Throughout his quest, Link gathers items (ranging from a hammer to magic gloves) that increase his prowess in battle while also providing him with new methods to navigate the map. For example, the hammer allows Link to pound down wooden posts that would otherwise block his path, while the magic gloves allows him to lift heavy objects that stand in his way. As most items are found in dungeons, this creates a very simple structure for the game: enter dungeon A to collect item 1, which allows you to enter dungeon B to collect item 2, then repeat until the game is complete. It’s a simple formula that has been since adapted to most games in the series.

The Randomizer takes this formula and turns it on its head by shuffling the location of key items in the game, as well as most of the important objectives (such as the aforementioned crystals and pendants). Supported through a complicated logic system – which prevents players from getting stuck at any given point – it encourages a nonlinear exploration of the game world. Players may stumble upon powerful items early on, leading them to dungeons that they wouldn’t normally traverse until dozens of hours into the game. Once they receive an item, they have to deduce what new paths (and dangers) have become available to them, turning the game into a puzzle to find the next “progression item” as quickly as possible. This challenge is escalated through the racing elements of the hack, which encourage players to compete against each other online to see who can beat a specific randomized “seed” in the shortest amount of time. Grand tournaments (some with over 500 members) are held where players play seed after seed, working their way through the bracket, trying to become the Randomizer champ.

Look, Feel, and Fun

That’s the gist of the game’s mechanics, but what is it like to actually play the Randomizer? Honestly, I found my first playthroughs to be confusing and a bit unnerving. It’s easy to forget how much of playing a favourite game relies on the comfort of repetition, and my usual A Link to the Past experience is more zen-like than a true challenge. I’ve beaten the title dozens of times before, I know where every single collectable is, and I’ve accumulated enough tips and strategies to deal with the trickier aspects of the game. The Randomizer strips away a lot of the familiarity – my “routine” for beating the game was disrupted almost immediately and, not having a firm grasp of the meta-game, I found myself wandering aimlessly for large periods of time. It wasn’t until the fifth or sixth playthrough (and after looking at some hints and strategies online) that I began to get comfortable and settled into the Randomizer groove.

Once this comfort level is established, the core values of the Randomizer begin to emerge: speed and skill. Developed by speedrunners, the Randomizer is built for quick problem-solving and the exploitation of glitches and meta-knowledge. In early runs, I found myself pausing while contemplating where I should head to next. As I became more experienced, my decisions came quicker and I begin to instinctively gravitate toward certain locations. Attempting to finish the game in a single two-to-three hour session (just like the Twitch racers!) slowly became a more attainable goal.

In a lot of ways, the Randomizer is a gateway drug for speedrunning. If found that it tricked me a bit at first – appearing more puzzle-oriented than anything else – but it eventually coaxed me into deeper levels of game mastery. The repeat plays mirror the “personal best” grinding that many speedrunners rely on, but comes across as less repetitive due to the randomization of elements. Whereas I find straight-on speedrunning incredibly boring, the Randomizer adds enough unexpected twists and turns to create tension that extends beyond muscle memory and perfection. I found that my mechanical mistakes – a missed jump, a wrong turn, a little too much damage taken – could be covered up by good tactical decisions. I think it is this excitement that has elevated the popularity of A Link to the Past Randomizer (and so many other types of randomizers) above the niche-appeal of most game hacks.

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By Michael