Picture, if you will, the opening scene of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. It's storming outside. The princess is sending you telepathic messages asking if you'll come and save her. Your uncle leaves the house, telling you to stay put, and you go and open the chest in your living room, expecting to find an old lamp. Instead you pick up the Power Glove, and suddenly you can pick up the rocks blocking your passage, allowing you to go and explore the Eastern Palace before you've even gotten a sword. Link to the Past artwork via Zelda wiki
That's just one possible scenario in ALttPRandomizer, a new hack for the 1991 Super Nintendo classic A Link to the Past. The program swaps the contents of every treasure chest and item supplier in Hyrule. In the real game you'd find a boomerang in the dungeons of Zelda's castle, but in the Randomizer you might discover a heart piece. Instead of picking up the hookshot in the Swamp Palace, you may snag a new bug-catching net. The Randomizer ensures that every item will spawn somewhere in the game. The item locations are random, though they obey some rules that prevent you from getting stuck, or softlocked, without an item that you'd need to make progress.
The Randomizer is just one of the things that is keeping the community around A Link to the Past buzzing, 25 years after it was released. Using chats like Discord to talk and keep track of their progress, a small group of speedrunners and modders is poking through the game and still discovering secrets to how it works. One epiphany has changed the way any hardcore fan of the game will look at its final boss battle (the one with — spoilers! — Ganon). Other glitches have allowed players to play dungeons out of order and skip sequences entirely.
For hardcore fans who know the game by heart and want to switch things up, the Randomizer is a particularly exciting development. It essentially turns A Link to the Past into a brand new game.
Let's say, for example, that an early chest drops the Titan's Mitts, which allow you to pick up dark-coloured stones and aren't meant to be acquired until a dungeon in the Dark World. Now you can open up passages that you're not supposed to access until many hours later. You can visit the Dark World way before you're meant to see it, beating dungeons out of order as you stumble upon one random item after another. (If you happen to reach the Dark World before getting the Moon Pearl, which prevents you from turning into a bunny, you can just save-quit and the Randomizer will trigger a fail-safe and send you to back the Light World.)
One contributor to the project, Timothy "superSKUJ" Billard, recalled the enthusiasm of another LTTP devotee who enjoyed using the mod. "It brings back the excitement of finding rewards in the game by them being uncertain," he said. "The feeling you get when you find something new is recreated in Randomizer, even when you find something old."
Even for Link to the Past speedrunners who have memorised the game's glitches and quirks, the Randomizer can be very challenging, which is why it's become a popular mod among the speedrunning community. Since it was released on June 2 it's been a major topic of discussion.
"Even a few 100% runners have gotten lost because there are places that no runner ever goes," said Axel "Karkat" Hellström, who assists with programming on the Randomizer alongside chief creator David "Dessyreqt" Carroll. Hellström recently built a tool that expands Link's inventory, allowing him to hold multiple items that normally occupy the same slot, like the shovel and flute.
A Link to the Past speedrunners are used to following certain routes, Hellström said. Even runners who participate in the '100%' category — which requires them to beat every dungeon and collect every item — skip certain parts of the game as they blaze through. In the Randomizer, things are very different. "The Eastern Death Mountain caves don't get explored in normal runs," he said. "Eastern Ganon's Tower basement is normally skipped. So you'd need to be familiar with those locations if you're racing."
The Randomizer, which you can download here (and which requires an SNES emulator to play), is just one of the hacks designed by a team of players who spend their spare time speedrunning and tearing apart A Link to the Past. Several dozen fans of the iconic Nintendo game regularly hang out in a Discord chat room, where they plan out new mods and meticulously dissect the granular details of Link to the Past by opening up the code and experimenting with every possible variable.
Even outside of this new mod, speedrunners who've been poking and prodding through the game have made some remarkable discoveries. Did you know, for example, that one aspect of the game's final boss fight is linked directly to how you fight a different boss in a separate area?
"Basically, the Ganon fight at the end has a portion where a bunch of bats spawn in a circle around Ganon, expand, contract and fly away," said Stephen "Screevo" Martin, another member of the Link to the Past community and one of the game's top speedrunners. "We always assumed the bats spawned in a random spot, but we discovered, by looking at the code, that those bats spawn based on how long you took defeating the Armos Knights in the final dungeon of the game," he said. "If you have a good Armos fight, the bats will always look the same, but if you [take] longer than X number of seconds, you will get a different spawn pattern. And if you practise the Ganon fight from a completed save when powering the console on, you get a totally different pattern that you'll never see in live gameplay. So this has totally changed the way we practice and approach the last battle of the game."
Billard, who documents these experiments and tricks on his YouTube channel, made a video explaining this so-called "Arc Variable":
He's also got videos that demonstrate glitches ranging from silly....
"I've gotten a lot of enjoyment from glitches in this game," Billard said, explaining his reason for making these Link to the Past videos. "I know it's daunting for a lot of people to learn, so I wanted to try to make it easier for others to share the experience."
Link to the Past speedrunners have also built boss gauntlets, reverse boss gauntlets and other interesting challenges that they regularly play around with on Twitch and YouTube. In August, they're planning on putting together a relay race where teams of runners must compete in various categories — no glitches, collect every heart piece and so on — to beat the game as quickly as possible. A lot of games have active speedrunning communities, but few are as devoted as Link to the Past's, and 25 years after the game came out, they're still finding interesting new secrets.
"LTTP's community is exceptional," said Hellström in a Discord message. "I'm sure lots of runners and stuff say their game's community is great, but ALTTP's is large, active and welcoming."