The Overworld in A Link to the Past is ace. Expansive and stuffed with fun little diversions and mysteries, it’s also crammed with clever design.
Wherever you go, you get little glimpses of things you’ll be able to do further into your adventure; a large boulder blocking a path, the sprite for which screams “you’ll be able to pick me up later!”; whirlpools in deep water, unreachable but begging for further investigation; mysterious rock and tree formations, impenetrable mountain ranges.
It’s like a Castlevania game from a top down perspective: you’re only able to access the whole area once you gained the items needed to traverse it. The Pegasus Boots, the Power Glove, the Titan’s Mitt, the Flippers – these are the tools required to delve deeper into the world.
A half remembered thing from university: there’s an English literature academic, who says that stories are full of micro mysteries that drive the narrative forward. The main thing propelling the plot is the central premise, but within that are lots of tiny little mysteries that are set and resolved along the way.
I’ve probably mangled some of that, but the core of the idea is there: compelling stories are pushed along and enlivened by micro mysteries. A Link to the Past’s gameplay is the same. The game itself is about fighting your way towards an evil wizard in order to save the world. But along the way you must learn that world inside out, with all its inaccessible areas and unexplained phenomena. Those are the micro mysteries.
This concept was apparent in the original Legend of Zelda, but in A Link to the Past it really sings.