This is the first Zelda game I've ever beaten (on an emulator of course). I didn't grow up with a Nintendo in the house, and the mentality required to get through a lot of those really old console games is kind of alien to me. So you can rest assured that exactly zero nostalgia is informing my statement that A Link to the Past is to this day the gold standard in the action-adventure genre. It's frankly baffling to me that it could be be considered dated when it has at least as much going for it as many of the 2D indie darlings of recent years, or overly cryptic or punishing considering the massive popularity of a certain developer of action-RPG titles.
The overworld is large and open enough to feel expansive, and small enough to backtrack through without feeling like a slog. There are enough secrets and side areas available from the beginning to encourage poking around right away, while tantalazingly inaccessible ones hint at future abilities.
Dungeons are on the whole immaculately designed. Each one has a distinctive identity, iterating on concepts and challenges from previous dungeons while introducing new ones. The bosses are just as consistent.
Link's inventory strikes a rare balance between offering a lot of options without being too much. Dungeon items remain useful long after they've solved their initial puzzle, with most of them having multiple uses inside and outside of combat.
Combat itself is as good as it gets. Your basic attack remains useful throughout the game, and mastering it requires careful management of both your position and orientation. Your expanding inventory unlocks a variety of options without risking redundancy or trivializing the challenges you face. Controls are crisp and responsive, and enemy types are both numerous and differentiated.
The one major thing I don't particularly like is the game's particular cartoony aesthetic, which undercuts my ability to get immersed in the game's atmosphere—until the Dark World, that is.
A Link to the Past is imperfect, as games of its kind inevitably are. All things considered, there's remarkably little about it to actually criticize without going into detail about specific puzzle solutions or boss strategies, all of which recede in the light of what the game gets right—which is damn near everything.