I’m going to drop a bomb on all you right now. I’m not much of a fan of 2D isometric Zelda. Sure, A Link to the Past is a great game and technically a masterpiece, but I’ll take most 3D Zeldas over it any day of the year. Except Twilight Princess. Ugh. And yet, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds on the 3DS is shaking my close-minded preference to its core. Not just because it’s a fantastic game, but also because it creates a brand new Zelda experience! For a beloved franchise that has been growing obnoxiously repetitious for over a decade, this has been a long time coming. Unfortunately, it might not be enough.
A Link Between Worlds is a direct sequel (sans six generations in canon) to the 1991 classic A Link to the Past. Not only does its story follow the ending of Past, but the world, characters, enemies, gameplay, and general aesthetic are of the same mold. Even the music is essentially a “best of Link to the Past” remix collection, though with plenty of new tunes for new dungeons. The only thing missing is Link’s weird pink hair, but I don’t think anybody will be crying over that. The game looks beautiful, with a colorful cartoon style which can only be described as “classic!” Plus, unlike 99.9% of the system’s library, the 3D effect is sharp, smooth, and actually enhances the experience… particularly in multi-floored dungeons.
Right from the get go, A Link Between Worlds wastes zero time with setup. After waking up in bed, (as usual) good ol’ lazy Link is told to deliver a sword to Hyrule Castle’s new captain. No sooner does he arrive when all hell breaks loose and BAM! You’re suddenly in a dungeon! That’s right, this game takes the concept of hand-holding and smashes it under the weight of a Megaton Hammer. Tutorials are a thing of the past, and clever level design does an excellent job teaching you how items, combat, and other mechanics work as you play! Even better, Link is on his own. You know what that means, right? No annoying sidekick stating the obvious, screaming “HEY! HEY!” in your ear, or swooping in and repeating the same instructions over and over and over! It’s a Christmas miracle! Granted, you will get some necessary prompts every so often, puzzles will give you some leeway if you suck too much, and if you’re stuck there are numerous characters and even an optional item to help you find your way. However, it is ultimately up to the player to figure things out, much like old-school Zelda. It’s refreshing and emphasizes the adventure of the game.
World’s spot on the timeline is rather fitting. Past was the first major evolution for the series, and Worlds follows suit. One of the most important additions is the new “gimmick” which Link receives in the first dungeon; merging with walls in the form of a painting. When merged, you can move along the wall’s surface, crossing gaps and slipping through cracks Link would never be able to pass in his ordinary state. Merging is used extensively and presents a new puzzle solving element unique to Zelda and video games in general. This addition alone makes each dungeon a wholly different experience from any other Zelda title.
Another huge change to the tired formula is the method of finding and using items. Early on, you’ll meet a strange rabbit-eared fellow named Ravio. This homeless weirdo decides his best course of action is to crash at your pad with his pet hummingbird, and Link’s heart of gold just can’t say no. Luckily, Ravio’s actually a pretty cool dude, and offers a plethora of items to Link in return. That’s right, nearly every single item in the game is available to rent from Ravio right from the start! Bow, bombs, hookshot, everything! Some dungeons still have key items hidden within, and other items are still found throughout the world, (like the ever-useful bottles) but these are few and far between. Each of Ravio’s items costs a small amount of rupees to rent, but you can rent any item for as long as you need. When you die, Ravio recovers all your rented items and you’ll need to grind rupees to pay all over again. Eventually, you’ll be able to just buy everything permanently, at much higher prices.
Fortunately, even if you grab all the items as soon as you can, the difficulty is perfectly balanced. Each dungeon requires the use of only one key item from Ravio. Which item you need is spelled out for you at dungeon entrances. So you can wait to rent items based on what dungeon you're challenging, or you can rent them all at once, which is what I did. Each item has very different purposes, and many puzzles have multiple solutions, depending on your other items on hand. With dungeons organized by their required items so well you won't feel too overpowered despite carrying an arsenal fit for an army.
There’s one other major alteration to weaponry: an energy meter. Rather than having to collect bombs, arrows, and so on, using your items drains a meter which refills quickly over time. This "stamina-esque" meter applies to all of your weapons, as well as the wall merging ability, so managing your available energy is essential. Especially during a crisis. The lack of ammunition like arrows is a lot more handy than you’d think. It elliminates grind time mowing grass for ammo, and thus the chances of finding rupee currency or health replenishing hearts in said grass is far more common! Considering how important both those are for keeping your items in the first place, this works full circle, benefiting every piece of the game it possibly can and greatly improving game flow. It’s genius, and without a doubt my favorite new feature!
Because nearly every tool is available from the beginning, Hyrule has become an open book. You can go anywhere, anytime, exploring the kingdom in any manner of your choosing. The dungeons you need to complete are marked on your map. You can choose the order and methods in which you approach them, or you can screw around with numerous sidequests and mini-adventures on your own! The overworld is nearly identical to that of A Link to the Past, for obvious reasons. However, it was Past that created Zelda’s iconic and overused landscape to begin with, separating the 4 corners of Hyrule into a lake, a mountain, a forest, and a desert, with Hyrule Castle in the center. So while you are free to explore, you are still forced to work within the boundaries of the franchise’s stale world layout. Some small changes were made, particularly for use of the wall merging ability, but was a sequel to Past really the best choice for a reboot in mechanics? Depends on whether you feel the nostalgia wave or not. If you've never played A Link to the Past, you certainly won’t enjoy this game as much as those who have. To be clear, the freedom element is excellent, but seems underutilized. It’s as if the game wants to be completely open world, but can’t decide whether or not to pull the proverbial trigger.
…until you find the mirror image of Hyrule called Lorule. Yes. LORULE. Confirmed, this game was written by a bunch of four-year-olds on drugs. Turns out Lorule is NOT open to exploration. In fact, huge chucks of the alternate land are closed off at first. Link can only access certain areas of Lorule by finding inter-dimensional cracks in the walls of Hyrule, and has to accomplish certain tasks and dungeons to find these cracks. This is awfully similar to how previous Zelda titles managed world exploration. It appears to be some sort of negotiation between new and old ideals, and feels contradictory. Which is it, Nintendo? Make up your mind!
Speaking of old ideals, Worlds forces you to rely on physical save points in set locations rather than a simple quick save feature. It’s annoying. If this is the “new” Zelda, why is this relic still here? Especially for a game on a handheld system with such a crappy battery life! Fortunately, the rest of the game is stylized to the portable gaming style very well. This is easily apparent in the dungeons, which are streamlined to promote quicker, more convenient playthroughs. This does not mean these dungeons are simplified. In fact, they feature exceptionally clever design and always end with an enjoyable boss fight! Multiple quests ended up stumping me for awhile, but finally discovering the answers was always rewarding. Worlds presents an enormous focus on puzzles, though the simple combat is fluid and fun, too. Plenty of enemies will force you to plan a method of attack before you strike.
The only piece of the Zelda formula that remains completely untouched is the recycled story... Collect the green, blue, and red artifacts to unlock a secret power, usually the Master Sword. Then some asshole revives Ganon for the millionth time and kidnaps Zelda, so you need to brave 4+ more dungeons to unlock more secret powers blah blah blah you know the drill. Worlds does little to shake this knight in shining armor (or green tunic) story up... apart from a weird fusion dance. No joke. Given the setting, this seems fine to me. Zelda’s story primarily serves the purpose of engaging the player in the world, not the narrative. Since the actual world has not changed much, there’s really nothing to fix here.
Also, mass murdering chickens are still infesting Hyrule. Some things should never change.
A Link Between Worlds adds many much-needed improvements to the Zelda formula, but not enough to be called a complete renovation. Regardless, it is well built, enjoyable to play, an engaging adventure, and everything you could want from a sequel to A Link to the Past. It is a worthy addition to a franchise of masterpieces. While it presents a powerful nostalgia trip, both new and old-school players alike will find plenty to enjoy. The open exploration and unique item management take this installment to the next level, making A Link Between Worlds a grand first step toward a better, modernized Zelda. While it's not everything it should be, this is a must-have for any 3DS owner. I cannot wait to see what Nintendo tries next!
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