The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
Release Date: November 22, 2013
Publisher (Developer): Nintendo (Nintendo)
ESRB Rating: “Everyone” for Fantasy Violence
Way back in 1991, the masterpiece of 16 bit gaming known as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past started a whole new era for the fledgling Legend of Zelda franchise. The impact it had was so huge that every one of the dozen or so games released in the series over the following 2 decades would follow the same basic formula. It’s a great formula, but after so long it has gotten a bit tiresome. The latest entry in the series, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, sets out to change the formula, and ironically does so by being the first Zelda game to return to the same version of Hyrule featured in A Link to the Past; making it probably the most, backward looking game in the series. Yet A Link Between Worlds is also one of the most dramatic departures for The Legend of Zelda since Ocarina of Time moved the series into 3D. The stark juxtaposition of familiar nostalgia and innovative change creates one of the best experiences the Legend of Zelda franchise has ever seen.
The Hero of Legend
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds takes place several generations after the events of A Link to the Past. It is the same Hyrule, right down to the placement of the bushes, yet you can see the passage of time; some trees have been cut down to make new paths, there are new residents, the dungeons have somehow morphed internally, and your adventures from A Link to the Past have become immortal legends handed down through the years.
Enter into this world the evil magician Yuga from Hyrule’s mirror universe Lorule, who goes around kidnapping people and turning them into paintings; including the eponymous Princess Zelda, in a scheme to obtain the Triforce and possibly resurrect Ganon. You play as Link, the chosen one who has to save the Princess and the Kingdom of Hyrule. All the standard Zelda fare, for better or worse. The story throws a couple of twists in there, but by in large, you know what you’re getting into.
Honoring the past, while preparing for a grand new adventure.
It’s the gameplay where A Link Between Worlds starts to set itself apart from previous entries. It’s played from a top-down view, as all handheld Zelda games are, just like A Link to the Past, and all the concepts and gameplay mechanics are largely unchanged from it’s 16 bit predecessor.
The biggest difference is the overall approach to beating the game: instead of a mostly linear line of quests to complete, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is actually something approaching open world. Whereas in previous games you tackled dungeons one at a time, obtaining the special items contained therein needed to progress further, in A Link Between Worlds you have most of the special items available almost from the start, thanks to a strange rabbit-outfitted merchant named Ravio who decides to set-up shop in your home. You can either rent the items you want for a small fee, which his pet bird-thing will come repo from your cold dead corpse each time you die, or you can buy the items permanently for a much larger amount of Rupees. This lets you mostly explore and complete the game in any order you choose, and the effect this simple change has on the feel of the game is nothing short of profound.
Never before have you been so free to explore the depths of Hyrule as you choose. It’s not only liberating, but it makes the game feel so much more alive, rather than contrived for the benefit of the plot. This change also adds a bit of a Mega Man feeling to the game as there are still some items that can only be gotten from dungeons and side quests, which while rarely necessary, can have a strong impact on the difficulty. Finding the Blue Mail or some Master Ore as early as possible, for example, will make the rest of the game much easier. The game is never particularly “hard”, I would consider it “challenging” at best, but never overtly difficult. As such you never really feel any need to go searching for the right items in the right order, but they will make a difference. Replaying the game on the drastically more difficult Hero Mode however might make collecting items in a certain order more important.
Another new twist The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is Link’s ability to turn himself into a wall painting. It sounds on the surface like just a simple gimmick, but in execution it’s one of the best abilities Link has ever had. In painting form you can slide along walls and squeeze between cracks, which opens up all sorts of new avenues for exploration and puzzle solving. You have to do a fair bit of mental adjustment to accommodate this new power, I can’t even tell you how many times I got hung up on something just to realize 20 minutes later all I had to do is turn into a painting and scoot right on past an obstacle. It’s a simple mechanic that adds a whole new level of complexity to how you approach a familiar game.
Transforming into a painting is also how you will traverse the cracks that join A Link Between Worlds’ Hyrule to its counterpart Lorule. Lorule is very much an analogous to A Link to the Past’s Dark World. If anything Lorule might be a little “too” much like the old Dark World. Although it skates dangerously close to feeling like a retread, it gets nicely explained away by the story, and ultimately works out pretty well. The biggest change between the old Dark World, and the new Lorule is that there are more people still living in Lorule that you can talk to and interact with. You get a real sense of this having been a much better place in the past, which lends a feeling of bleak desolation that makes you actually care about the mutated, corrupted denizens of Lorule.
While the over world map in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds remains mostly unaltered from A Link to the Past, the dungeons themselves are completely re-worked and entirely new. While they share the same themes conceptually as their forbears’, they are completely new experiences. The dungeons are relatively small, just short enough to keep them from overstaying their welcome, but the layouts themselves are wonderful. The Ice Ruins stands out to me as particularly interesting. The puzzles are great and require a fair bit of thought, but are never frustrating. Even the infamous Zelda Water Temple manages to be fun, rather than inciting rage. Being able to tackle the dungeons in whichever order you choose makes them feel all the better; if you ever do get hung up on one, or just bored, you’re free to leave and go someplace else first instead. Maybe get some more items, find some extra heart containers, or just break up the routine a bit by playing a mini-game.
Power, Wisdom, Courage
There is so much more to the game than a fundamental shift in gameplay mechanics however. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds simply nails it in every other department as well. The graphics are very reminiscent of A Link to the Past, but are redone in a way that looks simply gorgeous on the 3DS’ screen. The art style lies somewhere between the cel shading of Wind Waker, and the oil painting style of Skyward Sword. The effect looks great in a screenshot, but is simply amazing in motion. A Link Between Worlds is beautiful, and I don’t just mean for a 3DS game. There is the odd aliasing issue here and there, and once or twice I saw the frame rate dip for a split second when there was a lot happening on screen, but overall it is a sight to behold.
One of the coolest things about A Link Between Worlds is how it uses the 3DS’ namesake trick. The way the 3D is used in the game finally fulfills all the promises Nintendo made about glasses-free 3D; the effect is executed perfectly throughout the game and looks fantastic. Furthermore, it actually helps the gameplay. While you don’t need the 3D to play by any means, the added depth perception works wonders in figuring out some of the puzzles. This was by far and away the most I have ever used the 3D feature, and for once I am honestly glad to have it there.
Despite how great The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds looks and plays, probably the best part of the game is just listening to it. The Zelda series as a whole is renowned for having one of the best musical scores in gaming, but what composer Ryo Nagamatsu did to Koji Kondo’s original brilliant work is nothing short of astounding. A Link Between Worlds’ score is one of the most masterfully crafted re-arrangements in gaming. All the classical songs you know so well are there, but changed in both subtle, and not-so-subtle ways that makes you feel like you’re hearing them for the first time. Do not any under circumstances play this game without a decent pair of headphones, you will be severely losing out by relying on the 3DS speakers’ ability to convey the music.
On top of all this, Nintendo really went out of their way to make A Link Between Worlds as self-referential as they could, which is both amusing and also makes the game feel somehow more cohesive than most previous entries. All the little details, like how Link and Zelda aren’t the only names fans will recognize. Clearly re-using family names is a big tradition in Hyrule. Particularly neat are the subtleties of the character designs, such as Rosso the miner looking like a cross between a Hyrulian and a Goron. You can see the species beginning to evolve and differentiate here and it’s very cool. Make sure to flatten yourself onto the walls of people’s homes for some nifty easter eggs. All these little touches add so much character to the game; it’s the first entry in the series to really feel like it actually is a part of a larger series rather than a stand-alone game.
A Link to Perfection
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds could have just been a nostalgia filled sequel, just had some new mechanics tossed in to change up the old formula, or just been given a great new art style and music. Any of these would have likely resulted in a pretty good game, but A Link Between Worlds is all of these, making it something that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. This is not only the best handheld entry, it easily stands alongside Ocarina of Time, The Wind Waker, and A Link to the Past as one of the best installments to the entire series. One can’t help but feel that The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds has changed Zelda forever.