The balancing act of honoring the Zelda tradition while implementing worthwhile change; a fantastic visual feast; the amazing soundtrack; perfect pacing and difficulty curve
The story… kind of… though not really; no quick save feature
Never once in my life have I ever made an attempt to hide the fact that I am a Zelda fan, but what might be a little less clear is that I actually have a heavy bias toward the 3D Zelda titles. That’s right, even though I had dabbled in the NES originals and owned an SNES throughout the vast majority of its lifespan, I never really got into the series until Ocarina of Time. That being said, I did eventually delve into A Link to the Past, and even though I might prefer my Link to be made of polygons, it easily proved itself to be not just one of the best Zeldas, but one of the greatest games of all time. Surprisingly The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds manages to capture all of its predecessor’s glory while blazing a new trail for the series.
From the moment it was revealed as a sequel to the SNES classic, I think everybody knew that A Link Between Worlds was going to be worth playing solely for the nostalgia factor; millions of gamers had spent countless hours exploring that particular iteration of Hyrule, and the mere thought of getting to explore it again, this time re-imagined on more powerful hardware, was enough to excite Nintendo’s core audience. But I don’t think anybody was quite expecting just how innovative and just plain brilliant the game would end up being. The Zelda series has long been built on a set of core mechanics and A Link Between Worlds continues to employ them, but it takes most of these concepts and gives them an interesting twist. From the classic items to the world itself, everything is familiar, but noticeably different and, in just about every regard, better.
The beginning of the game is quite possibly the best the series has had in a long time simply because it wastes no time in getting to the point. Link is an apprentice to the blacksmith, and when he runs off to the sanctuary to deliver a sword to the captain of the castle guard, he finds the Sanctuary is under attack by an evil wizard who traps the priest’s daughter in a painting, and turns the captain into a painting on the wall before running off. Link then goes to Hyrule Castle to warn Princess Zelda that evil is afoot; she sees the heroism in Link, and sends him off on the first steps of a grand adventure with one of the magical pendants that have made numerous appearances throughout the series. This setup is classic Zelda, but it really differentiates itself from most recent entries in the series by completely avoiding any long and uninteresting tutorials. There are brief notes or lines of dialogue here or there to explain a concept, but for the most part the game avoids any forced hand-holding, instead moving along with a quiet confidence that most of us have probably played a Zelda game before, and that almost as many have probably played A Link to the Past, thus making a lot of gamers extremely familiar with not just the gameplay mechanics, but the layout of the world itself.
Much has been made of how open A Link Between Worlds’ structure is, but the truth is that you are forced into the very first dungeon, where Link once again runs into the evil mage from earlier, Yuga, who has imprisoned another would-be hero. This encounter gives Link another one of the new features that helps define this game: the ability to turn into a painting on the wall and then move as a 2D object upon most surfaces. Not only is this another way to traverse the world, but it allows for a clever new twist for puzzles as it forces you to look at many obstacles in a brand new way, quite literally. In fact, a good tidbit to keep in mind as you play through this game is to always try this new skill out whenever you get stuck; it’s such a new and creative gameplay idea that sometimes it can be easy to overlook it as you gradually adapt your brain to be more conscious of it. Furthermore, this skill also proves vital for combat, as jumping into walls is an extremely effective tool for avoiding incoming attacks, or repositioning yourself when backed into a corner.
With this skill now in your repertoire, the game really begins to open up; all of a sudden you are allowed access to an array of items and can start choosing which dungeons to tackle. At first just two are available, but once those are out of the way that number jumps to seven. Certain dungeons do require specific items to access and explore, but that is where the new item rental system comes in. As I said, the items are available, but you have to rent or buy them first. Renting is cheap, but dying makes you lose unowned items, so if you check everything out and then fall in combat, getting everything back will prove pricey. Buying is expensive out of the gate, but you never have to worry about losing items and you then get the option to upgrade them as a reward for collecting one of the game’s many collectables. Thankfully, the game is pretty generous with rupees as the world is filled with countless treasure chests, sometimes containing as much 100 to 300 rupees, so by late in the game you should have enough to buy all the items. I personally preferred to be decked out with every item as much as I could because exploring the world for Heart Pieces and treasure is made all the easier when you always have the option to blow open a suspicious looking wall in or to Hookshot across an otherwise impassable chasm.
One great new feature that I actually found to be surprisingly overlooked by other previews and reviews is the stamina meter. This regenerating purple bar in the lower left-hand corner of the screen is your ammo for weapons, magic meter for the the magical rods, and timer for how long Link can stay in his painting form. At first this might seem like an oversimplification of otherwise divergent gameplay elements, but in reality it is a brilliant device that not only changes the way you approach combat, but also impacts the flow of the game. Without having to constantly mow lawns or run to town to replenish your arrow supply or to fill your magic meter, you feel much more free to employee your numerous tows in fun and effective ways during combat. However, the fact that every arrow fired, hammer swung, or second spent as a painting depletes the gauge adds an extra layer of strategy to combat. The fire rod unleashes a devastating attack but it also eats up a large chunk of the meter, so even though you can throw down a lot of pain pretty quickly with it, you will find yourself more vulnerable as you can no longer jump into the wall to flee from danger and your offensive options are reduced to swinging your sword as you wait for the meter to refill. Thanks to this feature, A Link Between Worlds easily has the most interesting, fun, and satisfying combat of any of the top-down Zelda games.
Items within the Zelda universe have also always been a vital part of solving the puzzles that populate the series’ famous dungeons, and they too fail to disappoint in this game. As always, the complexity of the dungeons and difficulty of the puzzles increase as the game progresses and, more importantly, they also continue to surprise. It is one thing to continuously throw well made puzzles at the player, but it is another to keep finding ways to surprise them with brand new ideas and clever twists on previously introduced concepts. A few great examples really stand out to me; first is one of the later dungeons which uses lighting in astoundingly clever ways to reveal and/or conceal aspects of the environment, and the other is one of the final rooms of the game’s final dungeon, which actually introduces a brand new puzzle concept unseen anywhere else in the game. A Link Between Worlds ultimately features some of the most original and tightly designed dungeons the series has ever seen by incorporating an exhilarating mix of old and new ideas, with Link’s ability to turn into a painting taking center stage while managing to never overstay its welcome or downplay other mechanics. And like I said, this game literally introduces new ideas mere minutes before the final boss.
And speaking of bosses, the big baddies at the end of each dungeon offer another amalgamation of the old and new. Some of the bosses literally come straight out of A Link to the Past, many are brand new creations, and some are even updated versions of classic bosses. A phenomenal example of this is actually the final boss, and while I don’t want to spoil anything, I will say that it jumps between the classic game of energy ball tennis Link frequently plays with Ganon in their epic encounters with 2D side-scrolling combat as wall paintings. While I personally think the newer style Zelda games allow for bosses that simply feel more epic, I must admit that the battles in A Link Between Worlds are no less creative or enjoyable to play.
To wrap up the gameplay portion of this review, I would be foolish to not mention how amazingly paced A Link Between Worlds is from beginning to end. One major difference between this game and A Link to the Past is that this newer game is a handheld title and the truth of the matter is that handheld games are best when paced in such a way as to accommodate shorter play sessions and A Link Between Worlds excels at this. Everything about this game just seems to flow a bit faster than most Zelda games but never feels less satisfying because of it. The world is densely packed with secrets to uncover and things to do, but getting around it is made extremely efficient thanks to a fantastic fast-travel system that opens up very early and has plenty of very conveniently placed destinations. The dungeons also seem to go by a much quicker pace and by no means is this an insult because, as I stated earlier, they are very tightly designed with no wasted space or uninteresting moments and the difficulty curve manages to constantly push you but never to the point of frustration. I think the key point to all of this is that it always feels like you are being given something meaningful to do or accomplish without any wasted space or time in between. One can almost say that this game is the anti-Wind Waker; rather than using large, open spaces to lend to the sense of grandeur and adventure, A Link Between Worlds builds a tightly packed game space with much more immediate and apparent rewards. The only thing that would really make this game better from a portable perspective would be the option to save anywhere; however, you are limited to the weather vanes that serve as the aforementioned fast travel spots, and, in a wonderfully useful and cute little touch, flail about frantically to grab your attention whenever you have gone a long time without saving.
As is usually the case with Zelda games, A Link Between Worlds is an absolute feast for the eyes and ears. First of all, in terms of visuals, it is nothing short of amazing how the game manages to recreate the look of A Link to the Past with 3D models that look great not just during gameplay, but are also revealed to be amazingly detailed whenever the camera zooms into more cinematic shots during cutscenes. Regardless of how whether you’re in the middle of gameplay or in a cutscene, the game remains colorful and beautifully animated, and that is probably what makes the biggest difference in the end. Everything about this game’s visuals are just so smooth and seamless that you are absorbed into the world and never forced out of it by a technical hiccup or awkward perspective change during a story sequence. And topping off this visual mastery is a phenomenal use of 3D; this feature not just accentuates the sense of depth within the world, but many dungeons, puzzles and even boss fights utilize the 3D to benefit the gameplay in times when depth and height are integral to design. The game still manages to communicate these differences when played in 2D, but the 3D is absolutely beneficial. Altogether, A Link Between Worlds uses 3D better than just about any other work of media I have ever experienced before thanks to how much it directly benefits both the aesthetics and gameplay.
And now for what may very well be the most insane and exaggerated statement of this review, but good golly do I believe this to be true– The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is, without a doubt, the best sounding Zelda game ever made. And no, I’m not just talking about Link’s various grunts and “Hya” sounds or some random character’s silly laugh; all that stuff works just as well as it had in every other Zelda game. In a series known for great, classic music, A Link Between Worlds manages to outdo every other game in the series and, once again, it does this by combining old and new with exemplary results. Any one who has played A Link to the Past, or most any other Zelda game, is bound to recognize at least a few of the themes in this game, but the difference this time around is that these are the best arrangements the franchise has ever been graced with, and the recording and sound quality, even coming from the 3DS’s relatively meager speakers, is astounding. The new tracks are also very much in keeping with the franchise’s exceptional history and thanks to the strength of the both the sound quality and the actual composition, manage to outshine not just the majority of Zelda games, but most games in general. As far as I am concerned, if Nintendo releases a soundtrack for this game, it is an absolute must buy.
Even with all this praise I have been heaping upon A Link Between Worlds, there is one complaint that I must make against it, and that is the fact that it largely negated the one complaint I was planning to make against it. That being said, I guess I could sort of complain about the story in the game, primarily because story telling is the area where the Zelda franchise has seen its greatest strides in recent years. Overall, the game doesn’t achieve as much as Skyward Sword, Twilight Princess, Wind Waker, or Majora’s Mask with regard to creating a world populated with interesting characters and stories, but after the game gets off to a relatively shallow narrative start, the ending proves to be surprisingly interesting and really brings the whole experience together really well. I would have preferred a stronger narrative from beginning to end, but the absolutely incredible gameplay is more than strong enough to carry your interest up to what is really a simple, but well constructed and surprisingly satisfying conclusion– and this is coming from someone who is very frequently disappointed in endings.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is an amazing accomplishment; it manages to root itself deep in the fertile nostalgia millions of gamers have for A Link to the Past while simultaneously morphing classic Zelda mechanics and introducing brand new ideas that fit in perfectly with the storied franchise. Nintendo took these ideas and built a beautiful, perfectly paced, compelling, and satisfying game with them and then lavished upon it truly amazing sights and sounds. The end result is without question not just one of the greatest Zelda games ever made, but one of the best games in recent years.