When Nintendo announced that A Link Between Worlds would be a direct sequel to A Link to the Past, I was wary and concerned of the direction the series was going. The Zelda series hasn’t been known for direct sequels, let alone a direct sequel to my favorite The Legend of Zelda game, so I like to think my solicitude toward the game was justifiable. A Link Between Worlds brings a whole new world of adventure to the greatest Link of all time, but struggles with being stuck in the shadow of the past while forging a bright adventure that fans of the series have been looking forward to.
Because it’s set in the same world as the SNES classic, A Link Between Worlds can at times feel a little too familiar. From the waking up in your bed to the nearly identical locations you’ll traverse – all the iconic moments straight out of 1991 are there to sooth your nostalgia, but the reliance on the past can grow tiring. However, that’s not to say that the new features don’t drastically change the way you play the game in exciting ways.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS)
Developer: Nintendo EAD Group No. 3
Release Date: November 22, 2013
The hand-held Zelda games have always eclipsed their console brethren in terms of innovative new shticks for Link to master on his various quests to save the world. From wearing talking hats that allow him to shrink to becoming a train conductor, Link has done it all on handhelds. Link’s new contrivance in A Link Between Worlds is his new-found ability to turn into a painting. If the wall is smooth enough, at the press of a button Link will snap to the wall and gain the ability to navigate around his surroundings in a side-scroller manner. Not only that, but as the title implies, he can also slide through cracks into an alternate version of Hyrule, appropriately called Lorule. Lame antonymic puns aside, Lorule outshines the Hyrule you know and love with its beautifully grim aesthetics.
The entire painting mechanic may sound dumb on canvas, but it works well within the confines of the game. A Link Between Worlds really shines on the 3DS, with its ability to render the hand-held’s 3D capabilities in a way that doesn’t make them feel tacked on, but instead feel like an essential part of the experience. Link’s transition from 3D to a 2D painting in a 3D world is truly an impressive visualization. Building upon the play on various viewpoints, some dungeons make the use of 3D feel almost mandatory. Several of these dungeons are explored in a vertical fashion, with upper levels seen from the top-down perspective. Accessible areas have different level of depth, strongly encouraging the use of 3D to easily find and explore them.
In a shocking move, gone is the linear dungeon progression you would expect from a Zelda game. The ability to explore any dungeon at your leisure is a breath of fresh air, but it’s not without its issues. Instead of finding progression items in dungeon chests, all the key items can be accessed after about an hour of game time. All equippable items are implemented via an item renting and purchasing system, which almost feels game-breaking. The ability to rent a heap of items from the get-go is a double-edged sword, as the accessibility makes exploring dungeons feel pointless outside of the rupee-filled chests, boss fights, and story progression requirements.
The lack of linear progression is a welcome change, but it can also be disorienting at times – especially since the item system was implemented in such a necessitous way. Since you never stumble upon items in dungeons, the items you rent or buy never feel like they are earned or even truly owned. Through the item renting service, upon death all of you rented items are stripped from your inventory and returned to the shop, where you must pay a fee to rent them again from the shop keeper whose business practices easily rival those of Tom Nook. If you get tired of the run around that comes with death, you can eventually buy the rentable items for a large sum of rupees. An emphasis on battling random clumps of grass has never been higher in a Zelda game.
Even with its nonlinear presentation, A Link Between Worlds is still very much formulaic. You progress through dungeons until you fight a boss and then rinse and repeat until there’s a final confrontation with the main bad guy. Maybe it’s the years of mastering Zelda games or the ease of acquiring the required items to reach and defeat every boss, but I found A Link Between Worlds to have some of the most lackluster boss encounters in any Zelda game to date. There’s the odd boss fight that’ll bankrupt you over losing your rented items countless times, but even those can be breezed through once you learn their mechanics. In my experience, most boss fights will be over in less than a minute or two. However, the boss encounters are cosmetically pleasing with their high focus on the 3DS’s use of 3D to point out their grand scale compared to Link, as well as their weak points.
For an audiophile like myself with an erection for all things retro game music, I found the arrangements of A Link to the Past’s music to be the highlight of A Link Between Worlds. They add a new level of vibrancy to the perfection of Koji Kondo’s original tunes. Ryo Nagamatsu did Kondo’s original tracks justice – but the 3DS’ speakers aren’t capable of rendering the songs in their ideal form, so make sure you plug-in a set of headphones if you want your hearing pleasured in a magnitude of sheer ecstasy. While it’s unfortunate that we don’t get to hear any proper remixes or original tracks, I can’t think of a better nod to the music of the 90’s than Nagamatsu’s arrangements.
It has never been easy to review a The Legend of Zelda game. For every complaint and annoyance I’ve had with the game, I was able to put my issues behind me and promptly move forward with my enjoyment of the game. Even if they feel game-breaking at times – they aren’t – and you won’t feel like they are for long. Change is scary stuff. If you do something different, you run the risk of alienated those with an allegiance to the past. If you don’t take a risk and attempt to change things up, you also run the risk of growing stale and losing your fanbase. A Link Between Worlds managed to find the perfect middle ground for the series. While old-timers like myself will get more out of the game, there’s nothing stopping Worlds from becoming this generation’s Past. Nintendo’s time-honored caring attention to detail is there, still going strong after all these years.
As if you couldn’t already tell, I had high expectations for A Link Between Worlds. I hold A Link to the Past on a pedestal since it is the perfect Zelda game. While it isn’t the sequel I wanted, it’s a sequel I’m glad I got – as it stands on its own and even surpassed my expectations of what a return to the past could be. At its very core, it’s an innovative entire in the franchise you love. While it may take you a while to get used to all the new mechanics and features, once you embrace A Link Between Worlds for what it is, it just might dethrone A Link to the Past in its own special way.