How do you follow up a legend? Or, better yet, how do you possibly follow up one of the most critically-acclaimed video games of all time?
Attempting a sequel to something like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past could have been many things: unprecedented, crazy, or most of all, a complete and total wash. As one of the defining experiences on SNES and in the entire Zelda franchise (and one of the rare games that can take the claim for being one of the greatest games of all time), to even attempt not just a new Zelda game, but one that directly follows the storyline of something to the scale of A Link to the Past, would make it seem like Nintendo is just asking for craziness.
Luckily, Zelda fans can rest easy – to call The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds anything but a wonderful and nostalgic ode to all things Zelda would be a disservice to the obvious levels of care and detail that Nintendo put into developing one of their best Zelda games in the last decade.
Just like Link’s new ability to switch between perspectives as a daring young 3D adventurer into an other-worldly scrawled 2D painting, A Link Between Worlds truly brings the best of both worlds to its latest installment of the Zelda series - a truly old-school design mentality (and lovingly retro art style), mixed with some of the most progressive gameplay mechanics that the series has had in quite some time.
The game harkens back to the 16-bit days of A Link to the Past but brings so much new depth and innovation to everything else along with it – the puzzles, the dungeons, and even exploring its densely-layered world always rife with secrets and hidden items to find.
Taking place several generations after The Hero of Time saved the kingdom of Hyrule in the events of A Link to the Past, Nintendo’s sequel is by all means a follow-up to the acclaimed Zelda title, but brings more than enough accessibility to make it easy to hop in for newcomers and beginners.
After Link becomes tangled with a new enemy that seeks to threaten the kingdom of Hyrule, the conflict soon brings Link into a journey across his beloved land and across rifts in time and reality. With the new ability to switch perspectives in 2D/3D by “merging” as a painting into nearby walls and surfaces, Link can quickly drift into and out of tears that bring him to a whole new unexplored realm: Lorule. This is essentially the “dark” version of Hyrule that acts as a mirror image to Link’s home land.
Like mentioned previously, A Link Between Worlds brings an incredibly successful blend of old-school design with fairly radical new changes to the Zelda formula, but the best part of it all comes in the game’s willingness to get things moving and get you going quickly. Right from about 15-20 minutes in, I was wandering around Hyrule with my sword and shield, ready to take on anything, as it thankfully does away with some of the excessive hand-holding and drawn-out tutorials of more recent Zelda entries, in exchange for a liberating sense of freedom and choice.
Hyrule (and once accessed, Lorule) both offer large maps with plenty of versatility and options for getting around (especially in part to a new fast travel system). The ability to roam freely and (for the most part) be able to tackle dungeons in any order or explore areas freely is superbly done. While obviously certain areas can only be explored once new items or weapons have been obtained, knowing that I could go into any of the game’s dungeons with little frustration, or worry about what order they need to be finished in, was expertly handled and a refreshing change of pace for the series.
While sometimes the lack of hand-holding may be a bit of a detriment, leading to many moments of “Where do I go now?”, the level of freedom and decision still feels incredibly well-guided and progressive, especially thanks to some of its biggest gameplay tweaks which drastically change the game’s weapon and inventory systems.
After meeting the oddly-charming Rovio, the purple rabbit-hooded merchant that quickly moves into your home at the game’s beginning to set up shop, you can witness a dramatic game change for the long-established Zelda mechanics – being able to access (nearly) all of Link’s various weapons and equipment, right from the get go. A Link Between Worlds offers a unique opportunity where Link can “rent” equipment from Rovio’s shop, thereby giving him access to almost all of the weapons and accessories that a normal Zelda would give piecemeal over the course of the game – the bow, the hookshot, bombs, etc.
However, the equipment rental only lasts as long as Link stays undefeated, adding a new sense of urgency to death – if killed, all of the loaned rental equipment will be returned to Rovio’s shop (unless purchased for full price, where it will permanently remain in Link’s inventory). While it seems like only a simple change, the renting and purchasing of equipment only adds to the sense of freedom by allowing a large selection of items and puzzle-solving weapons from the start, but with enough of a risk/reward initiative that makes it both hugely beneficial, but also potentially fatal if Link is defeated.
While death and Rupees were not of particularly high consequence in previous Zelda titles, other than having to go back to the start of a dungeon, now every discovered chest of Rupees is vital toward making full equipment purchases and every heart is sacred in avoiding re-renting your hard-earned items. It’s an incredibly effective system that will hopefully stay for future installments in the series, bringing plenty of variety and choice, but making every Rupee and Heart Container vital for success.
A Link Between Worlds entirely succeeds gameplay-wise – it offers a compelling sense of freedom in being able to wander and explore, yet still gives enough of a progression where certain items or weapons discovered later in the game opens up new areas to explore or gives access to prevoiusly unreachable items or Heart Containers. Despite coming from the roots of the classic 2D Zelda adventures of old, the game plays nearly flawlessly on the 3DS, with Link’s movements and sword-swings being responsive and nimble, while switching into Link’s 2D painting form is effortless and easy, if maybe just needing some time to get used to the transitions, at first.
Likewise, it offers a multitude of challenging but entirely solvable dungeons and boss fights that take full advantage of the 3DS’s capabilities. While I had more than my fair share of moments of confusion for trying to figure out just what I had to do to make it through the next dungeon, the puzzles are certainly challenging but not insurmountable, making me feel clever and accomplished after (finally!) figuring out their solutions.
Strewn with easter eggs to even the most avid Zelda fan, A Link Between Worlds easily charts high on the list of the 3DS’s best-looking games with bright, vibrant colors and the stylized, cartoonish art direction of classic Zelda, while making it a truly “3D” game.
While the inclusion of 3D in most 3DS games usually has come off as more of an after-thought, this title is truly one of the mandatory 3D games, much like Super Mario 3D Land, that not only demands to be played in 3D for the full experience, but often requires it with visual puzzlery that has Link dropping down multiple floors, fighting enemies way above/below him, and more. Plus, seeing the lush environments of Hyrule merging into the aging darkness of Lorule is something that needs to only be seen in 3D.
The 3DS has already had a stellar year with a constant stream of some of Nintendo’s best-quality titles in years, but the latest entry in the The Legend of Zelda franchise heroically caps off this banner year for Nintendo’s handheld. A Link Between Worlds is huge in spirit and even bigger in heart but the game truly succeeds because it can appeal to anyone, both to longtime Zelda adventurers or to those looking to take their first dive into the series. With enough secrets and treasures to discover to keep any Zelda fan young and old busy for days, A Link Between Worlds is a lovely blend of the nostalgic heart of old-school Zelda, mixed with daring new ideas that surprisingly move the series forward into new territory.
While Link may be on his quest to save Hyrule and salvage the remains of war-torn Lorule, what’s even more exciting is to see just what other dimensions that The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds can have us, and at the same time, have the Zelda series explore.