My gaming preferences go through obsessive phases, and lately I’ve been all about the Legend of Zelda franchise. I could blame this on the current global phenomenon that is Breath of the Wild, though a deficiency in spending money has left BotW, at the time of this writing, untouched by me.
Nah, Zelda just has the perfect combination of elements to keep my brain off productive work: a vast, open world, hack-and-slash combat, and rewards for curiosity. For the most part, I’m drawn in by the lore and formula. I love how each new installment falls onto an evolving timeline like spattered paint, and how the fans must then debate how this new piece fits the chronology.
Despite ongoing confusion over when the games take place, one thing is always consistent: every generation has a Link, a Princess Zelda, and a calamity befalling the kingdom. Zelda comes from a royal bloodline while Link can be any boy plucked from humble origins to embrace heroic destiny. Sometimes Zelda is a damsel who needs saving. Sometimes Link and Zelda need each other to survive. It’s a familiar pattern, but by God it works.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, released in 2013, is a game that radiates nostalgic appeal. The title and box art promise players the same world they grew up with in Zelda: A Link to the Past, albeit flavored with a fresh story and new gameplay mechanics. So Kakariko Village is still west, Lake Hylia southeast, Lost Woods northwest, and so on.
Or…not. It turns out the familiar looking map is a bait-and-switch gimmick. While those words are never good when used in the same sentence, I should stress that this is not necessarily a bad thing. The first hour plays a clever move where it tricks you into feeling like you’re back in the old neighborhood. Then the veil whisks away and you’re faced with a different world.
This generation’s Link wakes up in the same house the LttP Hero shared with his uncle, only this time he’s rooming with a strange rabbit creature named Ravio, who looks like a hybrid of Jar Jar Binks and Frank from Donnie Darko. Link is an inept blacksmith’s apprentice, and enroute to delivering a sword he runs into the game’s villain: Yuga, a pretentious Kefka-esque clown thing with the power to turn people into paintings. This nearly befalls our hero but a special bracelet given by Ravio saves him. Link gains the ability to fuse with walls, allowing him to cross chasms and slip past obstacles.
Returning to the aforementioned false pretense, my first real task was to save a potential clown victim by revisiting the ALttP Eastern Palace. I navigated that first room, the one with the cannonballs. Thinking I had it down because I played through this dungeon an unhealthy number of times as a child, I was brimming with confidence as I entered the next room. Then everything changed. The dungeon had gone through a major renovation. All familiarity vanished from there.
As for the overworld, A Link Between Worlds presents a Hyrule a few hundred years removed from A Link to the Past. The geography is largely the same, but many of the familiar landmarks have either moved somewhere else or closed centuries ago. It’s an evolving and changing world, a rarity in a Zelda game, as Hyrule’s subsequent layouts are usually scattered to the winds.
The bait feels manipulative, but it’s a necessary evil. For those of us who wore our ALttP cartridges down to powder, the exploration element would be lost if we knew where everything was supposed to be. Beyond that, the updated map upholds a tradition I’ve always loved about Nintendo IP’s, which is the ability to surprise us at any moment.
The dungeons are much smaller than previous Zelda games. Whereas Link is otherwise pitted against convoluted labyrinths with hidden shortcuts connected by hollow walls, these dungeons seem like cottages in comparison. But the decrease in size begets an increase in density. Every room has a brain teasing puzzle to solve. Despite the shortness in real estate, each dungeon could take an hour or more to solve.
The wall merge ability is helpful in a pinch. The problem is that it ends up being the game’s core mechanic, where nearly every puzzle and boss fight involves using it. Odds are if you’re stuck figuring out a room or fighting a boss, the solution is obvious. Having trouble activating that switch? Use the wall merge. Can’t figure out the boss’s weakness? Wall merge. It’s used so much that Link’s arsenal is, as a whole, largely useless. Remember when conquering a dungeon required combining all of your abilities? That isn’t the case here.
Speaking of dungeon powerups, they’re all available via item rental from Ravio, and I mean everything, from the Fire Rod to the Hook Shot to the boomerang to the bow & arrow. It seems a cheap cop-out but has limitations. If you die then Ravio takes all of his items back, requiring that you return to his house and spend 80 more Rupees if you want that item again. Later on Ravio gives you the option to buy the items, albeit at higher asking prices.
The item rental further sets this apart from ALttP. The former gave the player a big Hyrule to explore but kept wandering limited to what was in your inventory. A bridge might have been out, requiring the Hook Shot to get across. Everything was linear until the Dark World, and even then you needed certain treasures to expand the map. Here, having everything available from the outset brings back that open sandbox feel from the original Legend of Zelda. You can play the dungeons in any order you want or explore at your leisure.
I mentioned earlier that my spending cash is deficient at the moment and that’s because I spent $125 to cover a remaining balance on a ‘New’ 3DS XL. And what better way to test out supposed improved 3D output than with a Zelda title? A Link Between Worlds takes a classic Zelda route by using the old top-down perspective. I’m happy to say that the visuals look stunning in 3D, to the extent that I spent most of the game with the 3D slider pushed all the way up. It not only gives you something nice to look at, but makes those dungeon rooms safer, as hazards are easier to spot with the depth perception maxed out.
True to form, A Link Between Worlds is an explorer’s paradise. It has a multitude of Heart Containers, upgrades, and bonus games to discover, enough to keep you busy. After finishing the game, clocking 33 total hours in the 3DS Activity Log, I was able to say “I collected all 100 Maiamai squid babies” and “by the way, I’m pushing thirty-three” in the same breath without guilt. The bonus content is definitely worth pursuing.
Despite differences in presentation, A Link Between Worlds is an authentic Zelda experience. Rather than rehashing A Link to the Past as the packaging suggests, it combines new and familiar elements to create a unique adventure. Whether you’re someone who is looking to reminisce or wanting to play through another ‘link’ in Hyrule’s history, A Link Between Worlds is good company.
FINAL GRADE: B