In early 2013, during an otherwise uneventful Nintendo Direct video presentation, the game developer spoke about the pressures of designing for the Zelda franchise. How do you keep such a critically-lauded property fresh, while also satisfying long-time fans who have grown to love its formula? Nintendo’s answer was “Challenge the expectations of players”. Later in the year, we got a shock announcement: that the Nintendo 3DS would receive A Link Between Worlds, a direct follow-up to the 20-year-old SNES classic, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. In truth, it’s this new handheld action-RPG that best represents Nintendo’s attempt to seamlessly weave old into new.
For starters, A Link Between Worlds is defined by a radical new spin on the classic Zelda dungeon formula; rather than completing each labyrinth in a linear order in accordance with the story and/or item progression, our hero can tackle them in (mostly) any order, harking back to the original Legend of Zelda on the NES. Our protagonist’s new ability – merging into walls, allowing him to move along its surfaces as a drawing – makes for some outstanding new puzzles in these dungeons, many of which use viewer perception to great effect. But more important is the new item system, which has seen the same sort of re-thinking that dungeons have. Rather than acquire a new piece of loot every dungeon, players can (for a small fee) rent the equipment they think will most benefit them in the next challenge.
More important is the new item system, which has seen the same sort of re-thinking that dungeons have.
There’s a catch, though – die while renting an item, and it goes straight back to cheeky merchant Rovio, who you’ll have to visit for a repeat rental. This system provides a welcome layer of tension to dungeon excursions, though later in the adventure, players can pony up the cash to purchase their favourite tools outright, removing any penalty. The allure of permanent item ownership also provides an interesting emphasis on the collection of Rupees (the currency of the game world of Hyrule), encouraging players to explore more.
In an alternative take on the equipment system teased in Skyward Sword, the majority of purchased items can be upgraded to “Nice” versions by rescuing Maimais from the landscape, snail/Octorok-like creatures which are this game’s iteration of the Gold Skulltulas hidden in N64 title, Ocarina of Time. This process is entirely optional, but there’s something unquestionably exciting about discovering how your favourite dungeon items will be powered up for the rest of the game; I found the Nice Tornado Rod, with its increased damage and stun radius, particularly invaluable for one of the game’s more intense side-quests. And unlike the Golden Skulltulas of previous adventures, a map counter keeps track of how many Maimais are hidden in each area, making the process of acquiring them that much more efficient.
Regardless, the over-world is so well-designed that you’ll probably want to explore every nook and cranny. Eschewing recent popular trends towards repetitive quests or random content generation, there’s simply no filler here. Everything has a place; everything has a purpose. While it’s a shame that Nintendo wasn’t a little more daring with the layout (a band-new region or two wouldn’t have gone amiss), the Hyrule of A Link Between Worlds – just as in A Link to the Past before it – remains one of the true classic over-worlds of top-down game design.
The game’s story, while slightly more dense than the SNES classic that inspired it, is somewhat simplistic compared to the heady drama and more mature themes explored in 3D Zeldas. That said, it’s heartfelt and full of character, with some wonderful references to every franchise entry from (obviously) A Link to the Past right through to the surreal Majora’s Mask.
The 3D visuals are basic but wonderfully-realised, presenting an updated look at a Hyrule that is a joy to revisit.
These qualities carry across to the aesthetic of the game world. While presented from a bird’s eye view for the most part, the 3D visuals are basic but wonderfully-realised, presenting an updated look at a Hyrule that is a joy to revisit. The game also runs at a chipper pace, boasting a mostly-consistent 60FPS refresh rate (barring a couple of instances during an intense battle or two), even with the 3D slider turned all the way up. A special nod needs to be given to the audio – while it’s chock-full of re-mixes, these new arrangements manage to sound surprisingly unique and help add a nostalgic touch. And, without spoiling things too much, you’ll get to hear multiple variations of these tracks as you progress throughout your quest.
One of the most common criticisms of recent Zelda entries has concerned the difficulty of the overall experience and, more vitally, the almost arduous volume of tutorial sections and general hand-holding present. In Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, it was not uncommon to stroll into the main chamber of a tricky temple, ready to put your thinking-cap on, only to have a companion such as Midna or Fi reveal the solution to the puzzle almost verbatim. A Link Between Worlds makes several attempts to address this problem. The first is making sure that the player is engaged almost immediately. Though there is still some requisite narrative setup, you’re on your way to the first dungeon within the first hour of play.
Secondly, a hint-system has been implemented via a new item, the Hint Glasses, which allows you to see otherwise-invisible hint ghosts who are ready to distribute advice in exchange for Nintendo 3DS system Play Coins. If you’d rather tackle a dungeon on your own, you need never wear these glasses. Sadly (although I am a bit of a Zelda veteran), I still found the game too easy and too short; I was done with the main quest in less than three days after embarking on the adventure, and have since achieved 100% item completion in the time I have been writing this review. Thankfully, the game also includes a challenging “Hero Mode” for future replays, though it has to be unlocked through completion of the initial quest, unlike the recent The Wind Waker HD which offered the option outright.
Honestly, it feels like Nintendo is only getting started.
So, to re-cap, the game features addictive and rewarding gameplay, smart puzzles, a fun over-world that you’ll want to discover and, of course, plenty of charm. Why, then, does it not warrant a perfect score? Because honestly, it feels like Nintendo is only getting started. While A Link Between Worlds is great on its own merits – fantastic, even – one can’t help but think of the possibilities going forward. If Nintendo can combine the strengths of this design (extremely tight pacing; a non-linear dungeon order) with the highlights of the 3D Zeldas (epic, referential, over-arching stories; over-worlds of incredible scope but nuanced focus), then the Zelda franchise can, once again, be truly genre-defining.