Nintendo’s first truly original Zelda installment on the 3DS – not to dismiss the tremendous effort it took to make Ocarina look that gorgeous on such a painfully small screen – delves into the series’ past for inspiration. Yet calling A Link Between Worlds a “sequel” to 1995’s A Link to the Past only serves the definition in the most clinical sense.
The top-down perspective and setting are lifted from the SNES classic, but Between Worlds is very much its own game. It achieves a unique feel through its mechanics and thoughtful, unobtrusive use of three-dimensional gameplay. It’s a kinetic adventure where the familiar – what we’ve come to know as “Quintessential Zelda” through the years – is infused with small, progressive tweaks and an expanded suite of free-roam options, creating this refreshing cocktail of old school design and modern innovation.
Pardon my pun a thousand times over, but it’s the best of both worlds.
There’s Always a Castle, There’s Always a Princess, There’s Always a Sword
Hyrule’s just doing awesome, as is always the case moments before the shit hits the shield. Once more, you don the green tunic of Link. Or an ancestor of Link. Or a regeneration. Whichever. You’re Link, sleeping well into the early afternoon like the slacker/savior of Hyrule that you are.
Soon, though, you wind up at the “knocked unconscious” end of a nefarious plot wherein a cackling, preening sociopath, Yuga, seeks to harness the power of the Triforce to rule the universe. The particulars? He’s been nabbing the Seven Sages, guardians of the Triforce, and turning them into crude paintings with his sociopath magic. Then the fucker hides the sages at the ass end of several hazardous dungeons, each conveniently protected by bosses.
“Let the quest begin!” right? No. Yuga also has this cute habit of hopping between dimensions like you’d step in and out of a shower. But here’s your play: thanks to a little mishap where the plane-jumping spaz sought to make a Rembrant out of you, you’re now able to flatten yourself 2D-style against walls to navigate obstacles or, better yet, slip into a vortex that brings you to Lorule, Hyrule’s dystopian counterpart where you’ll find tougher enemies and harder dungeons.
I’ve gotta say, it’s oddly satisfying waddling through a slipstream between universes. The mechanic is fun, too, waxing on a new layer of navigation when you run out of ways to move on or adding a means of escape during a souring fight, allowing you to press against a wall and dart away. And thanks to some smart camera shifting, Link’s compressing isn’t disorienting to flip in and out of.
Head [Any Direction], Young Man
The core fundamental of needing a certain item to plow headlong into a dungeon – be it the hookshot to pull things your way or bombs to clear debris – carries over from ye olde Zelda days. As Mega Man’s games are famous for, however, Between Worlds allows you to take on Lorule’s dungeons in pretty much whichever order you so desire. How the game set out to accomplish this is a neat little idea that I hope makes it into future romps through Hyrule.
Enter Ravio, an eccentric, and weird, merchant with an array of game-progressing items available for rental. You can buy any of his goods, of course, but renting is only a fraction of that price and some of the items up for sale you’ll only be needing for one or two dungeons anyway. Every major item being accessible at the get-go (for a fee) means you’re granted the freedom to head where you want, when you want. Small luxury, but a welcome shakeup.
There’s a bit of a catch to keep in mind with rentals, though: if you bite it anywhere along your perilous journeys, that bastard Ravio swoops in, collects his merchandise, and happily leaves you to your ignominious death (then flies back to your home where he decided to throw out your bed and all your shit to set up shop, the monumental prick). Don’t fret too much, though. The economy’s been damned good to Hyrule because rupees are never short in supply. I never had less than two grand in jewels on my person. For the most part, I stuck to renting, and simply bought up the items I was fond of spamming.
My favorite improvement over my childhood, though, is the implementation of fast travel. Find a new location? Well, make sure you locate those squawking weather vein bird things. Not only do they serve as a save point but tapping their icons on your touchscreen map sends in a witch and her flying broomstick (don’t ask), ready to taxi you between weather veins. The feature lends greatly to the portability of the game. Instead of trying to navigate Link through the same locales five times over while, in reality, I only have as long as my plane lands to find the friggin’ Dark Palace, I’m zipping to its entrance in a flash. I can’t even tell my younger self about this – he’ll get so pissed how easy I have it.
Have Sword, Will Travel
While you may have to shed some rupees for gear like the Hammer and the Ice Wand, your quest sees fit to equip you with the only essential you need when going it alone: a sword. Eventually, a handy Hylian shield comes into your possession, completing your classic outfit.
And, surprisingly early on, you ditch the generic brand sword for the Mastersword. At full health, every swing of the Mastersword yields an energy slash (and eagle eyed treasure hunters can eventually find special ore to upgrade the Mastersword into an even mightier weapon). Combat is simplistic – remember, A Link Between Worlds harkens back to the days before Z-Targeting was a notion – but different enemy types require fun deviation in tactic, including using special items to stun foes, though you have to mind the meter that dictates how much you can use this gear.
Bosses play up this concept, requiring you to figure out their weak spot using one of these special tools. Boss battles ended up being a highlight for me. Following the old school progression of “Boss Gets Stronger the More You Hit It,” engagements are exciting and challenging, hinging on evasiveness and good timing. One of my favorite fights has you using the Sand Shovel – an item that erects pillars out of sand that you can walk on – against a laser firing monster atop a pit. Building platforms, running in for the attack, and retreating before your own sand pillars disintegrate is the type of boss fight that transports me back to my youth (my obscenity spewing youth, during tougher fights).
Though it may be one can simply walk into, say, Death Mountain decked to the nines in gear, a sharp mind benefits you just as a much as a sharp sword. The series’ famous head-scratching puzzles return, though they now force some extra spacial awareness thanks to your nifty two-dimensional trick. None of the dungeon’s environmental hurdles are so obtuse to keep you stumped for long – I’d even dare to call this game more forgiving than most titles in the franchise – but I couldn’t keep the grin off my face that comes with feeling like a clever bastard whenever I solved one of the game’s conundrums.
Parents, if you’re worried that the games your child plays exercise their trigger fingers more than their noodle, this Zelda is one of the best mind workouts you can put in front of them (if they turn their nose up at Zelda, I’d be more concerned about the collection of cat skeletons they keep buried in the yard than what games they play).
The art style borrows heavily from its 90’s predecessor, if A Link to the Past were rendered with 3D models. The visual presentation, given a subtle layer of depth thanks to the 3DS’ core gimmick, is boosted by a silky smooth 60 frames-per-second. It serves to give the game a nice, glossy finish not prevalent on a lot of 3DS titles.
The score holds up to the level of quality we so snobbily expect out of our Zelda’s, but the most notable tunes are remakes of familiar melodies. Could just be my nostalgia acting up. The soundtrack and sound design are worth plugging in headphones for nonetheless.
A Link to the Past
A Link Between Worlds managed to conjure up feelings I haven’t come across since first firing up my N64 cartridge of Ocarina of Time. It’s less about retro aesthetic than it is about reviving retro sensibilities. Even with its modern day bells and whistles in effect, the game felt like a throwback to simpler, more straightforward design. There’s a semblance of story, but it’s there to keep the wheels turning, to keep you moving, to keep you exploring and fighting cave monstrosities.
It isn’t this huge, thirty-hour odyssey like some of its console contemporaries, but a compact experience packed with great ideas and great fun, perfect for a handheld. You know, I couldn’t tell if the game was a breeze or if I was having so much of a blast, it seemed like it was a breeze. Playing A Link Between Worlds made me feel like a kid again. Which is to say I felt intrigue and wonderment and sincere smiles spill across my face. You know. All the feelings shame slapped out of me by adulthood.
If you have a 3DS, it doesn’t make sense not to have this game. If you were on the fence about buying a 3DS, this here is your nudge.
Sound: Some decently put together orchestration doesn’t overshadow legacy tunes imbued in our minds. Classic bush cutting and Link grunting to be expected in bountiful amounts.
Visuals: We’re back to a cartoon-ish, color soaked world. Lorule brings with it a dark vibe but never goes for the comparatively gritty style found in Twilight Princess. A silky frame-rate makes it one of the most impressive 3DS titles in motion.
Playability: Old school controls wrapped in new school conventions. Quick-equipping is a synch, menus aren’t a chore, and discovery will keep you poking around off the beaten path.
Replay Value: Even after the kingdom’s saved, there’s some loose ends to tie up in hidden caverns and hard-to-find chests. Thankfully, finding a Compass means you won’t have to guess where to look. Beyond that, you’ll have to start a new save file to find replayability in Hyrule.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
Developed By: Nintendo EAD Group No. 3, w/ Monolith Soft
Published By: Nintendo
Available On: 3DS