I just finished the latest Legend of Zelda game: A Link Between Worlds. When I first heard that there was going to be a sequel to 1992’s A Link to the Past which is widely regarded as one of the very best Zelda games, my inner cynic took note. I thought it was a really desperate move by Nintendo. They’ve been struggling to get the “hardcore gamer” audience back after neglecting and maybe even alienating them for basically the entire lifecycle of the Wii. What better way than to make a sequel to a 21 year old game, right?
I hadn’t bought a Nintendo game in many years. After hearing all the accolades for this game, A Link Between Worlds became my first purchase for the 3DS.
And it is good. It’s really good. I mean, it’s a Zelda game and most of them are pretty great.
Nintendo excels at solid level design, inventive gameplay mechanics, and creative and playful art design. All of those are present in this game. But Nintendo’s weaknesses are also felt by contrast.
At first the game seems extremely derivative – I mean more so than usual. The game uses the same over world and a lot of the same music and sound effects. It’s calling on the nostalgia factor of older players even more than usual. Today’s kids who’ve never played A Link to the Past won’t notice a thing, but we veteran gamers are familiar from the start. That’s got both pros and cons.
I love the Retro Tracks in the newer Mario Kart games. That’s a good slice of nostalgia. We get to play old tracks with new mechanics and it increases the overall number of tracks in a given Mario Kart title which is a good thing. But a large part of the enjoyment in a Zelda game is the exploration. Even though the mechanics, items, and level design motifs are largely the game from title to title, it’s interesting to see how those elements get remixed in each one.
Fortunately, the re-treading is limited to the overworld map and music (and it is good music). The mechanics are as fresh as they’ve been in awhile.
One of the two biggest gameplay changes is the ability to rent items. This means most of the traditional Zelda items like the bow, bombs, and hookshot are available from the start of the game. Later you get the option to buy them. Having these tools from the start is nice especially for veteran players because it allows you to do more exploring and sidequesting without having to complete large sections of the main story.
The game is a traditional top-down Zelda adventure with a few twists. The basics are the same as they’ve always been, but this time the world is rendered in full 3D which allows for some creative puzzle solving and mechanics. The biggest new mechanic turns Link into a painting so you can move flat along walls. That sounded kind of gimmicky to me. Surprisingly it’s a pretty big game changer. When you go into a wall the camera changes angle which allows you to see the world with quite a different perspective. You can see and reach places you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. The 3D world also allows for dungeons to be truly connected. You’ll fall or jump seamlessly between floors like you would in a 3rd person Zelda game.
Most dungeons are designed around one primary item. This keeps things a bit more simple and straightforward. You don’t have to worry about having all the items rented at once (although that’s certainly helpful) and you don’t have to cycle through every item guessing which one to use.
Usually in Zelda games there are one or two dungeons that people find annoying (I’m looking at you, Ocarina of Time Water Temple!). For me there’s just one of those in this game (ugh, the Dark Palace). The rest are elegantly designed and one is quite unique among Zelda dungeons (the Thieves Hideout).
Bosses are… okay. I’m not a huge fan of Zelda bosses or combat in general. I think the combat is more interesting in 3D Zelda while exploring and puzzle solving is better in the top-down games.
Zelda bosses seem to come in two flavors: trivially easy and just annoying. As usual, once you’ve figured out how you’re supposed to fight them, it’s a piece of cake. The best I can say is that the bosses of A Link Between Worlds are relatively innocuous. A few of them are pretty clever; none are terribly annoying although there are some tedious and uninteresting fights.
I’ve heard some people complain that the game is too easy. There is a hard mode once you complete the game if you do play games for the challenge. I don’t mind easy as long as it’s fun. I had fun. I only died three times: once while figuring out a boss, once on Death Mountain, and once during the final boss. So I guess it is kind of easy, but hey, not every game is XCOM or Dark Souls.
From a story perspective, A Link Between Worlds isn’t exactly a sequel. Aside from using the same map, this game is no more connected to A Link to the Past than it is to any other game in the series. This story takes place hundreds of years later. A long-past Hyrule, hero, and conflict are mentioned vaguely and we know they’re referring to the events of A Link to the Past because Nintendo told us this is supposed to be connected. But it might just as well have been talking about any of the other games.
The plot is more-or-less the same in just about all of them. There’s always a princess (almost always), a hero, an evil dude who’s usually named Ganon or trying to bring him back… we know the drill. Zelda plots are marginally more creative and involved than Mario plots although there’s smoke and mirrors to suggest otherwise. Nintendo has managed to create some memorable moments mostly on the strength of their aesthetics alone, but the stories themselves are ultimately hollow when it comes to character and thematic elements.
Having said that, the story of A Link Between Worlds is above average for the series – even a little surprising at times, but talking about it too much will hint at spoilers so I’ll do that in another post.
Overall, I’d say A Link Between Worlds stacks up very well against the other games in the franchise. It’s possibly my favorite top-down Zelda game. It’s a must-play if you’ve got a 3DS or 2DS.