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Nintendo’s first original Zelda title on the 3DS is an incredible return to form. It forgoes the trappings of the modern Zelda and options for its own spin on old school gameplay.
A Link Between Worlds takes much of its inspiration from A Link to the Past, the 1991 Zelda game on the Super Nintendo. You could probably call this new game a quasi-remake of the old SNES game and be pretty much on the mark. It’s the same world, the same setting, and even some of the same characters. If you bust out the map that came with the original SNES copy of the game, you’d find it essentially identical to the locations in the 3DS game. The references to the 1991 classic are legion in A Link Between Worlds, and, hey, A Link to the Past was pretty good, so it’s a flattering comparison to make.
A Link Between Worlds takes place in the all-too-familiar kingdom of Hyrule, generations after the events of A Link to the Past. As usual, the descendants of Link and Princess Zelda take primary roles in the story. Link is an apprentice blacksmith who isn’t too passionate about the trade, as he’s constantly late for work. Luckily for him, tragedy strikes the kingdom as a malevolent sorcerer named Yuga begins kidnapping people by turning them into paintings, which allows Link to put his apprenticeship on hold in order to follow his destiny as a hero of Hyrule.
However, Hyrule isn’t the only kingdom in peril. Link eventually finds himself in the world of Lorule, a dark reflection of his home country. As the game’s title implies, Link will function as, well, the link between the worlds, and it’s up to him to bring salvation to both. Along the way, Link finds allies in a mysterious rabbit-like merchant and Lorule’s own Princess Hilda to help end Yuga’s sinister secret plot.
For the most part, storytelling takes a back seat in A Link Between Worlds. The story is there, but the narrative simply acts as bookends for the game, as the plot is focused at the beginning and the end. Despite the light story, the game does manage to throw some cool characters into the mix. Princess Hilda actually ends up playing a more active role compared to the princesses of past Zelda games, and there are some genuinely intriguing plot revelations near the end.
Zelda returns to its roots here as a top-down action-adventure game with an emphasis on exploration, which I greatly appreciate. This is the least linear Zelda game yet. In Zelda tradition, you’re given the goal of retrieving a number of trinkets from various puzzle-laden dungeons, but the order in which you take them on is entirely up to you. This is thanks to the new item rental system introduced in this game.
In previous Zelda games, dungeon access required the use of items and tools acquired in other dungeons, forcing you to tackle them in a particular order. In A Link Between Worlds, however, items are no longer locked away in the tomb of whatever such and such evil. Instead, they lay at the table of a rental shop manned by a friendly rabbit-esque merchant named Ravio and his bird companion. Ravio will gladly rent you items like bombs and the bow and arrow for a small fee, and you get to keep those items until you get a game over, which signals Ravio’s bird to remove the equipment from your dead body to be rented out again when you’re revived. It’s not as grim as it sounds, though!
Getting a game over in this game isn’t very common due to how easy the game’s combat is on its normal difficulty. I found myself renting out every single item upon my first visit to his shop and never had to let go of any of them. You can easily start the game off loaded with every single piece of equipment, granting you the privilege of exploring any dungeon you choose (assuming you can find them). After a certain point in the game, you can choose to pay a heftier fee to receive ownership of items indefinitely, which then allows you to upgrade the item further with more powerful attacks. Money isn’t very hard to come by in this game, either. I found myself maxing out my in-game wallet at 9999 rupees very early on.
The rental system can be seen as both a good and bad thing. It’s good in that you’re given free reign on how you choose to tackle the game, but it’s also bad in that it takes away the sense of progression you got from older Zelda games. In the past, starting with an empty inventory and slowly building it up until you’re armed to the teeth with an assortment of weapons and tools granted a certain feeling of accomplishment and growth. However, in the end, it’s a superficial sentiment to be missing, and the game gives you gratification in a number of other fun ways.
The dungeons in A Link Between Worlds feature some of the most impressive puzzle designs in any Zelda game to date. Many puzzles require very unique use of items, enemies, and even the environment itself thanks to the new “wall merging mechanic” that allows Link to turn into a painting and travel along walls. The wall merge really changes your perspective on things, quite literally. Thinking outside of the box is often a requirement, and solving these challenges is one of the most gratifying experiences one can receive from a game. Sure, maybe you’ll be stuck on a puzzle for tens of minutes, but you’ll be praising your ingenuity when you eventually figure it out for yourself. And if your being stumped begins to impede your enjoyment of the game, the game offers a hint system to help you in your troubles. By spending 3DS Play Coins (the coins you receive by walking with your 3DS), you can have Link don a pair of goofy glasses that reveal ghosts inhabiting the environment. At the expense of one Play Coin, they’ll dispense helpful hints toward solving some of the more complex puzzles in the game.
Outside of dungeons, there’s still plenty of exploring to do! The world is full of secrets to uncover. As usual, pieces of heart are strewn about the world to increase your life gauge. Some are given as rewards to the multiple mini-games found within the game. Some are in some obscure areas that are a puzzle in itself as to how to reach. Then there are the Maimais. 100 of these adorable little creatures are hidden in various parts of the world, and collecting them holds the secret to upgrading Ravio’s items. You’ll have two whole worlds to explore in Hyrule and Lorule. They share similar geography, but the means by which you access certain locations differs drastically, requiring some clever exploring to reach every destination.
As I said before, combat in the game isn’t much of an obstacle, especially when you leave Ravio’s store fully equipped. Items such as bombs and arrows no longer need consumable ammunition. Instead, you have an energy meter that governs item use, which recharges on its own, so you’re pretty much free to use items as much as you want, with only a slight waiting period when your meter runs out. Your sword is generally good enough to vanquish most enemies in a few hits. Boss fights are more varied, but still relatively short encounters. The main challenge there is figuring out the boss’s weakness. This often involves clever use of the wall merge mechanic or a specific item. Once you’ve figured that out, it’s time to bash the monster with a sword over and over until it’s dead. Again, it’s the puzzles that drive the game, rather than the combat.
When A Link Between Worlds was first revealed, I wasn’t to keen on the art style. However, the game looks much better in person and in motion. The game runs at a smooth 60 frames per second (with a few dips when there is too much on screen and during some wall merge scenarios). The art style is simple, but works as a throwback to a Link to the Past, and that’s just one of the many of callbacks to the old SNES game.
If you were a fan of A Link to the Past, you’ll be experiencing nostalgia heaven in A Link Between Worlds. Sound bites are ripped directly from the old game. The charge up sound on the sword is the same, the guards make the same rattling sound when alerted, and the infamous “puzzle solved” jingle makes a glorious return, seemingly untouched by time. Even the outdated visual pixelation effect is back for certain scene transitions. Classic enemies return with brand new polygonal redesigns (and, might I say, the most adorable Tektites in a Zelda game ever). Almost everything loved about A Link to the Past shows up in one form or another in this game, with the sad exception of a pink-haired Link.
You’ll also recognize a lot of the music from the original game, this time remixed into various new arrangements. Remember the unsettling cave theme from the old game? Well it’s back, and as daunting as ever. One very cool thing about the tunes in the game is that the overworld music changes depending on your progression in the game. The music grows more triumphant as you come closer to your final showdown with Yuga. There are many different remixes of both the Light World and Dark World themes from A Link to the Past, and all of it sounds great. The soundtrack overall is a grand delight to listen to.
The game features fantastic use of the 3D display on the 3DS (sorry 2DS owners!). The overhead perspective really lends itself well to the 3D layering effects of multiple dungeon floors. Link will often pop up out of the screen as he makes leaps across chasms and down mountains. The 3D is even incorporated into gameplay. For example, in one mini-game, you’re tasked with avoiding incoming chickens. With the 3D turned off, your eyes are treated to an almost overwhelming amount of poultry to dodge, but when you turn the 3D on, it adds the element of depth, and you realize that some of the chickens are actually flying above you and can easily be ignored. I highly encourage people to play the game in 3D.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is definitely one of the best games on the 3DS. The return to its roots creates a keener focus on fantastic gameplay rather than dragging it down with exposition. Not to say that story in a Zelda game is bad, but it’s refreshing to go back to basics in this regard. The game gives the player an enormous sense of freedom to explore the world at their own pace and direction. The puzzles are clever and engaging, and the throwbacks to A Link to the Past will please any Zelda fan.
It took me around 20 hours to collect every single item and complete every quest in the game without a guide. Beating the game once will unlock the “Hero” difficulty mode, which makes combat harder for those looking for more of a challenge and some replay value.
I highly recommend A Link Between Worlds as one of the best games of the year. If you’ve grown tired of the modern Zelda formula, this game might change your mind on the series.
I give The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds a perfect 5 out of 5.
By Alfredo Dizon, eParisExtra