Link’s gone exploring like it’s 1987
Since its announcement this past April, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds has been cast as a direct sequel to A Link to the Past. And while you’ll certainly see many nods to that game here—the general aesthetic, locations, music, and enemies will all induce heavy nostalgia for those who played through the 1992 Super NES classic—it wouldn’t be quite right to describe the first all-new 3DS Zelda title as a follow-up to that particular entry.
That’s because A Link Between Worlds is more accurately described as the first true successor to the original Legend of Zelda.
When gaming historians regale us with tales of children of the ’80s swapping game tips on the playground, they don’t really mean “game tips.” They mean “Zelda tips.” Oh, sure, every once in a while, a Members Only–clad recess informant might pass along the latest scuttlebutt from Metroid or Simon’s Quest, but those were the exceptions, not the rule. The original Legend of Zelda birthed the concept of strategy guides in the American gaming scene—and even prodded me to take a few “sick days” in elementary school to spend a little extra time with the game.
But here’s the thing about those little childhood fibs: They weren’t because I had a particular foe to best or a specific dungeon to uncover. No, I simply wanted to explore the map in every last detail, shoving gravestones as I dodged Ghinis, burning bushes while fending off a horde of Moblins, and bombing cliffsides as I thrust my sword into helpless Octoroks.
Since then, the series has taken an ever-tightening, unwelcome grip over player agency—even in A Link to the Past, which introduced a real story for the first time in the franchise. (No, I don’t consider that half-translated gibberish sprinkled throughout The Adventure of Link to be an actual “narrative.”) While A Link to the Past struck a nice balance and got players right into the thick of things with a memorable stormy-night adventure in the sewers of Hyrule Castle, the pacing in just about every subsequent Zelda adventure—particularly at the beginning—has slowed to an interminable crawl.
“Deliver this doodad here.” “Toss these portly pigs in a pen.” “Dig through this dirt to find a doohickey to trade to this townsperson for another trinket, which you then need to deliver to the village elder—but you’ll have to find him on the rooftop first!” “Oh, and while you’re at it… Hey! Listen!”
And maybe, just maybe, the game will finally deign to give you a wooden sword after all that. Yes, there’s always a solid adventure at the impressive core of every Zelda entry, but it’s been buried under a steaming pile of fetch-questing manure for far too long.
Conversely, A Link Between Worlds clearly respects your time and intelligence, shoving you right into the action of Link’s latest adventure within minutes. After that initial taste of combat, the game grants access to just about every item, the power to hold as many Rupees as you can collect, and allows you to go exploring on your own terms. But it doesn’t just give away the tools you’ll need to succeed. Instead, you access items via a rental system, which imparts the freedom to grab that heart container on a ledge with the Hookshot right away if you so choose—and also adds real consequences for dying. If you perish, you’ll lose everything and have to re-rent anything you don’t own, which gives Link’s quest a true sense of danger for the first time in several hardware generations.
This consequence—and the subsequent freedom that comes with it—is why the original Zelda is still my favorite entry in the series. It was challenging, but it was never impenetrable or unconquerable. You knew the answer was there if you simply took the time to observe. These exploration elements have been missing from the series for far too long, and it’s incredibly refreshing to see them make their return here.
So, traversing the overworld is as enjoyable as it’s been in at least a decade, but Zelda devotees know that’s only half the story. What about the dungeons? Thankfully, they’re similarly refreshing thanks to a new exploration element that plays a huge role—and while it may be heavily promoted on Nintendo’s own site, I won’t spoil it here.
Over the years, Zelda dungeon exploration has devolved into a rote formula: Find the map, find the compass, find the special item, beat the boss—but A Link Between Worlds forces you to rethink your entire strategy. Instead of waiting to procure a particular item in order to find the right path, you know that you’ve likely already got the right tool in your possession. In most Zelda games, you’re waiting on the dungeon to deliver the item you need. In A Link Between Worlds, the dungeon is waiting on you to crack its code.
In a particularly welcome touch, A Link Between Worlds replaces A Link to the Past‘s consumable magic meter with a regenerating item meter. If you use any item, whether it’s a bomb or a boomerang, the meter will deplete and then slowly regenerate. This means that instead of wasting time tracking down Stalfos and Gibdos in the hopes of stumbling upon bombs, you merely have to wait a few seconds for the meter to fill up again. This encourages exploration and risk-taking instead of item-hoarding—a change the series has long needed.
While most of the design decisions are welcome throwbacks, it’s frustrating that the game doesn’t give you an option to turn off the locations of dungeons on the overworld map. Seeing a map littered with several big red “X” marks simply destroys any sense of challenge with this particular aspect of the game—and since the map is always visible on the touchscreen, it’s not like you can simply ignore it. It’s disappointing that A Link Between Worlds generally respects the player’s intelligence but then doesn’t trust them to find a collection of dungeons that any reasonable player should be able to uncover with a little patience and thinking. (Plus, the fortune-tellers from A Link to the Past return here, and they provide all the guidance stuck players should ever need.)
It’s doubly frustrating, because the game does a great job of protecting its other secrets. Early on, you’ll get special Hint Glasses that allow access to Hint Ghosts, scholarly apparitions who hang around some of Hyrule’s more challenging puzzles. But they’re invisible unless you don the spectacles, meaning that you won’t get a red flag that a secret might be near unless you actually ask for it—it’s great for players who get easily frustrated, while players who like to be left in the dark will never know these specters are there in the first place. This is the kind of balance Zelda needs to strike going forward: Respect those players who want to go into the experience blind and figure out everything on their own, but also recognize that not everyone will have the patience or experience necessary to crack every one of Hyrule’s brainteasers without some clues.
The other issues that might trouble longtime Zelda players are the length and difficulty, but the former’s only a problem when you look at the raw number. The game takes around 20 hours to complete, but they’re an incredibly well-spent 20 hours, with nothing feeling wasted or tacked on. Zelda veterans should have no difficulty bulldozing their way through much of the game—from a combat perspective, at least—but Hero mode, which unlocks after you’ve cleared the quest on Normal, unleashes a collection of fierce beasts that do four times the damage and definitely delivers that old-school challenge that hardcore players crave.
In the end, though, the specific length of this impeccable return to form might not matter at all. Since the experience never devolves into tedium, I have a feeling I’ll always want to return to this adventure as the years go by. Just like with the original Legend of Zelda, I can imagine going back to A Link Between Worlds again and again and again—and that’s the highest compliment anyone can give a Zelda game.
|Developer: Nintendo • Publisher: Nintendo • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 11.22.2013|
For 26 years, I’ve been waiting for a true follow-up to the first Legend of Zelda, a game that captured my imagination and catapulted me into becoming a lifelong fan of action-adventures and role-playing games. A Link Between Worlds recognizes that it’s not tacked-on stealth segments or waggling a controller to roll bombs that makes Zelda tick—it’s the unbounded exploration and freedom found in the NES original, and it’s finally back in full force here. Every Zelda fan needs to play this game.
|The Good||Dispenses with tutorial nonsense and gets right into the action; gives players the freedom to explore Hyrule the way they want.|
|The Bad||No option to turn off dungeon locations on the map; Normal mode might be a little easy for Zelda veterans.|
|The Ugly||The insults leveled at the game’s visuals from some corners of the Internet. Don’t believe these lies—A Link Between Worlds looks spectacular in motion.|
|The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is a Nintendo 3DS exclusive.|