It’s traditional, at this point, to open Zelda write-ups with anecdotes. This is a series that genuinely means something to people: they became closer with a childhood friend while solving the NES original together, or they never forgot the Christmas when Ocarina of Time was under the tree. Zelda games are very much about a child maturing, a theme that hit a lot of young players right in the heart when they originally discovered the series, and their lengthy, sprawling quests have helped the memories stick. For me it’s Wind Waker and (oddly enough) Oracle of Ages that have taken on a special significance, but the importance of the series as a whole resonates... and because of that, I can’t help but kick myself over never getting into A Link To The Past, the Super Nintendo entry that continues to inspire such fevered nostalgia. Perhaps I came to it too late (I didn’t play it until the GBA version), but the game never made much of an impression on me, and I abandoned it after a few hours.
A Link Between Worlds is a sequel to ‘Past, but it’s not going to inspire the same fervour that game did. This is, however, by design rather than an issue of quality – it’s a much punchier game, forsaking Zelda’s usual languid pace in favour of a campaign that feels like it should be sped through. It’s a 12 to 15 hour Zelda game, set across a relatively small map, totally at odds with the capacious epics the series is most beloved for... but it’s also absolutely brilliant.
As a direct sequel, A Link Between Worlds takes place over the same map as the SNES classic, and features a similar world-swapping mechanic. This time, Link can turn into a painting and sidle along walls, which allows him to slip through rifts between the world of Hyrule and its dark mirror, Lorule. The plot is much lighter than we’re used to – it’s a simple case of Zelda being kidnapped and the world being in peril – but the real story here is the one you create along your journey.
The feedback Nintendo received from Skyward Sword suggested that players didn’t appreciate the game’s hand-holding, so that’s been done away with. You explore the twin worlds of this game (one light, one dark, just like its SNES predecessor) from an isometric perspective, and the game actually expects you to do some proper exploring. The directions you’re given are always quite vague, and it’s up to you to head in the direction indicated and work out what to do from there. It resembles the original NES Zelda in this regard, although it’s far less obtuse than that game was – finding your way forward isn’t necessarily hard, but there’s a real sense of accomplishment in mastering the landscape.
This approach is partnered with an immense design shake-up, a series of changes that fundamentally alter the Zelda experience while still maintaining the series’ most familiar charms. Early in the game, an entrepreneurial creature moves himself into your house and starts renting out the majority of the game’s essential items for small fees. Your wallet has no limit from the get-go and almost everything’s there right from the start – theoretically you can be marching around the game with the majority of the major items within a few hours. You can later purchase items for a much larger fee (renting means that they return to the store whenever you die), but by then it’s a formality – the real pleasure is in the illicit feeling of stuffing your pockets early, of marching through the land with your few hearts and your massive arsenal.
The items are still tied to dungeons, but now you’re free to tackle those dungeons in any order you please. The world design gently nudges you towards specific early dungeons – which is wise, as they happen to contain extremely helpful pieces of gear – but the fact remains that you have a choice, and it feels liberating. This rejig has also made for dungeons that are much quicker affairs – you can be in and back out most of them within half an hour – but they’re no less fun for that. The puzzles aren’t devious, but they’re always great fun to solve. New mechanics and ideas are thrown around with the sort of abandon that defines so many of Nintendo’s best games, and finding the way to the entrance – which often involves searching the world for portals between Hyrule and Lorule – is always thrilling. The 3D is used to great effect too, the designers frequently employing it to communicate depth and distance – it’s one of the few 3DS games I’ve played where I kept the 3D slider all the way up most of the time.
The real key to Link Between Worlds’ success is that it doesn’t lose any of the fun or discovery that comes with a regular Zelda game – it simply condenses it, cutting out much of the series’ busywork and focusing on the good stuff. Link Between Worlds is a concentrated game, exhibiting the same sort of frantic energy that has come to define Mario’s 3D outings, and it never stops being enjoyable. Because you’re not simply being directed between dungeons, you’re more likely to simply run into the game’s treasures and side attractions. On your way to a specific location you’re likely to stumble across a mini-game, a path that was previously inaccessible to you, one of the 100 weird little limpet creatures scattered around the world (Zelda wouldn’t be Zelda without a creature-finding sidequest), a new surface to affix yourself to in painting form, a heart container, or a new quest. Combat tends to go down faster as well. Ammo is gone in favour of a single meter that dictates all item use, streamlining the system and giving skirmishes an extra strategic element. Bosses fall faster than before, but are still fun and moderately challenging (although they tend to get easier as you go – enemies don’t seem to scale for your increased strength, which could have been neat).
While some players will perhaps balk at seeing Zelda change like this, in truth it gives the series a real shot in the arm. There’s always going to be a place for the sprawling Zelda epic (no doubt we’ll get another one on the Wii U soon enough), but this is a handheld game, and it’s cool having a Zelda that you can make real, significant progress on during a short bus ride.
As fresh as it feels, A Link Between Worlds is also utterly reverent of what has come before. A knowledge of A Link To The Past isn’t necessary, but those who loved that game will likely thrill at the design of that game’s Hyrule, while the kids of the next console generation will appreciate the little nods, both subtle and obvious, to Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask (the eponymous mask itself makes a surprise appearance in Link’s house, presumably just so that Nintendo can laugh at the continuity tracers out there). The soundtrack is classic Zelda too – in fact many of the tracks are reused from previous games, which is perhaps at odds with the game’s reworked elements, but when you have such a rich history of beautiful music you can get away with things like that.
If A Link Between Worlds is remembered, it won’t be for the same reasons that so many of us have retained such fond memories of Link’s other adventures. But it’s a Zelda that we needed to have – with Nintendo having made vague allusions to shaking up the formula in their eventual Wii U title, it’s great to have a game that proves how well Zelda can work when it shifts from the series’ status quo. Rarely does a game feel so utterly dedicated to being enjoyable all the way through. Even the most stalwart, traditionalist series fan should be able to appreciate A Link Between Worlds for what it is: the most interesting new Zelda game since Wind Waker.