Reviews
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Beteween Worlds
Nintendo Schools the Old School

By Seán O'Sullivan - December 18th, 2013

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All images here are 2D representations of 3D ones.

Zelda games always come with baggage. Few games have the kind of heritage that this series has – not only thematically, but also historically. Mention “Zelda” to a typical gamer and he’s likely to immediately think of exploration, excitement, and that heart-stirring overworld theme. Of course, mention Zelda to an uncharitable curmudgeon like me, and I’ll tell you about the series’ spotty track record as of late. I tried to get into Twilight Princess; but its turgid pacing, and insistence on treating me like I was playing my first ever videogame got the better of my patience. Skyward Sword charmed me, but I was similarly unmotivated to push any further than the first few hours, due to just too much of the residual cruft remaining.

Remarkably, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds manages that impossible balance of keeping the Zelda tropes and ‘feeling’ intact, while slashing the game down to the core, resulting in one of the finest Zelda adventures yet.

Nintendo made a number of brave decisions while making this Zelda – and most of these pay off handsomely. For one, this is a direct sequel to the revered SNES classic, A Link To The Past, and takes place in the same overworld. While this may sound like a cheap or unimaginative way to recycle an existing design, enough of the map has been pruned or outright remixed that it’s now easier to navigate than the SNES original, and it oscillates so much between indulging and subverting nostalgic expectations that it’s delightfully unpredictable, giving Zelda die-hards the added benefit of rediscovery.

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Pretty slick visuals. The Zelda basics with some flair.

The staple of acquiring new items in a dungeon, then using said tsotchke to navigate through it has similarly been sidestepped. Within the first hour of the adventure, the player has access to almost every item through a ‘rental’ system, in which items are removed from the player when Link falls in battle. Players can also buy the items for roughly ten times their rental value, and with this one masterful tweak to item progression, Nintendo have not only made death a worse fate, but also given weight to the game’s economy.

The plot does follow the same basic beats as the main games, but rather than tackling each dungeon in a prescribed sequence, the order is left up to the player’s whims. Impeccable visual design signposts what a player will need to get through a dungeon, but clever game design will prevent a player from wasting their time by gating access to adventurers without the proper equipment. Those who endeavour to carry around all items at all times will be rewarded with greater flexibility in combat, and the opportunity to explore the hidden nooks and crannies that house power-boosting collectibles. The freedom that this change makes really does empower the player, and there were a few dungeons that I bailed on until I had time to boost my health bar, or had enough experience dispatching some of the trickier enemies.

Even though the items of the game are the same Zelda staples, the puzzles are augmented by Link’s new ability to flatten himself against a wall and traverse horizontally across gaps, or through cracks into other rooms. Despite being an integral part of every dungeon, this mechanic never gets old, and rarely repeats a trick without layering in additional complexity. This 2D mechanic is greatly juxtaposed against the many dungeons that offer a great sense of “verticality” (unsurprisingly, these look tremendous when the 3D slider is cranked up), and becomes such a natural extension of the game’s vocabulary that I’m eager to see it explored further in a future release.

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Flat-tastic!

Despite the epic sensibilities, the game is well optimiZed for portable play. There are no lengthy sequences dedicated to exposition or walls of text – those who Link gabs with are mercifully concise (yet still chock-full of character thanks to sharp writing); save points are never too far away, and a quick-travel system is available almost immediately after the game begins. Most of the dungeons can be whipped through in 30 minutes to an hour, which gave me a great feeling of accomplishment on my daily commutes. The game makes smart use of the 3DS’ dual screens, with a map and quick-item select on the bottom keeping the player in the action as much as possible, easing yet another of my frustrations with previous Zelda titles.

What Nintendo has done is remarkable – this is a game company caught in a perpetual Catch 22 of devoted fans who clamour for more of that familiar fix, while also craving something new. Somehow, the team has delivered a worthy sequel to a game that is part of gaming canon; and despite how easily a ‘solid’ sequel to a Link to the Past could be consigned to a mere footnote, A Link Between Worlds is one of the finest games in the Zelda tradition, and a testament to Nintendo’s continued mastery of the medium.

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