One thing I've always loved about Nintendo is how they have consistently managed to stick to their roots while also evolving and switching things up just enough to make the old new again. They quite effectively demonstrated this in 2006 with their pseudo-reboot in New Super Mario Bros. - a game designed to tickle the fancy of all those wearing rose tinted goggles of nostalgia while also incorporating new elements and power-ups from more recent games to make it unique from its inspiration. Since then, I've regularly fantasized and dreamed about the idea of some of my other favorites from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras getting similar treatment, where they retain the look and feel of the original while adding new elements to make them more interesting and modern. One of those dream projects was a sequel to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for the SNES, but I always worried no game would live up to that classic; even when Iwata announced The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds on Nintendo Direct, I wasn't sold on the idea. However, now that I've completed it, I can honestly say that A Link Between Worlds is everything I hoped, and far beyond my expectations; I don't think I could have been more pleased with the results.
At the start you're dropped into a familiar situation in a familiar world. Link is having nightmares of his time with the Princess, only to be woken up in his home by his childhood friend. Instantly, as soon as you leave your home, you know that everything about A Link Between Worlds is a labor of love addressed to fans of the original. The 3D graphics are crisp and a great homage to the 2D sprites they emulate, the sound effects are pitch perfect, and every single track in the score is a perfect recreation of the original, but better. Not only do you hear those wonderful tunes from the SNES era, but the quality is vastly improved. The horns are stronger, the violins have a better harmony, and every single chime, chip, or tweet is a twang at the heartstrings. This looks and sounds exactly like one would hope a sequel would look and sound, and it's glorious. Part of me worries that this is nostalgia talking – and in a way it is – but the quality is there, and there are some new tracks as well, such as a particularly creepy forest temple theme, or the final dungeon theme, both of which fit into the mood established by the sounds of Death Mountain or Misty Mire. Blend the returning tracks of A Link to the Past with modern sounds from Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker, and you have a winner on multiple levels.
It only takes a few moments to get into the mood, but if you ignore the immediate and pressing urge to explore everything, you quickly head to your job at the blacksmith's, where you meet a great swordsman who is getting his blade tempered. Upon his departure, it is revealed that he forgot his sword, and you must head to the sanctuary in the north to return it to him. However, all is not well, and upon arrival you find that Yuga – The villain of A Link Between Worlds – has defeated the swordsman and imprisoned him in a painting. You confront Yuga, only to find that he does the same to you. Luckily, you escape, and in the process gain the ability to turn into a moving picture that can scuttle across walls – a skill that becomes the crux of A Link Between Worlds. If you've played the SNES prequel, you have a basic idea of the plot from this point forth: you find pendants while Yuga captures the seven sages, an act that creates a rift between the two worlds that allows you, using your new-found wall-scaling skills, to seamlessly travel between the worlds via multi-colored cracks in various walls around Hyrule. The strategic location of each and every crevasse leads to a degree of strategic teleportation and secret hunting, naturally.
When I first saw this gameplay mechanic in action, it honestly didn't feel like it would amount to anything special; you shuffle along a wall like a ninja, which is fine, but I couldn't really imagine doing much with it as a feature. Luckily, I was proven wrong, and the team behind A Link Between Worlds took the concept and ran with it, transforming what was once a pretty familiar locale into a whole new playground. This is the Hyrule you know and love, and while it's pretty faithful to the SNES classic that spawned it, the slight changes to the landscape, the new dungeons, the alternate dimension Lorule, and the new tools and weapons blend together to make it feel fresh and original, even if it's well grounded in the familiar.
Along with the wall-scaling ability brought on by your fortunate mishap with Yuga, you also are treated to something else that's new for the series: non-linear dungeon order. While previous entries in the series featured pretty straightforward and stone-written natural progression where you complete the dungeons based on your acquisition of tools and weapons, A Link Between Worlds opts to give the player freedom to choose. While some restrictions apply – like your first dungeon and one of the dungeons in Lorule – you can play the game or explore the world at your own leisure.
Instead of finding your weapons in dungeons, you rent them based on need, so you can complete the dungeon that requires the hookshot, or the one that requires the bow and arrow; it's up to you. The only setback is that, once you rent it, you only have that item until you fall in battle; if that happens, you lose any and all rented gear, setting you back anywhere between 20 and 500 rupees. Not that you need to worry about these monetary losses, as your wallet holds 9999 rupees, and they come and go so quickly that it's actually more likely you'll run out of things to buy faster than you'll run out of gems. Much to my delight, you can actually purchase the eight items from the merchant straight up for either 800 or 1200 rupees a piece.
Exploration is one of the most enjoyable aspects of Hyrule, for both seasoned veterans and beginners. There are three dungeons in Hyrule - one for each of the pendants (courage, wisdom, power). Once you get to Lorule, you can do any of the seven dungeons in any order you want, with the one exception being the Sand temple. This freedom lets you explore or investigate at will, without any urgency to dash forth to your next objective. If you're familiar with the world then you will probably spend more of your time exploring caves, blowing up walls, and searching for heart pieces than you will doing the actual dungeons, because you will know where many of the hidden items are or at least be able to deduce the location and mentality behind the architects of the world.
Which leads me to the one thing I was worried about going into A Link Between Worlds: that crutch known as resting on one's laurels. While it's refreshing and nostalgic to explore the Hyrule of decades past, seeing how the world has progressed and what has changed, there are times when it almost feels a little too familiar. If you knew there was a crack in a wall in A Link to the Past, then you know that you can drop a bomb there and it will almost certainly open up a door to a hidden cave you couldn't possibly have known was there. Luckily, there are no instances of a key story or gameplay element hiding behind such well hidden, ill-explained secrets; instead, doing so often results in a subtle wink or nod at the player, such as the most famous of Hyrulian catchphrases, “It's a secret to everyone.” There are instances, of course, of a dungeon puzzle or trap being almost identical in problem and solution as it was in A Link to the Past, but despite the brazen familiarity, there are also some new and original puzzles to be solved, many of which use the third dimension to get you to think differently than you would have in 1991. Many puzzles now incorporate altitude in some way, such as falling from heights, using the tornado rod to hop directly upwards, or gliding via Cuccu onto a platform.
A Link Between Worlds is too easy on the first run through, though this is due to the fact that I've played A Link to the Past numerous times Nonetheless, throughout my entire play through I died only four times. Even later in the game, I could regularly defeat the bosses in a single attempt, rarely going below half health at any given time. That's not to say the bosses are poorly thought out or simple, just that they didn't do the kind of damage I was expecting, indicating that A Link Between worlds was not only designed with nostalgia in mind, but also intended to appeal to all gamers. All of that said, once you complete the game, you can replay it in hero mode, which handily remedies my difficulty complaints quite thoroughly. A hero mode would have been a better as an option from the start, considering a decent portion of those interested in A Link Between Worlds will be veterans of the original, such as myself.
The puzzles are the perfect difficulty, however, balancing challenge with intuition. The Legend of Zelda series has always been quite adept at making the player feel smart, and I feel that the puzzles presented in A Link Between Worlds do that better than any game before it. While early entries in the franchise, such as Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past, suffered some issues with the intuitiveness of the puzzles, and some flat-out lack of conveyance as to how to proceed, A Link Between Worlds avoids all of those issues, and never once leaves you scratching your head. The new abilities and puzzle designs mix with the old in a way that certainly makes you feel brilliant, without ever having your intelligence mocked or leaving you feeling frustrated at an apparent lack of direction.
Although the world map in A Link Between Worlds may seem small, it's also very densely packed. There are two maps for the two worlds, as well as over a dozen dungeons, and literally hundreds of caves and buildings, and there are secrets, games, and hidden gems to be found in every single one of them; there isn't a single hole in the ground that doesn't have some significance. There are, of course, the 28 heart pieces scattered around Hyrule and Lorule that increase your health capacity, games of chance where you put rupees on the line, games of skill such as Octorok Derby or Rupee Rush, and a 50 level battle arena that allows you to compete for cash and prizes. Almost every cave has a chest, a heart piece, or some homage to the original title, such as the grotto where you can offer up rupees in exchange for upgrades.
The most significant addition is perhaps the Mother Maiamai, who has lost 100 of her babies throughout Hyrule and Lorule. If you manage to find and catch them – a task accomplished by listening for their cute squeak followed by unearthing them or shaking them from their perch – you can upgrade your weapons at a cost of one weapon of your choice per ten baby Maiamais. This is why exploration is such a blast in A Link Between Worlds; there's always something to do or something to upgrade. The constant feeling of 'I have a new item, let's see what new secrets I can unlock with it' is always just one discovery away at any given time, and the small map helps to accommodate that since the world is easy to traverse and there's also a quick-travel system in the form of weather vanes scattered around Hyrule (these also act as your save points).
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is one of my all-time favorite games, so going into A Link Between Worlds I had the absolute highest expectations and certain reservations. The issue with reviewing a game that so pointedly aims right at your nostalgic memories is that there's really no way to be entirely objective in one's analysis; no matter how hard you aim to ignore your biases, some enthusiasm or disappointment is bound to get through the cracks and influence your thoughts and feelings. Because of this, I often felt the deep, innate desire to really crack down on A Link Between Worlds every time I caught it re-using puzzles, secrets, or traps from its SNES predecessor - to denounce it for its lack of creativity and relying too heavily on nostalgia to sell itself on its own merits – but I couldn't. For every knowing reference to its inspiration in the form of emulated gameplay, sound, or feel, there are two new gameplay mechanics, secrets, tracks, or clever puzzles to make up for it and show that while A Link Between Worlds is clearly intended to appeal to a very specific audience, it is a grand game in its own right and deserves its place alongside the best in its franchise.
This review is based on a retail copy of The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds for the 3DS