One of the greatest games of all time has to be The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for the Super Nintendo. Following the misstep that was Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Nintendo put out what I consider the true sequel to the original Zelda. A Link to the Past took the gameplay model established in the original game and expanded upon it tenfold. A parallel world, new items and power-ups, a much better and more powerful gameplay engine. Simply put, A Link to the Past was Zelda perfected and no title in the franchise has exceeded it, though some have come close. As is the case with most Zelda games, A Link to the Past did not have a direct sequel (unless you count Link’s Awakening for the Gameboy) and subsequent games in the franchise basically function as a retelling of the Zelda legend. That is, until now, with the release of A Link Between Worlds last fall for the 3DS. Creating a direct sequel now for A Link to the Past could be viewed as an immense challenge on the part of Nintendo, or a sign that the company is running out of ideas and looking to cash-in on a classic game. As far as I’m concerned, an all new Zelda title for the 3DS is a good thing regardless of what ties it has to other games, but I won’t deny it tickled me to go back to the Hyrule I knew over twenty years ago.
As best as I can tell, A Link Between Worlds takes place generations after the events of A Link to the Past. The map layout is the same though and fans of the old game should feel right at home in this one. Plot wise, it’s basically tried and true Zelda: an evil wizard kidnaps the princess and wreaks havoc across the land and only Link can reunite the three components of the triforce and save the day. Replacing the dark world from the first game is Lorule, an alternate Hyrule that uses a similar color palette to the familiar dark world but is broken apart with large chasms sealing off routes. The game is quite pleasing to the eyes without being a graphical powerhouse. Character and enemy designs from A Link to the Past are recreated here with more detail and more color. The soundtrack is upbeat containing many familiar tunes as well as some new compositions. It often suits the setting exceptionally well, and rarely ever does a Zelda soundtrack disappoint.
A Link Between Worlds not only looks familiar, but also plays familiar. Link obtains most of the items from the first game with really only one or two new ones playing any kind of significant role. Link is controlled with the circle pad this time around instead of a directional pad, which is to be expected and functions fine, though I did find it challenging to be precise with projectile weapons, something I don’t remember being a problem in A Link to the Past. There’s some emphasis placed on the early dungeons to show multiple levels at once for Link to traverse, presumably to take advantage of the 3D, but is mostly abandoned quickly. I did not play the game in 3D, but I suppose it’s fine for those who like it. As one can probably deduce from that statement, there are no 3D-specific puzzles in this game such as the ones found in Super Mario 3D Land that force the player to switch on the function, which is fine by me.
Where A Link Between Worlds looks to separate itself from other Zelda titles is with the merge ability Link acquires early in the game. Merge allows Link to become a painting and move along walls. He can go behind some objects this way or slip through cracks and around corners, as well as apply the power in other creative ways. It did take me some getting used to, but overall I found it to be an enjoyable addition to the game and one of the better gimmicks to be featured in a Zelda game. Utilizing the power is easy, but it does take some time to get one’s brain trained in a way to make use of it. There were a few times I was stumped on how to reach a treasure chest or other location only to realize the solution was pretty obvious once my mind caught up and applied the merge ability correctly. Aside from that, most of the other challenges and puzzles should feel familiar to Zelda veterans as they’ll know when to use the hookshot or drop a bomb.
The setup for A Link Between Worlds is basically identical to A Link to the Past. The game starts off in Hyrule with Link having to make his way through three early dungeons before a confrontation at Hyrule Castle opens up a path to Lorule. Link is able to traverse worlds via fissures that appear in walls and various structures that require him to merge with the surface and slide in. As these fissures are found, they’ll appear on the map permanently and some areas are only reachable by exploiting them. Surprisingly, only one dungeon requires the player to bounce between worlds which is something I thought would be exploited further.
The other heavily advertised feature of A Link Between Worlds is the non-linear nature of the game’s dungeons. Once the player reaches Lorule, they can conquer the dungeons in any order they wish (save for one, which requires an item obtained from beating another) before heading off to Lorule Castle for the final battle. This feature is enabled by having all of the traditional Zelda items available to Link from the get-go. Very early in the game, a merchant by the name of Ravio opens up shop in Link’s house. Here Link can rent any item for a small fee and hang onto it until he falls in battle. Link can rent as many items as are available, so if the player enters a dungeon that requires the ice rod, for example, the player can simply go rent it if he hasn’t already. Most players, myself included, will probably rent every item right away and risk having to rent them all again should a game over screen rear its ugly head. Making the game non-linear in this way is kind of fun, but does lessen the reward for getting through a dungeon. Each one still has something for the player to find, but not really on the same level as the usual. It would have been nice if Nintendo added more items to the game for players to find to make-up for this, but oh well.
A Link Between Worlds has one other distinguishing feature when compared with its predecessor: it’s exceptionally easy. Aside from Zelda II, no Zelda title really has a reputation for being a hard game, but most of them are challenging and have at least one dungeon that sends gamers running to the nearest FAQ. A Link Between Worlds contains no such dungeons and most Zelda veterans will never see a game over screen when playing it. I do not consider myself an exceptional gamer, but I did not die once while playing this game. In addition to that, I had no trouble finding every heart piece, each of the lost maimais (little squid-crab hybrids hidden around Hyrule and Lorule), or toppling the game’s gauntlet scenario twice. The dungeon puzzles are clever at times, but aren’t likely to leave gamers stumped for any significant length of time. As for the enemies, I think many are made easier this time around because just about all of them can be taken down with the sword. Even some enemies from A Link to the Past, such as those statues with a central eye, that required a certain item to fell can be taken down with the sword. It’s also the type of game that starts off harder than it finishes, mostly because adding hearts remedies any challenging enemies or bosses weak. Most of the bosses also are retreads of past ones, so there’s less trial and error. Also making every item available at the start contributes to an easier game. All of them consume stamina when used, which regenerates over a short period of time, so players can spam the powerful fire rod if they so desire and most enemies are susceptible to the freezing powers of the boomerang and hookshot (and if they aren’t, there’s the ice rod).
Difficulty issues aside, A Link Between Worlds is an enjoyable Zelda title that I was sad to see end. It’s about as long as most handheld Zelda titles. Playing at a very deliberate pace and obtaining all items, chests, and so on, the game lasted exactly 20 hours and 2 minutes for me according to the logs on my 3DS. It was a fairly swift 20 hours with most of the game’s dungeons lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to a half hour at most. A lot of my time was spent roaming Hyrule and Lorule and at least an hour was spent on the Octorok baseball mini-game. Once the game is finished a harder hero mode becomes available. I haven’t tried it, but apparently the only difference between that and the regular game is that enemies do more damage, which should help to make the game at least a little more challenging. If Nintendo set out to eclipse A Link to the Past then it came up short, and from that perspective A Link Between Worlds is a disappointment. As a Zelda game though, it’s great entertainment and something all 3DS owners should pick up.