The Legend of Zelda is my favorite game franchise. With that said, I must admit that I haven’t followed the franchise in a manner commensurate with my love for it. I developed a crush playing Link’s Awakening, then fell in love playing Ocarina of Time. To this day, OoT is probably the single game that I’ve spent the most time with. But my love lapsed for many years. I think my young mind was skeptical that any succeeding Zelda game could match OoT. Combine that skepticism with a migration from Nintendo to PlayStation and Xbox, and the result was that I didn’t play a Zelda game for over a decade.
I returned to the series recently, after Fez reminded me how much I loved solving puzzles and opening chests. Since Spring 2012, I’ve been playing through Zelda from the beginning. I completed A Link to the Past about 6 months ago. So that game was fresh in my mind as I excitedly sat down with its sequel, A Link Between Worlds.
I can’t speak much on the Zelda games between OoT and LbW, except to say that the series has continued to garner high praise. As for LbW, I can guarantee that this entry will be another success. It deserves it.
There are so many things to praise, I’m not sure where to start. I suppose the most pressing concern is whether or not LbW appropriately handles the legacy of LttP, widely regarded as the best Zelda game and often cracking the top-five of best-games-of-all-time lists. LbW certainly does not betray this legacy. This sequel very faithfully represents its predecessor.I know some of the more recent games have deviated from this formula, but LbW very much exists within the mythos of LttP and OoT. And it works as well now as it did then. As for the story, just like in those two games, you’ll be collecting three gems, then entering a new world (hence the title, A Link Between Worlds) to save seven sages. It’s not an original story, but it will be fresh enough for new players and fittingly nostalgic for old players.
And accessibility is something Zelda has always excelled at. Although LbW is being billed as a sequel to LttP, it will unfold seamlessly even if you’ve never played a Zelda game. The story takes place an unknown amount of time after the events of LttP. You are told the ‘legend’ of a hero who saved Hyrule in days past, and many of the characters speculate that destiny has chosen you to repeat the heroic quest of legend.
LbW strikes the right balance of old and new. Veterans of the series will recognize characters like Princess Zelda (duh), her guard Impa, the elder Sahasrahla, and Dampé the gravedigger. And they’ll also quickly spot Majora’s mask hanging in Link’s house. LbW also masterfully recreates the Hyrule of LttP. Although there are some minor differences in the overworld map, this game is a testament to clever design. To accept the constraints of a 20-year-old game and still produce a game that feels completely new is quite impressive.
So let’s get to what’s new: First, there are new characters. As much as I would have loved to see Saria, Darunia, and Princess Ruto, LbW does well to introduce new (descendants of) sages. Link also has a new friend, Rovio. He serves as the shopkeeper who loans you items. He’s quite the entrepreneur, and he adds an entertaining whimsy to the game. There’s also at least one new villain. Your quest is set off when Yuga begins turning sages into paintings with his magical staff. Although Zelda antagonists don’t always have a lot of depth, Yuga is intriguing. He is capturing the sages’ perfection in the paintings. There is more to Yuga as an antagonist than a generic quest for power.
Yuga also serves a master. I’ll leave you to discover whom he serves, but the only clue that comes early in the game is when Yuga says, “I think that Her Grace will be most pleased.”
Perhaps most significantly, LbW comes with a new mechanic: the ability to transform into a 2-dimensional painting and move along walls. In the same way that past games have used the ocarina, masks, or various transformations, the 2D mechanic is used to solve the game’s trademark puzzles. The ingenuity of this decision cannot be overstated. It may sound a little on-the-nose for a 3D game to have a 2D mechanic, but Nintendo executes it flawlessly.
What really highlights the 2D mechanic is the stunning quality of the 3D in LbW. I haven’t played many games on my 3DS, but I usually find myself constantly adjusting the 3D, often keeping it low or off. With LbW, I started with the 3D high and could barely bring myself to turn it down. I knew I should turn it down for the sake of writing an informed review, but I resisted for a long time. I just felt like I would be missing out on the experience if I didn’t play in 3D. Eventually, I did turn down the 3D. For about two minutes while I was doing some inconsequential walking in the overworld. It looks fine in 2D. But honestly, if you’re not playing LbW in high 3D, you’re doing it wrong.
There is so much depth in the 3D and in the game. When crows or keese fly down from above, there is a legitimate sense that they are flying down. You can only hit them when they get down to your level. And the first time I saw a tektite jump, I was blown away. I’ve never seen this level of depth in an overhead game. Even the text boxes really pop to the foreground in 3D.
Depth has been an integral element of Zelda games since LttP, but in LbW it’s not just that dungeons have multiple floors. Many rooms have two levels, and it really feels like it. The puzzles often revolve around your ability to navigate the depth of your environment in a way that is much deeper than ‘that platform is higher than this one’. You are beckoned to be constantly aware of what is above and below you. And again, the thorough implementation of depth throughout the game is what makes the 2D mechanic so successful. As oxymoronic as it may sound, the 2D mechanic only adds more depth. Where the 3D draws your attention to what is above and below you, the 2D mechanic draws your attention to what you can’t see.
At the core of the Zelda franchise is the wonder of exploration–of trying and discovering new things. The 2D mechanic allows for an entirely new arena of exploration. You are constantly surrounded by the hint that there is another world that you’re missing. Because of the top-down perspective, you can catch distorted glimpses of some of the 2D environment. But activating the 2D mechanic is like entering a new room or lighting a torch in a dark room. There are always aspects of the environment that are completely hidden in the overhead perspective. Even when I felt like there wasn’t much to be found by going 2D, I was often surprised by what I was missing in overhead. Also: the music gets flatter when you go 2D! It’s a bit difficult to explain, but the audio loses its warmth in 2D. It’s a subtle effect, but another example of the amazing attention to multiple kinds of depth in the game.
I feel more like a fanboy than a critic gushing so much about how great LbW is without offering any criticism. In all honesty, I can’t find much to criticize. I was a little disappointed at first that LbW isn’t a proper sequel to LttP. You’re not the same Link from LttP, which is generally the case in Zelda games. Link, Zelda, and Ganon(dorf) aren’t so much specific characters as they are abstract concepts. It would be cool to eventually see a Zelda game that follows the same Link from a past game, but the fact that this isn’t that game isn’t a major mark against LbW.
As a portable Zelda game, LbW skews a bit more toward the novice than the hardened gamer. Dungeon puzzles can be challenging, but are not overly so. This is a game that wants to be accessible to gamers of all ages and skill levels. There are plenty of safety nets for younger players. The fortune teller returns from LttP, in case you’re unsure of your next task. And although I prefer to game without hints, LbW does have an intriguing hint mechanism. The fortune teller gives you a pair of magic glasses. When you wear them, you can get hints about particular puzzles. Each hint costs 1 gamer coin. (You get 1 gamer coin for every 100 steps you take while carrying your 3DS.)
This is a clever cross-promotion of the 3DS’ general functionality. Nintendo really wants you to carry your 3DS everywhere you go. And the LbW hint system is just further encouragement to do so. LbW’s StreetPass feature also encourages the 3DS’ functionality. Since no one has the game yet, I wasn’t able to fully utilize the StreetPass feature. From what I understand, you set up a StreetPass Link avatar to battle with other players. It seems like you don’t incur any penalties if your avatar loses; but you will gain rewards if your avatar wins.
I don’t know, however, what you stand to win/lose for fighting other avatars, or what kind of rewards your avatar can win. Even if the StreetPass system isn’t terribly compelling (although the detail in the rest of the games suggests it is at least worthwhile), it’s great to see LbW trying to make use of the full range of 3DS features.
There is one outstanding bugaboo in LbW that I can’t quite get over: As entertaining as Rovio is, he represents a major shift in the Zelda formula. Rather than getting major items in dungeons, you simply ‘rent’ them from Rovio. Moreover, you can rent pretty much all the major items very early in the game. And because rupees are easy to come by, I was able to purchase the hookshot, hammer, and boomerang before I even entered the second dungeon. The catch to this system is that Rovio will ‘repossess’ his items if you die, meaning you’d have to buy them again. Nintendo President Satoru Iwata has said allowing players to purchase key items is a design decision made explicitly to depart from the traditional Zelda formula. It also feels like another element added to encourage players of all ages and skills.
Even in this system, each item is still distinctly associated with a single dungeon. Having the hammer and hookshot, for example, doesn’t really help you in any appreciable way in the dungeon designed around the tornado rod. Nonetheless, a central aspect of Zelda’s exploration motif is knowing there is more to be discovered–seeing a peg blocking your path and thinking, ‘I’ll need to come back to this after I get the hammer.’ When you have all items at your disposal from the start, it diminishes that mystery and the sense of the unknown associated with exploration.
All things considered, this is a very minor gripe with an otherwise stellar game. More people may recognize Mario than Link, but A Link Between Worlds is another exhibit in the case that The Legend of Zelda is the best game franchise of all time. LbW makes masterful use of the 3DS. The game has amazing depth in presentation and mechanics. And LbW even has character depth that hasn’t always been central to Zelda games.
A Link Between Worlds has something for all players. It’s accessible to novice players, but will also stimulate the nostalgia of veteran Links. I don’t want to sound frivolous, but I legitimately think The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds alone warrants the purchase of a 3DS. If you don’t own a 3DS, I would sincerely suggest buying one during some holiday sale. (Don’t get a 2DS. You should really experience LbW in 3D.) If you already own a 3DS, you need to play LbW.