[DISCLAIMER] This is a re-publication of a review I originally wrote and posted on my old blog in November 2013. I have made no edits to it outside of the addition of some pictures, it appears as I wrote it in 2013.
Making a sequel to a beloved video game is always a difficult task, but when it has been over 20 years since the game was first released that makes the task of creating a sequel worthy enough to live up to the stature of the original all the more difficult. This is precisely the problem facing The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, a sequel to the Super NES masterpiece A Link to the Past. For over 20 years A Link to the Past has been regarded as not only one of Nintendo’s finest games, but also one of the best achievements in the industry. It’s a title that has appeared on almost every list of the ‘best games of all time’ that has been compiled since its release in 1992. From the very off A Link Between Worlds had a mountain to climb, yet Nintendo made the task of following one of the best games ever made seem almost effortless.
A Link Between Worlds isn’t just a wonderful standalone Zelda title; it is also an extremely worthy sequel to A Link to the Past, and it’s easily the best Zelda game in years. Not since The Wind Waker has the Zelda series felt this magical, and not since the Oracle games has a portable entry in the series felt so cohesive. Once A Link Between Worlds drags you in to its world, which it will undoubtedly do, you won’t want to leave.
Much has been made about the fact that A Link Between Worlds is a sequel to A Link to the Past. Indeed the game itself is set in the very same iteration of Hyrule that SNES owners first explored over two decades ago. Anyone who has played A Link to the Past will fit right in to A Link Between Worlds, which is a good thing as A Link to the Past had one of the tightest, most consistent game worlds Nintendo ever created. As a huge fan of A Link to the Past I found revisiting its Hyrule one of the highlights of the whole game. Undoubtedly there will be some people who think re-using the same Hyrule all over again is lazy and unoriginal. You simply cannot please everyone. But this was never a problem for me, as A Link Between Worlds has so much going on the chances are the majority won’t care, and a lot of newer fans won’t even notice if they haven’t played A Link to the Past yet.
In terms of game play A Link Between Worlds features the same tight controls of A Link to the Past and all the other classic 2D Zelda games. There’s no lock on system or finicky camera controls, as the precision of combat in 2D games means mechanics such as these are needless. All you need to do is run around and press the B button to swing your sword. It’s simple, and rather charming really. Playing A Link Between Worlds really fills you with that nostalgic feeling of playing games in your childhood, when you didn’t care about Internet trolls, graphical fidelity or the console wars.
Much of A Link Between Worlds relies heavily on that nostalgic feeling. Although it is a game that any new Zelda fan could enjoy playing it will always rekindle that magic for those who themselves were first introduced to the series on the Super NES. But the entire game isn’t carried on nostalgia, and nostalgia alone isn’t something that can get me to enjoy a game this much.
The large chunk of any Zelda experience is spent exploring dungeons. Even the more recent Zelda games, which I have love-hate relationships with, have succeeded in this area also. You could make a serious argument for Skyward Sword having the best dungeons in the entire series. But the last few Zelda games have had either too few dungeons or too much filler in between them. A Link Between Worlds excels because it has the most dungeons of any game in the series since A Link to the Past, and none of the time spent in between dungeons is remotely close to filler material.
The dungeons themselves are all wonderfully designed; as good as any game in the series. They certainly resemble the dungeons in A Link to the Past aesthetically, but they are all entirely new and original, and they are all fantastic to explore. And the puzzles are just as glorious as the dungeons themselves. I haven’t been this mentally challenged by a Zelda game since Majora’s Mask or Oracle of Ages, which is terrific. It hits that perfect balance. It’s challenging, and fans such as myself will greatly appreciate it, but it isn’t so frustrating that it will turn away potential newcomers. And the new mechanic, which allows Link to turn in to a painting and run along walls, isn’t a gimmick in the slightest. It’s a fundamental aspect of exploration, both in dungeons and in the overworld. The mechanic itself opened opportunities for Nintendo to create puzzles that were feasibly impossible in past installments. Nintendo has tried numerous different ways to bridge the gap between casual and core gamers with recent Zelda games, and A Link Between Worlds finally sees them succeed. And miraculously they managed to achieve their goal without any hand holding, or without forcing an annoying sidekick upon you.
A Link Between Worlds is also the biggest shake up of the Zelda formula since arguably A Link to the Past itself. A Link to the Past introduced a defined structure to the series that all subsequent Zelda games have followed, but A Link Between World blows this wide open thanks to the fact that you can tackle dungeons in any order you see fit. The game still has that “beat three dungeons, get the sword and beat a load more dungeons” structure, and the first dungeon itself is still dictated by the story, but other than that the first set of dungeons can be tackled in any order you want and so can the second set. In essence it is a perfect balance between the freedom of The Legend of Zelda for the NES and the more structured game play of A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time.
And in another change for the series A Link Between Worlds doesn’t rely on finding specific weapons that are hidden within dungeons, which are required to beat the dungeon’s boss. This time around Link has access to almost every weapon and item from the beginning of the game, although you have to rent the items for a small fee from a feller called Ravio. Rental fees range from 50 to 100 rupees a piece, so you could essentially almost fully kit Link as early in the game as you want. The only downside to renting items is that, if you die, you lose everything that you rented. But later in the game Ravio gives you the option to buy the weapons from him as well as renting them. This system makes collecting rupees more important in A Link Between Worlds than ever before, as each item costs between 800 and 1200 rupees to buy outright. And the benefit of buying the weapons is far greater than continually re-renting them whenever you die.
Visually the game really does look like an updated version of A Link to the Past. The graphics are very simplistic, but very charming. The entire game is rendered in 3D, but it is played from an over the head perspective like past 2D installments. Although, instead of being a 3/4 over the head perspective, the camera is placed almost vertically over Link’s head. This is done to really push the 3D features of the 3DS. Not since Super Mario 3D Land has a 3DS game utilized the consoles main feature this well, as the 3D effects really add depth, and this helps distinguish which things are above or below Link at any one time. And the games visual design is complemented by an updated version of A Link to the Past’s soundtrack, which remains as wonderful to listen to today as it was 20 years ago.
It’s incredibly difficult for me to talk about A Link Between World without sounding like the complete Zelda fanatic that I am, but it really is a magnificent game. This is the Zelda title I’ve waited a decade for, but to say it is better than The Wind Waker would be a understatement. This may very well be the best game since Ocarina of Time. A Link Between Worlds falls in to none of the same pitfalls that recent Zelda games have done. It also pays a wonderful tribute to the Zelda formula of old while at the same time fundamentally changing the formula for the future. As a result we have not only the best Zelda game in years but also the best game for the 3DS so far.
Final Verdict: RECOMMENDED