Sequels to cherished properties can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand they can be great for giving fans what they want, but there’s also a gigantic risk of retreading the same steps – or worse, staining the memory of the original. It’s a line so fine that when Nintendo announced that that they were working on a direct sequel to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, the news brought both excitement and fear.
The original SNES game was the third Zelda title and it took the series from being just another game in Nintendo’s stable, to one of their headlining franchises – second only to the Mario games. It was a revelation; a sprawling adventure that was impeccably designed and masterfully executed. It laid down the template for the decades of Zelda games to come and, put simply, it was (and still is) a masterpiece.
So let’s get the answer to the big question out of the way: no, A Link Between Worlds doesn’t quite match its predecessor, but it’s not trying to. It may well be a clear homage to what came before, but this is its own game and should be seen as such.
For those familiar with the Zelda timeline (recently canonised thanks to the excellent Hyrule Historia book), A Link Between Worlds takes place after A Link To The Past, the Oracles games and Link’s Awakening, taking place in the exact same version of Hyrule as in Link to the Past – although the Link in this game is not the same one. Interestingly, it’s also set before the original Legend of Zelda and, even more interestingly, in this game, Majora’s Mask is hung up in Link’s house, even though the Majora’s Mask game takes place in an entirely different timeline (according to Hyrule Historia, the timeline splits into three depending on what happens in Ocarina of Time. Confused yet?).
Canonical geekery aside, A Link Between Worlds puts Hyrule in peril once again, as a sorceress named Yuga has been turning Hylians into cave paintings. This version of Link, a humble blacksmith, finds himself thrown into increasingly catastrophic events, while also becoming a cave painting himself and being transported to Lorule. Formally known as the Dark World, this twisted image of Hyrule has its very own version of Princess Zelda, named Princess Hilda. Once, it was a beautiful world, much like Hyrule was, and Link will eventually find out what become of Lorule while on his quest to defeat Yuga and rescue Zelda once more.
It wouldn’t be a Zelda game without some sort of overarching gameplay gimmick and this time around, it’s Link’s ability to merge into walls as a painting and move left and right around them. It’s such a simple ability that’s it’s quite easy to forget it’s there, but it’s used incredibly well in this familiar version of Hyrule. Despite it being an important ability, it’s never overused and you’ll constantly discover new ways of using it. What’s more, it adds an extra dimension to a world that many players will think they’ve already seen every nook and cranny of.
Carrying on the theme of taking something old and making it feel new, is A Link Between Worlds’ approach to items. It is Zelda tradition that each dungeon contains a new item that is mainly used for that area and for occasionally hunting for items in the Hyrule Overworld. It’s a series constant that has been played out, but unusually this time around you have access to most of the items very early on. New character Ravio decides to become Link’s roommate, and rewards our hero by loaning him most of the items in the game for a small price. The catch is that if Link should fall in battle, those items will immediately return to Ravio and must be rented again for a fee. Later on, these items can be bought outright so they can be kept after death. Use of these items (along with the wall-merging ability) is governed by a purple meter that depletes on usage, but will replenish while an item or ability isn’t in use. That is to say, even formally consumable items such as bombs and arrows can now be used infinitely, so long as there’s some juice in that purple bar.
While other items are available in dungeons and the overworld (and it is possible to upgrade all of the basic items to Nice versions, via a sub-quest), it’s so refreshing to be able to have these items be able to explore most of Hyrule/Lorule as early as you like. In fact, it’s now possible to tackle practically any dungeon in any order (provided you’ve rented the required items). Luckily, Rupees are easily obtainable and it shouldn’t be too difficult to afford to rent all of the available items very early on.
These new dungeons are roughly in the same locations as those in A Link to the Past, but are brand new. Many of them aren’t huge sprawling affairs, but are just the right size for adventuring on the go while providing some great puzzles based around both the items in your possession, and the wall merge ability. For long-time Zelda fans, the dungeons (and their accompanying bosses) might not be the most challenging, but they’re still highly entertaining and enjoyable.
It’s a real joy to be able to play a classic top-down Zelda game once more and Nintendo have done a great job at modernising the feel of A Link to the Past. Naturally, the touchscreen permanently shows the overworld map, which you can also change to the opposite world to make it easier to see some of those items that are just beyond your reach – you can even place different coloured pins on the map to highlight areas you want to make note of. As you can imagine, the touchscreen is also used to equip items and check your quest gear. For those who are struggling with some of the puzzles or aren’t sure where to go next, Nintendo have implemented a hint system in the form of glasses that, when equipped, allow you to see special Hint Ghosts located around Hyrule/Lorule. For the cost of one 3DS Play Coin, you can get a hint for the area you are in. You’re never too far from one of these ghosts, but the idea of only being able to see them when equipping an item is a great one, meaning you’ll only see the hints if you really want to.
Modern design decisions aside, at its heart this is the pre-Ocarina Zelda game that you’ve always wanted and it looks absolutely wonderful. The enemies, locations and characters from the 2D A Link to the Past have been redesigned as polygonal models while still remaining recognisable , while the 3D effect is used to give depth to areas where there are multiple levels/floors, which is a nice touch that adds that little flourish to an already good looking game. The game also runs at a consistent 60 frames per second to improve the 3D effect, which makes for a game that looks incredibly slick and feels quite different for a Zelda game – but in a good way.
Accompanying the brilliant visuals is an excellent soundtrack. Gloriously instrumented versions of classic A Link to the Past tracks are joined by all new compositions that fit with the look and feel that the developers were going for. You can also pick out some updated versions of A Link to the Past’s distinctive sound effects too, providing a further contrast between the old and the new.
Those who just want to rush through the dungeons may find this Zelda to be a brisker quest than expected. It took me around 12-13 hours to finish the game, but I rarely strayed from the path. Since completion, I’ve spent at least another 7 hours just taking in the worlds of Hyrule and Lorule, engaging in their many mini-games (ranging from Cucco-dodging to an unusual rendition of baseball). There are plenty of side-quests, distractions and item gathering to keep you coming back as well – you’ll certainly want to take your time exploring Hyrule/Lorule, even if you think you know them well. Finishing the game will also unlock a harder Hero Mode for those who want to challenge themselves.
VERDICT: A superb sequel to one of gaming’s greatest masterpieces, A Link Between Worlds is one of the best portable entries in the series. It may be heavily inspired by the past, but the way that some of the classic conventions have been changed would indicate that seeds are being sown that could potentially change how future entries play.
It rewards those of us who know A Link to the Past’s version of Hyrule like the back of our hand, but makes enough concessions for those who didn’t play the original the first time around. It may be a shorter and less challenging adventure than many would expect for a modern Zelda game, but when that journey is so incredibly satisfying, you won’t feel short changed. I can’t think of a better way to end a brilliant year for the Nintendo 3DS than by playing one of the best games released on the system so far.
INCREDIBLE. This is the pinnacle of our scoring spectrum, reserved for games that truly affect us, that capture our imagination so completely that they affect the standard by which we measure future games. 10/10 is not a declaration of perfection, but an assurance that the game in question is of amazingly high quality and has exceeded our expectations.