Developer: Nintendo EAD Group No. 3
Release Date: November 22, 2013
ESRB: E for Everyone
As I sit here writing this review, I find myself stunned that it's been almost an entire decade since the last 2D Zelda game released. It isn't every day that we get a new one, let alone one that serves as a sequel to one of the most beloved entries in the series, which is more than two decades old at this point. Often hailed as one of the very best Zelda games to this day, A Link to the Past perfected the 2D formula in the series and served as a template for all future entries. Now Nintendo is returning to that version of Hyrule, but can The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds live up to its predecessor's lofty standards, or will it be forced to live in its shadow?
A Link Between Worlds is set some period of time after the events that transpired in A Link to the Past and follows the adventure of a new, young Link. The world has long been at peace, but a malevolent character known as Yuga has begun to wreak havoc by turning people into paintings and transporting them to a shadowy, alternate realm for his own nefarious reasons. This era's Link almost meets the same fate, but due to a mysterious bracelet, he's able to use this ability to his advantage, forming the central gameplay mechanic - turning into a painting/mural that can walk along the wall and access new areas by walking through cracks and bypassing gaps and the like. But more on that in a minute.
One of the great things here is that, just like the game's 20-year-old predecessor, it doesn't take long for the game to throw you right into the action. There's no lengthy diatribe at the beginning or overly specific tutorial. Instead, the game introduces you into the hack-and-slash dungeon-crawling and puzzle solving gameplay in a simple yet methodical way, with Link intending to begin work as an apprentice for a blacksmith, only for a sword delivery to escalate into a full-blown adventure, recalling in part the spirit of how the previous game began. The surrounding world opens up pretty quickly too - you can access much of Hyrule almost instantly without being walled off by objects and obstacles that would previously prevent your progression due to not having a certain item.
This new openness is further expanded by another new feature - the ability to rent different items that are used to progress within dungeons (and on the overworld as well) from a new, rabbit-hooded character named Ravio, who sets up shop in your own house relatively early on. Due to the open nature of being able to rent these items, it also means that you can select the order in which you'd like to tackle each dungeon instead of being relegated to a linear progression. While initially a bit weary of this idea, I found it to be a surprisingly refreshing change that actually doesn't water the gameplay down or change it significantly in any way.
Given that this world is set in the same Hyrule that A Link to the Past is set in, much of the overworld is actually the same. In fact, I'd say that at least 80% of Hyrule is, possibly more. You'll still find old mainstays like The Lost Woods in the same upper right corner of the map, Kakariko Village right below it, Death Mountain in the upper right corner and so on and so forth. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - let's not forget that A Link to the Past's has one of the most beloved overworld areas in the series - but it is a little unfortunate that so little has changed.
Returning in similar fashion is the existence of an alternate world you'll traverse back and forth to called Lorule (get it - Hyrule? Lorule?), which is very similar in part to the Dark World from A Link to the Past, even containing many of the same areas (Skull Woods, Misery Mire, etc.). But unlike The Dark World, Lorule really is in fact an alternate, opposite version of Hyrule, complete with its own castle and princess - Hilda. Using different dark fissures found throughout both worlds, you'll be able to travel back and forth between them, finding new passage ways, secrets, and more.
As for the painting mechanic, it's used in some interesting ways, mostly in dungeons, but also outside as well. In addition to being the main method of traveling between worlds (through the fissures), it serves as a way to slip by certain obstacles, or perhaps over a ravine with no bridge, and even find new platforms that are seemingly out of reach. It's a fun and interesting new design, but it's used surprisingly less often than I would have expected, with much of the dungeon gameplay focusing more on traditional item usage and puzzles for the most part.
Visually, the game offers the same top-down perspective found in A Link to the Past, though the world has a very nice-rounded look to its characters, trees, and the like. Personally, I like the artistic direction they went with, though it may not be for everyone. A Link Between Worlds also makes the best of use of stereoscopic 3D in any 3DS game since Super Mario 3D Land as it's cleverly used to showcase height, especially, with one dungeon early on making good use of this tactic. The story itself is also fairly interesting, managing to throw in a few interesting new characters along the way. Though they aren't fleshed out quite as much as characters in recent console versions have been, Princess Hilda and Yuga both have interesting arcs, especially with what the former's existence means compared to Zelda's and how she relates to her.
Where this game truly succeeds, though, is in its classic gameplay - it harkens back to Zelda games of old where the world is yours to explore. There's something about the top-down 2D design that lends itself extraordinarily well to this aspect that the 3D Zelda games don't capture quite the same way. Tons of secrets abound everywhere, from traditional hidden heart container pieces to side quests from different characters to different caves and areas you'll find around the world. If you're like me, you'll turn over every rock, bomb every suspicious pattern on the wall, and turn into a painting to find every out of reach or cleverly hidden area, and you'll absolutely love it.
It could be said that A Link Between Worlds plays it safe - almost too safe, some might say. After all, it does use many of the same assets (albeit recreated) and much of the same music that originated in A Link to the Past. And yet, it's hard to complain when that formula was so perfect to begin with. A Link Between Worlds is very much a re-imagining of sorts of that original game's design for today's crowd, and it works extraordinarily well. It's a great throwback to a classic game that proves 2D Zelda games are still some of, if not the best Zelda games out there. If you have a 3DS, you owe it to yourself to play what is arguably one of the best Zelda games in years, and easily one of this year's very best titles.
+ Great open world with plenty of secrets to explore
+ Great dungeon designs
+ New arrangements for the music are fantastic
+ Art direction is nice and fits the game well
- Much of the game's design is based on A Link to the Past, including the overworld; lack of originality in that aspect is a tiny bit disappointing.
Overall Score: 9.5 (out of 10)
Despite its many nods to A Link to the Past's design, A Link Between Worlds succeeds as a spiritual successor to that game and cements itself as one of the best Zelda titles and must-play games of the year.