Unfortunately I was born four years too late, when The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past arrived on shelves for the Super Nintendo in 1991, but it’s clear that it had a huge impact on video games. It took everything that worked well in the original Zelda for the NES and multiplied it by a hundred. If it isn’t Ocarina Of Time that many gamers consider to be the best in the series, it is A Link To The Past.
Nintendo rarely does direct sequels and the reception for portable games in the series has always been fairly mixed. For every well-received title such as Link’s Awakening and Minish Cap, we got Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, shunned by many Zelda enthusiasts. So imagine the surprise when The Legend Of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (which I’ll abbreviate to ALBW for the rest of this review to save my fingers) was announced for the 3DS in 2013.
This latest title in the series has left out the motion-control and touch gimmicks of previous games such as Twilight Princess or Phantom Hourglass, and goes back to basics. A Link Between Worlds is viewed from a top-down perspective, similar to the 2D games, with cel-shaded graphics in 60fps as in 2003’s The Wind Waker. If you haven’t played a Zelda game before, then you can easily jump right into this one because despite being advertised as a sequel to A Link To The Past, they don’t really connect with each other and it’s more of a reimagining than a sequel.
You play as a young, lazy, potential hero named Link and your job is to travel through numerous dungeons with clever puzzles, enemies, and bosses at the end of each one, with a plot macguffin for you to collect afterwards. However, the dungeons are scattered in the open world of Hyrule that Link must explore in order to achieve his goals and save the day. Along the way, you need to get involved with Hyrule’s many characters and help them with their troubles, some of which are mandatory, and some of which are entirely optional.
The ultimate villain of the game is Yuga, who aims to resurrect the evil Ganon, antagonist of the earlier games, in order to obtain ultimate power. Meanwhile, Yuga kidnaps the descendants of the seven sages who sealed Ganon many years ago, and it’s up to Link to rescue all seven sages, defeat Yuga, and collect the mystical artefact known as The Triforce, which grants any wish its holder desires. Yuga right off the bat is a pretty creepy villain, with an almost Joker-like attitude and look to him. He even uses his magic to trap the seven sages into paintings which I’m sure The Joker has planned at some point in the Batman mythos.
Instead of using the Wiimote to mimic holding a sword and the Nunchuck as a shield, combat is handled by pressing the B button to swing your sword in an arc, and holding the R button to raise your shield. Having to use a button to block attacks is a feature I highly welcome, as I felt that not attacking at all in the original Zelda, The Adventure Of Link, and A Link To The Past in order to defend was infuriatingly unreliable. I am glad that we can now block at our leisure, and being able to move Link in a full 360º feels smoother than previously. You could also do this in a Link To The Past, but you were still restricted to only attacking in four directions. ALBW allows you to attack in any direction you want, so when an enemy, or an obstacle, or a projectile hits me, it feels like it’s my fault and not because of limited mobility.
If you’ve played A Link To The Past before this, then the land of Hyrule should feel very familiar to you. Almost everything that you see in that game has been untouched in ALBW, with a few tweaks here and a couple of new locations there. The caves in Hyrule are where the slight differences come in, so while it may seem like a nostalgia trip on the surface, there’s always something new and fresh to find as Link digs deeper, whether it’s filled with certain characters that’ll either give you an item, or with hordes of enemies that hold a reward at the end of the path.
Item management however has been completely changed from other Zelda games. Early in the game, you meet a bunny-hooded man named Ravio, who basically acts as this game’s merchant and provides you with most of the franchise’s iconic weapons you would normally find in the dungeons, like the bombs, the boomerang, the bow and arrows, or the hookshot. You can only rent them at first, with Ravio taking those items back if you come to an untimely demise, but later on in the game you can buy them for full price and keep them. Rupees, the currency for Zelda games, are very easy to earn, by either playing mini-games, or causing them to spill everywhere by cutting grass, killing enemies, or partaking in a large gauntlet in the latter half of the game. The new pieces of equipment you get in the dungeons now act as a means of boosting up Link’s offense and defense, like minerals to strengthen his sword, or a blue tunic that halves the damage he takes. Ammunition and a magic meter is also nowhere to be seen, as it is now replaced with an energy meter that deteriorates each time you use an item and slowly fills up again. So there’s never a time where you’ll run out of arrows or bombs.
The dungeons themselves are also some of the shortest the series has seen so far, which works pretty well for handheld purposes. Fans who are concerned that there may be a shortage of dungeons in a handheld Zelda needn’t worry, because that’s certainly not the case – whilst small, they are plentiful. The puzzles may not be the most complex the series has seen, but there might be a few moments where you’ll be stuck and wandering around before you reach that “aha” moment. Not only that, but after you complete the first three dungeons, with the exception of the Thieves Hideout, you are allowed to conquer any dungeon in any order you want in this game’s equivalent of the Dark World from A Link To The Past, known as the laughably named Lorule. In this world, the enemies are much tougher and the characters you normally see in Hyrule are more aggressive and unfriendly.
Most of the travelling and puzzle-solving in ALBW is based around the new merging mechanic. By hugging a wall and pressing the A button, Link will merge into that wall and turn into a 2D painting, where he’ll then need to walk left or right to either find his next destination or hidden secrets in Hyrule or Lorule.
With the many abilities that Link has at his disposal and the non-linearity of dungeon crawling, this gives ALBW an enormous amount of replayability. The only thing that the game lacks is a focus on story, compared to the other games. It’s the exact same narrative we’ve seen before, going all the way back to A Link To The Past, but until you rescue the seventh sage and get to the final boss, it feels a bit rushed. There are plenty of interesting characters you’ll meet during your adventure, but they don’t stick out as much as they do in say Majora’s Mask or The Wind Waker.
But what makes up for a shortage of story is the most pure fun I’ve had in a Zelda game since 2006’s Twilight Princess. ALBW returns to its original roots and keeps the gameplay simple again, even if it does sacrifice a deep and compelling plot driving you forward in rescuing the Sages and Princess Zelda.
As seen with the recent HD remake of The Wind Waker, the cartoony art style is also something I think will age better than the likes of Twilight Princess or Skyward Sword. Again, as with Wind Waker, I also like that the game doesn’t take itself too seriously. The music is fully orchestrated, which is very pleasant to the ears, including some remixes of old themes from A Link To The Past, and some nice new original pieces. The Cucco mini-game music is a particular highlight. Zelda fans may be a little disappointed that ALBW treads more familiar ground than it should, but it has just enough new elements to carve out its own identity and is by no means a shameless recreation of A Link To The Past. In addition to being one of the best Zelda games in years for fans of the series, it’s also a great place for newcomers to get on board.
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