For the last few years, Eiji Aonuma, the director of The Legend of Zelda series, has expressed his desire to make changes to the franchise. Changing The Legend of Zelda is a controversial subject; the fan community is large and opinions are diverse. Changing anything means that a large number of fans will very likely be upset.
Mr. Aonuma’s comments have not resulted in any real change, until now. A Link Between Worlds makes significant changes to the traditional Zelda formula. At the same time, Aonuma made another dangerous decision: A Link Between Worlds is a sequel to A Link to the Past, one of the most beloved games in the franchise.
Zelda has seen sequels before, but A Link Between Worlds takes it to a new level. The game takes place in the same world as A Link to the Past, and, as a result, fans who played A Link to the Past will already know a great deal about the world.
Miraculously, A Link Between Worlds manages to walk this narrow path without faltering.
Breaking the mold
Every new Zelda game introduces new elements to the series, but they always adhere to a set of core gameplay mechanics that unite the series. In recent years, the core gameplay mechanics of the series have begun to look dated next to newer series that feature more open world exploration and player choice in progression. A Link Between Worlds addresses these concerns by introducing some of the most dramatic changes to The Legend of Zelda formula since Ocarina of Time was released in 1998.
Instead of a linear adventure, A Link Between Worlds provides an extremely open world. After the game’s brief introduction, almost the entire world is open for exploration. In addition to the open world, you are no longer forced to complete dungeons in a specific order. After an introductory dungeon, you can choose to complete the next two dungeons in any order. Then, you complete one more dungeon and are given the option to complete the next seven dungeons in almost any order.
Traditionally, new key inventory items are only found inside dungeons, but in A Link Between Worlds, most of the items are now available near the beginning of the game. Instead of finding them inside treasure chests, you spend Rupees to rent the items from a mysterious shopkeeper named Ravio.
Fortunately, Rupees are plentiful. You will quickly earn hundreds or even thousands of Rupees, and renting items is fairly inexpensive. However, there is a risk involved: if you die, any items you have rented will be returned to Ravio. Then, you will have to pay to rent the items again.
As a veteran Zelda player, the rental system never caused any inconvenience, but I can see it being frustrating for new players, or less experienced players who may die more often. The game tries to make the process as painless as possible by including fast travel, providing plenty of Rupees, and generally only requiring one item to complete each dungeon, but it’s impossible to remove the hassle entirely.
After you have completed the first few dungeons, you will gain the option to purchase the items permanently. Purchasing items is more expensive, but still affordable. I experienced the most enjoyment in purchasing the items as soon as I was able to. Purchasing the items, and completing portions of another side-quest, also opens the ability to upgrade items. Upgrading is completely optional, but it adds some useful new effects to each item.
Ravio’s shop is a simple solution to a problem that prevented The Legend of Zelda from becoming a less linear experience, and it works beautifully.
Merge: Overused and Magnificent
Likewise, the dungeon design in A Link Between Worlds is superb. The dungeons are compact; they are the perfect size and length for a handheld game. I feel confident in saying that the dungeons in A Link Between Worlds are among the best in the Zelda series. Each dungeon is themed around a specific item, and use those items to their full potential.
Alongside the usual puzzles, you will find an abundance of extra treasures, usually containing large numbers of Rupees. Those treasures are often hidden using the game’s signature ability: Merge.
“I feel confident in saying that the dungeons in A Link Between Worlds are among the best in The Legend of Zelda series.”
Early in the game, Link gains the ability to “Merge” into almost any wall. When Link Merges with a wall, he becomes a two-dimensional drawing with the ability to walk along the walls. Merge adds a three-dimensional element to an otherwise two-dimensional-styled game. Merge is used in every dungeon and throughout the overworld. The developers used the ability to its full potential; in fact, I would argue that the ability is overused.
When you first learn to Merge, your understanding of Zelda puzzles is forced to change. Veteran players will think they know the solutions to every puzzle only to find themselves stuck when Merge is required. However, once you adapt to using Merge and realize that it is used almost everywhere, you will begin assuming it is the solution to most puzzles. When Merge becomes predictable, it loses its magic.
Even if Merge is overused, it is used to create clever puzzles that will cause even veteran players to scratch their heads from time-to-time. Coupled with the inventory items, Merge is used to create memorable dungeon designs.
Hyrule and Lorule
Despite being extremely similar to A Link to the Past, both worlds, Hyrule and the “dark world” Lorule, are full of surprises and secrets. There are several treasure-filled caves to explore in addition to the traditional collectibles like Pieces of Heart and bottles. There is also a Gold Skulltula-style collection quest and optional items to discover.
Lorule is an interesting idea that is not executed in the best possible way. Specifically, it is a bit too similar to the Dark World of A Link to the Past. Lorule and the Dark World are two completely unrelated places, yet the enemies, structures, and even some location names (Skull Woods, Thieves’ Town and Misery Mire) are the same. There are a handful of notable differences, but I found it strange that the two were so similar.
Lorule also features another design element that some players may find frustrating: the world is not entirely connected. The story suggests that Lorule is falling apart and has been split into a handful of large floating islands. As a result, you must return to Hyrule and find new portals to Lorule to access each large chunk of the world. Fast travel makes traversing either world a breeze, but fast travel can only be used after you have visited each location for the first time.
Lorule’s separation really serves as a kind of progression barrier. In A Link to the Past, certain areas of the Dark World were off-limits until you located a certain item, but Ravio’s shop exists to eliminate that concept. Without the separation, it would be possible to access and complete every dungeon in Lorule without ever returning to Hyrule. I believe the separation exists to force players to travel between both worlds regularly. It’s an odd design choice in an otherwise open game, but it doesn’t hurt the experience.
An interesting story with memorable characters
The story of A Link Between Worlds is more traditional than the most recent Zelda games, in a good way. Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword are sometimes criticized for their very long introductions. While playing Skyward Sword, it can take over an hour to reach the first dungeon. A Link Between Worlds takes a cue from its predecessor, A Link to the Past: Link leaves home and is given a sword in the first five minutes of the game. You are put in your first dungeon-like experience in the first ten minutes, and you can easily reach the first full dungeon within the first twenty minutes.
The game still features some cutscenes and dialogue, but it is kept to a minimum. Most of the brief story sequences happen immediately after completing a dungeon.
The story is fairly straightforward, but it will please long-term fans of the series. Notably, A Link Between Worlds introduces a number of fun and memorable characters. Few characters are given real development, but even without it they have quickly become some of my favorite Zelda characters.
A Risk Worth Taking
Nintendo took a huge risk with A Link Between Worlds. Altering the foundations of one of their most beloved franchises could have been the ultimate disaster. Instead, their risk has lead to one of the best games in the franchise.
“…worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as its legendary predecessor.”
Developing a sequel to A Link to the Past sounded like a really bad idea, but A Link Between Worlds proves me wrong. The game far exceeds every expectation I had set, and, through some miracle, is actually worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as its legendary predecessor.