For a while now, The Legend of Zelda series has received a lot of criticism. Many have become tired of the inflated beginnings and tutorials the more recent games possess, as well as the excessive hand-holding. It seems the team behind the latest Zelda entry, A Link Between Worlds, has come up with a solution to make the series not come across as making the player feel like their intelligence is being insulted while still being accessible to newcomers. The end result isn't just one of the best Zelda experiences ever-- it's one of the best games I've played in a long time.
The game starts out similarly enough, with Link being awakened from his slumber. Sure, it's not a dark, storming, and otherwise foreboding night, but A Link Between World's version of the Hero of Hyrule has an epic journey ahead of him regardless. Serving as the local blacksmith's apprentice, Link is tasked with taking a sword to a Hyrule Castle captain who is at the Sanctuary. When Link arrives, he finds the captain turned into a painting and then the minister transformed into an objet d'art as well. The person responsible for this is a Gerudo named Yuga, who wishes to capture the Seven Sages for some truly sinister plan. Link somehow survives the initial meeting between the two and is then asked to acquire three pendants from three dungeons around Hyrule. Only then will he be able to pull the Master Sword out from the Lost Woods and defeat Yuga and stop his plan.
One thing that is so fantastic about A Link Between Worlds is how the plot never lingers for too long. Recent games in the series have had drawn out expositions and plot points. From the first dungeon to the last, the story in A Link Between Worlds seldom gets in the way of the player just playing the game, exploring Hyrule and its alternate realm.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is set in the same world as A Link to the Past, one of my favorite games of all time. However, despite being in the same world, A Link Between Worlds' Hyrule features various geographical changes compared to A Link to the Past, as the game is set several generations after the events of the SNES classic.
Something that gives A Link to the Past veterans a new perspective on Hyrule is the ability that Link earns early in the game to merge into a wall and become a painting, which allows him to freely move along walls from left-to-right, as long as there are no rocks or other obstacles along the wall to block his progress. An early example of this has Link at the Tower of Hera, standing on a moving platform floating high over the abyss below. As the platform moves towards a protruding block that Link can't possibly get around, Link can merge with the block, move around to the other side, and transform out of painting form right back onto the moving platform. This wall merge ability is used throughout the game in some ingenious ways, and it's without a doubt my favorite mechanic in a Zelda game. Period. It's a gift that A Link Between Worlds keeps on giving.
The merge ability also serves a story-related purpose-- it allows Link to move to and from Lorule, a parallel world to Hyrule that has many geographical similarities to Hyrule. Think of it as A Link Between Worlds' Dark World. This is done through entering small, illuminated cracks all around Hyrule. Link will have to discover as many as possible, because unlike Hyrule, Lorule is split up into large, segmented areas. This makes taking a saunter from one corner of Lorule to another impossible. Lorule is where the latter dungeons of the game take place, and it's certainly no friendly neighborhood, as enemies take off multiple hearts per hit!
One of my (and many other gamers) issues with Twilight Princess on Wii and GameCube was that you always seemed to come across treasure chests-- some of which were hard to reach-- only to open it up and find more rupees, the currency of the Zelda series. All too often Link would be carrying the maximum amount of rupees allowed, requiring him to return them to the treasure chest. All that work for naught! Curses, game! However, A Link Between Worlds makes rupees more important than ever before. Early in the game Link comes across a mysterious, masked traveling salesman named Ravio who strangely sets up shop in Link's house. For a price, Ravio will rent out the majority of his item collection. We're talking about A Link to the Past mainstays like the Boomerang, Bow, Bombs, Hookshot, Hammer, as well as the Fire and Ice Rods. The catch here is that if Link perishes in combat, all of his rented items are taken away and Link must pay the rental fee all over again. As this game is rather challenging, especially in the second half, losing Link's goods can absolutely happen. Eventually Link will be able to permanently add the various items in Ravio's shop to his arsenal (although for a higher price). This means items can be used with total freedom-- that's because they all share a stamina gauge when used, which refills little by little, so no more breaking pots and slicing up bushes for spare arrows and bombs. Instead, using an item uses up a small amount of Link's stamina gauge.
If there's a common theme found in A Link Between Worlds, then it has to be freedom. The majority of the dungeons in the game can be played in any order. This relates more to Link's trips to Lorule, but as long as Link has the right item, he can access a given dungeon. The player will know right away whether they have the right item, as there's a roadblock in front of the entrance emblazoned with the necessary item the player will need to pass through it. The fact of the matter is that I haven't felt this much freedom in a Zelda game since the NES original. However, with this iteration of the series I'm not lost like an idiot, trying to burn random bushes hoping for a dungeon entrance. Both Hyrule and Lorule are grand places that rarely feel like chores to backtrack through. I didn't once mind going from one end of Hyrule to the other. Even if I did, the various bird statues the game has serve as quick travel destinations, as well as save points.
Through coming across an aquatic-based character in the game, Link obtains a side quest to return a mother's school of Maiamai children. These children are hidden all throughout Hyrule and Lorule. Thankfully, you get a map that displays how many children are left to collect in each area (there are 100 Maiamai total), and they all make a crying sound when Link is near them. After every ten Maiamai are returned to the mother, she will upgrade one of Link's items. For example, an upgraded Bow can shoot out three arrows in different directions in one shot. These upgrades are especially helpful for the dungeons and hordes of monsters inside them that Link has to face off against. It's sidequests like these that actually feel substantial and helpful to your progress, as opposed to the "filler" quests that some recent Zelda games have utilized.
Dungeons in A Link Between Worlds are briefer escapades than what is found in A Link to the Past. However, that doesn't mean they're any less spectacular. While one might think each dungeon would be easy as all of the puzzles focus on one item, that isn't really the case. Each dungeon constantly throws in new ways to expand upon each item's numerous uses, forcing the player to think critically. For instance, a seesaw in Turtle Rock will go up and down depending on what side Link is standing on. This makes getting to higher up platforms impossible, since the seesaw side that Link is on always goes down. However, with the Ice Rod, Link can freeze the seesaw in place, allowing him access to otherwise inaccessible platforms.
Gone is the urge or need to acquire a map for each dungeon. However, the Compass is still a part of every labyrinth Link explores. It reveals all of the treasure chest locations, making clearing out each dungeon's hidden stashes less annoying. There's also still a Big Key to find, which opens the boss's domain, as well as a big treasure chest housing a rare item. Each of Lorule's dungeons possesses something to optionally collect, be it armor that increases Link's defense, raw materials to beef up the Master Sword, or gloves that enable Link to lift up heavy rocks.
The colossal encounters that conclude each dungeon in A Link Between Worlds just amazed me to no end. I always looked forward to these confrontations, and I always brought some spare faeries with me as insurance, because these bouts could be quite challenging! One boss requires you to merge with its shield, tricking the foe into directing its shield behind him. This allows Link to move out of it and strike the boss from behind. It's these devilishly designed boss fights and dungeons that are a testament to the mastery of the development team behind this game.
Outside of normal dungeons, A Link Between Worlds has several miniature dungeons that house silver and golden rupees, worth 100 and 300 respectively. These mini-dungeons have an overarching puzzle or challenge to solve using a specific item or pair of items. One of these places requires proficient use of the Pegasus Shoes to hit switches and speed around corners before an impenetrable gate rises up from the floor, blocking Link's progress and forcing him to start the room over.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past can be beaten in around the same amount of hours, especially if you're familiar with Hyrule already. However, both games demand to be replayed again and again, as they're absolute classics. The process of collecting every Heart Container, Maiamai, and hidden item in the game is no easy feat. If the normal challenge of the game is deemed too trivial, then after beating the game you can try out Hero Mode, where damage received is multiplied by four.
There is much discussion regarding the visual style of A Link Between Worlds. Some find it ugly, while others like the nods to A Link to the Past. For me, it looks just fine. I don't see anything that makes me go "ew." Characters may come across as being made from clay or plastic, but the whole look of the game is consistent. Outdoor and indoor areas look absolutely sublime, and the most phenomenal part of the presentation is how the development team managed to get the game running at 60 frames per second with 3D off AND on. It is legitimately hard for me to return to some older 3DS games now that I've experienced 60 FPS in 3D. Alongside the visuals come many sounds and songs that will invoke plenty of nostalgic memories and feelings from A Link to the Past veterans. The orchestrated arrangements of classic themes from that amazing game are without a doubt brilliant, and the new compositions are no slouches either.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is what many have wanted from a Zelda game for the longest time. It doesn't treat players as if they are stupid (although if you do get stuck, you can use a Play Coin to get a helpful hint), it doesn't hold their hand, it keeps the story to a minimum, and it offers an amount of freedom that hasn't been seen in the series since its first installment back in 1986. The wall merging mechanic is so astounding in its concept and execution, the dungeons, puzzles and bosses are amazing in their design, and the entire package feels so very familiar yet so very fresh to make it all come off as brand-new and exciting. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is the sum of years of the Zelda development team experimenting with what works and doesn't work with the series, and with this game, they definitely found something that works, and works insanely well.