The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is my favorite game ever. Boiling any “favorite ever” question down to one is always a difficult task, but I made this decision long ago and have stuck with it ever since. In my life I’ve completed very few games multiple times. The list of games I’ve completed 3 times or more I could count on one hand. The list of games I’ve completed 10 times or more is exactly one. The world was perfect. The inhabitants were memorable. The puzzles were brilliant and the Dark World introduced a level of depth to these puzzles that I had never experienced before. The story was simplistic and at the same time epic and the music was(is) stunning.
With all that said you can imagine my thrill when I heard the next 3DS Zelda game was going to be a spiritual successor to my favorite game ever. It’s the same basic world for all intents and purposes that they’ve inhabited with new characters, new dungeons and a brand new story. They’ve also tweaked the Zelda formula a bit, while still maintaining the magic we’ve all come to love.
Spoiler alert: Princess Zelda is in trouble and you need to save her… and the world. But seriously, if you’ve played any Zelda game since the beginning of time you know the drill here. These are definitely games where the gameplay drives the story and not the other way around. The world is what really brings these games alive.
I don’t want to give away too many details about the real story of A Link Between Worlds. Instead, let’s talk about the subtle changes that have come from laying a game over top one of the all time classic game worlds. Gameplay changes aside, the world looks and feels very similar. Hyrule castle is in the center of the map. Link’s home is just south of it. The main town is west of that. Death Mountain is in the northeast. Etc etc etc. The exterior isn’t identical, but it’s definitely very close. The inhabitants and the interiors are what make this game its own.
I can only speak for myself when I say I have a very difficult time getting into optional reading material in many games. For example, I always told myself that I’d love to hear what the innkeepers in World of Warcraft had to say to really flesh out the world, but when that wall of text would pop up on my screen I’d already be scuttling away to find the next thing to kill. Pretty much every Zelda game has very limited speech bubbles that pop up that are easy to read and you can’t help but consume by the time you hit a button to move the text along. The magic of Nintendo is that they are able to give you small snippets of dialogue that are easily digested over the course of many interactions that give you the feel that you know the characters and have had a relationship that has changed over the course of the game. For some reason you can’t explain, you want to know why that crazy lady is raising chickens: maybe it’s because it only takes you 5 seconds to find out. This character progression makes the story feel like it matters even if it’s just enough to prop you up from one great dungeon to another.
Zelda defines the adventure game genre. Hyrule has the same foundation as A Link to the Past, but it differentiates itself at every turn. I genuinely love exploring this world and finding the brilliant puzzles and extras that are in every nook and cranny of the game. One of the side quests is to find 100 children of a monster you come across. This sounds mind-meltingly boring at face value especially to someone like me that rarely takes the time to do the common tacked-on-feeling side quests, but you end up finding at least a third of them through natural progression and the map designates zones to tell you how many you’ve missed in each. They are hidden in such clever places that I plan to go back and try to find the rest. (Hint: Return these 10 at a time instead of waiting until you finish the game like I did. Also, since beginning writing this I’ve now collected 65 and in the process found many other hidden places otherwise undiscovered.) This doesn’t even touch on collecting all of the heart pieces as well as the hidden extras that I don’t want to spoil. I never touched a strategy guide when beating this game. The puzzles and secrets are never cheap and never tedious. When you figure out a particularly difficult one you can’t help but marvel at the creativity of the developers. To make such a simplistic looking game live and breathe the way it does is astonishing.
They could have taken the easy way out and made a sequel to A Link to the Past with a continuation of the story in the same world with the same game play and it probably would have been awesome. Instead they used the previous game as a building block. When you first walk out of the same home with the same sign outside and the same cliff you might get lulled into a sense of déjà vu before being taken out of your comfort zone into a whole new journey with a sublime sense of nostalgia throughout. They intersperse many hidden Easter eggs throughout for those that remember the intricacies of its predecessor, but you don’t need an intimate knowledge of the original Hyrule to fall in love with the new one.
The Zelda franchise has a pretty standard formula. You begin with nothing before being gifted a sword and shield followed by slowly acquiring various items that allow you to solve puzzles within the specific dungeon they are found as well as the rest of the game thereafter. You press one button to swing your sword and another to use your special items. You can block with a shield and pick things up. A Link Between Two Worlds introduces two major changes to the classic gameplay. The first is the way the weapons and items work. Very early in the game you are able to get your hands on the majority of the items on a rental basis. There are still treasures to be found in the dungeons(and other places throughout the world), but they aren’t required to beat that specific dungeon which means for less obvious solutions and more thinking on your part. Many of the items you find around the world itself are more for fun and don’t make or break the game if you don’t want to find them. I don’t want to give too much away, but if you’re like me and when you’re exploring the world and see a heart piece that you KNOW how to get, but don’t have the necessary equipment… well in this game you can probably get it sooner than later. Also, the mini-map is very helpul. You can pin up to 20 locations (think Google maps) if you find a secret you can’t quite solve or find a fairy cave you want to return to later(something every large adventure game should have both 2d and 3d).
The second major change is an ability you gain access to pretty early in the game that allows you to merge into walls. While merged you can walk on the surface of the wall at the same height until you run into something on the same horizontal plane as you. You won’t fall even if there is no ledge beneath you. You are invincible while in the wall, but it uses your magic meter so you can only stay flat for so long. I was pretty skeptical about this addition when first reading about it. First of all, something like this usually ends up being very gimmicky and, thus, to an experienced gamer its use becomes obvious when necessary. “Let’s introduce 20 puzzles where they have to use this and it will look like we’re trying to change things up.” However, once again I was proven wrong. Puzzles all over the world require this to solve and its far reaching use coupled with the way it dovetails with other items and mechanics make it feel like a natural progression of the game. The first time you see a chest up high that you can’t reach before exploring 2 screens over to find a ladder to climb that allows you to hook-shot across a gap and merge to the cliff wall in order to wall-walk two screens back to get that golden rupee you covet… you will know what I mean.
There are two worlds like in A Link to the Past and you will have to navigate both in clever fashions to complete the game and find many of the bonus items. Luckily you are given a way to quickly travel around both worlds instead of having to constantly hoof it. The way to get between the worlds and the method of transportation across the worlds? You’ll have to find those out for yourself.
There are complaints about the game being too easy and I certainly can see where they are coming from. Combat is very straight forward for the most part and if you upgrade your weapons you can breeze through most enemies. The challenge, though, comes in the puzzles. You are going to receive hint glasses at the beginning. These allow you to speak with a ghost that helps you solve your current situation. Don’t ever use these or you have only yourself to blame. They are for little kids that need help with the more complicated dungeons. I am proud to say they have never been on my Link’s head. Also, if you are looking for a combat challenge there is an arena with many floors offering prizes if you can survive. There are also various minigames stashed throughout the world with heart pieces and other goodies as prizes for the most difficult levels. Home run derby anyone? Finally, you will find a ton of treasure hunters that can never seem to solve special rooms scattered throughout the world. They are basically mini dungeon rooms in a cave. They are never quite pleased when you speak with them after acquiring the treasure they were seeking using all the items at your disposal. The treasure hunter rooms are not to be missed.
The puzzles in Zelda games are the master class of video games. I’m consistently blown away by how meticulous and detailed they are every single time from a random cave to the last dungeon. One dungeon plays completely different on the way in and on the way out(you have a partner on the way out). The subtle magic to not even notice the puzzles you missed on your run to the boss is a truly impressive feat. When you think you have a mechanic or theme figured out they take the next puzzle that one step deeper that you didn’t see coming. The times you can guess what every move required will be and solve a room without running into a single issue is utterly rewarding. The game will bring many smiles to your face when you connect with what you know the developers were trying to do and understand the natural progression of how they teach you by trial and error as well as try to trick you the next time you think you see the same mechanic or situation. It’s so satisfyingly sweet when you’re a step ahead. It makes you want to sit down with them and think up a dungeon. Of course, it would probabably blow. These people are the best in the business.
Graphics and Sound:
The graphics, as you can imagine, are nothing to write home about. Are they better than A Link to the Past? Sure, but that isn’t saying too much. If you’ve played any 3DS game you know what to expect. This is basically a slightly 3d-ified version of the top down classic look. The merging allows you to walk behind buildings and cliffs otherwise unseen so every part of the world needs to be rendered.
What the game has going for it is great animations and good use of 3D which both go a long way. When you dash and stop you slip and slide to a halt in a realistic way. When you use the tornado rod to hoist yourself up you can see Link above the fray and almost pop above your screen. The wind will rustle leaves and bushes that add sublte realism to the game. The 3d effect is very cool in certain stages that have many levels in a single room. Turning it up allows you to walk under things and dodge flying enemies in an intuitive fashion that would be difficult without the 3D effect the 3DS offers. There is nothing gamebreaking here. The lighting effects are used in brilliant ways in many dungeons. This is a good looking game for a 3DS game that packs in the charm, but it’s no Crysis.
The sound effects are very good. Play this game with headphones I implore you. Arrows puncture trees with a satisfying *thunk*. Enemy shields block and break with great effect. However, as you can imagine, this game makes its bones on the music. This soundtrack is a 10. Zelda music (fanboy alert) is my favorite music in any video game and I would argue the most classic ever. They are able to tweak the formula, but not too much that makes it sound corny. The classics are there. New themes are there. They have have awesome depth with headphones on. Changing worlds causes the music to become distant and tinny which is very cool when experienced. Did I mention to play this game with headphones? Play this game with headphones.
Too Long/Didn’t Read:
Although I tried to convince myself it wasn’t so, I always knew that my recent Nintendo 3DS purchase was for the sole purpose of allowing me to play the sequel to my favorite game ever. Does A Link Between Worlds top A Link to the Past? No. My number one remains number one in my heart and probably always will. However, this is the best Zelda game on any platform in years and it is one of a handful of must play games of 2013(and at $39.99 to boot). It just goes to show how much gameplay matters. This pixelated top down adventure game holds more value to me than almost every $60 1080p AAA console title this year. With great gameplay trumping graphics in mind, who knows: maybe there is hope for the Wii U after all. I had given up on it. The new Wii U Mario sounds like a classic and many more of the Nintendo staples are coming in the next year or so. God damn you Nintendo. Can’t you just make a next gen console that can play all of the 3rd party games as well as Mario in 1080p so I can buy your system guilt free and maybe dump one of my other two (ok I’m sure I’d just keep them as well)!? Please fix your online gaming while you’re at it so I can smash my friends in Smash Brothers from across the country and play shooters online without changing inputs. Rant over.
There are so many great games on Nintendo 3Ds that it is becoming one of the best systems to own and easily the best handheld on the market. With the new Smash Brothers on the horizon you might want to check out some cyber week deals while they last. Just be damn sure to pick up a copy of A Link Between Worlds and don’t forget to use your headphones.
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