I slip into each new Zelda game like I would a comfortable pair of shoes. This is a series that relies on familiar beats and recognizable patterns, and there's a great sense of joy and excitement in seeing each game's inventive twists on the series' most famous moments. But while the latest entry in the series starts off by reveling in its nostalgia, after playing for a couple of hours, I'm starting to wonder if the 3DS sequel has a trick or two up its sleeve.
Warning: this article contains discussion about the plot and opening sections of The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.
A Link Between Worlds starts, as a Zelda game typically starts, with Link waking up. He's late for work--in this incarnation Link is an apprentice blacksmith--and so the player rushes to punch the clock. Managing to avoid a telling off, Link is tasked with delivering a sword. It's a task more suited to a mail carrier than a blacksmith, perhaps, but it's an excuse to run about--with an updated version of the iconic Hyrule Field theme playing in the background, no less--and put you one step closer to the first encounter with Princess Zelda. The blast of nostalgia is unlikely to be lost on the near-30-somethings whose childhoods were filled with memories of the game's 1992 predecessor, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, with the new game's overworld appearing to have changed very little in the last two decades. The map is so familiar, even, that when playing, I instinctively and innately knew my way around.
After being turned away from the castle gates, Link heads to the Sanctuary--recalling the first steps of the original journey, which took you into the place of worship via the dungeons of the castle. A similar mini-dungeon remains, however, as you're told you need to sneak inside via the graveyard. At this point, your sword is unsheathed, and the game introduces the lamp--an item rarely seen in modern Zelda games, but also the first thing collected in A Link to the Past--and progression requires you to play with a few of the series' traditional torch-lighting puzzles while swatting away a few buzz blobs. It's also an introduction to A Link Between Worlds' magic meter, which now refills on its own but is also used to power weaponry like the bow, mallet, and fire rod.
As you enter the sanctuary, the game introduces the new villain, Yuga, who uses his magical powers to turn people into chalk paintings and who also bears some resemblance to Ganondorf. After a brief ill-fated encounter, Link ends up passing out.
He awakens back in his house, with the camera pointed to highlight a cameo of Majora's Mask hanging on the wall. The scene also serves to introduce Ravio, a valuable non-player character dressed in a bunny suit reminiscent of Link's appearance the first time he visited the Dark World in the original game. Ravio takes the role of the game's shopkeeper, setting up his marketplace in Link's house and telling him to travel to Hyrule Castle to warn Princess Zelda. Realizing that Yuga is looking to trap the descendants of the original game's seven sages in paintings, the game then points you to its first proper dungeon: the Eastern Palace.
It's around here that the game starts to open up a little, introducing a witch who sells various colored potions in return for collecting items--such as guts, horns, and tails--from enemies. These powerful potions can damage all surrounding enemies, make Link invulnerable, or restore all of his health. A bit of exploring also takes you through Kakariko Village and to a fortune teller who dishes out a pair of Groucho Marx glasses that, when worn, let you see the game's hint ghosts. They give you clues on how to solve puzzles in dungeons, but demand a 3DS Play Coin before they're prepared to give up their information.
The hint ghosts are completely optional, but there were a couple of instances where I might have considered using one. The game's opening areas weren't the most perplexing creations that have graced the series over the years, but I still found myself stuck for a few minutes in each, wandering around in circles in an attempt to discover the crucial knack I was missing. It was exactly what I was hoping for, too: that sense of peeling back a dungeon's intertwined intricacies, and reveling in that unwinding discovery has always been one of my most treasured parts of the Zelda series.
To enter the Eastern Palace, Link needs to return to Ravio and rent a bow. Items in A Link Between Worlds are, for the most part, hired when needed instead of bought outright, which has the potential to significantly disrupt the game from the series' usual formula of bestowing new items after vanquishing bosses. It's also likely to put more of a strain on Link's wallet, requiring additional exploration for rupees, although you're given your first taste of the bow for free.
While the overworld and much of the structure, at this stage in the game at least, is basically a note-for-note reproduction of A Link to the Past, the game's dungeons are entirely new. The Eastern Palace is now filled with vertically moving platforms which make good use of the 3DS's 3D effect, having you work out the right level and angle to hit switches to progress further. While I'm not particularly fond of the 3D effect in most other games, I did find it was very useful here.
Yuga shows up again in the Eastern Palace, and once he has been dispatched in the first of the game's many boss fights, Link gains the ability to transform into a painting at will, which also switches the game's perspective. While becoming a living painting doesn't seem as immediately useful as, say, owning an Ocarina, which can control time, as a work of art, Link can squeeze through cracks in walls and reach previously hidden areas. Once you're clear of the Eastern Palace, you're presented with your next objective: obtain the three Pendants of Virtue and reclaim the Master Sword.
In my experience, there was a lot of fun to be had in the opening two hours of A Link Between Worlds. Even so, I couldn't help but feel that I also wanted something more, something newer, and something less familiar. The Legend of Zelda might thrive on recalling certain traits and elements--most of the series' games have familiar openings, after all--but the games have always given you new worlds and environments to explore, unearth, and discover.
If The Legend of Zelda is those comfortable shoes, then I came away from the first two hours of A Link Between Worlds feeling like I was retreading a well-worn path: without a new world to explore, there were moments when the game felt like it was being a little bit too nostalgic. With a near-identical overworld, some of the series' best moments of adventure and discovery feel like they'd surely be diminished by this sense of familiarity for anyone who has already played the original game.
But at the same time, I'm also betting on a twist that shakes things up more than Nintendo has been letting on. A recent trailer for the game showed off Lorule, A Link Between Worlds' version of The Dark World, and introduced Princess Zelda's Lorule counterpart, Hilda. While I'm afraid that A Link Between Worlds opens with too much of a reliance on mirroring A Link to the Past, these new additions--that Nintendo isn't really talking about--offer a tempting possibility of a few big new surprises in the game.
I had a blast playing the first two hours of A Link Between Worlds, but the most exciting part was this feeling that Nintendo is up to something: that there's the potential of a deeper and more original adventure than I originally expected bubbling under the surface. There's a good chance I'm completely and utterly wrong on this, but I'm very excited to find out the truth when the game is released in November.