In the midst of a clear reliance on the past, the game carves its identity in surprisingly effective way
Being part of The Legend of Zelda series is already pretty hard. After all, any title that receives the series' stamp and stars the famous Hyrule characters gets endlessly dissected by fans. Even games that are vastly different from their peers, such as the cartoonish and adventurous Wind Waker or the dark and ominous Majora's Mask, have each tiny aspect from their gameplay tirelessly compared to the peaks of the series. A Link Between Worlds, perhaps realizing the inevitability of the comparisons, decides to run straight into one. Heavily inspired by A Link to the Past - widely regarded as the franchise's greatest 2-D entry - the game, confident of its greatness, purposely walks into a trap and the only way out unscathed involves one nigh impossible task: improving upon a game whose enormous achievements are made even taller by a heavy nostalgic fog.
A Link Between Worlds draws parallels to A Link to the Past in two distinct areas: its plot, and its world. Taking place in the very same Hyrule of the Super Nintendo game, only a few generations later, the land is basically unchanged, down to nearly every mountain, tree, dungeon and rock being placed in the exact same position. The storyline, in spite of a few great twists, also follows along the same general line as it did on A Link to the Past. After witnessing an attack by a mysterious figure against the sanctuary's minister, the hero is telepathically contacted by Zelda. Upon his arrival on the castle, Link is tasked with stopping the wizard from trying to wake up the sealed Ganon, which means that he must go through a series of dungeons to save the world from destruction.
It is reasonable to think that, given all the similarities, A Link Between Worlds runs the risk of being rather unremarkable; a game that attempts to ride a wave of nostalgia towards success. However, that is not the case at all. The game successfully manages to carve its own identity in the midst of all sameness. The first step towards achieving its unique personality is Link's ability to merge into walls and become a walking graffiti. It momentarily changes the perspective of the game into a sidescrolling view, and it opens up wide possibilities, both inside dungeons and on the overworld, for puzzles and item locations that take advantage of this newfound skill. Chests that are apparently unreachable and riddles that are seemingly impossible are amazingly solved by using the ability, surprising even veterans who have been through every Zelda game and adding a platforming flavor to certain segments; something that had been missing since the Oracle games.
The second factor that makes A Link Between Worlds stand out is borrowed straight from the original Zelda. Aside from a few storyline-related restrictions, the game's dungeons can be explored in any desired order. Each dungeon still has puzzles centered around one specific equipment, and their entrances are often blocked by obstacles that need to be trespassed by using that item. However, Link's tools are no longer found within the dungeons, but acquired in a shop. At first, it is only possible to rent the items for a small price, but as the game advances, Link can actually buy them for higher amounts of rupees. The difference between a rental and a purchase is that on the former, when Link fails in combat, his rented tools are taken back to the store, meaning that walking back to the store and the payment of a new rental tax act as punishment for defeat. Buying the equipment eliminates that problem.
The potential nuisance of backtracking to the store either when Link is beat down or when players get to the door of a dungeon and find out they do not have the required item to enter it gets severely diminished by the fact that the large world map is filled with many wrapping points, allowing for quick transportation. Still, buying the items avoids that minor annoyance and it also makes rupees valuable rewards rather than useless prizes, which is excellent news given how many secret chests and mini-dungeons the game offers players. Tracking them down, then, becomes a pleasant necessity instead of being a pointless task only tackled by obsessive completionists.
As a consequence, exploring the game's gorgeous overworld becomes an extremely pleasant activity. Navigating towards the dungeons will invariably reveal smart design and an incredible feeling of adventure, but there is much more to do then simply heading straight towards the next dungeon. The item-rental system allows players to go anywhere they wish, and it also makes many of the caves and secret locations reachable. Therefore, going out of your way to explore a new area and uncover its secrets before heading towards your main goal is unavoidably engaging. The amazing Hyrule is there for the taking, and it is impossible to resist its charms and secrets.
Aside from collecting rupees to purchase equipment and tracking down the traditional heart pieces, the game does not offer much in terms of sidequests, but down the line Link will come across a Maiamai Mother that will task players with finding her 100 missing sons in exchange for equipment upgrades. Scattered across the overworld, the little creatures emit a high-pitched cry when they are nearby. Their occasionally difficult-to-reach positions play right into the hands of the incredible quality of the game's overworld. Even those who do not care about the rewards will most likely take on the quest, because it gives players yet another reason to explore every nook and cranny of the world. Not to mention that reaching them, more often than not, involves figuring out brilliant environmental puzzles that have Link merging into walls and traveling between the game's light and dark worlds.
A Link Between World's most striking feature, though, is neither its lack of linearity nor Link's wall-merging antics. This is - like Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past - the The Legend of Zelda gameplay in a very pure state. There is no filler and no attempts at radical thematic change. It is a game that plays it safe. While some might be put off by it, the truth is that it has been such a long while since a Zelda game has been this straightforward that A Link Between Worlds manages to be fresh in its simplicity. It winds up being a relatively short game, as it can be fully completed within twenty hours, but it is undoubtedly - due to its traditional nature - the most balanced title to hit the franchise since Ocarina of Time. All of its valuable minutes of gameplay are entirely enjoyable; and its twelve dungeons are great, with a couple of them being absolute classics. Most importantly, there is not a dull moment in its adventure
As impressively solid as it may be, A Link Between Worlds does stumble in a few areas. While its soundtrack is undoubtedly masterful, its visuals are lackluster. Technically, they are as close to flawless as it can get, and it is unlikely one will find a 3DS game that moves as gorgeously as this one. However, after a sequence of console and handheld Zelda games that strove to redefine the series visually, the game ends up falling short in the artistic department. Perhaps inspired by its classic structure, the game's looks are simply a visual translation of the original Zelda and A Link to the Past to the 3DS hardware. There is simply not much about it that makes a strong appearance. Its second problem, and perhaps yet another issue arising from its safe approach, is how uninspired its boss battles are. The ones that are not recycled from A Link to the Past just fail to stand out, and all of them are a bit too much on the easy side.
Yet, A Link Between Worlds manages to get its point across spectacularly well. It is a smooth Zelda adventure that adds a few twists to the mix while maximizing the potential of the traditional structure of the franchise. The fact that it goes against the recent trend of Zelda games padding their content to make the journey longer makes it extremely hard to put down, because it is a game that delivers one gameplay treat after the other until it arrives to a satisfying conclusion to the storyline. In the end, instead of falling victim to comparisons with A Link to the Past, the game takes advantage of them to show that, sometimes, in order to be unforgettable, all a The Legend of Zelda game has to do is be a pure The Legend of Zelda game.