A Link Between Worlds is a bit of a contradiction. In some ways it represents the greatest shake up of the Zelda formula in many years, but the crutch of its predecessor, the seminal A Link to the Past, holds it back from being everything that it could have been.
A Link Between Worlds takes place hundreds of years after A Link to the Past, although Hyrule is largely unchanged. The effete villain Yuga appears and turns a young maiden into a painting as part of a plot to resurrect Ganon and take his power. Link ends up drawn in to stop him, and in the process is dragged into Lorule, a parallel Hyrule torn apart by dark powers.
The final 15 minutes of A Link Between Worlds contains more plot than the entire rest of the game which…really isn’t great storytelling. Some potentially intriguing plot points appear, but little interesting is done with them. Zelda games never have complex plots, but the best ones tap into broad, stirring emotions, using its own mythology to convey a sense of wonder, history and grandeur. Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker probably did this best, but Majora’s Mask deserves a large amount of credit for its twisted and dark narrative and setting. A Link Between Worlds takes the same minimalist approach to plot that has characterised the Mario games recently, but where the loss of plot from Mario is no great loss, something feels missing when it is stripped from a Zelda game.
Thankfully, A Link Between Worlds makes up for it where it counts; the gameplay. It’s really difficult to describe just how much of an improvement in control there is in A Link Between Worlds compared to other 2D Zelda games. Link moves with a degree of precision that he never has before, and for the first time in the series, each death is definitely your fault. The dungeons are beautifully designed; not necessarily that challenging, but so clever. There are two main schools of thought as to what makes a good Zelda dungeon; for some it’s the fiendishness and complexity of the puzzles, which is fine, but for me playing through a good Zelda dungeon is like watching an artisan making a beautiful object; I just marvel at the cleverness of the design and how wonderfully it fits together. If you’re like me, A Link Between Worlds offers the best Zelda dungeons in years.
However, it’s not the dungeons that really make a Zelda game for me. For me, Zelda games are all about adventure and exploration. It’s the reason that Wind Waker is one of my favourite games, despite the fact that it arguably has some of the weakest dungeons in the entire series. Sure, there’s a lot to see in Hyrule and Lorule in A Link Between Worlds, but nothing that we haven’t seen before. I suppose it all comes down to nostalgia; my first Zelda was Ocarina of Time, so it’s that game that will always mean most to me, but for the people whose first Zelda was A Link to the Past, this return to Hyrule must be nostalgic ecstasy. I love A Link to the Past, but I first played it when it was remade on GBA, so the nostalgia isn’t really there. The reusing of this Hyrule holds this game back from true greatness, since there’s nothing new to see or discover. It’s a shame, because A Link Between Worlds makes so many wonderful additions to the series, and I’d have loved to see those additions in a new setting.
So, about those additions? The most obvious is the ability for Link to meld into the walls and shuffle around. Although it’s a little gimmicky, it looks really cool, and forces you to completely reassess your surroundings. It adds a whole other layer to what Link can do, and is used in some really fun and interesting ways, particularly during the final boss fight. The biggest change is the shake-up of the typical linear Zelda structure; after the first two, each dungeon can be tackled in any order that you like, and new items are no longer discovered in each dungeon. Instead, they are lent out by Ravio, a merchant who sets up shop in Link’s house. The player can rent items for a small fee, although they are lost if Link dies, but for a higher price they can be bought outright and kept forever. When owned the items can also be upgraded by finding Maimais, strange little creatures which must be returned to their mother. The item renting/non-linear structure is the most radical shake up in the series for years, and unlike gimmicky motion or touch screen controls, they genuinely improve the experience. I’m not saying that every Zelda game should go this route, but it sure as hell works here, and I know that I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.
Now, the graphical style has many detractors, and whilst A Link Between Worlds isn’t going to win any beauty contests, it gets the job done. Everything works fine. The 3D is probably the best for the system, and the game would be extremely difficult to play without it. The dungeons are much more vertical than before, and when I turned the 3D off I found it very hard to judge where I was…so, sorry 2DS owners, I fear that this game may be more or less unplayable for you. The music is wonderful, of course. It’s mostly made up of tracks from A Link to the Past, but the handful of new ones are great too.
A Link Between Worlds does so much right, but in the wrong world. I suppose in that sense it’s the opposite of Wind Waker, which was a much more technically flawed game but in a truly epic and magical setting. Being completely honest, A Link Between Worlds was, for me, an enjoyable but forgettable experience, something to tide me over until Zelda on Wii U. I’m well aware that this is mostly due to my personal tastes in Zelda games, and being objective A Link Between Worlds is a wonderfully crafted game, but it just wasn’t quite for me. So, I guess what I’m saying is that I didn’t love A Link Between Worlds, but don’t listen to me, because there’s a very good chance that you will.