How much about us has changed in the last 22 years? For those of a certain age—the ones who were kids back then—that’s entirely a question of willpower. We may have gotten jobs (or not) and have less hair (or more), but it’s not hard to retreat to the life of a 10-year-old circa 1991. If we want to engage in the passions of the day—Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, DuckTales—our co-workers will still talk to us, some enthusiastically. If we want to spend Sunday afternoons experiencing obscure, short-lived children’s horror shows, that’s even easier now than it was then. We can have it all.
If the inner fifth-grader of this 30-something generation is already spoiled, then The Legend Of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds spoils it rotten. It’s a direct sequel to 1991’s The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past, a game of high adventure so beloved that if you were to write on the Internet that it was Nintendo’s best work, you might not get any death threats. There have been a great many Zelda games since then, but those have rarely returned to the same place twice. Instead, they bounce around an overarching timeline that was haphazardly bolted onto years of previously disconnected games. In Between Worlds, a new Link wakes up in the same house where the Link in Link To The Past woke up 22 years ago. His world of swamps and deserts and forests is nearly identical, and the player looks into it using the same overhead view of the classic game. The Master Sword, Link’s signature world-saving weapon, has the same heft and inertia. Even the art style calls back the hand-drawn design work of the early ’90s. The changes between the two are minor and serve to make the world feel like it has been lived in since it was last visited. A shack is missing. The tenants are different. But it’s still the same kingdom of Hyrule, and its familiarity warms a returning visitor.
A Link Between Worlds returns not just to old places but also to old ways, and in doing so it excises years of series dogma while reincarnating long-dead traditions. There is none of the epic sprawl or dramatic heft that has crept into recent Zelda games at the expense of tight pacing. Instead, the world is small but dense with detail, and the story (Princess Zelda is kidnapped along with some sages, and you are the hero, so cross into Hyrule’s dark sister kingdom and go to work) is painted in broad strokes. This puts the meat of the game—exploration, quick combat with a sense of immediacy, and the methodical deconstruction of puzzle-filled dungeons—at the forefront. It’s all of the brain-teasing and sword-swinging with none of the modern pomp. There may be space in this world for both approaches to Zelda, but there is more space for the svelte, zippy classically structured kind.
Yet A Link Between Worlds is not just some nostalgia play with beloved memories rendered in cardboard and propped up in front of some unlovable thing in the hopes that nobody will peek behind. It doesn’t require any love, or even knowledge, of the past to charm. That’s partly because this game is building off a timeless original, but it’s also because it throws away certain long-held values of that original. Most radically, it discards the pre-defined route through the world’s dungeons that has defined Zelda games since A Link To The Past. Every game since that one has featured dungeons that are tackled in a specific order, using tools found along the way. In A Link Between Worlds, the tools are all available at the start of the game, thanks to a shop that sells and rents them freely.
Rentals are cheap and only returned on the infrequent occasion of Link’s demise, so it’s easy to have every tool all the time. This means that the dungeons can be attacked in almost any order, and the majority of the world is immediately accessible once the path is figured out. It’s a new approach that’s open, generous, and freeing. It also has the effect of making the game grow easier as it goes on. Since almost any dungeon can be played at any time, they’re all about equally difficult—but Link is constantly getting stronger. This reverse difficulty curve is rare, but it feels great here, like the player is being rewarded for exerting mental energy.
A Link Between Worlds brings a few other wrinkles to the formula as well, and the result is mostly positive. The “wall merge” technique, which turns Link into a wall-bound painting that can cross over pits and into cracks, forces the world to be analyzed in multiple dimensions but also pulls the camera in close, showing Hyrule from a new angle. The hint system is also well-wrought. Between Worlds, again in the style of older games, provides very little information on where to go and how to get there. Put on a pair of “help glasses,” however, and hint ghosts appear. Players that hew to the old ways need never use them, but those looking for a helping hand can slip them on for an assist.
A Link Between Worlds is a work that flaunts the simple charms of classic games while still feeling contemporary and new. There are a few tradeoffs and hiccups. The item rental system focuses the game on the power of currency—the almighty rupee. Cash rewards for services rendered are dropped so often, it eventually feels more like an adventure in capitalism than an adventure in, well, adventure. Further, the graffiti-like art style of the wall-merged paintings clashes horribly with the retro style of the rest of the game, which makes for some disjointed visuals. But these are negatives that only surface on the margins. This is a brave game that takes a well-worn framework and tears away some of its seemingly essential components. The result is something stronger and leaner. It’s all the best parts of being a kid in 1991. Whether or not you were a kid the first time around isn’t important.
The Legend Of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
Platform: Nintendo 3DS