The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (for Nintendo 3DS) review

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on the Super NES was arguably the greatest Zelda game ever. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds on the Nintendo 3DS beats it.
Photo of The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (for Nintendo 3DS)

When you love a game, it’s very hard to review a sequel or remake. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is my favorite Legend of Zelda game and one of my favorite video games, period. Fans argue whether Ocarina of Time or Link to the Past was the better game. For its incredible ambition and accomplishment Ocarina was an early example of what 3D mechanics can do in the Legend of Zelda series, while Link to the Past represented the perfection of 2D Zelda mechanics. Now, 22 years later, Nintendo has released a true and direct sequel to the game. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds on the Nintendo 3DS is the first Zelda game to take me through a very familiar Hyrule, not one altered through thousands of years of history into an entirely new world.

The $39.99 (list) game feels a lot like Link to the Past and that’s why it’s difficult to judge. It walks the same well-worn path I’ve played through countless times on my Super NES, Game Boy Advance, and Wii Virtual Console. It almost feels like an advanced remake, and part of me felt very disappointed the changes in the world weren’t more clear. Then I beat the game, unlocked Hero mode, and found myself playing through it again. Immediately after beating it.

Sequels and remakes walk a fine line between keeping too much the same and upsetting players who expected more and changing too much and losing the magic that made the original great. A Link Between Worlds doesn’t just walk that line, it masters it. While sentimentality can’t quite get me to accept that a game is better at being A Link to the Past than A Link to the Past was, as I play through A Link Between Worlds again on a harder difficulty (which I almost never do) I have to acknowledge its success. This game is utterly fantastic.

A Link to Two Games
A Link Between Worlds is not a pseudo-sequel like Link’s Awakening or the underrated Oracle games, or even a direct sequel that takes place in another land like Majora’s Mask, but a direct sequel that takes place in the same Hyrule of Link to the Past. It’s several hundreds years after the events of Link to the Past, but the landscape remains mostly unchanged. And, yes, there’s a Princess Zelda to save and a Link who, (like every Link, because the people of Hyrule don’t understand trends) is an unassuming village boy who wears green and has to save the princess. There is even an Impa, Zelda’s handmaiden; a Sahasrahla, the wise man; and even a Danpe, the gravedigger who was in Ocarina of Time, not Link to the Past.

Everything is laid out approximately the same, too, with Hyrule Castle in the center of the map, Link’s house below it, the Sanctuary and graveyard above it, Kakariko Village to the west, and Death Mountain at the top. There are plenty of small changes, but the general layout is eerily familiar. The mirror world of Lorule (get it?) is also very similar to the Dark World of Link to the Past, though with great chasms separating parts of the map.

Fortunately, most of the dungeons feel completely different, with only hints of what they were. The Eastern Temple plays like a remix of the first dungeon from Link to the Past, but every other dungeon feels fresh and new despite playing on past themes. The layouts are completely new, the puzzles are generally new (even though there is a fair share of switch-hitting and block-pushing), and the bosses behave differently enough from their Link to the Past versions that they’re challenging. The enemies, on the other hand, are mostly copies of the enemies from Link to the Past, including those infuriating fire-breathing centaurs on Death Mountain. It feels like only a few generations have passed between Link to the Past and Between Worlds, and that’s refreshing compared to the Zelda series caveat (confirmed in the Hyrule Historia reference book) that it all takes place in the same land of Hyrule but kept apart by thousands of years so the land looks completely different.

Changes
Two important mechanics make the dungeons and puzzles feel much more varied and satisfying: vertical dungeon designs and painting Link. Most of the dungeons are built around the idea of playing the game on a 3D screen from top-down (though thankfully you can play just as well with 2D disabled or on a Nintendo 2DS), so the rooms and floors often have multiple layers and objects you can interact with at different heights. Doors might be hidden under platforms, elevators might challenge you to hit switches on the floor and on a higher level quickly, and previously useless obstacles like the red and blue blocks and hammerable faces now provide vital ways to get to higher levels.

This all could have been done in Link to the Past, however, and that game had plenty of vertical level design even on a completely 2D display sprite-based system. The mechanic that really pushes Between Worlds past a remixed Master Quest-style version of Link to the Past and into its own level is the painting version of Link. You receive a bracelet that lets you turn into a painting on any wall, and can then walk through narrow cracks or across huge gaps by using the fall and not the floor as your surface. It seems like a simple mechanic and it’s extremely easy to use (press the A button when near a smooth wall), but it’s used for so many puzzles that get increasingly challenging that every so often I found myself both impressed by the developers and proud of myself for getting through a certain area with painting tricks.

Link Between Worlds makes two major changes to how you use items, as well. Instead of arrows or bombs, you have a single Stamina meter that works with all of your items. Firing your bow, throwing your boomerang, setting a bomb, and using the fire rod all use Stamina, as does staying the painting version of Link. Stamina charges naturally when you stand still, and you can fill up your meter completely by picking up magic bottles, but this consistent limitation means you can’t simply spam items, and the recharging aspect means you won’t be caught without bombs or arrows when you need them. The only consumables are the bottle items, like fairies and potions.

You also only get a few items from dungeons, and most items (like bombs, arrows, and the fire rod) are available near the start of the game. A rabbit-faced merchant named Ravio sets up shop in your house and rents out the items you need (which you can later buy for a much higher price). Rentals usually cost between 50 and 100 rupees, and when you die and you don’t have a fairy to revive you Ravio’s bird comes and claims your rented items. After you die, you can start at the dungeon or your house and the progress you made will remain, but you have to rent the right tools again to finish the job. This is more forgiving than a simple game over screen, but offers enough punishment and frustration that you’ll avoid dying whenever possible, instead of using it as a convenient warp.

There are still plenty of rewards for exploring every crack in a dungeon instead of grabbing keys and rushing to the boss. Red (worth 20), purple (worth 50), and silver (worth 100) rupees are scattered in dungeons and across the world, and they let you rent more items, purchase them sooner (so you don’t have to rent them again after you die), and help alleviate the money-based frustration of the game while giving you an incentive to look in every room and solve every puzzle. They’re generally found through easy, simple puzzles, leaving really challenging puzzles for both entire dungeon solutions and for finding rare heart containers that expand your life meter. The easy-to-find heart containers in Link to the Past are replaced by chests with rupees, and any heart container you find in the game is well-earned.

Besides the main adventure, there are plenty of other things to do in Hyrule. A giant squid creature lost 100 of her babies, which you can find by exploring every inch of the overworld. She upgrades one of your purchased items for every 10 babies you recover, making your bow shoot three arrows or making your bombs more powerful. There are a few challenging mini-dungeons you can explore and puzzle caves that reward you with rupees or heart containers. You can play a few mini-games, like a baseball game where you swing your sword to launch things at pots. You can also play against Shadow Links created by other players based on their items and health, found through StreetPass. The Shadow Link battles are surprisingly fun, because while they’re simple one-on-one arena fights, you can earn medals by beating your opponent in different ways, like with specific items or within a specific time. You also get a healthy amount of rupees for beating Shadow Links.

Graphics and Sound
Visually, Link Between Worlds looks like a 3D, high-definition (as high as the 3DS’ screen and higher than the SNES, not literally HD) remake of Link to the Past. Link’s character design is reminiscent of the Link from the original Legend of Zelda, complete with a brown shield that doesn’t get upgraded to the blue and yellow Hylian shield until late in the game. Zelda looks like a slightly more cartoonish version of Zelda from Ocarina of Time, and the enemies, landscape, and dungeons are instantly recognizable as 3D-modeled versions of their counterparts from Link to the Past. There are even 3D cutscenes, and while they’re few and far between they add an Ocarina of Time-like sense of storytelling and drama that Link to the Past lacked.

The sound is straight out of Link to the Past, with nearly every sound effect and musical track either almost completely lifted or remixed from the SNES game. The familiar overworld themes are there, the sound of Link’s sword throwing magic bolts is there, and even the title screen with the Triforce flying together comes with the fanfare I memorized as a child.

The knee-jerk entitled gamer in me wants to dismiss The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds as a slavish near-remake of Link to the Past and complain that Hyrule wasn’t different. I’ve shut up that gamer, because as I play through the game again for the second time in a week, I realize (with every nostalgic part of my mind screaming) that Link Between Worlds is superior in every way. It might be hard to accept that the best Legend of Zelda game has been bested not simply as a Zelda game but as its specific permutation of Zelda game, but Link to the Past has seen that happen with Link Between Worlds. I still love Link to the Past, and I still think it’s better than Ocarina of Time (but I respect the opinion that Ocarina of Time is the better game), but Link Between Worlds takes everything that makes Link to the Past great, copies it, then traces, sketches, and paints over it in more detail.

Specifications
Genre Role-Playing
Platform Nintendo 3DS
ESRB Rating E for Everybody

Verdict
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on the Super NES was arguably the greatest Zelda game ever. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds on the Nintendo 3DS beats it.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc