The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is, paradoxically, both the least original Zelda game ever made and a breath of fresh air for the series. As a direct sequel to 1992’s classic Link to the Past, this game is more than content to tread in its predecessors footsteps for the first hour or so. In fact, during that first hour it is so familiar that it seems more remake than sequel.
But what initially seems like purely an exercise in nostalgia soon reveals itself to be more of an exercise in subversion, deconstructing and rearranging the things you thought you knew about Link to the Past, or about Zelda as a whole.
The game’s central wall merge mechanic adds a wonderful element of surprise to a very familiar incarnation of Hyrule, forcing you literally and figuratively to look at the world from another perspective. It is employed in delightfully clever ways across the game’s overworld and many dungeons, where it forms the backbone of the game’s puzzles.
Then there is the item rental system, which is a refreshing change (if not a revolution) to the typical structure of a Zelda game. Rather than building your inventory up one dungeon at a time, here you are given access to almost all of the game’s items within the first hour, courtesy of the pink-bunny-hooded-magician and home-invader Ravio, who will rent items to you for a sum of rupees.
In practice, this means that the player is given a huge amount of freedom to explore the world in whatever order they choose. After the initial three dungeons, the game drops you into Lorule, a rather cheesily-named equivalent of the Dark World, and just says “We know you know what you’re doing, now here’s seven dungeons. Have fun”. It’s a huge contrast to a game like Skyward Sword, whose handholding introductory sequence was so excessively long I’ve still not gotten past it to this day.
If at any point you ran out of hearts and die, Ravio will take all rented items back from you and you’ll have to purchase them again. This small but brilliant design choice adds real consequence to death within the game, and has the upshot of incentivising the player even further to explore the world and track down its many pieces of heart and other secrets.
In my own playthrough of the game, however, I only died a single time. That was within the first couple of hours, and after that first death I found myself exploring everywhere for pieces of heart and bottles, always making sure I was stocked up on red potions and fairies. Perhaps my familiarity with Link to the Past (being one of my favourite games of all time) was partly to blame, but it has to be said that A Link Between Worlds never felt particularly difficult, and could have pushed its ideas about death and fail states a bit further than it did.
One aspect of A Link Between Worlds that proved a pleasant surprise was its pacing. This is a game that moves along at a very fast clip, with Link’s movement and attack speed being much quicker than in most Zelda games. Its world loads smoothly at a high framerate, and content-wise there is nothing but meat on the bones. No lengthy intro, no pointless side quests, just great dungeons and a densely packed overworld.
My playthrough, collecting every piece of heart and almost every other optional item/secret, clocked in at a modest 15 hours. In some respects, I think this is great. Zelda games don’t all have to be epic 40-hour plus sagas that take weeks and months to finish, and I’m happy to see the series template can accommodate a leaner, more focused kind of game.
But it proves more of an issue alongside what is, in my opinion, the game’s Achilles heel: its narrative. All elements of the world, the quest and the characters in A Link Between Worlds feel quite lazy and by-the-books for the series when compared to the imaginative mechanical and structural ideas within the game.
A shorter length (while not in itself a problem) combined with a rather predictable and dull story, gives A Link Between Worlds a considerably less palpable sense of adventure and wonder. And this, in my opinion, is the one unchangeable element of the Zelda formula, and the thing that just barely holds A Link Between Worlds back from being a truly classic Zelda game.
And yet it comes so close. This is a game as daring as it is derivative, as inventive as it is referential. Like its title suggests, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is simultaneously a bridge to the series’ past, and a glimpse into its potential future. And it’s a bright future indeed.