The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was my first ever Zelda game. It will always hold a special place in my heart not only for being the game that introduced me to one of the greatest franchises I ever have had the pleasure of playing, but also for being a fantastic game in its own right. So when a straight sequel was announced, I have no shame in revealing that I was very excited - kiddie at Christmas excited.
But how would I find a sequel to a game that I have placed on a pedestal for two whole decades? Would it be able to live up to the game I held so dear, and would there be enough difference in this game to make it a classic in its own right?
Like most Zelda games, we begin with Link oversleeping – Hylean heroes apparently need their ten hours of beauty sleep a night. After being woken to go and do some work, our hero gets accidentally caught up in a very familiar plot involving kidnap of Sage descendants to a mysterious parallel land. It’s up to our hero to collect some well-known jewels, and a famous sword to go off after them.
So yes, story-wise this won’t win any awards for individuality, in fact its parallel to Link to the Past’s story is equalled in the mirroring that also occurs between Hyrule and the game’s mysterious parallel land known as Lorule. And Lorule itself is essentially the Dark World from Link to the Past, right down to its music, design and enemies.
So a sequel to the 1993 classic it most definitely is, but there are some distinct differences. For one Lorule has a castle and a ruler, and despite Link Between Worlds being set in the same land as Link to the Past, there are noticeable topological differences to create a slightly different world to traverse, despite all the regular landmarks being in pretty much the same place. Different houses and residence in Kakariko village for example will provide new experience to Zelda veterans.
But these minor tweaks are not what will see you parting with your cash for Link Between Worlds, we need some bigger changes, and when you scratch beneath the surface you begin to see them in spades. The first notable game-changing mechanic is Link’s new ability to merge with walls and traverse them without the effect of gravity. It allows for some truly inspiring puzzling opportunities both inside and outside of dungeons. It means you won’t be looking at dungeons in the same way. In fact I would go as far as to say that this new mechanic enhances the gameplay and the options it presents more than anything I have seen in a Zelda game since Ocarina of Time. Hands down.
Like all the best innovative ideas, the reason for its success is that it is simple but very, very effective. It’s employed constantly throughout the game, never in a way that feels cheap or forced, but in a manner that challenges you to consider what is possible given this new ability, some well designed dungeon layouts, and a plethora of items.
Speaking of items, there’s another pretty big difference in Link Between Worlds and Link to the Past, or indeed any other Zelda game, in that you can get a lot of the adventuring items very early on in the game from an odd fellow called Ravio – Hyrule’s answer to Tom Nook. He sets up a shop in your own house while you’re out on your early adventures, and offers to loan you any item he has for a small fee. All but one of Ravio’s items are pretty much available from the get go, meaning by your second main dungeon – you could be packing a bow, bombs, a hookshot and more besides providing you have enough rupees. There’s a catch though, in true money-grabbing fashion, if you die in the game, Ravio takes his items back off of your still warm body and you have to rent them again once you’ve restarted. See what I mean - Tom Nook all over.
It’s a system that opens another big selling point for the game – if you can call it that – and that is the option to do the dungeons in any order. It sounds impressive on the face of it, but let me just pull people back from the brink. For starters, the story dictates that you must do the first dungeon first, and then the next two you can do in either order. Then once you progress to the next stage of the game, there are more dungeons to choose from, but you do need to do one of those before you can do another particular one – due to an item you find. So the callout is misleading, but in reality there is a lot of choice for you, the player, in terms of what you want to tackle and when.
So how does all this work in practice then? Well, to be honest, it left me feeling a bit “meh”. The whole concept of getting items upfront feels like Nintendo are trying to solve a problem that was never there to begin with. Zelda games – and indeed most games of the genre – put emphasis on progression, character development and a sense of earning something as you move through the game. Giving everything to you right from the off feels like Nintendo are short-changing you of your experience because there are fewer surprises and reveals. It’s like pointing out the murderer at the start of a whodunit, and then expecting you to still enjoy the story in the same way.
But this impact reaches further than that too. By extension of this decision, it means that all dungeons need to cater for you doing them in any order. And as a result the biggest thing impacted is the difficulty curve. To cover their backs, Nintendo have to assume that each of the dungeons may be one of your first so shy away from making some harder than others. It means that whilst you really can play the game your way, it takes away a further sense of achievement and improving your own skill within the game as each dungeon will be as easy as the last. It ultimately means that even some of your last dungeons won’t challenge you, and for a Zelda game that’s a bit of a letdown.
That’s not to say the level design is poor though. As I alluded to earlier Nintendo have made up for in design ingenuity what the dungeons themselves lack in difficulty. Each dungeon is linked to a particular item – staying true to the tested Zelda formula – and the way in which you use these items in conjunction with Link’s new merge skill provide some great puzzling opportunities that are all executed very well. Each dungeon certainly has its own identity and personality with some really clever design around light and dark, varying heights and water levels just to name a few. It means that despite dungeon locations feeling similar, their interior, puzzles and design feel refreshingly new and innovative compared to the game’s predecessor.
I’ve touched on difficulty a bit already, and it’s a hard one to judge, as obviously I’m more skilled at these types of games than I was 20 years ago when I first played Link to the Past – and I know that game inside out. But I think all in all Nintendo probably got the difficulty about right here. It’s not as easy as Wind Waker by any stretch, and some of the boss fights require you to be very familiar with Link’s merge ability just to stay alive. Yes, the dungeons don’t get very gruelling but the puzzling can leave you short of hearts after a while. In all honesty I died twice in the adventure – once on the final boss, which is about right for a Zelda game for me.
The game borrows the hint system from Link to the Past and other games by implementing a fortune teller to help you out in terms of navigation – assisting you in pointing the way towards any of the dungeons you have available to you. But there is also an additional item called the Hint Glasses, which can be used to hand out hints provided that you cough up some hard-earned Play Coins. Personally I found this additional system a little unnecessary on top of the fortune teller, and not something I would actively spend my coins on. But I guess it’s there for anyone needing an additional helping hand.
There are also some other additions to the game which make a nice change, too. There’s a Gold Skultulla-esque search quest to undertake for the completionist, and also an excellent spot of Street Pass integration that gives you the chance to face off against a Dark Link version of people you have crossed whilst in Street Pass mode, with a decent haul of rupees being the reward for victory. And whilst we’re on this point, this is perhaps the first Zelda game I’ve played that really makes good use of rupees. Wind Waker did a pretty good job, but Link Between Worlds seems to have struck a really nice balance of rupee rarity vs things to use rupees for – most of which I won’t spoil here.
Finally, Link Between Worlds’ crowning glory is an awesome baseball minigame found in Lorule – it’s addictive as hell and was a really pleasant surprise to find something like this in a Zelda game.
So I would imagine from reading this far, you probably thinking Link Between World is an average game – with some good points but some bad ones too. But I guess I should probably fix that misconception. Link Between Worlds is an excellent game. The new and well-implemented merge technique is a game-seller on its own, offering so much well-executed variety and challenge that you will enjoy the experience just by appreciating what it brings to the table. Throw in the usual well designed dungeons, bags full of character, a roaring musical score and a game of pretty good length, and you can see that it’s a pretty impressive package all in all.
The slightly disappointing thing for me is though that I so wanted this Zelda to be great. I wanted it to be walking into my Top 5 Zelda titles with its head held high. And to be frank it won’t, not because it’s not an excellent title but because the bar is set so goddamn high. Unfortunately for Nintendo whilst they got major plus points for their new merge mechanic, they lost some points by stripping this game of what Zelda really is. It’s about progression, it’s about development, and it’s about finding a new item in a dungeon for god sake! And not because that’s how we’ve always done it, but because that is what presents the challenge, what allows for difficulty curves, and culmination of experience. It doesn’t make it bland by a long stretch it just makes the perfect, slightly imperfect. An excellent game that could have been outstanding. Against most other titles it will naturally rise head and shoulders above, but against the Zelda series, it falls into that “excellent” middle ground. One of those weird experiences that doesn’t come along very often of feeling ever so slightly let down by a very, very good game.
- Excellent level design
- Great new merge mechanic implemented very well
- Lush visuals and nostalgic soundtrack
- Game presents a good level of challenge
- Good StreetPass functionality
- It has a baseball game!
- Item loaning system means some of the Zelda experience is lost
- The borrowed landscape from Link to the Past will not be original enough for some
The Short Version: Link Between Worlds is a fantastic game that most definitely needs your time and money. Despite its sequel status it brings plenty of new ideas to the table, the majority of which work very well, and some are truly inspired. The item loan system is the only blemish on an otherwise perfect scorecard that stop it from reaching the upper echelons of Zelda greatness.