At 25YL, we love gaming, and moreover, we love The Legend of Zelda series. That’s why we’re going to cover the entire Nintendo Franchise, including handheld games, every week. This week, we are taking a look at A Link Between Worlds.
A Link Between Worlds is a fascinating game to me. Nintendo kind of pulled the rug out from under a lot of people by releasing a direct sequel to what is widely considered the greatest SNES game ever made. They placed the game in a remarkably similar world to A Link to the Past but tweaked it slightly to make the game so much more open. And the game does a lot of things right. Its open-ended structure is excellent, and its world is filled with secrets to find. However, as we will come to see, it was merely laying the foundation for Nintendo’s best game in a long time, Breath of the Wild, and it suffers from some small issues of its own.
Other games in the series have been unafraid to shake up the classic Zelda formula; Majora’s Mask used to brilliant three-day system; while Four Swords Adventures was a competitive co-op, level based trek through Hyrule. But A Link Between Worlds instead asked the question: “What if we give them an entirely traditional Zelda game, but give the player the option to approach the list of objectives in any way they want?” Because, at the end of the day, that’s what most Zelda games boil down to; a series of very specific steps that must be completed in order to progress. Figuring those steps out is where a lot of the fun of the series comes from.
In A Link Between Worlds, players no longer get items from dungeons. Instead, they can rent them from a mysterious weirdo named Ravio. This means that you can more or less choose which direction of the world to explore first. After the rather brief opening, where it’s established that a wizard named Yuga has turned the sages into paintings, you can choose to do the first three dungeons in any order you choose.
It’s such a simple change, but one that paid off. While there’s something to be said for a tightly structured adventure like A Link to the Past, it was rather liberating on the developers’ parts to let the player make their own path through the world after the linear, bloated mess that was Skyward Sword. It made it so the game was filler-free; if you were doing something, it’s because you chose to do so, not because the Goddess Hylia declared that the Hero of Legends should pick up 35 Wilted Flowers of My Hopes and Dreams.
Of course, the game really opened up once you made it through the first three dungeons. Apparently, there’s always been a mirror world of Hyrule called Lorule, ruled by princess Hilda. Totally not a riff on the Dark World, Lorule is kind of what Termina is to Hyrule, except the people tend to take on the opposite characteristics of their Hyrulean counterpart. Regardless, there are eight dungeons to take on in Lorule, and like the first three, you can tackle them in any order you wish and explore every nook and cranny to your heart’s content.
It’s a rather brilliant feedback loop. Items are expensive to buy, so you want to explore the world to get rupees so that you can buy more items, so you can explore the world more (renting them means you lose them on death, so buying is a smart investment). There are also adorable little creatures called Maimais scattered in the far corners of the world. Similar to the Secret Seashells from Link’s Awakening, you get some nice permanent buffs at different tiers of collection. Between that and the usual upgrades like Heart Pieces and weapon boosts, A Link Between Worlds provides a fairly small but shockingly dense world that’s a joy to explore.
One last new, seemingly random, but kind of brilliant mechanic that was added is the ability to turn into a painting and walk along the flat plane of walls. On paper, this is an extremely random mechanic that’s justified by Yuga’s lame motivation of wanting to turn the world into art. In practice, it really let the developers play with the top-down view of classic Zelda games and make some really interesting puzzles we haven’t seen in the series before. It also means that you can traverse the world in new and exciting ways. It’s tough to describe just how much this mechanic impacts the game if you haven’t played it but trust me: it’s a low key game changer.
Of course, with this new, open-ended structure, the developers played it very safe in many other areas, most prevalent in the map and dungeon design. For starters, the map is so similar to A Link to the Past in both Hyrule and Lorule that this feels like a moderately changed remake at times (because it turns out this actually started life as a remake of that game). Despite Yuga’s presence, the overarching story is exactly the same, right down to the location of the Master Sword (although there is a mildly interesting twist in the endgame involving Hilda). The game even pulls the same “Ganon was the real bad guy all along” twist from both A Link to the Past and Twilight Princess, except it’s no longer as novel as it was in the former and lacks a villain as interesting as Zant from the latter.
On top of that, the difficulty curve for the dungeons feels rather… flat. Almost nonexistent. Being able to choose where to go next is wonderfully liberating. But once you actually get to the dungeons, the difficulty is almost laughably low. Granted, the developers had to ensure that any player could take on any dungeon at any time, but I think there was precisely one dungeon that took me longer than 20 minutes to beat. That dungeon was the Ice Ruins, and that only took me about 40. Mind you; this is including the final dungeon. The puzzles inside are pretty clever but relatively easy to solve, even easier than something like Link’s Awakening.
So while this is a great change of pace for the series in many ways, it’s clear the developers were merely testing the waters and didn’t want to craft an open adventure from the ground up. Upon beating the game, I don’t think anyone could have guessed that it was just a taste test for Breath of the Wild, which shook things up so far that it’s just an open-world game, not a Zelda game. As it is, though, A Link Between Worlds is a solid entry with a great feeling of freedom that props up an otherwise fairly standard Zelda title.