Since I consider A Link to the Past to be one of my all-time favorite games, when this sequel was announced, I was as excited for it as anyone could be. The thought of journeying back to the Hyrule of A Link to the Past gave me great joy. The big question though: is there any way a sequel could possibly meet the standards set by A Link to the Past?
While attempting to deliver a sword from the blacksmith he’s training with, you, as Link, stumble upon a sinister man named Yuga, who, upon your arrival at the Sanctuary, turns the Priest’s daughter into a painting before knocking you out and fleeing. After awakening back at your house with an odd merchant named Ravio, you are tasked with gathering three pendants that will allow you to retrieve the Master Sword and pursue Yuga.
After the events of A Link to the Past, the Triforce was split up among Link, Zelda, and Ganon (this is where each piece resides in the narrative) so as to avoid another plot to use the power of the combined Triforce such as Ganon attempted to in Link to the Past. As this game picks up, the Triforce is still split and Ganon is long dead.
As the game proper begins, much like in A Link to the Past, you find yourself attempting to free some kidnapped citizens of Hyrule, including Princess Zelda, in order to stop a looming evil. After gathering the required pendants and securing the Master Sword, you’ll do a brief battle with Yuga before he retreats. Upon pursuing him into a strange crack in the wall, you’ll be introduced to Lorule and Princess Hilda. Lorule is a reflection of Hyrule in many ways, and it is here that you must rescue those kidnapped by Yuga in order to gain the power to confront him. Without spoiling anything, Lorule is a dying world, with large cracks dividing up the land, meaning you can’t journey from one end to the the other without returning to Hyrule. The cause for this is directly related to the plot, a plot which hums along quite calmly for most of the game, before rearing up and taking control towards the end, much to my delight. There were a few revelations that caught me off guard, and one in particular that I can’t believe I didn’t see coming beforehand.
As an aside, Lorule is extremely similar to the Dark World of A Link to the Past. This is never discussed in-game, but I wonder if the similarities between the two point to Lorule actually being the Dark World. There’s a span of 100 years between the two games, which would explain the structural differences that do exist. Just a thought that doesn’t affect the game at all.
On its surface, the gameplay is virtually identical to A Link to the Past, and reminiscent of most Legend of Zelda games. You attack with your sword while equipping different key items to the other buttons as needed. Heart pieces and rupees are collected, and fairies can be caught in bottles to act as extra lives.
Once you get deeper into this game however, there is quite a bit of uniqueness, all of which starts with the wall merging ability. In A Link Between Worlds, Link is given the ability to merge into a wall and move across it on a 2-D plane. This ability allows you to move through barred windows, across chasms, hitch rides on moving platforms that you would be unable to stand on, etc… Nintendo also took advantage of this key ability by incorporating it into many puzzles, some quite clever and mind bending. The merging mechanic also comes into play during a few boss battles, with one requiring you to use it in quite an ingenious manner. It’s the kind of revelation that makes you smile when you realize what you’re supposed to be doing to win.
The second unique change from previous games is that you no longer find your equipment in the game’s dungeons. Instead, you can rent them at anytime (provided you have enough rupees) from Ravio, the merchant I mentioned above, who has set up in your house. You may rent more than one item, which is something I didn’t realize when I started playing the game. My assumption was that you could only rent one at a time, but you can actually rent every item available, again, assuming you have the rupees. The items are not cheap to rent, running a few hundred rupees for each, and should you die at some point, and don’t have a fairy to revive you, you will lose all rented items, making death quite costly. Once the game advances to Lorule, you will have the option to buy the items, which is double the cost of renting, if I remember correctly. By the way, if you’re worried about having enough rupees, don’t. The developers placed many opportunities in the game to collect rupees. It may take some time, but buying all of the items is not a difficult task to achieve.
Not content with just these two changes, Nintendo came through on their earlier promises to make a more open world Zelda game. A Link Between Worlds is very similar to a Mega Man game in this regard. You can see on your map all of the dungeons you need to visit, but the order you visit is entirely up to you. Some may require certain items to complete, but outside of the dungeon, there is usually a pylon with a symbol for any item needed to complete the dungeon. I really, really loved this aspect of the game. It was a very freeing experience to guide Link to where I wanted to go next and not have it dictated to me. I’m not complaining about this in past games, understand, I’m just stating that it was like a breath of fresh air to complete the game in the way I wanted.
One thing I noted that I believe happened as a result of the open world design is that the dungeons felt very short. I wonder if not having direct control over the items you would have caused the developers to shorten the dungeons to be sure they could be completed with minimal items. This isn’t a complaint and could actually have been an intentional design choice as this is a handheld game, and the developers may have wished to make the game more playable in quick chunks. This doesn’t detract from the game, and there are a couple that are more lengthy, but it was something I picked up on fairly quickly. Again, I’m not saying this is a negative aspect. On the contrary, I rather liked being able to complete a dungeon in about 15 or 20 minutes.
While these all sound like very radical changes to the Zelda formula that so many people know and love, it blends seamlessly with the traditional Zelda gameplay. The exploration and discovery aspects are all fully intact and as good as you’ll find in any other Zelda game. Also, while all key items are rented and/or purchased, there are still items to be found in the dungeons and elsewhere, such as Master Ore, used to upgrade the Master Sword, flippers for swimming, a new set of clothes, etc… The ever present search for heart pieces is here as well, completely unaltered. From the first moment until the credits roll, there is no doubt that, despite the changes and new inclusions, this is still a Legend of Zelda game first and foremost.
To put it simply, I loved this game. It was just so easy to slide back into the familiar Hyrule of A Link to the Past. The dungeons, while seeming shorter than usual (and hey, maybe that’s just me), were still extremely well designed and still had puzzles that challenged me and had me scratching my head more than a few times, particularly a switch and wall rotating puzzle that confounded me for some time. I’ve been writing recently about sequels and how they are sometimes criticized as being too similar to their predecessor. It would be easy to criticize here since the overworld maps feature only minor changes from A Link to the Past, but if you look deeper, you’ll see that while the paint job may look similar, there is an entirely new car waiting underneath.