Much like everyone's favourite green-garbed hero Link, Eiji Aonuma, current producer of The Legend of Zelda series, is also on a quest of his own. However, Aonuma-san isn't tasked with saving Hyrule, nor is he desperately searching for the sacred Triforce; in fact, his personal mission isn't nearly as grandiose as Link’s own adventures. What he's trying to do is of great personal importance to himself, and funnily enough it also has positive connotations for us players: he wants to make the perfect Zelda game.
It’s a little strange to read that the person who currently oversees one of the most established and critically acclaimed video game series of all time is desperately striving for perfection. After all, while 1998’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time may not have been a title he was personally responsible for, he did nevertheless work on it, and that outing is still widely considered to be the greatest video game ever made. However, despite this former glory, it’s fair to say that the Zelda series has become a little stagnant in recent times, even if it has managed to maintain its revered status. And no one knows this better than Aonuma, who has openly admitted that change and even a break from the series’ formulaic conventions are required if Zelda is to continue wowing audiences for years to come.
We've already seen a hint of what Nintendo has been planning in this regard. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, which released on Wii U earlier this year, saw a classic instalment revitalised with a number of key improvements to the overall pacing of its gameplay. Now, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is almost finally upon us, an entirely new title (bar its partly-borrowed game world) which features a number of significant gameplay changes. Of course, what we've all been waiting to find out is whether or not Aonuma & Co. have made the right choices when it came to modifying the Zelda experience, and if so, do these changes make for a better game?
To put it rather bluntly, the answer is a resounding yes. Let there be no doubt; The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is nothing short of an absolute triumph in game design. Nintendo has taken one of its flagship franchises — which up until now had started to feel predictable and safe — and has breathed brand new life into it. It has managed this while still striking a careful balance with all the elements that make Zelda the legendary franchise that it is: its first-class action/puzzle oriented gameplay and the wonderful sense of adventure it evokes. In fact, even these core attributes have been greatly enhanced, making A Link Between Worlds one of the finest entries in the series to date.
This new instalment marks the glorious return of the Hyrule that we first saw in the beloved SNES masterpiece, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Set a few hundred years after the events of that game, this new adventure sees a different Link — generations after his predecessor left an impressive legacy — defending Hyrule from Yuga, a new antagonist who has the ability to turn people into paintings. And it's not just anyone who'll make for a fine bit of art — the legendary Seven Sages unfortunately find themselves at the centre of this artistic nightmare. While Yuga’s intentions aren't immediately clear (nor do we wish to spoil them), it’s safe to say that their far-reaching and catastrophic consequences only serve to make this quest a rather epic and expansive one. As hinted at in the game’s title, Link travels between two worlds: Hyrule and Lorule, the latter of which is eerily similar to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask’s Termina, in that it’s a parallel world of the kingdom we all know and love. The fates of both kingdoms are intertwined, and only by carrying out his heroic duties in each will Link be able to thwart Yuga’s evil plans.
Travelling between these two worlds requires an unusual new ability which allows Link to transform into a painting. In this form, Link can walk along walls, slip between cracks and avoid ordinary dangers and hazards, however, its most important function is that it enables travel between the two realms. That’s because not all areas are instantly and easily accessible to you; if you want to reach some corners of the map, you’ll need to discover a path which constantly goes between the two worlds. It demands that the player explores the vibrant world that Nintendo has recreated and traverse it in ways which previously would never have been possible.
In this regard, the painting transformation mechanic truly is the game’s biggest success. Never mind Nintendo shaking things up; it has taken convention and simply thrown it out the window. By being able to attach Link to walls, platforms and various other objects, the world of Hyrule has never felt so large — which is impressive when you consider that it’s largely the same one you saw in A Link to the Past. In addition to exploring the overworld of Hyrule, Link’s new ability is also the key to solving many of the puzzles that exist within the dungeons, and is even used to clever effect in some of the boss battles. It’s ironic to think that by reducing Link to a mere painting which can only move horizontally, Nintendo actually managed to add a completely new dimension to the game. Many of the dungeons require 'out of the box' thinking as a result of this intelligent design, which at times will leave you scratching your head in pure bewilderment. At the same time, it never feels too complex either; if anything, you only really get stuck because you've already been conditioned by the series’ formulaic and rather predictable structure up until this point. This is truly masterful game design and the way in which it permeates the entire experience in so many fun and engaging ways is quite simply astonishing.
The other reason why you may get stuck at times is because this Legend of Zelda game doesn’t go out of its way to help you. If there’s one thing that recent games in the series have been guilty of, it was an excessive focus on hand-holding, spoon-feeding and storytelling (we’re looking at you, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword). With regards to the latter point, it’s fair to say that storytelling has never been the series’ strongest asset just by itself, and rather what it truly excels at is progressing the gameplay and creating fun player experiences that work within the confines of the series' renowned settings and themes. This is very much true of A Link Between Worlds, which does away with long-winded cutscenes and tutorials, instead dressing up objectives in light storytelling and simply setting you on your way. This improved pace — which fittingly enough is reminiscent of A Link to the Past and older titles within the series — allows you to get to the action much quicker than ever before, and although there are still plenty of hints along the way, it’s not always immediately apparent what you need to do. Moreover, the game offers you a fair trade-off for when you really do get stuck; pay the fortune teller a set amount and he’ll tell you in plain English what to do next. With varying, yet optional levels of support available, the general difficulty of the gameplay is superbly scaled to accommodate for players with differing levels of experience.
Nevertheless, this only really applies when working out what it is you have to do next, for when it comes to the in-game combat, A Link Between Worlds is one surprisingly tough cookie. Despite being a relatively simplistic top-down gameplay experience, battling enemies actually seems more difficult than it does in other 3D Zelda titles. There are many factors at play here: lots of enemies are heavily armoured and/or take quite a few hits to take down, while the omission of Z-targeting — which isn't a bad thing as it isn't needed — means you often have to work harder in battle, as you don’t have the luxury of the camera automatically ensuring that Link is always facing in the right direction.
Nowhere is this more apparent than fighting some of the bosses, many of which are fast, have very specific weak spots and don’t necessarily fight fair either; there’s one in particular that simply comes straight at you and constantly attempts to push you off the edge of the platform you’re standing on. Yes, this style of gameplay is more or less the same as it was in A Link to the Past — although you can now move in full 3D — but it works so well because it once again makes combat a much more prominent and challenging aspect of the Zelda experience. In our playthrough of the game, we saw the Game Over screen a few times, and we would have likely seen it even more if it weren't for the fact that we made sure to keep stocking up on fairies as we went along.
But not only is it much easier to die in A Link Between Worlds, it also carries pretty disastrous consequences, too. That’s because for the majority of the game, it’s not actually possible to own any of the items you use during your adventure. Instead, you rent these from a mysterious character called Ravio. The affordable rates and indefinite rental times make this service seem like it's too good to be true. But as is the case with all shifty salespeople, there's a pretty big catch: if you fall in battle, he reclaims everything. This can prove rather expensive and even frustrating if it happens at an inopportune moment, but thankfully there are plenty of rupees to be found throughout both Hyrule and Lorule to help recuperate any losses. The option to purchase objects comes later in the game, but it’s worth noting that it isn't cheap; depending on how good you are at the game it may make more sense to try your luck and keep on renting indefinitely.
There's a wealth of items on offer to help you in your quest to save the land of Hyrule, many of which are brand new to the series. For example, the Sand Rod enables you to create temporary giant pillars of sand, allowing you to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. One of the best things about this is that you can also merge Link into the side of these pillars, which in itself opens up a even more new and engaging puzzle-solving opportunities. As is the case with the merge ability, the game forces you to approach the use of items in rather unconventional ways; while the Ice Rod is used to freeze molten lava and thus create platforms for Link to walk on, it can also be used to affect objects that are out of reach. This — combined with the painting transformation — makes for a really inventive and refreshing experience from start to finish.
Furthermore, this open-ended approach to items allows for far more flexibility when it comes to your adventure. Dungeons can be completed in practically any order you wish, and you don’t have to traipse back and forth across Hyrule frantically trying to work out where you need to go in order to find the item you need. Although dungeons no longer revolve around specific items, that’s not to say that you still don’t need to use a particular item at a certain point. Instead, you simply kit yourself out with what you need beforehand, and if you’re not sure what you need, there's a rather handy instant travel system, which allows you to quickly move between various save points across the map. This streamlining of the items system works so well because it places the emphasis back on the most exciting element of any Zelda game: exploring the dungeons, solving puzzles and besting the bosses that lurk at the end of each one.
That’s not to say that there isn't plenty of other stuff within both Hyrule and Lorule to distract yourself with should you fancy a minor deviation from saving the world every now and again. A whole host of new mini-games — ranging from dodging chickens to a baseball-inspired activity — provide entertaining ways in which to boost your rupee balance, while true explorers can unearth secret areas, hunt for heart pieces and search for small creatures which can then be exchanged for very useful weapon upgrades. These side quests aren't complex in any way, but they're worth doing as they can really help you out with the main adventure.
With so many different things to do, you might assume that this Legend of Zelda title will set you back quite a few hours. However, this adventure only clocks in at around the twenty hour mark for a first playthrough, and we imagine it’d be much quicker a second time through. With that said, it’s important to bear in mind that the main reason why it seems shorter is partly because of how much Nintendo has streamlined the experience. If you compare it to Skyward Sword — which was notoriously padded out with an unnecessarily drawn-out introduction, tons of back-tracking, collect-a-thon quests and a boss battle which just didn't want to end — A Link Between Worlds is actually a much leaner product that’s been trimmed of all the unnecessary fat, and one which allows you to just enjoy all the really good stuff. Moreover, you unlock Hero Mode once you've beaten the game, which provides a very stiff but rewarding challenge, should you choose to replay it at a later date.
What’s more, this epic new quest looks and feels gloriously at home on the 3DS. Despite the fact that you are mostly restricted to a top-down view for the majority of the game, everything you see is rendered in full polygonal 3D, and it runs at a silky-smooth 60 frames per second — even in 3D. In terms of art style, it’s undeniably evocative of A Link to the Past, and this further bolstered by a booming, nostalgia-inducing soundtrack. Triumphant horns blares out the classic Hyrule overworld, while the Lorule rendition provides a stark contrast with its softer strings. There are plenty of classic tunes to be heard — not all of which originate from the SNES game — and it’s impressive how full-bodied the soundtrack is for a mere 3DS game. The game uses the 3DS's touch screen as you would expect: it displays a map, provides information on collectibles and gear and, of course, allows for more streamlined item management. Nintendo has actually made a subtle improvement in this area, adding the option to quick equip items. To be honest, the standard way of choose your items would have been fine by itself, but with quick equip you can at least sort out your magic satchel while you're on the move to your next destination.
Without a doubt, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is currently the greatest game you can experience on the 3DS. Much like the legendary Master Sword that features throughout the series, this game is beautifully crafted and offers a superbly streamlined and timeless gameplay experience. Through Link’s new transformation ability Nintendo has instilled a magical amount of innovation into the dungeons, boss battles and even the wider exploration of both Hyrule and Lorule; it’s a small feature which makes a world of difference and continuously wows you throughout the entirety of your playthrough. In other areas, Nintendo has made all the right changes to the gameplay formula, resulting in a game that is always incredibly good fun to play. Long-time fans will certainly get a kick out of its nostalgic presentation, while all players will appreciate its impeccable design and superb usage of the 3DS's touch screen.
Eiji Aonuma and his team at Nintendo set themselves the unenviable challenge of creating the perfect Legend of Zelda game; with A Link Between Worlds, they may well have achieved just that.