Let's begin this review with a simple question.
"Is it fair to compare The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds to the SNES classic, A Link to the Past?"
It's certainly a hard act to follow, but when a game is claiming to be the long overdue direct sequel to one of the greatest games of all time, then you better have the mustard to back it up, which sadly, A Link Between Worlds does not.
However, once the shock of diving back into familiarity wears off and natural comparisons one makes to Link to the Past start to fade, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds does manage to escape the shadow of its legendary older brother, if only by a little bit.
20 years is a long time, longer than entire generations of gamers have even been alive. Has enough time passed to give A Link Between Worlds a chance at becoming its own game?
It will certainly take a while, and maybe a little effort, for the comparisons to fade. Everything from this game is ripped straight from A Link to the Past from the art style and music to the overworld map and monster placement.
Hyrule hasn't exactly changed much in the 20 years since Link to the Past released, or the 100 years that has passed in the game's chronology. The town, the dungeons, the castle, and even a large majority of the secrets are all exactly where Link found them in the last quest.
A few buildings might have been replaced or knocked down, a shortcut might have appeared here and there, or a bridge or two has collapsed, but by and large, the overworld map hasn't changed one bit.
The bar has been replaced by the Lon Lon Ranch, but still has the same layout and serves drinks. The backdoor has been removed, so it holds no secret bottle now, though. Of course, the wandering street vender up the street still sells one. The bug net house is still the bug net house. The secret cave above the cemetery still holds a piece of heart, as does the cave behind the desert dungeon.
Needless to say if you've played A Link to the Past, you'll know your way around, and knowing where to go next negates half the fun of exploration. Instead, poking around and seeing what's "different" rather than what is "new" becomes the new motivation for adventure.
Difference and familiarity are both fine when making a sequel, but only if enough content emerges to replace the old. Many secrets and cool back corners which made Hyrule so much fun to dig around with in the first pace have been removed. Some caves, some hidden pits, and even the Zora's turf are no longer there, meaning this Hyrule commits the ultimate sin of a sequel/remake by being smaller.
Seeing familiar places through a new set of eyes can be a wonderful experience, but that's mostly true for video games only if it's prettier.
Every Branch on the Way Down
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is not a pretty game. The cheap 3D character models have some expression to them, but this is hardly the standard we've come to hold Nintendo to. It looks more like an amateur indie developed title on the iOS market than a Legend of Zelda game.
I've always claimed that well done 2D sprites and pixel art can be far more convincing than cheap 3D, and A Link Between Worlds is about as solid of proof as one can find. A Link to the Past's world was a vibrant and wonderful place to romp around in. Detailed characters, bright towns, great animation. Everything was held together by an unmatched level of craftsmanship, and it felt like a real living place.
A Link Between Worlds seems stiff and dead. Characters trounce around awkwardly or stand in one place in the village square. Monsters and enemies kind of look somewhat lifelike, but it's the environment which isn't convincing either.
Recreating the art style of A Link to the Past means a lot of fine detail in the 3D, and another problem is the circular shape of everything. This doesn't allow for sharp detail in the grass, water or buildings.
It's the obvious nature that the human hand and a pencil can create far more convincing and beautiful imagery than a computer can with a modeling program. There is no way to recreate epic moments like A Link to the Past's rainy introduction because Nintendo's effort here just comes off as rushed. By and large, there isn't enough personality to give A Link Between Worlds' its own face.
Would 2D sprites have been better? Possibly, but some sacrifices must be made for the game's strong points to work so well.
All in all, Just Another Brick
Each Legend of Zelda game has its own unique mechanics, and what A Link Between Worlds brings to the front is the new ability to become a painting on the wall. Link can merge with any flat surface and crawl around corners and through tight squeezes his human form would not be able to fit through.
With 2D sprites on a 2D world, this mechanic would have been impossible, since the map needs to rotate, and even the spinning camera might have made rendering complex 3D difficult as well. Luckily, this mechanic is so much fun that it give the ugly graphics a pass.
Jumping into the wall adds a whole new layer to the exploration of Hyrule, making up for the lack in size of the overworld map. Secrets lie on the backs of buildings, and cliffs can only be traversed while plastered against the flat surface. Familiar sights from 20 years ago can now be seen from different angle.
This new mechanic is even the key to passing through to the Dark World, which has a fabulous new name I don't want to spoil. I chuckled like a little boy when they first mentioned it.
More importantly, this wall painting mechanic, which works well in the minimal storyline, fleshes out the true strength of this game, the dungeons.
A Link Between Worlds might not have revamped Hyrule enough for my liking, but the dungeons are drop dead magnificent. For what they too lack in size, then more than make up in puzzles and secrets. Link can only move left and right, never up and down, when plastered against a wall, so much of the time he'll be looking for a higher ledge to creep around or using his arsenal to manipulate platforms and traps.
Some dungeons even require him to perilously lurk out onto the outer walls, miles above Hyrule below. It's a death-defying sight to behold.
Nintendo spared no effort in making sure these dungeons are a thought provoking exercise in puzzle solving. Some puzzles are easy, some puzzles might take a little time to figure out. The best puzzles are the ones which introduce an obvious new mechanic we should have seen for 20 years but have never put two and two together to think it was a puzzle solution.
I'll never look at a Wallmaster the same way again.
At the end of every dungeon is of course a boss waiting for Link to come and tear him a new one. Some of these are ripped right from A Link to the Past, so that effort comes off as a little cheap. Luckily they chose the best to steal.
The demons that are totally original more than make up for it, challenging Link to use clever combinations of the tools and wall painting mechanic. The highlight is an epic battle against an enemy with an impenetrable shield, and A Link Between Worlds almost seems to guess the cheeky emotions you'll feel once you solve his pattern.
It almost makes you feel like a child again, and wasn't that the whole purpose of this game?
The Tools of War
What is The Legend of Zelda without tools and weapons to help Link in his quest? A lot has been said about the new "rental" system in this game, in which Link rents many of his classic weapons from a vendor rather than uncover them in the dungeons.
Nintendo's excuse for this new approach has been that they want to open up the dungeons to be defeated in any order rather than a preset linear plan. The problem with that logic is that A Link To the Past already allowed for the dungeons to be beaten in any order once the first Dark World dungeons completed. A Link Between Worlds is no different, totally linear up until the second dungeon of the Dark World.
In reality, the rental system is more of a risk/reward program. When Link wants to borrow a weapon, he must cough up the money and pay the vendor. Each dungeon has a corresponding required tool to enter and conquer it. Of course, the tools can be used in the overworld to uncover secrets, too.
So why not just take all the weapons from the beginning and be done with it? Well, that is an option, but if Link is killed, he loses all the weapons and must cough up the money to rent them again. The big question is do you take all the tools and risk death and taxes for easy access to all the game's secrets, or do you take a single tool with a specific goal in mind? Not an easy choice.
The obvious solution is simply not to die, and the one time payment on the weapons will be a good choice. I say "obvious" because A Link Between Worlds is painstakingly easy and never puts up to much of a fight. It's easy enough to challenge a dungeon without them, but five bottles filled with potions and fairies pretty much guarantees success.
In the rare occurrence that Link should fall in battle, Nintendo throws more than enough rupees at him to make sure the down payment on all the tools won't hurt his wallet that much. Luckily, the game has a hard mode which might make this risk/reward system actually matter.
In regards to the arsenal itself, not many new tools have been added. A helicopter thing allows Link to jump high in the air, but far and away the most impressive tool is the Sand Rod. Granted, it's a situational tool that only works in the presence of sand, as in the Desert Dungeon and nowhere else, but it's just so stupidly cool that it gets a free pass for being useless otherwise.
All these tools run on a magic meter, which refills automatically. Traditionally, replenishable items like bombs and arrows can now be used infinitely without the need to pick up drops. This meter is also tied to the wall painting mechanic, so the two work in tandem for some pretty frequent timing puzzles. Keep an eye out for those.
Even the fast travel is unlocked from from the beginning of the game, rather than earned through a nice little sidequest. Just another example of A Link Between Worlds presenting its offerings on a platter rather than forcing you to earn them.
The rental system is a mixed beast. There is nothing worse in video game than a cheap reward, and 50 rupees for the Hookshot is as cheap as it gets. Half the fun of dungeons in every Zelda game, not just Link to the Past, was to find a new tool and see how it interacts with the dungeon's elements, then taking that tool out into the world and opening new parts of the map not yet accessible.
The rental system opens nearly the entire map from the get go, and besides rocks that must be picked up with the Power Glove, which is not a rentable item, there is little to gradually uncover as the game progresses.
Luckily, each dungeon still has a big treasure to uncover, but what you'll find is hardly as exciting as a Fire Rod or Magic Boomerang. New shield, new armor, some upgrade items for the sword. Meh. It was a nice experiment, but I think it should be left alone for future releases.
Control, Control, You Must Learn Control
There's not much left to say about A Link Between Worlds' core design, but I want to offer up one more compliment to close this review on a happy note, the control. The Nintendo 3DS analog stick gives Link the movement and freedom that could only be seen as a dream come true for a young boy growing up with a limited D-Pad.
He's fast, too. Link can traverse the entirety of Hyrule in 75 seconds. I know this because there is a minigame which challenges him to do so.
Aiming, swinging the sword, traversing a perilous gap on a thin piece of ground. It's a small compliment that I fear might be overlooked by some. Controllers are supposed to be an extension of your hand to make a character do as you will, and from what I experienced in A Link Between Worlds, this is the best overhead Zelda in that regards.
Nothing feels clunky or sticky. Link moves where you put him and acts as you instruct him, and if you make a mistake, it's your fault.
A Link Between Worlds does do just enough to stand on its own merits.
Where do we go from here with A Link Between Worlds?
Well, that all depends on your history with the series and how far back your memory can go. If you are new to the series or have only played the 3D ones, then its a fabulous place to start. The casual approach to the old non-linear formula is a breath of fresh air as opposed to being dragged from dungeon to dungeon by the nostrils by an annoying fairy.
If you have played A Link to the Past, then try your absolute best to play this with a clean slate, and if it is too ingrained on your brain, like it is mine, then just simply enjoy it as a solid and wonderful little tribute to the greatest game in a series of great games.
Its main problem doesn't lie in the quality, because it is a very well constructed game. It just feels like a much quieter effort. There's less ambition than the earth shattering original, no epic storytelling like Ocarina of Time, no charming characters or original setting like Link's Awakening, and no size altering world duality like in The Minish Cap.
It's simply the smaller brother of a giant amongst giants, defined as being merely the sequel to Link to the Past. Maybe even better described as just a New Game+.
Without the clever wall painting mechanic, this would have been a tedious boring retread through familiar ground, but luckily, A Link Between Worlds does do just enough to stand on its own merits. It escapes the obvious fact that it leans on its prequel way too much to have a soul of its own.
It was excusable for one release because A Link to the Past is just that good and needed a nod after all this time, but let's hope Eiji Aonuma and the Zelda team turn out something amazing and, more importantly, original for the next overhead 3DS game.
We were provided with a review copy of The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds by Nintendo, and we played the game to its conclusion before writing this review.
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