Friday, December 5, 2014

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (Nintendo, 2013)

When Nintendo first announced the 3DS with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D as a launch title, my mind quickly began racing about the possibility of new original 3D Legend of Zelda adventures utilizing the Ocarina of Time engine. At the time, it was still a closely guarded secret that Majora's Mask 3D was also in the works. Years later, when the first 3DS exclusive Legend of Zelda title was finally announced, I was admittedly surprised that it bore little resemblance to Ocarina of Time, but I was even more caught off guard by how much it looked like another Zelda classic, A Link to the Past. This game of course was The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.

The Legend of Zelda is a confusing series to follow. Not only are the games released in a different order than they take place, but there are also multiple timelines that run parallel to each other. While the occasional direct sequel does happen, it generally involves exploring a new area far from the events of the previous game as in Wind Waker to Phantom Hourglass or Ocarina of Time to Majora's Mask, or revisiting the same area so long after the events of the previous game that the world is unrecognizable as in Ocarina of time to Wind Waker or Phantom Hourglass to Spirit Tracks. A Link Between Worlds breaks this mold by returning us to the world of Link to the Past, released more than two decades earlier.

Although the graphics are presented in 3D polygons rather than 2D sprites, it's remarkable how well the look and feel of the Link to the Past map presents itself in this new format. If you're one of the many who has completed this classic SNES adventure on multiple occasions, you'll feel like you've returned home as you wander through familiar environments noticing the subtle changes that have occurred during the generations that have passed between these games. In addition, many of' the boss battles from Link to the Past have been reimagined in 3 dimensions, to make it that much more of a nostalgia trip.

It's worth noting that as consistently universally acclaimed as console Zelda titles have generally been, mobile titles of the series have been much more hit or miss. Oddly, it's generally been the Capcom produced mobile titles such as Minish Cap and the Oracle series that feel the most like true Zelda games, while Nintendo's own attempts such as Link's Awakening and the DS titles tend to have more of a lighthearted, childlike, and comical approach. With A Link Between Worlds, the big N has finally bucked that trend by actually taking a mobile Legend of Zelda game seriously, and producing something as emotionally moving and meaningful as many of the "real" games.

Okay, that's enough pretext into what the game isn't, but now let's talk about what The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds actually is.When you really look at it, A Link Between Worlds is a classic 2D Zelda game, simply rendered using modern technology. If you grew up on the old-school Zeldas, you'll feel right at home with this one. On the other hand, if you tend to think of Ocarina of Time as "the first one" and never could figure out why people made such a big deal out of the classics, then maybe this isn't the game for you.

While it would have looked a little different, most of A Link Between Worlds could have easily existed on the SNES or GBA and still been just as enjoyable. The exception to this is the game's biggest new feature, the ability to turn into a flat painting and travel along walls. Reminiscent of the indie platformer Sideway, Link can become a piece of living graffiti opening a hidden world within the world. Surprisingly, by becoming flat, the world becomes more 3D as the camera zooms in and follows you to allow movement around objects, letting you finally see what the backs of all of these houses look like. Paintings of hearts or rupees become real items in this mode, but so do painted enemies. The most inventive use of this ability is how it relates to exploration allowing you access to new areas of the overworld and dungeons, as well as the magical slits that lead between the two parallel worlds.

The parallel worlds scenario has been a staple of many Zelda adventures. Ocarina of Time and Oracle of Ages used time travel, while Oracle of Seasons presented four versions of the world, one for each season. A Link Between Worlds follows more along the path of Twilight Princess and, unsurprisingly, A Link to the Past by presenting a light and dark world. This dark version of Hyrule is called Lorule. Yes, it's a bad play on words, but luckily it's a rare exception. Unlike the previous dark world examples, Lorule has its own bustling population with their own problems and issues. The story focuses closely on the citizens of both kingdoms and how these worlds interact. Parts of the story reminded me of the second and third seasons of the show Fringe in how it handled this delicate balance.

In case you've played the DS titles and have less than fond memories of fumbling about with the stylus, you can rest assured that this time Nintendo has remembered how to use buttons again. Sure, the touch screen is still utilized for navigating menus and switching items, and works smoothly for those tasks, but for the most part you'll be using the hardware's actual controls for playing the game, which allows it the tight and responsive controls you'd expect from an action adventure game. No more having to blow into the microphone in the middle of a boss fight!

A Link Between Worlds does do its share of experimenting though, especially when it comes to the items. Ever since the original The Legend of Zelda, it's been the standard that each dungeon contains a new item, and usually these items allow you to reach the next dungeon's location in the overworld. These new goodies are acquired one at a time, giving you time to master each before getting distracted by your next new toy. And, as they say on Wheel of Fortune, once you win a prize, it's yours to keep. This time around, things are a bit different. Early on in the game, Link's house is converted into an item shop, but at first you are unable to purchase these items, only rent them.

This changes things up in a few ways. More items are available earlier on in the game, but you only have them until you die, making the prospect of running out of hearts much more threatening. Later on you also get the opportunity to purchase the items, if you have enough rupees that is. One of the problems Zelda games have had in the past is that at a certain point you simply run out of things to buy unless you're in a hurry to refill your ammo, and then the rupees become meaningless. This new approach allows you to have access to what you need, but still gives you motivation to save up towards it, making the economy of the game stay active longer.

But what about buying ammo? In past Zelda games I'd almost always have the boomerang equipped as my secondary item, at least until I got a hookshot. It made sense, a ranged weapon that could be used as often as I want without worries of resource management allows for more carefree gameplay. This Time, I tended to use the bombs and arrows much more than I had in the past. Why would this be? In the Zelda games, arrows and bombs are more than simply weapons for dispensing your foes, they are keys to unlock solutions to the puzzles blocking your path so you can continue on in your adventures. Running out of either in regular combat could mean having to backtrack when you reach that next roadblock. A Link Between Worlds uses a recharging mechanic that is shared between all of your items, as well as your wall painting mode. This takes the pressure off, and lets you bomb away without fear.

From what I've seen in discussion boards, reviews, and simply in casual conversations, the most divisive aspect of A Link Between Worlds is the art style. The art team on this game had a clear vision to recreate the look and feel of A Link to the Past, and make it come to life in 3D. They pulled this off beautifully, even though it meant modeling vertical objects at strange angles in order to replicate the impossible perspectives implied by its 2D predecessor. Unfortunately, recreating the hand drawn cartoon style in a more solid form lends it a strange look that some find to be too simple and lacking detail. Those less familiar with the earlier games especially seem to be turned off by the visuals, while those of us with fond memories of Link's 8 and 16-bit days tend to be more appreciative of this style. You'll have to decide for yourself what to think on this point.

Since this is a 3DS release, it's worth mentioning the actual stereoscopic 3D aspects. Being a top down 2.5D style game on mostly flat planes, the 3D effects are mostly subtle. They do give a little more depth to things, but for most of the game you won't miss much if you turn down the 3D slider, or play it on a 2DS instead. There are exceptions though, mostly later in the game. There is an open multi-leveled fortress that must be explored in which seeing how far away paths and platforms of lower levels are really helps out in solving the puzzles and navigating the mazes of the structure. The most noticeable moment however is while descending through the lava filled caverns of Death Mountain. There is an extended section of carefully timed jumps from moving platforms onto other moving platforms far below. The added benefit of depth perception on these wild leaps can't be understated!

In my opinion, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is the greatest original 3DS game I've played so far. On a platform littered with re-release ports and mobile inspired casual titles, having a lengthy epic adventure that takes itself seriously is a welcome change. I've always found it odd that games for mobile platforms which can be played anywhere at any time tend to be short and repetitive, while the sprawling time consuming experiences are generally linked to the platforms I have the least amount of time to play. This game provides the portable adventure many of us crave, and if you've been looking for something like that, this is one not to miss!

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