Making a sequel is hard. Making a sequel to a classic is even harder. Making a sequel to a classic over 20 years after the original came out? Well, that's practically impossible. That is perhaps what makes The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds so impressive. The original The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was one of the best games on the Super Nintendo and is still considered a classic today. It is sometimes overshadowed by its bigger brother on the N64, but there's no small contingent of Zelda fans who name it as the best of the franchise. A Link Between Worlds has big shoes to fill. It's not quite as good as A Link to the Past, but it comes close enough.
A Link Between Worlds is set in the distant future of Hyrule as seen in A Link to the Past, but it's not as distant as the original two Zelda games. Players take on the role of a new Link, a simple blacksmith's apprentice who is swept up in an adventure when he stumbles across the evil wizard Yuga. Yuga has been turning people into paintings, seemingly in a search for the descendants of the Seven Sages who Link had rescued in A Link to the Past. When one of Link's friends is kidnapped, he is forced to take up the sword and rescue her from Yuga's evil clutches. Things are not as straightforward as they seem, as Yuga turns out to be from an alternate version of Hyrule called Lorule. Yuga's evil plans threaten not one, but both worlds.
A Link Between Worlds balances a tightrope between being a rehash and being a nostalgic trip. It takes place in the same world as The Link to the Past and revisits many of the same locations, but each area is well crafted enough that it doesn't feel like you're recycling material. The characters and dungeons are familiar but rarely to the point of déjà vu. There's a lot of familiar material, and the game is structured nearly identically to A Link to the Past, but it maintains enough of its own identity that it feels like a full-fledged sequel. Sometimes, the game could've gone further. It's strange that Lorule is so nearly identical to the corrupted Sacred Realm from A Link to the Past instead of being its own distinctive area, but that isn't enough to hurt the overall game.
A Link Between Worlds is billed as a sequel to A Link to the Past, and it plays like it. It's set in the same isometric over-the-head view, and the controls and gameplay are almost identical. There are some areas where the game has seen polish. Your shield now has a dedicated block button instead of just blocking anything that attacks you from the front. You can have two items equipped at once instead of one. The touch-screen is a combination map and inventory control mechanic, allowing you to easily swap items, make notes, and warp from location to location. It's missing some of the mechanics that you might be familiar with from the 3-D Zelda titles, but it does a great job of updating the 2-D Zelda-style gameplay.
The biggest and most noteworthy change to the Zelda formula is the addition of Ravio's Shop. In previous Zelda games, you'd get a tool from each dungeon you explored, with each dungeon containing a single new tool that usually became the focal point for the puzzles. A Link Between Worlds mixes that up. All of the tools you'd normally find in dungeons are now sold by the merchant Ravio, who has set up shop in Link's home. Tools include returning classics like the Boomerang and Hookshot and some new items, such as the Tornado Rod and Sand Rod, which appeared in other Zelda games but are new to the A Link to the Past timeline. Ravio rents you these items, so they only remain in your inventory until you get a game over, at which point you have to rent them again from his shop for another rupee investment. For a significantly larger rupee investment (upward of 800 rupees), you can buy the items from the shop and own them permanently.
There's no real risk to Ravio's rentals. It's pretty unlikely that you'll permanently die at any time during the game. Fairies and bottles are plentiful, and you can usually retreat from a dungeon with minimal risk. You could always reload a save. The real reason to buy tools is because you can upgrade them. Scattered throughout the game world are Baby Maiamais, which are basically tiny octopuses. If you find 10 of them and bring them back to their mother, she'll provide you with an upgrade. The bow gains the ability to fire three shots at once. The bomb doubles in size. The Fire Rod shoots a massive tornado of fire. Each tool has an optional upgrade that makes them more useful and more fun to use.
Having access to all of your abilities at once might sound a little intimidating, but the game is excellently designed. Most dungeons are designed around a specific gadget, and you need it to enter. You may need to bomb open a door or pull a switch with a hookshot to get inside, and that lets you know the item you'll need to solve the puzzles. If you need access to fire, bombs, or other items, there are enemies that can mimic those effects in the puzzle room. The game also rewards you for being creative with your gadgets. I was able to skip or circumvent several puzzles. The game wanted me to hit a switch in the distance by moving blocks and riding an elevator, but a good bomb throw let me finish it early. I was able to put out a distant fire with an Ice Rod instead of getting close enough to use a Tornado Rod. It feels natural to have access to all of your tools from the outset, and it would be tough to go back to the piecemeal method from classic Zelda games.
A cool side effect of this is that the entire game world is open to you nearly from the start of the game, though a few upgrades are locked by the plot. While all the usable gadgets are given to you, things like the Titan's Mitt or Pegasus Shoes only become available after you've finished certain dungeons. You can finish most the dungeons in any order you choose, gain a boatload of upgrades and heart containers, and find a lot of side-quests and rupees without doing more than one or two early dungeons. It isn't perfectly nonlinear, but it's about as close as a Zelda game has ever come. There's also a ton to do, and there's practically something around every corner.
While most of the powers and abilities in A Link Between Worlds are familiar, there's one new ability that forces you to look at the game in a new perspective. Early in the game, Link is turned into a portrait, but his magical bracelet allows him to change back. From that point on, Link can turn into a painting at will as long as he is pressed against a flat surface. While Link is a painting, he can walk along flat walls and is immune to damage, though he also can't attack, but he can pop in and out as he pleases. This allows you to slip through small gaps, ride a moving block, or avoid a wall of fire.
This leads to another really nice feature of A Link Between Worlds. You no longer have a limited supply of items. All of your weapons are governed by a stamina bar, which functions like the magic meter in previous games, but it refills extremely quickly. It only takes a few seconds of rest before you can spam your abilities again. This makes it a lot easier to use tools like the bow or bombs in combat, and puzzles are designed with the assumption that you can access to all of your tools. It may sound weird to get rid of series staples like bomb bags and bigger quivers, but it's for the best.
A Link Between Worlds only has one serious problem: It's pretty easy. You've got a ton of hearts, a bunch of cool weapons and gadgets, and a boatload of options, so you'll probably never be in serious danger from enemies. It certainly doesn't dull the experience, but it'd be nice if there were some more punch to the fighting. There is an optional Hero mode that bumps up the difficulty, but it's only available after you've finished the game. The puzzles are a good mix, so they're never too complex, but they have the potential to stump you. Hint Ghosts are located by every puzzle, and you can spend a Play Coin to get a straightforward clue about how to solve it, so these won't be a roadblock for too long. The result is that A Link Between Worlds clocks in at a modest 12-15 hours of play. It's an extremely well-crafted 12-15 hours, but you can burn through the game in a day or two of dedicated play.
A Link Between Worlds is a nice-looking game. The character models are simple and designed to mimic the sprites from the original 2-D A Link to the Past, but they're simple, colorful, and cute, and they look great in motion. The 3-D effects are well used and add a lot to the game, making it easier to solve some of the puzzles and adding a lot of depth to other scenes. I noticed a little slowdown in places, but nothing was remotely problematic. The soundtrack is also top-notch, containing many remixed versions of familiar Zelda songs. I feel a lot of nostalgia for the SNES-era Zelda themes, and the composers did a great job. Like all recent Zelda games, this title has no voice acting, but it feels less out of place when compared to something more cinematic, like Skyward Sword.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is one of the most fun Zelda titles on the market, and it's easily the best handheld Zelda game since Link's Awakening. It's well crafted, fun to play, charming and interesting, and it mixes up the Zelda formula in some exciting ways while maintaining a healthy dose of nostalgia. It isn't the longest game, but it's fun from beginning to end. The highest praise I can give A Link Between Worlds is that it's a worthy sequel to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Zelda fans should absolutely add this game to their libraries, and newcomers to the franchise should find it to be a fun and accessible title.
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