The Zelda series has long been criticized for being formulaic. Hell, I discussed this years ago. With the latest entry, Nintendo has done the impossible: stuck to its formula almost to the point of plagiarism, yet made one of the most open and unique Zelda games since the series’ 1985 debut. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is the series’ best handheld offering, if not the best in the series overall.
A Link Between Worlds borrows from A Link to the Past in incredibly ballsy ways. For one, the game map is identical, to the point where you can reach locations or characters the same way you did 20 years ago. It’s to the point where key characters literally say, “You know how sages and palaces work, right? Cool, just go save the world then.” That’s almost verbatim. Seeing as the game takes place in the same world As A Link to the Past, just transposed to a few thousands years later, this makes sense. Players are not trapped behind narrative text and tutorials if they so choose, allowing them quick freedom in a familiar world.
But this familiarity does not – I repeat, does not – hurt A Link Between Worlds at all. In fact, it creates the freest Zelda game ever. Items are no longer acquired in dungeons; less than 10 are actually received through side quests. Instead, a merchant named Ravio (who’s end-game twist is simply splendid) sets up shop in Link’s familiar house. He offers 9 items for your perusal, any number of which can be checked out at a given time. You do lose these items upon death, giving the game an almost loot-like feeling akin to World of Warcraft or Dark Souls, but you can always rent them out again.
Couple this with A Link Between Worlds‘ new approach to dungeons, and you’ve got a truly open-world Zelda title. Ocarina of Time‘s Hyrule Field suggested it, but A Link Between Worlds is the first time you can literally go anywhere. You’ll have to conquer the first three dungeons first (the latter two in whichever order you like), but then all seven of the game’s main dungeons open simultaneously. From there, you can take your pick of conquering Ice Ruins, Turtle Rock, Skull Woods, or any of the other four dungeons. Take as many items as you want, or just the one required to complete it, and have at it.
Similar dungeons in an identical world might still not be enough for some Zelda die-hards, but (if I can summon my TV ad voice) wait – there’s more! Every game in the series has brought a unique mechanic to the table, and A Link Between Worlds gives the Link the Merge ability. With this, you can flatten yourself against walls, allowing for interesting puzzle mechanics, freer exploration, and literal link between the game’s worlds, Hyrule and Lorule. Oddly enough, it’s in this mode where much of the 3DS’ display comes through. Many moments of the game pop beautifully in 3D, but it’s during your merging movement when the world truly feels three-dimensional. This is the best case for the handheld’s visual capabilities yet.
What’s that? You still want more? How about mini-games, side quests, and collectibles? These staples return in A Link to the Past, and although none are significant enough to strengthen or weaken the experience, they are a nice diversion. Pieces of heart return as they always have, letting you collect all 28 to max out Link’s health. One character even has 100 of her babies to track down (and no, it’s not the classic turtle babies). Other side quests allow you to acquire the classic Bottles or Pegasus Boots, some of the few non-rental items. Mini-games like Rupee Rush or Octoball Derby can be fun for some, but again, they’re like unnecessary icing on a delicious Zelda cake.
A Link Between Worlds is an anomaly: it’s an identical world with identical items, identical progression, and identical challenges. And yet it is simply one of the best and most unique Zelda games I have ever played. Just the ability to rent items and choose your dungeon order shouldn’t make a game great, but it does; just the ability to move along walls shouldn’t make a game great, but it does. Somehow, this combination of “just enough” new stuff in a classic setting takes A Link Between Worlds beyond “spiritual successor” to sequel that towers over other games in the series.