Back when we did our Top 20 Games of 2013 feature, we made sure to attach to caveat that the list was just the opinion of two guys who hadn’t played everything that came out in 2013. I mention this because our top 5 entries would have looked a little different if I had played The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds before we assembled the list.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is an unexpectedly great game, which seems like a silly thing to say. I mean, Zelda games are pretty much always great, right?
Well, yeah, they are, but this one was reusing the world from A Link to the Past and had kind of a bland, cheap-looking art style (don’t worry, it grows on you). Also, for some time Zelda games have been good in a Peter Jackson Middle Earth movie kind of way. They’re slavishly well-crafted, but also a bit overstuffed and overwrought, and the last few Zelda games (particularly the ones on the DS) were more The Hobbit than Return of the King. So yeah, I was skeptical. I knew the game would be good, but maybe in an “only for fans” sort of way.
I was wrong to doubt. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is, in my humble opinion, the best 2D Zelda game ever made. I know that’s ludicrously high praise, but after finishing the game I tried to think of another 2D Zelda I’d rather replay. Certainly not the DS games. The original NES Zelda? No. A Link to the Past? No. Maybe, possibly, my previous 2D Zelda fave, Link’s Awakening? But nope, I think A Link Between Worlds tops even that classic.
Two princesses, twice as nice.
ALBW way seem like a small, humble game at first glance (and really it kind of is) but it’s also a bracing, surprisingly brave game that grabs the wheel and completely redirects a Zelda ship that’s been stuck on the same course for too long. For some time now (really, ever since Majora’s Mask director Eiji Aonuma took over the series) the trend has been for Zelda games to become increasingly dense and rigidly structured. This approach probably reached its limit with Skyward Sword, a game with an overworld so dense and twisted it felt no different than the game’s dungeons.
ALBW cuts the Zelda formula to the bone. While it took nearly 6 hours to reach your first dungeon in Skyward Sword, ALBW gets you started with the dungeon hacking within half-an-hour, and from then on you rarely have to spend more than 20-minutes between each additional dungeon. The dungeons themselves are also reduced to their bare essentials — each one establishes it’s basic theme or mechanic, iterates on it a few times, then boom, boss time. No excessive backtracking or grinding through enemies or item collecting. This leaner approach to Zelda means ALBW is over quicker than most games in the series (it will take you maybe 10 – 15 hours to beat) but it doesn’t feel like a short game. Those dozen-or-so hours are packed with two worlds, 11 dungeons and countless sidequests. The experience may be quick, but it feels appropriately epic.
The game also shatters established Zelda structure. For the first time, well, pretty much ever, you can tackle a Zelda game’s dungeons in whatever order you want (once a couple introductory dungeons are out of the way). All your important items are instead obtained from a shady rent-to-buy shop and your ability to go anywhere is really only limited by the amount of rupees in your pocket.
So yes, if you think about it, it’s all kind of depressingly true to life, but in the game it’s fun and freeing as s–t. It’s a huge testament to the ALBW’s design that despite having total freedom to do what I want, and very few in-game pointers telling me where to go, I never got lost. Not once, and I always get lost at least once in Zelda games. But no, everything leads to something in ALBW, and the game does a great job of guiding you in an organic way — the result is a game that feels totally open, but never intimidating or frustrating. Adventuring at it’s best.
Hmmm, this seems familiar.
Even the game’s story was uncommonly good. The Zelda series doesn’t usually do twists, and if they try they’re usually of the not terribly shocking “It was Ganon all along!” variety, but without spoiling anything, ALBW pulls off a couple of legitimately surprising twists. Also, I kind of love that most of the NPCs in the game just have generic names like “Shady Guy” or “Scruffy Man” because in the real world you don’t know the name of the random dude you buy potions from or ask for directions. The fact that RPGs always give all the NPCs unique names has always bugged me.
Jeez, we’re almost 1000 words in and I haven’t even mentioned the game’s central wall-merging mechanic! In any other Zelda review that would have been paragraph one, but this game just has so much else going on. And man, the music. So damn good!
A Link Between Worlds is a game of surprising contrasts. It’s a game that reuses a 20-year-old world, yet it feels fresher than any Zelda game since Ocarina of Time. It’s a game that throws you into a wide-open world with nothing but your wits to guide you, and yet your adventure through Hyrule feel grounded and nostalgic, like a childhood romp through a neighbourhood you know by heart. It tosses aside three-decade-old Zelda conventions, yet feels more Zelda than anything in a long time.
The Zelda series will always be well-crafted, but this is one of those special ones that has real soul. Grab your sword and shield and get adventuring.