The title of Nintendo’s newest Zelda game describes much of its charm and ingenuity. This entry stands as a link between two design philosophies: the old, much beloved Zelda formula perfected by A Link to the Past, and the new, more freeing, exploratory format that gives players what they want as soon as they want it. A Link Between Worlds stands at the crossroads of these two different game types, melding them seamlessly. It shows Nintendo isn’t afraid to adapt and try new things in an effort to spice up the Zelda formula before it runs out of steam.
Just looking at A Link Between Worlds will send players through waves of nostalgia; the entire world is almost point-for-point accurate to A Link to the Past. To the east still lies the Witch’s House, where she’ll make you all sorts of potions, the northwest still hold the Lost Woods, and Hyrule Castle is still right in the middle of the world. It’s familiar and inviting. But modifications have been made to the word layout and fast travel is opened early on, allowing for easier navigation through the world. A Link Between Worlds also shares its predecessor’s light and dark worlds. Lorule is a direct copy of Hyrule, just without the joy of life and adventure. It’s a dilapidated kingdom riddled with all kinds of nefarious creatures.
Evil has started to seep through cracks in Hyrule, allowing Yuga, a menacing wizard with a thing for paintings, to break through and steal the Seven Sages of legend and protectors of the Triforce. Story, like in most Zelda titles, is mostly bare, never getting in the way of running through dungeons and slaying evil to complete the quest. I enjoyed some of the late game narrative beats, but Zelda stories are still far from engaging beyond that initial call to adventure and the later climactic fight against evil incarnate.
One of the biggest and most welcome changes to the Zelda structure is the insistence on player agency in dungeon choice. A Link Between Worlds gives the option of tackling whichever dungeons in whatever order. It offers a sense of freedom and a chance to explore the two worlds at your own pace. This frees dungeons from the constraints of past Zelda titles, making for some of the best dungeon design in quite some time.
Dungeons are clever; they have difficult puzzles and the solutions aren’t always entirely obvious, but when you figure it out, you feel an earned sense of accomplishment. One example of a dungeon I chose to do pretty late in the game heralded the return of Wallmasters — creatures of my nightmares. The Wallmasters at first are used for nostalgia and hold a sense of dread when they appear, then the mechanic is flipped where they are no longer a threat, but a unwitting helping hand for certain puzzles.
Most of the dungeons make use of the newest mechanic in A Link Between Worlds: the ability to merge into a wall as a painting. Sometimes I would be stuck on an obstacle, thinking of it in old Zelda terms, completely forgetting I could merge and slide along the wall. It constantly forces you to think outside the confines of the top-down view, giving puzzle design a fresh feeling when you combine old Zelda mechanics with new ones.
Hidden around Hyrule and Lorule both are small, one room puzzle dungeons designed to make the most use out of certain items, and offer some of the more difficult challenges in the game. I found one that forced me to combine using the hookshot with merging into walls, and another that had me be quick on my feet with bombs and the pegasus boots. It was always a treat to discover these fun one-off puzzles in out of the way places.
Another welcome change in A Link Between Worlds is in how players gets items. No longer must you gain items individually within dungeons, but rather Link’s home is taken over by a mysterious bunny-masked man named Ravio who gives players access to all of his items — for a nominal fee, of course. The items will need to be rented again if you die, but Ravio does offer buying options for a hefty sum. And since there are no wallet restrictions, players can collect as many rupees as as they finds, lining their coffers for a massive item buyout later in the game. It’s a fresh take on items in a Zelda game, and a delight, but this does limit the enjoyment of always getting new gear in a dungeon. Instead, they are filled with hundreds of rupees and sometimes special gear items like tunics or sword upgrades. It’s not quite the same as finding the bow or hookshot, but it does make dungeons faster, harder, and more enjoyable.
Nintendo seems to have cut out all the fat of the Zelda experience. In my seemingly quick 12-hour playtime I never felt like I was doing too much, that things got too complex, or my hand was being held at all. There’s no constant reminders of what each random item does, or what each rupee is worth, dungeon maps are immediately available on the bottom screen, and you’re constantly moving to new places at a brisk pace. These and many other small changes add up to a better, sharper game overall.
It also helps that A Link Between Worlds is a beautiful game. The painting figures are delightfully drawn, adding little touches like when Link merges to a wall with the lantern equipped, a small painted lantern is on his person and a faint yellow glow surrounds the wall around him. The 3D enhances the scope of some of the more vertical dungeons, and adds a sense of depth to what otherwise looks like a flat top-down world. It feels like a beautiful polygonal version of the 16-bit world in A Link to the Past, classic with modern enhancements. The soundtrack is filled with a variety classic tunes, remixes on old favorites, and new sounds alike. It’s easily some of the best Zelda music since Wind Waker. The Lorule overworld theme is by far my favorite piece; it links that balance of old and new and creates a track that is instantly familiar, but fresh and exciting all at the same time.
After finishing the game I immediately went back to start collecting every item and finding every heart piece. I also started a new file in Hero Mode, which has harder enemies. It’s a Zelda game I see myself actually coming back to ever so often, like I did with Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past before it. I don’t know about calling it the best Zelda game since A Link to the Past, since there have been plenty of wonderful Zelda games over the years. But as a Nintendo-branded sequel to my favorite Zelda game, A Link Between Worlds steps firmly out of the shadow of its predecessor, marking its own place right alongside the series greats.