The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is being touted as the best Zelda game in 20 years. That’s a huge call. While many of the more recent Zelda titles haven’t managed to wow in the same ways that A Link to the Past did, dismissing the likes of Ocarina of Time, Phantom Hourglass, and The Minish Cap so easily is a brave, brave thing to do.
So does A Link Between Worlds manage to hit the highest highs of the series, or does it merely sit comfortably alongside the best?
Every fan of A Link to the Past (LttP) will immediately be at home once they see the world that A Link Between Worlds is set in. It’s the same land of Hyrule that you would have spent numerous hours in 20 years ago. Very little has changed as far as the layout goes, so if you knew your way around the original world, you’ll most definitely know the shortcuts and the location of specific structures. In fact, A Link Between Worlds is so similar to LttP, that it’d be easy to mistake it for a modern remake.
Set six generations after A Link to the Past, the new Link (the Zelda protagonist is always named Link) is awoken by the local Blacksmith’s son and told to get to work. Despite being late and in trouble with his boss, Link is given the important task of returning a sword to Hyrule’s Captain; in doing so, he manages to witness a kidnapping…. of sorts. With previous baddie Ganon long defeated and sealed away, a new evil - Yuga - manages to transform the seven sages of Hyrule into paintings, whereupon he uses them to bring about the destruction of the world.
Not before turning Link, too, into a painting.
Unlike the Sages, Link manages to utilise the curse placed on him, and - upon finding dark cracks scattered around Hyrule - stumbles upon the A Link Between Worlds version of “the dark world”: Lorule. The formula seen in A Link to the Past is also deployed here, and the first few dungeons serve mainly as tutorials before you go on to rescue the seven Sages that have been scattered about Lorule.
Similarities aside, A Link Between Worlds brings something new to the franchise as far as item collecting goes. Usually, dungeons introduce new items before finishing off with a boss fight that can only be defeated with said item. This time, a character by the name of Rovio sets up shop in Link’s home town and you can rent any of the game's items from him at any point. If you have the rupees (the game currency you collect on your journeys), you can even stock up on every single item from the get-go. Should you die, the items simply move back to Rovio’s shop, and you’ll have to rent them once more.
While it’s nice to have access to all of Link's signature equipment early on, there is very little use for the gear outside of the dungeons that are designed around each of the various items (a design conceit the game otherwise still conforms to); you still need the hookshot to get into and around the hookshot temple, for example. It’s an interesting system that allows you to get into some secret areas earlier than you would normally be able to, but it comes with one major downside.
Having the items accessible on demand means that the dungeons can be done in any order you'd like. To fully allow players to go where they want, and complete the game however they choose, Nintendo had to make sure you couldn’t stumble upon the hardest area straight away. They did this by getting rid of any difficulty ramp or learning curve. What you see at the start of the game is as tough as it gets - with the exception of the final boss fight. This is a huge blow to the flow of the game, and you’d be forgiven for expecting more from a franchise with such a deep history.
It’s hard to get too down on the game when it looks as amazing as it does. Nintendo have really managed to recapture A Link to the Past’s version of Hyrule with considerable finesse. The 3D is great, and, quite honestly, necessary in parts. It runs at a solid 60 frames per second and I’m fairly certain that most (if not all) of the music is orchestrated or re-orchestrated from LttP. Unfortunately, all this pizazz also helps highlight where things are missing.
There are moments where the camera zooms in and gets personal with the characters in the game, except there’s very little character there. The Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass, and Spirit Tracks showed us how much character Link and the people of Hyrule could have, and A Link Between Worlds shows us how bland the characters from 20 years ago actually were.
Some may enjoy the blank slate that Link sets out to be this time, but if he's going to be an empty shell of a character, the designers should stop dropping him into situations where gamers will expect him to react. Also, continuously progressing characters in a loved franchise, only to scale them right back again, is a noticeable and undesirable element in Link's latest chapter. I know what you’re doing, Nintendo, but you can’t shy away from giving these characters voices forever.
A Link Between Worlds is a remake of A Link to the Past without actually being a remake. It sits so painfully close to the source material that it almost feels like Nintendo have taken a step backwards from more recent adventures. A Link Between Worlds isn’t a bad Zelda game, but it’s far from being the “best in the last 20 years”. There’s no difficulty curve, there’s no personality to the characters, and it’s all over a little too quickly - but I'm damned if I didn’t enjoy every minute of it nonetheless.