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Level Up: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

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The Legend of Zelda is one of gaming’s longest-standing and most critically acclaimed series. A new Zelda title, like a new Slayer album, is subject to endless scrutiny. Everyone has a different definition of what makes them great. What changes the formula too much for one person, might be a breath of fresh air to another. It’s like the Slayer fan who wants them to make Reign in Blood over and over, versus the one who welcomes the occasional slower jams of South of Heaven. There are, however, a few Zelda titles that even the trolling masses of Neogaf would agree are standouts. A Link to the Past on the SNES is one of those. In an effort to return Zelda to it’s roots and cash in on nostalgia Nintendo came up with The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds for the 3DS, a direct sequel to ALTTP done in very much the same style.

This game is classic Zelda from the start. Rather than plodding through a tutorial before getting out of your home town, you’re in the mix swinging a sword and taking down baddies in no time. Many players have voiced their disdain for the long introduction of Wii’s Twilight Princess and I tend to feel their pain. Zelda games are so well-designed that there’s really no reason for the game to hold your hand. You’re not likely to get stuck on a puzzle for more than a few minutes and death in combat is a non-issue. In retrospect these long tutorial sequences probably originated in Ocarina of Time. As the first 3D Zelda it had the task of teaching players how Zelda worked in 3D. Nowadays, 3D games are the norm so there’s really no excuse. Here’s hoping that the next 3D Zelda will take a cue from ALBW and get into the action quickly.

There are some big advantages to the 2D-overhead-view Hyrule. Far from the open fields of 3D Zeldas, the overworld is full of stuff to interact with. Between enemies, secret caverns, people to chat with and mini-games there’s not a chunk of the map that doesn’t serve a gameplay function. This jam-packed approach isn’t really possible in a 3D Zelda, because it would break the believability of the world. the landscape would look ridiculously stacked up and busy. Dungeons are easier to visually figure out from this perspective as well since you can see the totality of the rooms, rather than just the view from behind your character. There’s also an immediacy to the sword swing that just can’t be matched by the true-3D Zeldas.

Visually, ALBW is simple, but charming in it’s approach, much like many Nintendo games. Although the game plays on a 2D field it uses polygonal models. With the 3DS’s 3D effect maxed out I kind of felt like I was looking down into a world of tiny figurines. This is actually the first game I’ve played through on the 3DS and I thought the effect was cool. You can feel a bit cross-eyed if you don’t have the console lined up properly with your vision, but I enjoyed the effect enough to change my playing position, rather than turn the effect off. Although the visuals don’t strive for realism, there are some cool lighting and normal-mapping effects used and everything has that polished Nintendo sheen.

The sounds are your typical Zelda-fare and get the job done, but the music is another place where ALBW corrects a long-standing wrong in the Zelda series. Rather than synthesized instrumentation, Zelda finally gets a real orchestral score. For years Nintendo has avoided going in this direction stating that only midi instruments can be dynamic to the player’s actions. The music is mostly variations on classic Zelda themes, but it takes on new life with the real orchestral performance. Perhaps they went this direction because the nature of this game made for little need of variable dynamics, but again, this is something I hope carries over to the next big Zelda title.

While most of the game can be said to mirror the formula of ALTTP, there are some major differences. The main ‘gimmick’ of this title (and every Zelda has one) is that Link can become a living painting on the wall. A ton of the game’s puzzles center around this mechanic. While it may seem limited on the surface, it fundamentally changes traversal and it keeps coming into play in new ways. It’s also a cool touch that the music goes mono and lo-fi when Link turns into a painting, effectively reflecting his flattened out effect.

The bigger change is the game’s economy and power-up system. Rather than earning a special piece of gear for each dungeon, almost every item is available to rent (and later buy) early in the game. When you die, you lose your rentals. When I first encountered this idea I was a bit put-off. The loot seems a lot less magical sitting in a store and one of my favorite things about Zelda was always earning boon from a great adventure. However, in practice this little tweak rectifies two complaints people have with the series. It makes money matter, and it opens up the world and dungeons to be explored in a variety of ways. Rupees are almost worthless in other Zelda games. Going through immense obstacles only to find a chest full of cash was always a disappointment because there was really not much to buy. By making items cheap rentals or expensive buys, ALBW has made collecting these chests rewarding. More importantly, having access to every item essentially means you have access to every area, making this the least linear Zelda since the original. I’m still conflicted about this, possibly because the consumerist slant leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But on a design level it’s benefits outweigh it’s drawbacks.

So here we have it. The game many Zelda many fans have been clamoring for: an over-head-view game that plays like the SNES classic. Do they pull it off? If you’ve been on internet in the past few weeks you know the answer is yes. Zelda games are rated on a scale of really-effin’-great to change-your-pants-amazing and this falls near the latter. It has the kind of polish that it seems only Nintendo is capable of and is a true joy to play through. My only complaints are that it is a tad on the easy side and I’m worried about Hyrule’s environment and politics now that consumer culture has taken hold.

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