It’s a dangerous position to be in, not least because, by setting its game in the same world the elfin hero explored some 22 years ago, Nintendo invites direct comparison with one of gaming’s universally acknowledged greats. And yet perhaps that isn’t too different from the norm. Zelda games revolve around familiar, iconic routines and rituals, after all: defined as much by what has changed as what has stayed the same.
So we know the drill. Here is another grandiose fairytale, a simple story about a brave hero in green whose destiny is to save the world. A Link To The Past’s dark world is now the kingdom of Lorule, the bleak flipside of Link’s domain. It’s a world ruled by darkness, overrun by monsters and thieves. From here a new villain emerges in the form of Yuga, a powerful magician who turns Hyrule’s seven sages into paintings. Link is naturally tasked to put things right, assisted by Hilda, Lorule’s Zelda equivalent.
What follows is surprising mostly for the way it deviates from the recent Zelda norm, throwing out a lot of what we’ve grown to know – in most cases, love, in others, tolerate – over the years. Eiji Aonuma spoke of the desire to buck the trend towards excessive handholding, but even so some may be startled at how quickly it lets go. This is a world you’re expected to discover for yourself. Map markers may highlight your destination, but they won’t tell you how to get there.
Now you’re allowed to explore the environment freely as long as you have the right equipment – and how you obtain it has also changed. A stranger named Ravio soon inveigles himself into Link’s home, setting up shop and loaning out items so you can tackle dungeons in any order. Where recent entries have allowed you to be fairly cavalier in the knowledge that death is but a minor inconvenience, the impermanence of the equipment gives you something to lose when your hearts run out. You can, however, buy gear if you’ve saved up enough rupees, which in turn encourages you not to skip past enemies but to confront them. Currency has become almost meaningless in Zelda; here you’re much more likely to spend time foraging for silver and gold rupees, bombing rockfalls over cave entrances, gliding to distant platforms with the hookshot, conjuring bridges of sand to span gaps.
This is a harder-edged Zelda than its immediate predecessors, closer to the original in spirit, particularly in the early game where enemies in the field can kill off reckless adventurers all too easily. As dungeons are completed and your heart tally and bottle count increases – with fairies in plentiful supply, death comes less frequently – the challenge levels off a little, though it’s telling you’ll feel the need to keep a tonic or two handy. Bosses are fast and attack aggressively, and the arenas in which you fight them are cramped. You’ll need certain equipment to deal with some guardians, but mostly you’ll need little more than your wits and your reactions to finish them off.
The same goes for the dungeons themselves. Stone plinths at the entrances highlight the gear you’ll need within, but in many cases, Link’s sword and your brain are the only tools required. You’ll also make use of Link’s newfound ability to merge with walls: here, he transforms into a cave painting, complete with a charmingly rudimentary waddle. Ironically, it’s in 2D form that you gain a greater appreciation of 3D space and Nintendo absolutely makes the most of the possibilities, concocting some fiendish environmental puzzles.
And these labyrinths are wonderful: briskly paced and dense with ideas, gimmicks and tricks. A slippery ice dungeon proves a test of nerve as you negotiate narrow spars across multiple floors. Another’s liquid puzzles fleetingly nod to Ocarina Of Time’s infamous Water Temple, every bit as devious and intelligent yet not nearly so laborious. Meanwhile, the vertiginous platforming elements are enhanced no end by some expert use of 3D, perhaps the most potent stereoscopic effects yet seen on 3DS. You may never tire of hammering a bounce pad and seeing it flip Link up and out of the screen, as he touches down on a higher floor.
There is, perhaps, a slight feeling of emptiness to Nintendo’s brave old world. Most areas are populated with enemies, but outside Kakariko Village and a handful of other oddballs, there aren’t too many friendly faces to see. And while this lean game maintains a cracking pace for its 15-hour duration, some will miss the warmth and sustenance a little extra meat can provide, even if its runtime compares favourably with the original.
As a link to Link’s past, there’s a risk that familiarity with Hyrule and its shadowy reflection could breed contempt. Yet while it might feel fresher to newcomers than to those who explored a similar world during the SNES era, A Link Between Worlds stands to resonate even more with that latter audience. Veterans may marvel at the differences, but there’s equal – if not greater – delight in using old tricks, in remembering familiar routes. Yet its most striking tie with its forerunner is surely the music, with many old themes remastered in majestic fashion. In a series that has always carried a strong musical heartbeat, it’s among the franchise’s best soundtracks to date.
A Link Between Worlds is a remake and a sequel, then – both a tribute to a classic and a worthy successor in its own right. For all the changes, it’s still recognisably Zelda, and a legend this powerful can comfortably bear another retelling.