Once again I find myself taking a break from my RPG
obsessions research to play something short and sweet. Last time, I tried out the Resident Evil remake. This time I similarly picked up a game which is a remake of sorts – The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, which hovers somewhere in between being a sequel and a remake of the 1991 Zelda title, A Link To The Past.
Nintendo’s high fantasy franchise likely needs no introduction. The original title single-handedly invented the nebulous action-adventure genre, while the fifth wrote the book on how 3D games should make use of their imaginary Z-axis. You’re always some kid in a green tunic called Link, often fighting some dark lord called Ganon, and there’s usually a princess called Zelda factoring into the proceedings. Go beat several dungeons to get the MacGuffins so that you can save the world. You know the drill.
Anyway, A Link To The Past was one of the first games I ever played, and probably the first that ever had some sort of open world you could explore. I was never that good at the game, but the used copy I had contained the previous owner’s endgame save file, and I would frequently mess around with it. Linear progress, for me, had completely taken a backseat to just milling around Hyrule, exploring all the nooks and crannies and testing all the equipment in my inventory. And I did this a lot. Hence, although I have to date never beaten A Link To The Past, the game’s world occupies an unusual amount of my headspace.
A Link Between Worlds feels like a Zelda game that’s been designed around my childhood approach: from the beginning of the game you’re free to explore the entire world, and after the initial dungeon it’s up to you as to what order you do the rest. Almost all of Link’s equipment is available for rent or purchase; just pick up what you need (or want) and have at it. In playing the game, instead of asking, “what do I need to do next?” I found that I was asking, “where do I want to go now?”
Still, cracking open the world like that isn’t anything that an industrious romhacker couldn’t already do. The brilliance of A Link Between Worlds is in how it marries the design philosophy of A Link to the Past with that of modern gaming. The world is the same, Link still controls the same way, and the visuals are a lovingly rendered 3D version of A Link To The Past‘s charming, round style; but the game never feels old school.
Although the game mostly takes the classic, top-down perspective, the game explores that Z-axis in more than just an aesthetic manner. Depth and verticality are essential to this game. Link now has the ability to phase into any wall, becoming a 2D image that moves horizontally along it, with the camera breaking its bird’s eye view to track him. The concept sounds gimmicky and situational, but the game thoroughly integrates it into its exploration, puzzle solving, and even combat. The entire ground is built around phasing through two different planes by noting how they are connected by the Z-axis.
Much of the game outside of the wall-phasing also is structured on an understanding on the relation of things vis-a-vis their depth, whether by way of platforming or by manipulating objects at different depths, which is something that A Link To The Past attempted to do, but couldn’t quite integrate. Even ambient lighting plays an essential role at times.
All this implies that the dungeons have been finely honed to make use of these features, and indeed they have. The dungeons from A Link To The Past have all been redesigned from their original sprawling forms into these little, 20-30 minute puzzle boxes which require you to understand and master how one or two aspects of the game functions. I’ve noticed some complaints about their brevity, but they achieved the perfect length for me, with the boss fight arriving after I’ve figured out what the dungeon has to teach me (and not, say, after several floors of repeating the same stuff).
All this is to make A Link Between Worlds into an almost anti-nostalgia game. If it were intent on merely giving A Link To The Past a facelift and a few tweaks it would be fine, perhaps the definitive version of the game, but still just be another version of a 25 year old game. Instead, it elegantly improves on the template its predecessor provided, years of hindsight to create something new that surpasses its origins. It’ll likely be hard for me to return to A Link To The Past and not see it now as a rough draft for A Link Between Worlds.
But it’s also almost an anti-novelty game as well. It understands that, as technology advances, there are diminishing returns to be gained in adding more bells and whistles. Unless the franchise somehow makes a daring venture into 4-dimensional gaming there will likely never be as revolutionary a jump as the one it made from the second to the third dimension.* Thus, for all its technical wizardry, A Link Between Worlds is at heart a game that wants to be simple fun rather than groundbreaking.
And it is, indeed. It’s the finest Nintendo game I’ve played since my childhood days.
* Considering how, as I write this, Pokemon Go seems to be inspiring a Serial Experiments Lain style merging of reality and the internet, perhaps such ambitions are not too farfetched for Nintendo.