Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Review: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo

A Zelda game set in the same world as the SNES classic Link to the Past is just inviting criticism. Link to the Past is one of Nintendo's finest games, and frankly, one of its proudest achievements. Any game set in the same world would have huge expectations, and any misstep would be a disaster. A game set in that world would have to be near perfect in order to stand on its own. It feels like, at worst, a symptom of creative bankruptcy and at best a fool's errand.

Ladies and gentlemen, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is almost perfect. It holds specific charms if you've played Link to the Past, but the previous game isn't required to enjoy Link Between Worlds. As great as Link to the Past is, it still bears some of the fingerprints of old game design philosophy, with its emphasis on grinding and esoteric puzzles. Link Between Worlds takes what was great about Link to the Past and removes anything that's not necessary to the actual playing of the game. It's another masterclass in design from Nintendo.

What's fascinating is the way it builds on the player's knowledge of Link to the Past while expounding and deepening it, subtly nodding in the direction of the original while standing on its own two feet and bringing some of the most remarkable changes to the Zelda series in a while. What are some of these changes?

First, they've emphasized non-linear progression throughout the game, meaning you can go through the various dungeons almost in any order you choose. This really helped me out, since I always have a tendency to get stuck in Zelda games. This way, I was able to fiddle with different dungeons and pick the one I wanted, then move on to a different one if I was feeling overwhelmed.

Next, they've put in an item store. Instead of getting items in dungeons, you can rent or buy items using rupees. (I didn't even rent items, just waited until I had the money and bought them.) You would think this would ruin the game, since Zelda games are supposed to be about finding the item you need to progress and moving onwards, yet it doesn't. Here's why: You get so many rupees that you don't need to run around and grind for money. Then, because you can use any item you wish, you're never faced with an obstacle you can't find a way past or that block off large chunks of the world.

There's another huge change with Link Between Worlds that no one is really talking about: There's no more inventory management. You don't have to watch how many arrows or bombs you have, or how much magic power you have. Instead, it's all handled by a meter that refills on its own gradually. This works great, because you're never in a position where you don't have bombs and need to scramble around and grind for them, but at the same time you don't have "unlimited" uses either. If you lay down bomb after bomb after bomb, you'll have to stop and wait for your meter to refill. It's not so bad that you have to babysit your meter, but it does force you to use your weapons responsibly while still allowing you to experiment.

Now, Link Between Worlds makes a few small missteps, but they're so minor as to be nitpicky. For example, because Link Between Worlds is nonlinear, there's no difficulty curve after a point. Nintendo made up for it by making each dungeon wildly unique and memorable instead of making every enemy progressively more difficult, but the feeling of gradual progression is slightly missed. Link Between Worlds also feels short, but that's mostly because it's tight as a drum. It took me 16 hours to complete, but I was farting around with sidequests for a while before I got back on the main quest. Speaking of which, in the end, the sidequests weren't as important as I thought they were going to be. They were still fun, though, and I'm glad I did them.

Honestly, though, the fact that Nintendo would willingly invite comparisons to one of its finest classic games, then go on to exceed or beat those expectations is astounding. Anyone who thinks Nintendo has lost "it," whatever "it" may be, should play Link Between Worlds if only to find out how wrong they are.

Final Grade: A

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