It’s hard to imagine a more influential game than The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Even after Nintendo dragged Zelda into the third dimension with 1998′s Ocarina of Time, the series continued to cling so tightly to A Link to the Past‘s exploration-heavy formula that it’s a wonder it took 22 years for the company to cook up a direct sequel to one of the Crown Jewels of the SNES library. It won’t come as a huge shock to longtime fans that the resulting game, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, feels more like a remake than a proper sequel, with a world map that closely resembles its predecessor’s and a story that, more than anything, fills in the space between the lines; what is surprising is that, with just a few key changes to the formula, A Link Between Worlds manages to best its progenitor in nearly every way, making it the definitive classic-style Zelda adventure.
A Link Between Worlds’ version of Hyrule is familiar in broad strokes, but the small details and changes Nintendo has worked into its playground add up to a world that feels lived-in, rather than simply recycled. A lakeside cave, previously home to a generic potion seller, is now inhabited by a giant squid who’s too big to leave her home and search for her 100 missing children. A local pub, once sparsely populated (and without a bartender!) is now a popular spot to grab a glass of, er, milk and listen to local musicians’ unique renditions of classic Zelda songs. Though not all changes are welcome ones — a fat man dressed in a bee costume comes to mind as one of the most hideous additions to Zelda lore since the invention of Tingle — it’s a testament to the simple charms of Nintendo’s design work that A Link to the Past now feels lifeless by comparison. I’d rather wander a Hyrule populated by Maiamais, derby kids and middle-aged cosplayers than one without them.
Where A Link Between Worlds celebrates and expands upon its predecessor’s geography, it’s downright shameless in its appropriation of A Link to the Past’s narrative. The SNES game introduced the concept of duality to the series with its pioneering Light World/Dark World mechanic, which saw Link travel back and forth between a prosperous version of Hyrule, and a cursed one. A Link Between Worlds gives a name to this dark reflection of Hyrule — it’s called Lorule, geddit? — and a history to match it. Lorule is ruled by the raven-haired princess Hilda, whose concern for the prosperity of her people is every bit as admirable as Zelda’s (even while her methods are not.) Like Hyrule, Lorule has its own Sacred Realm, its own Triforce, and its own evil sorcerer: a Gerudo-like man named Yuga who plans to expand the ruin of Lorule across Hyrule’s beautiful borders. Using a dark magic that opens up rifts between Hyrule and Lorule and a wand that turns people into paintings, Yuga kidnaps seven Hylian sages that are the key to resurrecting an ancient evil. You’ll use these inter-dimensional fissures to guide Link back and forth between worlds, rescue the sages, and halt Yuga’s plans before they come to fruition.
Though A Link Between Worlds is built upon the same three act structure that has defined the Zelda series for decades, the rigid path to completion that Nintendo has stubbornly clung to since 1992 has been tossed aside; instead, players are treated to a much more open design philosophy, one that hearkens back to the original Legend of Zelda , which was a revelation for gamers in the 1980s. You’re no longer gated off from the most dangerous reaches of Hyrule and Lorule simply because you’re missing a specific tool that’s locked away in the basement of some dungeon; now, you can acquire pretty much every tool you need to explore within the first couple of hours of play. After a brief encounter with Yuga, you’ll be rescued by a mysterious rabbit-masked fellow named Ravio, whose only request for recompense is that you let him use your one-room house as a place of business. And what is that business, exactly? Well, Ravio’s somehow acquired all the signature tools of the adventuring trade — hook shots, magic wands, bombs and boomerangs — and he wants to rent them to you.
Okay, so it’s a goofy setup: you’re paying Ravio to squat in your home. But it’s a minor narrative hiccup compared to the convenience of having almost instant access to every item you’ll need to finish the game. There’s a catch, of course: the second you die, any items you rent will be repo’d by Ravio’s assistant, and then you’re forced to scrounge up the cash all over again to get them back. It makes for an interesting risk/reward proposition: the rental system frees you up to go pretty much anywhere you want, but you might quickly find yourself ill-equipped and regretting your decision to wander into unfamiliar territory.
Soon enough, you’re given the opportunity to buy your tools permanently, but the markup is exponential. Luckily, there are ample opportunities to load up your virtually bottomless wallet, from minigames to mini dungeons. Hyrule is absolutely brimming with things to do: you can wander for hours without ever stepping foot in a proper dungeon, playing baseball, rescuing baby Maiamai to upgrade your items, collecting heart pieces, and hunting for optional treasures, like the rare ore you’ll need to unlock your sword’s full potential. Once you do start tackling the dungeons, you’ll find your experience differs significantly depending on the order you approach them in. You might ease yourself into the quest with the relatively simple Swamp Palace, but by the time I wandered into my first Lorule dungeon, it turned out to be one of the most difficult: the Ice Ruins. It was a hell of a way to start my quest proper, with ice-covered floors and monsters constantly bumping me into bottomless pits… not something I’d recommend with a green tunic and only 5-6 hearts.
Despite the navigational frustration I experienced by starting on a dungeon that would have previously been relegated to “late game” status, the Ice Ruin’s puzzling layout forced me to master Nintendo’s newest “Zelda gimmick”: the Merge ability. Early on, you’re given a bracelet that transforms you into a living, Byzantine-style drawing of Link that can merge with walls. Besides allowing the game’s designers to build some of the most unique and inspired puzzles in series history, Merge also made me consider the top-down world from a more three dimensional perspective, and as I slipped between cracks in walls and shimmied along the edges of cliffs, I gained an even greater appreciation for the work that went into updating one of gaming’s greatest landscapes for a modern presentation.
There’s so much to love about The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. I love how fluid it feels. I love the character designs based on concept art for the original Legend of Zelda. I love the Maiamai sidequest that hearkens back to Link’s Awakening’s hidden seashells, and the not-incredibly-difficult-but-still-awesome bosses, and the simple, challenging StreetPass battles that paid for several of Ravio’s most expensive items. And I love the ending. I don’t know if A Link Between Worlds is the best Zelda game ever made, or if I’m just riding high on the wave of good feeling I’ve had since I first witnessed its familiar title screen. But I do know this: The Legend of Zelda is in better hands than it has ever been, and that’s a rare compliment for a franchise that has been so prolific for so long. It can only get better from here.
Invisible Gamer’s review of The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is based on final review code provided to us by Nintendo. The game launches on November 22nd, 2013.