The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds poses an interesting question: Can you make a sequel to one of the greatest games ever made, 22 years after the fact? Make no mistake, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is an ur-game. Every Zelda title since has pretty much been a remake or remix of it. A Link Between Worlds appears to take that idea to its logical conclusion by actually remaking the Super Nintendo classic, in so far that it re-uses the original overworld of A Link to the Past, and by mixing in new dungeons, abilities, and blobby 3D graphics as opposed to crisp 2D sprites.
It’s an interesting experiment, one that promises to shake up the stagnating Zelda formula by reintroducing non-linearity to dungeon completion and opening up special items like the Hookshot to players immediately via an item shop. While these compelling (or damning) features weren’t available in the New York Comic Con demo I tried, I got a good feel for how A Link Between Worlds controls and how a smidgen of its overworld and dungeon design feels in this new 3DS title.
The demo engaged me immediately. I started out in front of Link’s house, just like in A Link to the Past, prompting beads of nostalgia to pelt me in the back of my brain. While wandering around the familiar environs, I switched items on the fly on the bottom screen, something I’ve wanted to do in a portable Zelda for a long time. It felt satisfying. And swift! The speed of the game impressed me most. Link hits fast and hard, and familiar enemies like the Hyrule knights and Mini-Moldorm worms zip all over to try to get you. Link’s sword attacks (his energy beam returns) feel speedy too. Hitting the familiar blue orb switches causes blue walls to quickly rise and fall. The overall fast-paced nature of everything feels like a perfect fit for a handheld game.
I guided Link through A Link to the Past‘s Hyrule while passing shrubs, stones and bridges that haven’t moved an inch since 1992. While I’m thrilled my favorite game of the series is getting a renaissance of sorts, I hope A Link Between Worlds offers plenty more new material. I got a hints of “the new” with the “living painting” ability that allows Link to mosey up to a wall and meld into it, turning him into a drawing that moves along the wall’s surface to get to otherwise out of reach spots. I tried a little bit of this in the nooks and crannies outside of the East Palace, gathering hearts and hidden rupees, but it wasn’t until I entered the dungeon when I had to really consider its uses.
In fact, the demo dungeon stumped me for a bit until I toyed with the new “phase into walls” ability. The challenge to surmount 13 floors of the vertically-designed dungeon was, well, challenging. Using various floating blocks and windows, I used the painting-phase move to get as high as floor ten before the demo timed out on me. I wanted to replay immediately, but figured I should wait for the full release to prevent Zelda Fatigue from setting in. If the rest of the dungeons are this well designed A Link Between Worlds could avoid recent complaints that the series has been too easy and “hand-holdy” for the past several entries.
The graphics, another point of contention among fans (and myself for a while) look excellent up close. They’re colorful, round and expressive. The 3D effect, when turned on, appeared blurry for me most of the time, but mileage may vary. I still got a good sense of the depth and elevation of the demo dungeon with the 3D slider on at a low setting.
The one thing that worries me most about A Link Between Worlds wasn’t in the demo, and that’s the new item shop we’ve been hearing about. You can buy items and attempt dungeons in a non-linear fashion… but purchasing major items seems like a killjoy somewhat. Discovering new things and trying them out as you found them was a big deal in previous Zelda games, including A Link to the Past. It seems like an odd choice to fix the linearity problem the series has had for the past decade this way.
We’ll see how these new tweaks to the formula pan out November 22nd.