Review by HailToTheGun

"The Missing Link"

There's a special kind of feeling reserved for games that fill you with a sense of pure joy. It isn't nostalgia or excitement. It's not surprise, or satisfaction, or even success. It's hope. Hope for the future. Hope that because such a game exists, there can and will be more like it. In the early 90s, way before I was even old enough to realize what I was feeling, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past instilled that sense of hope. It was only upon replaying it many years later that I understood just how important that game was, not just for its time, but for the history of the gaming industry. Seven years after the release of A Link to the Past, Nintendo recaptured that magic with Ocarina of Time, a game many have justifiably hailed as the greatest of all time. And finally, more than a decade later, Nintendo has achieved the coveted hat trick.

Nintendo is a creature of habit. They are more than content with sticking to a formula that works; though, as they have proven time and again, when push comes to shove, they can tweak their golden ticket ever so slightly and produce a superb game. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is not just the most recent example of this, but it's also one of the best. For years one of the biggest complaints about Zelda games was their simplification – their linearity. More than this, the games disrespected players by not trusting in their ability to play, let alone understand what they were playing. Even the holy grail that is Ocarina of Time fumbles in the case of Navi, the obnoxious fairy constantly telling you what to do or where to go.

I can count the number of times A Link Between Worlds tells the player where to go on one hand, and most of it near the beginning and end of the game. What this entry does is it allows the player to simply play: to explore and to experience the magic of what made the Zelda games so endearing in the first place. Veterans of A Link to the Past will find themselves right at home in the colorful, modernized version of Hyrule, while even newcomers to this beloved franchise will experience what it means to have hope.

Set six generations after the events of its predecessor, Worlds drops players off right in the midst of the current incarnation of the Hero of Hyrule apprenticing at the local blacksmith. Tasked with delivering a sword to a knight who dutifully left town without it, Link's adventure is soon set on course to, as usual, rescue Hyrule's princess, Zelda. To differentiate itself from A Link to the Past, and to avoid being simply a retread of that game's blueprint, Worlds introduces Lorule, an alternate version of the Hyrulian Kingdom set in a much darker, more sinister world. In it, the landscape may be vaguely familiar, but the dungeons and enemies therein are far more intimidating than any Zelda game in recent memory.

Worlds features some of the most ingenious and clever puzzle designs seen across all of Nintendo's library, and introduces them in a way that may seem daunting or overwhelming at first , but quickly becomes liberating. Once the game's action picks up, players have the ability to rent all of Link's trusty gadgets: from the faithful bow, boomerang, and bomb, to the iconic ice and fire rod, and even some new additions. All of these items are available at a reasonable price, something many people will be able to afford quite quickly as the game is very liberal with its rupees. But more than just making you feel like a legendary warrior within the first hour, having access to all of these items also means that you can attempt any dungeon in any order you wish, finally giving you a sense of freedom that Zelda games have been sorely lacking.

Finding the, dare I say it, “best” order to tackle these dungeons in is entirely up to you, and you can in fact choose to only rent one or two of the items out at a time as a sort've self-restriction. However, should you fall in combat, all of those items are returned to the shop and you need to rent them again. Diligent and cautious players could very well make it through the whole game on rented items alone, but doing so would deprive you some of their extremely handy upgrades. Purchasing an item in full – which becomes available at a later point in the game – not only secures that item in your stock upon death, but allows you to upgrade it into a more powerful version. Not without some temporary charge, of course: the character who performs the upgrades has lost her missing children – all 100 of them. Finding them within both worlds and reuniting parent-and-child allows you to upgrade a single item for every 10 returned.

Among the game's other means of self-improvement are the various pieces of special treasure you can find throughout the dungeons, some in the form of actual gear upgrades, others as master ore used to enhance the properties of the master sword, and most importantly of all, heart pieces. Most of the heart pieces are scattered about between both worlds, but some of them can only be won from the various mini-games littered about. A few of them are actually quite entertaining, if a bit simple. Rupee Rush is a genuine treat where the only obstacle is yourself, and the Cucco Ranch chicken dodging game is a terrific throwback for fans of A Link to the Past; on the other hand, the Octoball Derby feels largely based on chance, even if your timing is perfect.

But where's the shtick? What's the gimmick? Every Zelda game has one, and Worlds is no different. Incorporating the game's two-dimensional roots with a bit of tongue-and-cheek, Link is able to flatten himself like a painting to nearly any surface and move along a horizontal space in either direction. This adds a geometrical presence to the game creating a new level of depth – pun intended – to puzzles, and even some boss fights. It's also undeniably adorable to look at a flat, painted Link with that glazed-over expression on his face. Past's world transitions exceptionally well to the 3DS hardware, creating a vibrant and colorful environment when in Hyrule and a musky, washed out world in Lorule. The game's soundtrack combines an assortment of previous arrangements and new compositions to give new life to the familiar sounds of this tale forever told.

A Link Between Worlds isn't just an outstanding modernization of a classic, but it's a reinvigoration for the series as a whole – a landmark title, like Ocarina and Past were before it – that will become a milestone and blueprint for the future of Zelda games to come. A sense of openness combined with calculated changes to a proven formula make A Link Between Worlds one of the best games in the longstanding franchise. It isn't perfect, and the nostalgia wears thin early on, but all of that is soon forgotten once you start delving into the game's brilliant dungeons and uncovering the mystery behind Lorule's destruction.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 12/03/13, Updated 12/04/13

Game Release: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (US, 11/22/13)

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