I haven't enjoyed a game in The Legend of Zelda franchise this much in more than 20 years.
Yes, I am one of those Legend of Zelda fans – the ones who steadfastly maintain that the pinnacle of the series, despite all the advances of the past two decades, is a 2D sprite-based game for a 16-bit game console.
It's not that games like The Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask and The Wind Waker aren't excellent games – masterpieces, even. I'm playing through the HD remake of Wind Waker right now, and I'm having a wonderful time. It's just that The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for the Super Nintendo was perfect.
No camera issues to worry about. No wrestling with moving in a 3D space. The visuals were crisp, clean and colorful. The world was large, but not so much that travel became a chore. Gameplay was challenging, but never frustrating. Perfect.
I tried to embrace 3D Zelda games, purchasing and playing them as they were released. I enjoyed them for a time, but that time was growing shorter and shorter with each successive title, to the point where Skyward Sword is still sitting on my shelf, wrapper intact.
When Nintendo announced the next portable installment of the series would be a sequel to A Link to the Past for the 3DS, I was incredibly excited, but also wary. I've been playing portable Zelda games for ages, and while many came close to scratching that Link to the Past itch, most were too busy showing everyone how clever they were to fully satisfy. Look, Link can shrink! Now he's on a train! Now he can turn into a painting and walk between worlds! Just give me a game that's essentially A Link to the Past updated with modern aesthetics and features, and I'll be happy.
That's where I was when I started playing A Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, and now I'm very, very happy indeed.
This is the happiest of homecomings, returning to this particular slice of Hyrule after so many years. In a way it's just as I remembered it — it's as if Nintendo painted over the original sights and sounds with a thick coat of dreamy nostalgia. The remixed music is gorgeous. 3D graphics add new life and depth to familiar scenery and creatures. Everything is so familiar, yet so much more refined. If this were simply a remake of A Link to the Past, as originally planned, I would have been supremely satisfied.
This is no remake, as familiar as it may be. Six generations have passed since the events of the 1991 game, and a new hero rises. Well, as new a hero as the series gets — he's still a young lad wearing a green tabard and pointy hat who may or may not be named Link, but that's just a coincidence, I'm sure.
This new Link has new problems to deal with as well. A villain named Yuga has invaded Hyrule, using the unique ability to transform living beings into impressionist art to capture the Seven Sages, who happen to be the ones responsible for keeping an ancient evil in check. In order to save his world, Link must journey to the mysterious land of Lorule (really?), where Princess Zelda's sultry dark-haired doppleganger Hilda holds sway.
Okay, so it's a bit formulaic. After his initial trials in the land of Hyrule, Link travels to a different-yet-similar world, where he has to do at least seven things, which likely means at least seven dungeons to delve. What's different in A Link Between Worlds is how Link approaches these challenges: however he wants.
After years spent being led about by the nose from objective to objective, A Link Between Worlds drops some marks on the map and leaves us to our own devices. "Go explore" it says. "The Seven Sages? They aren't going anywhere. Have you tried the Rupee gathering mini-game?" It's almost too much freedom for the die-hard Zelda fan to handle.
We own this new-found freedom to a little rabbit-hatted guy named Ravio. Used to be we'd go to a dungeon, find a special piece of equipment, and then use that equipment to open up the next one. Ravio, a wandering merchant, decides Link's home would make a great shop, and puts everything he needs to complete his tasks up for sale or rent.
Need a hookshot to cross a ravine? He'll rent you one for 80 rupees, with just one catch — if you die, he's taking it back. It's all incredibly convenient, at least until you come across one of the game's rare challenging boss fights. After two or three trips home — even with the welcome addition of a checkpoint-based fast-travel system — you'll become Link, destroyer of bushes, on a quest to gather the 800 rupees needed to buy the damn thing outright.
I wouldn't worry about combat and boss fights too much, especially if you're a veteran of the franchise. The refreshingly nonlinear quest structure keeps the game's core dungeons at a relatively even difficulty level, at least as far as combat is concerned. There's the odd challenging boss fight, but overall fighting is a breeze.
That doesn't mean there's no challenge in A Link Between Worlds. It's just a much more cerebral challenge. More so than any other, this is the thinking person's Zelda game.
Link's newfound ability to transform himself into a mobile painting on nearly any flat surface is used to tremendous effect. Moving side-to-side along surfaces adds an extra dimension to both dungeon puzzles and general exploration, one I still found myself overlooking some 15 hours in, poised at the brink of the game's final confrontation. You have to think differently. Too many times I banged my head against a particular problem for long periods, only to realize a simple shift into Painting Link was all I needed.
It can get frustrating, but it's all part of the joy of a game that sets you free and doesn't hold your hand. You can explore and experiment to your heart's content in A Link Between Worlds, and the game will never judge. There are no pop-ups telling you how to use a weapon or how to approach a particular problem. There is a help system in place — Hint Ghosts only seen through special glasses linger near difficult problems, prepared to give advice in exchange for Play Coins — but you never have to put those glasses on. It's your quest. Complete it as you will.
While firmly rooted in the past, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is the most progressive game the franchise has seen in ages. It breaks the standard formula in so many wonderful ways, while draped in familiar trappings to ease the transition for long-time fans. It's a new way to play Zelda, and it's so much more satisfying than the same thing only in 3D.