A Link Between Worlds is both sequel and spiritual successor to classic SNES RPG The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Released in 2013 to critical acclaim and commercial success, Link Between Worlds is remarkable for recreating the magical world of Link to the Past while also refreshing the Zelda formula and making the game accessible to contemporary audiences. I’ve put off playing it for a long time, having become somewhat jaded by Zelda games over the years, but I’m delighted to have finally given it a go: for Link Between Worlds is a joyful experience, a game bursting with charm and invention.
Most Zelda games have but obscure connections to each other, but Link Between Worlds is set in the same gameworld as its illustrious forebear, several generations in the future. It’s 20 years since I played Link to the Past, so it was a nostalgic experience to see the same places, and hear the same tunes. Fortunately, this game is more than a trip down memory lane, as new gameplay mechanics make for a very different experience. Although the basic format is the same – Link sets off on a quest to save Hyrule and rescue Zelda – the pace of the game is somewhat different. This is helped by the fact that, for the most part, you’re allowed to tackle dungeons in whatever order you prefer: some areas remain inaccessible without certain items, but the game’s item-gating system isn’t as rigid as in other Zelda games. Moreover, there are quite a lot of sidequests and minigames, which help during those times when you’re not quite sure what to do next. Link Between Worlds achieves what most games can only dream of, effectively eliminating frustration or tedium while still creating an engaging, rewarding and rich adventure.
There are significant quality of life improvements in this game’s mechanics that reflect the way we expect our games to play these days. I always disliked that Zelda games made you level up your wallet several times so you could hold more rupees, meaning every rupee you collected over your limited capacity would go to waste. That’s no longer an issue, and it’s surprisingly liberating to see your rupee count rise in the early game. You’ll need that cash, though, because another new mechanic is the item rental system. A helpful character allows you to acquire iconic weapons like the Boomerang, Hookshot and Bow very early on… for a price. You can rent them for a few dozen rupees, but if you die, you lose them and have to rent them again. Alternatively, you can buy them outright for a (much) higher price. You still get items in dungeons, but the rental system is a welcome, and much-needed, change to the traditional Zelda formula.
I was also very pleased to find that Link Between Worlds has a, shall we say, forgiving difficulty level. The older I get, the more I dislike it when games force me to waste my time grinding for levels or experience; and I’m also not a fan of the modern trend towards ever-longer playtimes, with many RPGs now exceeding 80 or even 100 hours. Sometimes, that investment is worth it (Witcher 3), but most of the time it’s spurious. Many classic games managed to do more with less: Mass Effect was 40 hours; Super Metroid was about ten. It probably takes about 15-20 hours to finish Link Between Worlds’ story, and I actually completed it without dying a single time – although it got pretty close with the last boss. The game’s challenge was fine, and I don’t think I would have enjoyed it more had it been more difficult. Once you complete the game, you unlock ‘Hero Mode’, which makes enemies do four times the damage, and which I imagine makes the item rental system much more interesting. It makes the prospect of a second playthrough quite enticing. For now, I’m just pleased to be able to chalk off a game from my backlog.
Link Between Worlds is a charming game, and even if you’re unfamiliar with previous Zeldas, you can’t fail to be impressed by the colourful graphics and the brilliant soundtrack. The script is surprisingly funny, and I was really quite impresed by the localization – the humour is more pervasive and effective than I remember associating with the franchise. The story is fine, with a couple of interesting twists on the classic Zelda formula, but I don’t think people particularly expect (or want) incomprehensible plots or lurid sex and violence from a game like this. Sometimes, a bit of good clean fun is just what the doctor ordered.
Of course, people do expect great puzzles from a Zelda game, and Link Between Worlds doesn’t disappoint. The game’s major innovation is Link’s ability to turn himself into a painting (seriously), which allows him to move along walls as a two-dimensional mural. This allows for some ingenious scenarios, and it’s an exhilirating feeling to figure things out; but at the same time, there are hint ghosts who you can ask for help in most situations if you don’t know what to do. It’s yet another way the game makes it easier for you to enjoy yourself, without getting bogged down running in circles, as happens so often in other Japanese RPGs.
I loved Ocarina of Time, but I lost interest in the Zelda franchise for about 15 years afterwards: it felt like the formula had been perfected and, to me, subsequent entries in the franchise felt like pale, redundant imitations. (Of course, it didnt help that Twilight Princess was delayed by years and was a massive disappointment when it came out). In hindsight, following the spectacular success of Breath of the Wild, it feels a bit like Link Between Worlds was a step towards re-imagining this revered and iconic series so that it could once again become vital and relevant to modern audiences.