People love to get on Nintendo for offering the same games over and over again. Such people are, of course, morons but the idea that Nintendo has nothing new to offer is depressingly prevalent. No matter that they make some of the most polished, original games one the market, if they have Mario on the cover you can safely write it off as just another platformer. Which makes the overwhelmingly positive reaction that The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds has received more than a little puzzling. Not that the game isn’t excellent, it absolutely is, but because it is Nintendo’s most blatant mining of its own past.
A Link Between Worlds doesn’t try to hide this. It is unapologetically a follow up to A Link to the Past, one of the two most popular entries in a long running popular series. It uses the same world map, the same enemies and same look for the world of Hyrule. Most of the tools are the same as well. It absolutely drops the player down in the same world. Nintendo has used this trick before, Twilight Princess‘s world is reminiscent of Ocarina of Times‘s world, but it is far from an exact match. It is expanded and more detailed. ALBW’s world is not expanded from the original at all. It is simply the same.
Where the massive praise comes from is the change in structure the game features. One of the immutable rules of the Zelda series is that the player receives new weapons or tools in the dungeons. Usually the exact one needed to beat that dungeon or to reach the next one. After the first few dungeons, ALBW throws that out. You get your tools by renting, then buying them from the traveling salesman who has invaded Link’s home and set up shop. This lets the second half, more really, of the game be completely open. The player is free to tackle the dungeons in any order. While there is certainly a preferred order, an easier order, it is absolutely not forced on the player.
This contrasts with the last Zelda game, Skyward Sword for the Wii. While I was and am a big fan of that game, player freedom was not high on its list of objectives. The player was often forced down the one path available and if there was any confusion, the ever present Fi would forcibly point the player in the right direction. It was a good game despite that, but its hand holding greatly annoyed many people. So Nintendo fixed that.
ALBW is easily the most open Zelda game since the original. It respects the player. Unlike the vast majority of games these days it lets players find their way their own. There are hints to be found but never are they forced on the player. It is surprisingly refreshing. It is just easy to play. By the time I had but two hours in on this game, I had a full complement of tools and was ready to solve any puzzle and find any secret.
It helps that the game plays buttery smooth. Link speeds through the world. Everything moves effortlessly at a lightning pace. Trying to play, for instance, Oracle of Seasons after playing this shows just how pokey those old handheld games were. The graphics may be in an ugly style, they try too hard to echo LttP’s look, but they are well composed. And the music is par for the series as far as excellence goes.
A Link Between Worlds really highlights the best of Nintendo. It shows players the past and why Nintendo was great, then does something completely new for the series. The past is a framework that colors players expectations. It is a familiar backdrop for Nintendo to experiment with. Creating a freeform Zelda in a new version of Hyrule is more risky than exploding long held gameplay conceits in the guise of a sequel to what is maybe the most popular game in the series. Between this and Super Mario 3D World, Nintendo has shown that they still have the magic that made their golden reputation.