I still remember the very first Legend of Zelda game I ever played. A Link to the Past, back in the early nineties, was one of the most beloved games on my Super Nintendo Entertainment System (I say “one of” – The Secret of Evermore was also right up there), and I spent countless hours engrossed in its teeming minutiae. The land of Hyrule seemed absolutely huge back then; though really just a series of top-down panels joined together, to a child it appeared epic in scale, from the peaks of Death Mountain to the depths of the Lost Woods, from Kakariko Village to the waters of Zora’s Domain (where I shelled out five hundred rupees to King Zora for a measly pair of flippers, that slippery bastard).
And then there was the Dark World, Hyrule’s twisted reflection, and the fiendish puzzle of jumping between them at the right time and place to find the way forward. I even remember some of the dungeons – the Tower of Hera, with that frustrating burger-faced caterpillar boss that could knock you off the platform and force you to hike two storeys back to the top, or the Palace of Darkness, with Steel-Mask Armadillo Thing. (They probably had actual names – I have no intention of checking.)
I’m astonished actually, that even now, twenty years later, and since the release of a dozen or more Legend of Zelda games, that my recollection of A Link to the Past is so vivid and intense. Perhaps that’s where the seeds of my nostalgia were planted. Maybe that’s where the roots of my gamerhood began.
So last week, when I booted up the latest instalment in the series, A Link Between Worlds, on my new 3DS, and saw Link step outside his house into that very same Hyrule ripped straight out of my childhood, it was nothing short of surreal. The game world doesn’t just reference many of the same locales as the original – it’s a complete, painstaking recreation of A Link to the Past’s overworld. Every rock and tree, every signpost, temple and hidden cave has been faithfully rendered with astonishing attention to detail.
The game does feature an original story – well, original enough. It’s textbook Zelda, and fans of the series will be entirely familiar with the premise. The land of Hyrule is home to the sacred Triforce, a divine relic that grants the heart’s desire of anyone who touches it yadda yadda yadda. Basically, it’s catnip for evil wizards. Trick is, the Triforce has a habit of splitting into three pieces, Power, Wisdom and Courage, that then embed themselves in a tyrant named Ganon, a princess named Zelda and a six-year-old boy named Link. Battle ensues.
In the original A Link to the Past, Ganon was awakened by a wizard named Aghanim, who captured seven sages and sealed them away in the Dark World to complete his summoning ritual. This time around, it’s a much campier wizard named Yuga doing the summoning; he has an obsession with beautiful girls and, more specifically, transforming them into paintings with his fabulous rainbow staff. It’s an odd fetish, but there you are.
Link pursues him from temple to temple as he captures sages and renders them on canvas, until he finally blasts the boy with black magic and turns him into a wall sketch. And that’s where A Link Between World’s most unusual new mechanic presents itself.
Thanks to a magic bracelet, Link finds himself with the ability to merge into walls as a two-dimensional crayon drawing. As a sketch, he can walk horizontally around dungeon walls, cliff faces and other surfaces, which leads to a number of really cleverly designed puzzles; portrait Link can slip through tiny cracks or prison bars, and ledges that appear completely removed from each other may in fact be traversable through a connecting wall.
While Hyrule’s overworld is the same, the dungeons themselves have been noticeably reworked, both to incorporate Link’s new wall-crawling ability (a little Spiderman reference just for you, Jess) and to make them a little more distinct from each other. Each dungeon retains its essential theme, though – the Skull Woods temple still has a dozen different concealed entrances, and the Thieves’ Hideout still requires you to rescue a girl from her cell and escort her to safety. She doesn’t turn into a head-spinning demon this time around, but you can’t have everything.
Even some of the old bosses make their return; yes, the burger-faced caterpillar and Steel-Mask Armadillo Thing both make cameos, though the latter has a few new tricks up his sleeve.
Though it was strange at first, I really enjoyed the wall-crawling mechanic. It adds a whole new element of spacial awareness, especially in dungeons, where I would find myself running my eyes around the walls to find potential pathways or hidden rupees. Zelda games do this sort of thing so well – taking the same fundamental formula and adding a different twist every time. Maybe Link turns into a wolf. Instead of a horse, maybe he rides a flying bird, a sailboat or a train. Maybe he’s a cartoon or an impressionist artwork or medieval graffiti. Every Link is a different Link, and yet they are all reassuringly familiar in garb and purpose.
A Link Between Worlds’ other new mechanic, however, I wasn’t so keen on. Unlike the very linear dungeon progression of most other Zelda games, Link can here tackle the dungeons in any order he pleases; rather than acquire his items in a particular order, he can rent or buy them at any time from a travelling merchant named Ravio, who invites himself to stay in Link’s house and then has it turned into a makeshift emporium.
The idea of tackling dungeons in any order is not at all a bad one, but until you have enough rupees to buy your gear permanently, you’re forced to rent them – and whenever you die and reach Game Over, Ravio sends his obnoxious bird to collect. Though this only happened to me a couple of times, it was absolutely infuriating to have to cough up the rental fee to get back the items I needed. It seemed, at times, like the system was only in place to give some real value to the rupees I was collecting, but when you’re the Hero of Courage, paying off your crazy loan shark isn’t the noblest endeavour.
Still, once you have the scratch to buy your own bombs and magic staves, it’s enormously liberating to be able to explore every nook and cranny in the game world, searching for heart pieces and maiamai (little whistling marine creatures that get themselves stuck in the darndest places).
Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series has always been steeped heavily in nostalgia. It’s interesting, really, that most of Link’s adventures involve some degree of time travel; his constant alternations between the past, present and future are more a reflection of the games themselves, their ability to explore new gameplay mechanics and wildly differing art styles while remaining defiantly rooted to the same fundamental formula established more than twenty years ago.
Many contemporary Xbox and Playstation titles might be labelled as derivative for feeding on themselves like this, but with Zelda, it’s all part of the charm. More than that – it’s vitally and intrinsically part of the experience. There’s just no Hyrule without a Triforce, without a Master Sword, without Ganon or Gorons or Zeldas or Zoras. This is a series that celebrates its own heritage, loudly and unashamedly.
A Link Between Worlds is simply the next inevitable extension of this. It’s a love letter to one of the first and greatest Zelda games, and an homage to the golden era of console video gaming. It’s also an extremely enjoyable adventure in its own right – those of you who’ve never played A Link to the Past will still find plenty to keep you entertained. But this is quite clearly a game designed to evoke the past. One of the very first things you see in Link’s house when he wakes up is Majora’s Mask, just hanging on the wall. And there is quite literally a mini-game that requires you to dodge enraged cuckoos.
Those of you who still recall these moments fondly will get so much more out of playing A Link Between Worlds. If nostalgia is your drug of choice, this stuff is pure uncut Nicaraguan.