Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Link to the Past Between Worlds - Review

A Link to the Past is one of my favorite Zelda games (second only to Majora's Mask), so it should seem only natural that I'd be excited to return to the Hyrule I spent so much time in as a kid. But when Nintendo first announced The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, their quasi-sequel to ALTTP set in the same world and featuring the same top-down gameplay, I was a little skeptical. It seemed to me like it had the potential to be just a cheap, gimmicky, nostalgia-based cash grab that might even put the legacy of the original game to shame.

Imagine my surprise when A Link Between Worlds turned out to be one of the best Zelda games I've played in the past decade.

With the exception of Link's Awakening, I've had a difficult time getting into any of the handheld Zelda games. I've played each and every one of them, but always got bored, lost interest, and stalled out before ever completing them. I basically stopped considering them part of the main series and stopped caring. A Link Between Worlds is the first handheld Zelda game I've actually finished since Link's Awakening, which says a lot in and of itself, but even compared to the console games, it's the most fun I've had playing a Zelda game since Majora's Mask.

The first thing that must be said about ALBW is that it's deliberately meant to be a nostalgia trip for fans of the series. The most obvious, of course, is how basically everything from ALTTP is referenced in the new game -- the title screen even plays the same music and animation that opened ALTTP. But besides that, you see numerous other references to other Zelda games; paintings on walls of Makar and Link's pajamas from Wind Waker, Majora's Mask on Link's wall, Dampe the gravekeeper from Ocarina of Time, the Chamber of the Sages platform from OOT, house music from OOT, the three pendants all have the icons from Oracle of Ages, as well as countless other smaller images and bits of dialogue. 

It's kind of weird, actually, how much of ALBW's imagery and lore seems retroactively inspired by OOT, considering that OOT was basically an adaptation of ALTTP. Not that it matters, but it's interesting to note the circularity of these games' development.

With A Link Between Worlds, a large part of its appeal is simply returning to the Hyrule established in A Link to the Past. We've all replayed some of our favorite games hoping to relive childhood memories; playing ALBW is just like that, with the thrill of visiting that same world again and recognizing familiar landscapes, except brought to life once again with fresh visuals and various gameplay upgrades, all while retaining the same look and feel of the original. At the same time, there's a ton of new content and certain areas (such as the interiors of dungeons) are a little different, allowing you to take the stroll down memory lane while still being treated to fresh, new sights.

Link's house in the dark world.

In terms of the story, ALBW is not that great, at least not at the start. It's basically a carbon copy of the story from ALTTP, which was repeated almost verbatim in OOT, except featuring a sorcerer named Yuga instead of Aghanim. Both kidnap the princess Zelda and attempt to resurrect Ganon, requiring Link to acquire three special items in order to claim the Master Sword before mounting an attack on the castle and being transported to an alternate world where has to rescue seven people before facing Ganon in the alternate world.

The story is not that original, but it doesn't really need to be, especially since it's deliberately trying to recreate that feeling of playing ALTTP. Zelda games have been recycling the same basic story premises ever since the original, so it should come as no surprise here. I'll admit I was a little disappointed when I realized it was just the same damn thing all over again, but once I got into the gameplay I really didn't care. That said, the story picks up a bit at the end with a few unique, somewhat unexpected twists that helped make the overall experience still feel fresh and original, while still channeling the original spirit of ALTTP.

The only real downside to ALBW's story is that its main antagonist, Yuga, is about as flat as the portraits he paints. Granted, Aghanim was pretty bland and uninteresting, but in the 20+ years since ALTTP and all the various incarnations of this series' canon story, any time Nintendo introduces a new villain is a great opportunity to spice things up, and Yuga comes off feeling like another missed opportunity. Years down the road I won't have any fond memories of Yuga and probably won't even be able to remember his name. It would've been nice to see him a little bit more involved in the story to make him more unique or at least more memorable than his role as "generic, obligatory plot device."

Mechanically, ALBW is virtually identical to ALTTP, except with a few modernizations on the classic formula. A Link Between Worlds has now added a dedicated button for blocking with your shield, which functions as a toggle and locks Link facing in his current direction, making his shield much more useful than in ALTTP. You can now also fire arrows and the hookshot in diagonal directions, making it much easier to hit your intended targets. Using the plus pad, you can pan the camera to see areas further off-screen. Otherwise, the controls and perspectives are all the same and the formula of going into dungeons to solve puzzles, collect keys, and to defeat a boss before collecting a heart container all remains the same.

Merging with a wall as a painting to fit between the bars.

The unique gameplay mechanic in ALBW is Link's newfound ability to turn himself into a two-dimensional painting, merging himself onto the flat space of walls to navigate through small crevices and around platform-less walls. The idea doesn't seem all that worthwhile at first, but it gets used in some interesting ways throughout the game, such as merging with a wall to avoid damage from an oncoming obstacle, emerging from behind a tight space to knock something else off the wall, and primarily, navigating moving platforms. What had me appreciating this mechanic most of all is how it promotes exploration, with lots of ledges and hidden areas requiring you to take clever advantage of the portrait mode to see or reach areas you ordinarily wouldn't.

It's also fun just to see the perspective shifts when merging into a wall, of going from the top-down angle to the head-on side angle in portrait mode. Some of the puzzles rely specifically on taking advantage of this change in perspective to find hidden areas. But what disappoints me about this portrait mode is how the game waits until the absolute final boss battle to introduce any kind of extra actions that can be performed while in portrait mode -- throughout the whole game you just use it to do the same basic things over and over again with a handful of novel twists in specific dungeons, but there's no real evolution in the gameplay until the final moments. That made the final boss fight dramatically more interesting, but it felt a little too late to be introducing one of the more interesting mechanics in the game.

The other unique twist on gameplay is the inclusion of a merchant named Ravio who rents out all of Link's staple items like the bow, bombs, boomerang, hookshot, and so on. This merchant is available right after you finish the introduction sequence and his entire stock (minus the Sand Rod) is available essentially from the very beginning of the game. With Ravio, you can spend 50 rupees to rent each items indefinitely on the condition that if you fall in battle, he reclaims the items and you have to rent them out again. Alternatively, if you save up enough rupees (800-1200) you can permanently buy each item from him.

Ravio's shop set up in Link's house.

I was very skeptical of this renting system at first; after all, it's long been customary to acquire each new item from a dungeon and use the new item to defeat the dungeon's boss. Getting a fancy new item was a large part of the fun in venturing into a new dungeon, and I worried that having access to all of Link's main tools from the start of the game would detract from the sense of discovery along the way. As I discovered, this renting system is one of the very reasons that ALBW was such a compelling experience for me.

Ever since Ocarina of Time, the Zelda games adopted a gameplay strategy of forced linearity in a simulated open world. At the start of each game you're presented with big, open spaces and the promise of an entire world at your fingertips to explore, but then you're forced down the game's pre-determined path since everywhere is blocked by arbitrary "lock and key puzzles" preventing you from going anywhere but along the path of the main questline. You can't visit Death Mountain until you get the letter from Zelda; you can't visit Zora's Domain until you get the bombs from Death Mountain; and so on. You're expected to do things in a certain order and have no choice but to be dragged by the nose along the game's intended path.

With ALBW, you're given a completely open world to explore with all of the tools necessary to explore it, right from the very beginning of the game. Just as the original Legend of Zelda established, ALBW is all about exploration and having the freedom to discover things on your own, to sequence-break and to complete dungeons in whatever order you want. There are no obnoxious companion characters telling you every little thing to do at every step of the way and there are relatively few restrictions on what you can do at any time in the game. It's all about your own agency, figuring things out for yourself and carving your own way through the game's world and story, and that's such a refreshing feature that's been lacking in the series for a long time.

Cutting down shrubs to collect rupees. Classic.

With all of Link's main tools being available from Ravio's shop, I was worried that clearing out dungeons would feel less rewarding, but there are still good rewards to be found within dungeons which makes thorough exploration still very much worthwhile. Instead of finding a new piece of equipment within dungeons, you now find various types of upgrades that improve your performance -- the Hylian shield that lets you block magic attacks, an enhanced magic meter, Master Ore for tempering the Master Sword, blue and red tunics for taking reduced damage, the upgraded power glove for lifting large boulders, and so on.

Outside of the dungeons, you still need to explore and complete various tasks to acquire the rest of Link's equipment. A shield must be purchased from a shop in town; the flippers that allow you to swim have to be obtained from the zora; the power glove that lets you pick up rocks has to be obtained from the ore miner; the pegasus boots can be obtained from the fast thief in town; bottles can be earned from various locations. These things are all required at various points in the game, but the game doesn't tell you explicitly when or where; it's all up to you to discover things and put two-and-two together on your own. With the constant presence of valuable mini-games, heart pieces, treasure hunting challenges, NPCs, and equipment to find, there's always something worthwhile to discover.

Besides actual equipment, ALBW also features a gold skulltula-esque 100-item collect-a-thon in the form of Mother Maiamai and her 100 lost children. Scattered throughout the light and dark overworlds are hidden octopus-like hermit crabs, requiring careful observation and the correct items to collect. For every 10 of these that you find, you can permanently upgrade one of your purchased items from Ravio, such as making the bow shoot three arrows at once in a narrow wedge pattern, or increasing the bomb's blast radius. As compared to the gold skulltula rewards, it's actually worthwhile to collect the Maiamai babies and further contributes to that feeling of growth and progression as you work your way through the game.

The octorok baseball mini-game.

Ravio's equipment also features the return of the magic meter, with every one of his items using a portion of your mana supply with each and every use. Throwing the boomerang uses only a small amount, but dropping a bomb uses a larger portion. The meter slowly regenerates after a few seconds of inactivity. At first I thought it was kind of lame that firing the bow no longer used consumable arrows, but I'd been missing the magic meter ever since its disappearance in Twilight Princess and was glad to have it back. The magic meter still limits how much you can use your items, but the auto-regen helps mitigate time spent cutting grass or smashing pots looking for arrows or bombs, so it's an all-around a nice feature.

The main complaint I have ALBW is that its "dark world," named Lorule this time around, is not quite as interesting as the dark world from ALTTP. The premise is that Lorule is a fully alternate version of Hyrule that's being physically ripped apart since its ancestors decided to destroy their own Triforce to prevent war over its possession. Princess Hilda (the alternate version of Zelda) asks you to help save her realm, and so you travel between the two worlds via tiny fissures in the walls of Hyrule and vice versa. As a consequence of the devastation, areas within Lorule are often detached from one another and completely isolated, requiring that you return to Hyrule in search of a fissure elsewhere in the world to access the uncharted areas of Lorule.

One of the fissures in the dark world.

My issue with this system is that it detracts from Lorule's sense of presence when it doesn't exist as a persistent landscape; it feels like less of an actual world because it's so disjointed, instead feeling like isolated zones dedicated to each of the seven main dungeons. Furthermore, with fixed points for traversing between the two worlds, you lose the unique gameplay mechanic from ALTTP of using the Magic Mirror to switch between worlds wherever you stand. It was a lot of fun to observe the similarities and differences between the two worlds, to find a suspicious arrangement of rocks in one and to position yourself so that when you used the Magic Mirror, you'd reach an inaccessible spot in the other world. That whole element is completely missing in ALBW, and it's a little disappointing feeling so restricted in that regard.

The dungeons also don't feel as involved or as complex as dungeons from past Zelda games. For whatever reason, they feel a bit smaller than I'm used to seeing, and it was a bit surprising how quickly I worked my way through the seven dungeons of the dark world -- a task that I remember taking much more time in ALTTP (granted, that may have been entirely because I was a kid at the time). Either way, the dungeons do a serviceable job of implementing the usual tropes and mechanics we've come to expect, and a few even have some unique gimmicks going on which keeps them interesting enough even in their relative simplicity.

A Link Between Worlds feels like a classic Zelda game to me in terms of its openness and its emphasis on player-driven exploration and discovery. Those are qualities that have been lacking in the series for a long time and it felt great to finally be given that kind of freedom once again. It was also a pure nostalgia treat to return to the Hyrule of A Link to the Past, seeing all of its familiar locales done up in fresh new visuals with all the other changes as well. It's the most fun I've had playing a Zelda game since Majora's Mask, and if you don't own a 3DS, it's almost worth the cost just to play A Link Between Worlds.

With all of the effort Nintendo has put into the likes of remaking Ocarina of Time with "Master Quest" dungeons and creating the quasi A Link to the Past sequel, it makes me really crave some kind of similar treatment to Majora's Mask. You hear me Nintendo? Make it happen.

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