Happy 35th Anniversary, Zelda! To celebrate, I thought it would be interesting to take a peek at a Zelda game that showed Nintendo in the middle of a metamorphosis.
In the mid-2010s Nintendo was transitioning from a gameplay formula they had been using and refining since A Link to the Past in 1991, where Link would progress linearly through the game, from Dungeon 1 to Dungeon 2, acquiring items and heart pieces along the way. In 2011, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was initially received with high praise; however, criticism began to mount against the game, and its rigid adherence to the Zelda formula was one of its biggest gripes. The formula as a whole had remained unchanged for 20 years, spanning across 12 games, and it was beginning to grow stale. In March 2017, Breath of the Wild went back to the series roots, borrowing many ideas from the original The Legend of Zelda‘s massive open world and nonlinear progression. Zelda would move on into a bold, new direction.
But between Skyward Sword and Breath of the Wild, there was a quirky little game that revealed the studio in the middle of its evolution. It was called, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. If Skyward Sword was Charmander, and Breath of the Wild was Charizard, then A Link Between Worlds was Charmeleon. It released on the 3DS in November of 2013. In one sense, it was a remake of the SNES classic, A Link to the Past, using the same map and overworld; however, in another sense, it was a sequel with entirely original characters, game mechanics, and dungeons.
But that’s not the only parallel at work here. If A Link to the Past was the threshold into the era of the “Linear Zelda” formula, then A Link Between Worlds was the threshold into the age of “Nonlinear Zelda.”
There’s still a loose linear progression to the game. Act One opens with a tutorial dungeon and then a small choice between the next two dungeons. But then in Act Two, any of the remaining seven dungeons can be completed in any order. Outside of a few vague clues, you are left to explore the world and discover how to progress on your own.
How does it manage to have it both ways? The answer is Ravio’s shop. Once this weirdo converts your house into a business enterprise, you can rent any number of important items for a small price. Boomerang, hookshot, ice rod, it’s all available to you right there. No two playthroughs will be exactly the same. As you explore the overworld, you can freely complete quests that allow you to reach the entrance to each dungeon; but once you get there, you’ll need one of Ravio’s items to access that specific dungeon. If you don’t have the right item, though, there’s a convenient fast travel system to remedy that.
Each dungeon’s environmental puzzles revolve around its key item, and they’re phenomenally designed. What I miss, though, is that because you don’t acquire the dungeon item in the dungeon itself, you miss out on that mid-dungeon eureka moment of, “Oh, I know where to try this item out!” Those moments are one of my favorite parts of the Classic Zelda Formula. Instead, most mid-dungeon items are general progression boosts such as a stronger shield or more stamina.
Each of Ravio’s items consume your stamina, even the arrow or bombs. You don’t actually have “ammo” for those. It’s a unique twist where you can’t ever run out of arrows, but at the same time you need to manage your item usage carefully. You have to be a bit more strategic and not just spam bombs.
But by far the most impactful gimmick of the game is the wall painting mechanic. The evil wizard Yuga, who captured the seven sages of Hyrule and seeks to bring back Ganon, transforms Link into a painting. But thankfully, a mysterious bracelet that Ravio lent Link allows him to freely break the spell and merge into walls at will. This allows Link to traverse around the dungeons in entirely new ways. Once again, Nintendo came up with an “Energizer” game mechanic that just goes and goes and goes. Every dungeon is filled to the brim with cool ideas of how to use this one feature. You might slip between jail bars, or push a ladder off its wall, or go completely around a room to an otherwise inaccessible high-up platform. And by going between specific points, Link can travel back and forth between Hyrule and Lorule, the kingdom’s more depressing-looking doppelganger.
Speaking of Lorule, this is where the typical “Save Zelda” story goes down an unfamiliar road. While you have to save the seven sages and rescue the princess, you must also traverse through Lorule, a parallel universe to Hyrule, only their Triforce was destroyed in the hope of preventing greedy men like Ganondorf from abusing it. However, the Triforce is also the source of life and structure to their world, and so Lorule is slowly decaying and crumbling. Hilda, the princess of Lorule, is an interesting foil to Zelda. This is one of the few Zelda games that actually has a plot twist I didn’t predict.
Of course, the side quests aren’t shabby, either. You have typical rupee minigames, which are made all the more relevant due to Ravio’s shop. You have treasure challenges, grottos, and hidden heart pieces everywhere. The biggest of these side quests is the hunt for Maimai’s. These little creatures give off an annoying little chirp to cue you into their location in the overworld. If you collect enough of them, then their worried mother will upgrade your items. These were the perfect little distraction to complete in-between the larger quests.
I understand now why I struggled with A Link to the Past when I replayed it on the Switch. It’s because A Link Between Worlds improved upon it in every conceivable way. The story is much more interesting, the overworld has a more cohesive design, and the mechanics are more unique. I mean, you’d hope that after 20 years Nintendo would be getting better at what they did, and that doesn’t necessarily make A Link to the Past completely irrelevant… but of all the 2D Zelda games, A Link Between Worlds may be one of the best, if not the best.
As of 2021, A Link Between Worlds remains the last original 2D Zelda. It came out almost 8 years ago. The 2019 release of Link’s Awakening is actually a remake of the 1993 Game Boy Game. I’m not sure what this means. I hope we continue to get more 2D Zelda, as there’s a certain elegance to its game design that can’t be replicated anywhere else, but 8 years is a long time. Considering we also won’t likely get a Zelda Dungeon Maker, I think the near future will only offer us more remakes. It’s a shame, as 2D Zelda can be where the Classic Zelda Formula lives on, while the 3D Zeldas move toward the Open World format. I’m fine with remakes, but there’s nothing like an original game, as Metroid Dread clearly demonstrates. I guess we can only wait and see.