"A Link to the Past may have set the bar for Zelda games past and present, but A Link Between Worlds is a new pinnacle for future entries to aspire to."
Nintendo made waves with their announcement that the first original Legend of Zelda game for the 3DS would be a follow-up to the immensely successful and widely-acclaimed Link to the Past for the SNES. Crafting a sequel to one of the most highly praised games of all time is a tall order, and it would have been easy for Nintendo to cash in on nostalgia and release a lazy paint-by-numbers retread that had Link running around immensely similar dungeons. Fortunately, A Link Between Worlds brings together just the right amount of nostalgia and new ideas to create one of the best entries to the Zelda franchise.
The plot starts out in a fairly generic fashion: Link, an apprentice to a blacksmith, is tasked with returning Hyrule's knight captain's sword to him, and in the process of doing so discovers that the Kingdom of Hyrule has been invaded by a villain by the name of Yuga who has turned various individuals, including the kingdom's beloved Princess Zelda, into paintings. Link himself is turned into an illustration of himself, but escapes his fate at as an exhibition piece at an avant garde art gallery by way of a mysterious bracelet given to him by the equally mysterious Ravio, who has taken up residence in Link's house. Link then embarks on a journey to save Hyrule from the dark machinations of Yuga. While the beginning of the story is straightforward, a few revelations at the end of the game make the journey worthwhile, and is undoubtedly something Zelda fans will want to witness.
The graphics are some of the best the 3DS has to offer. At first glance, they're not that impressive, and taken at face value, they still aren't. While the visuals are very colorful and detailed, and the isometric viewpoint is perfectly done, there are examples of greater technical achievements on the system, and the art direction, while a satisfying medium between Twilight Princess realism and Wind Waker cartoonishness, won't turn any heads. The game-changer, however, is the 3D effects. A Link Between Worlds offers some of the best 3D effects on the 3DS, and it's the first game that I played with 3D enabled from start to finish. The shifting perspectives of multi-floored dungeons and the way Link seemingly jumps out of the screen when he is tossed into the air are incredibly impressive. This, coupled with the consistently smooth 60 FPS framerate makes A Link Between Worlds a feast for the eyes.
The musical prowess of the game is not to be understated either, as it stands on even ground with the graphics in terms of quality. I never thought I'd get excited about the soundtrack in a Zelda game again, but A Link Between Worlds remixes the music from its prequel into some excellent tracks while also sporting new compositions that fit with the themed dungeons they are paired with. The music is near flawless, with resplendent renditions of the classic Hyrule/Lorule themes being of particular note.
A Link Between world's aesthetic prowess would be a waste of effort if the gameplay didn't measure up, and Nintendo has eschewed the linear progression methods of more recent Zeldas in favor of a more open gameplay style. Instead of finding items in dungeons, Link now has access to almost all the items in the game near the beginning of his journey. The merchant Ravio, in addition to giving Link a bracelet that allows him to change into a painting at will, also rents and sells items for Link to use. Any items Link has merely rented are returned to the shop when he falls in battle. The items include mainstays such as the Hookshot as well as more extravagant gear like the Tornado Rod. The items all draw from a shared magic meter, which becomes a double edged sword where the player is concerned: there's no worry that one will run out of arrows or bombs, but a shared magic meter means that sometimes Link has to wait around for his magic to recharge before going back to solving the puzzle at hand.
While this means that puzzles almost never require more than one item, the trade-off is that the player can now pick and choose the order to complete the dungeons in. This can make for incredibly challenging affairs, as some dungeons have enemies that are much tougher than those found in the others, and going to them early makes for a very challenging ordeal. The downside to such a system is that there is very little incentive to buy the items for Link to keep, and some items seem downright useless; I don't think I used the boomerang a single time in my entire playthrough. The dungeons themselves are fairly brief, taking anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to complete, and are filled with incredibly clever puzzles and boss fights that make excellent use of Link's ability to turn himself into a painting on the wall, each ending with boss encounters that range from fondly nostalgic to downright thrilling.
For those who played A Link to the Past, some of the joy of exploration — one of the highlights of any Zelda title — has been dulled a bit, since this is a direct followup to that game and takes place in a noticeably similar Hyrule, but the kingdom is different enough that going off the beaten path yields some nice rewards and great satisfaction. A sidequest that involves saving a squid's progeny and delivering them to her is addictive, and the upgrades that are given to Link's items as a reward are very nice to have. Heart pieces and extra equipment can, as always, be found in a variety of locations, and some involve puzzles and tasks that can be mindbogglingly difficult.
A Link Between Worlds may look like a rehash of Zeldas past, but make no mistake: for every step it takes into nostalgia, it leaps into new territory with incredible grace. The item rental system, brilliant dungeon design, magnificent aesthetics, and amazing 3D effects all contribute to create one of the most best Zelda games I've ever played. A Link to the Past may have set the bar for Zelda games past and present, but A Link Between Worlds is a new pinnacle for future entries to aspire to.