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A Link Between Worlds Through the Lens of Truth

 
It’s crazy to think about how far my Lens of Truth series has come, as we are down to the last three Zelda games, and these are some that I have a lot of opinions about that don’t necessarily line up with popular belief. The next one in order is a title pretty much nobody saw coming; a new 2D game with 3D graphics? After seeing Ocarina of Time 3D make a convincing case that full 3D games can work on the Nintendo 3DS, I think many were expecting that to be the way the series went in the future, but the Big N went back to their roots in a somewhat experimental title which in many ways set the stage for Breath of the Wild’s open-air design. A Link Between Worlds had a wide variety of new and old mechanics meshed together to create one of the most unique games in the series. Let’s go deeper and see if this worked out.

Graphics

Beginning with the box art, the throwbacks to A Link to the Past are knocking on nostalgia’s door. The canvas-painting style almost feels like an Instagram filter placed over the iconic images of the past and brings them to life again. My favorite design for the titular princess before this title was that from A Link to the Past, and this reinventing of it evokes all the thoughts of playing in my childhood while simultaneously bringing something new to the table. The same is true for just about every piece of art in the game. From Link himself to the many returning enemies to the environments, it all feels like playing a freshened up remake of a classic.

This is not just apparent in the canvas-style artwork, but as well the graphical style in the game. Old foes were instilled with new life simply by transitioning from sprite art to 3D models. Meeting Hinox, Lynels, Royal Guards, and a plethora of other enemies returning really felt like playing A Link to the Past for the first time again.

Speaking more on the technical side, this was the first original handheld Zelda title to incorporate fully 3D environments and character models. Using a top-down style to present this game was a clever decision which in some ways made it feel like they weren’t there, but the extra attention to detail in these models went the extra mile to make this an immersive experience.

I wonder, however, why the game was presented top-down. While it made for great gameplay and tapped us all for nostalgia, a few years previously Ocarina of Time 3D proved that a traditional over-the-shoulder 3D game was possible on this console, and this felt somewhat like a step back. I wonder if the viewpoint had been changed if it would not have made it feel that much better. This contemplation, along with the fact Ocarina of Time 3D just seemed to smooth out textures much better, left me very slightly wanting in the graphical department. I’ll leave it with a nine out of ten. I love it, but an older game on the same console was better.

Sound

As in many other aspects, the music in this game borrowed very heavily from A Link to the Past. The overworld theme was the same, the Darkworld shared a theme with Lorule, and even the title screen was the same.

The entire soundtrack was composed by Ryo Nagamatsu, who has also worked on music for the Splatoon and Mario Kart franchises. His task to bring this game to life through music was a daunting one, especially if it was to try and live up to its spiritual predecessor. The tracks were almost exclusively updated versions of tunes from the classic SNES game.

Koji Kondo’s origial tracks were iconic enough, weren’t they? Did they need an update? Well to compete in 2013’s game market I think it certainly helped, though I do wish more new tracks had been added. I love the music but I feel that using digital music for almost the entire soundtrack held it back. The music is all beautifully composed, and brings you into the world of Hyrule and Lorule that much more. I understand the decision to not use a live orchestra was due to the technical limitations of the 3DS, however, so what they came up with mostly using synthesizers is actually quite impressive.

Objectively speaking, I can’t really knock the game too bad for working within their limits, but I stand by my point that too much was borrowed from A Link to the Past’s soundtrack. Unfortunately this pulls back the score to a nine out of ten. It kept the nostalgia going, but it got to a point where every time I entered a new area I knew what the music was going to sound like because of all those endless hours with one of my favorite childhood games.

Gameplay

There are so many things going into this game to make it unique that it is difficult to pick a starting point. Among the Zelda series, this game stands out as more of a black sheep than Adventure of Link in some ways. Really that game was only different because it was a sidescroller and featured much fewer puzzles. On the other hand, A Link Between Worlds utilized an item rental system instead of more traditional ways of finding items in a dungeon, expanded upon the open-world formula only used before in the original Legend of Zelda, reliead heavily upon the use of Link’s wall-merging mechanic in dungeons, and the canvas-painting-style of art made this game stand out in a series which oddly utilizes a different art style in literally every entry.

I guess as good a jumping-in point as any is the signature mechanic of the game; wall merging was used throughout every dungeon, and many points in the overworld for puzzle-solving, exploration, and various other oddities. One of my favorite uses for it was just to change perspective on the world and see the textures on the insides of houses, look around dungeons in a new way, and things like that in order to really see all the work that went into the detail in the world.

Other than that, it also made for a new and different puzzle mechanic than any game before had seen, and we’ve not really seen anything resembling it since. In the first few dungeons the puzzles are actually somewhat tricky to figure out until using this mechanic sets in. It takes a little bit of a learning curve from traditional Zelda design, but once it sets in it’s a very clever and useful mechanic. Slipping between cracks, treading over spaces with no actual surface, and other intuitive uses of this power really added a lot to the game, and as much of a departure as it was from tradition, it still felt like it was there to complement and enhance the Zelda-ness of the game.

Opening up the whole world at once aided this even further, though the method this game used to do so could have been improved upon. The ability to do all dungeons in any order creates a magical feeling when first playing the game and talking to other gamers who went an entirely different path. Sharing totally unique experiences and stories truly enhances the feel of the game in a way that no ingame mechanic can. In this game, however, it still felt railroaded insofar as requiring a specific item to enter every dungeon and complete the puzzles within.

The item rental system in general felt unnecessary and dampened the game experience. Comparing this game to A Link to the Past once more, entering a dungeon was always a mystery. You had to explore past strange things that you knew you could use, but didn’t know how to use them. Sooner or later, you would find the dungeon item, opening new paths by using switches that you otherwise couldn’t press down with the Cane of Somaria, using the hookshot to cross gaps, and countless other puzzles. In A Link Between Worlds, you already had the item going in and just had to see what was in front of you, and when in doubt, use the item. This cheapened the experience of finding the item and suddenly being able to go more places and do more things. Imagine if you got the airship right at the start of Final Fantasy. Wouldn’t it just feel less cool because you had it the whole time? Without the effort put into acquiring these items, they don’t feel as special.

The rest of the throwbacks to A Link to the Past put together do not equal the massive similarities between the ingame maps. I would wager that over ninety percent of the map is identical between the two games. It was a nice nostalgic trip from Link’s house to Hyrule Castle, but beyond that it felt like exploring the same world again. I had a hard time getting to dungeons fast enough because I felt like the overworld was boring. Beyond looking for hidden Maiamais there was very little to do, and it never felt like I was seeing anything new because I had been revisiting it again and again for fifteen years.

Again reusing too much from A Link to the Past brings this game down just a tad, but not quite as badly as making all the items feel less important than they should. Despite these shortcomings, the rest of the game is simply incredible, and I still rate it at a seven out of ten.

Story

As much as I’ve been complaining about the similarities to A Link to the Past, this is one aspect that sets it apart enough to make me stop thinking it’s just a clone with a graphical upgrade and different dungeons.

While many games in the series have used duality as a theme, and thereby included multiple worlds to explore, they’ve never gone as far as this game, with the possible exception of Oracle of Ages. In Ocarina of Time, the two worlds were past and future, and you could see some of how Ganondorf ruling Hyrule had affected the world, but really a few people moved to Kakariko is the only major difference. In A Link to the Past, there’s an identical world full of strange creatures that oftentimes are perversions of their forms in the Light World. Here, however, we have two worlds full of characters with their own government, drama, interactions, and though the two are still parallel, they each feel like very unique, vibrant worlds.

With their own triforce, their own recursive demon lord, princess, and hero, Lorule is just as interesting a world as Hyrule. It makes me wonder if it goes through the same strokes and has its own timeline as intricate as Hyrule, but that’s a discussion for another day. Very seldom has a game with two worlds made me feep like each one was a living, breathing environment. The only game I would say did it better would be Tales of Symohonia. The best part about this game, though, is that both worlds are meant to be parallel, but have enough differences to feel separate.

Hilda comes across as a less experienced politician than Zelda, and her idea to steal the Triforce of Hyrule really shows how desperate their situation is, but I feel like Zelda and Link would have gone about it totally differently. Ravio pushed this idea as well. He seemed like a cheapskate jerk early in the game, but in the end it came across to me as though his plan was to train up Link and get him to come save Lorule the whole time. While he wasn’t the hero we expected, he seemed to be the hero Lorule needed, even if his methods involved finding somebody else to do it.

Honestly I cannot find any major flaws in the story, so I’m gonna nail it down with a well-deserved ten out of ten. It’s not my favorite among Zelda stories, but I seriously can’t even think of a complaint.

That wraps up this Lens of Truth, leaving A Link Between Worlds with a thirty-five out of forty. That’s quite impressive, and lands it as the seventh best Zelda game on the list so far. What do you think, though? Is Zelda’s official illustration better from Wand of Gamelon? Was the top-down 2.5D style better than the gameplay style of Ocarina of Time 3D? I would love to argue for hours (or just a couple tweets) about this game series, so hit me up in the comments or on Twitter and we’ll keep the conversation on walkabout!

Current Rankings:

Oracle of Ages/Oracle of Seasons: 40/40
Ocarina of Time: 40/40
Link’s Awakening: 40/40
A Link to the Past: 39/40
Wind Waker: 39/40
Twilight Princess: 37/40
A Link Between Worlds: 35/40
Majora’s Mask: 33/40
Minish Cap: 31/40
Phantom Hourglass: 30/40
The Legend of Zelda: 30/40
Skyward Sword: 29/40
Four Swords: 28/40
Four Swords Adventures: 26/40
Spirit Tracks: 26/40
The Adventure of Link: 19/40