“And while legends come to us from the distant past, others have yet to be written…”
A Link to the Past is one of the most important video games of all time, especially in the context of its own franchise. Originally released as Triforce of the Gods in Japan, the third Legend of Zelda refined elements from its two predecessors in order to redefine the series moving forward. From pacing to storytelling to item design, A Link to the Past’s DNA flows through every subsequent Zelda. Some games are naturally subtler about where they lift their inspiration from than others, but no Zelda is as intimate with their connection to A Link to the Past as A Link Between Worlds – for better or worse.
In fact, Shigeru Miyamoto actually wanted series producer Eiji Aonuma to remake A Link to the Past in stereoscopic 3D. Per Aonuma, Miyamoto had been “challenging” him for years to make ALttP playable on the 3DS. In the same way he didn’t want to remake Ocarina of Time’s dungeons for Ura Zelda, however, Aonuma didn’t want to just remake A Link to the Past in 3D. “Simply taking a 2D game and making it 3D isn’t interesting at all,” a sentiment which demanded a stronger hook for a prospective 3DS Zelda. If Nintendo was to revisit A Link to the Past, they couldn’t rely on nostalgia alone.
While A Link Between Worlds employs numerous concepts to differentiate it from A Link to the Past, it’s most significant is Wall Merging. Through the power of Ravio’s Bracelet, Link can now transform into a painting & Merge with walls. The Merge mechanic was a concept series producer Eiji Aonuma and director Hiromasa Shikata had been toying with. According to Hyrule Encyclopedia, Aonuma came up with the idea of flattening Link into a painting after having a nightmare about the Phantom Ganon fight from Ocarina of Time (302.) In the battle, Ganondorf travels around the arena by warping through and between paintings. In A Link Between Worlds, Link can flatten himself to slide across walls or squeeze in-between cracks.
Wall Merging manipulates your in-game perspective to present gameplay otherwise impossible in a top-down Zelda. The mechanic is seamlessly integrated into Link’s skill set. Just press the ‘A’ button while pressing against a wall and Link will Merge. Gameplay shifts to a 2D plane (think the relationship between overworld traversal & combat in Zelda II) where Link moves exclusively on an x-axis. Link stays at the height he entered the wall at, giving positioning an important role – especially inside of dungeons and on the overworld. Merging fundamentally changes how you can approach exploration, layering most areas with subtle secrets and shortcuts.
Getting to Zora’s Domain for the first time requires Merging into a nearby wall to cross over water Link can’t swim through yet. This early encounter teaches you to circumvent bridges entirely, turning “dead ends” into an opportunity to explore more of Hyrule. Similarly, Link hikes up Death Mountain for the first time during a volcanic eruption. Boulders are often too fast to dodge by running, but that’s what Wall Merging is for. Link can quickly avoid damage by Merging into walls. Not only does Dodge Merging consequently allow enemies to behave aggressively, it’s outright necessary in some boss fights.
Link unlocks Wall Merging after defeating Yuga for the first time in the Eastern Palace. You’re locked inside of the boss room at the end of the dungeon, with the only way out a crack in the wall. By Merging, you can slide out of the dungeon and start exploring its exterior. The last stretch of the Eastern Palace serves as a trial by fire for Merging, forcing players to understand the mechanic’s limitations before they can fully experiment with it. Trap Floors slide in & out of the outer walls – which would normally send Link plummeting to his death – but he can Merge with the walls to buy some time while the Floors come back out.
While Merging is a core part of ALBW’s gameplay loop, it’s not a mechanic that can be abused. Merging drains the Energy Meter, making each second you are walled in valuable. You can Merge just about anywhere, but you need to be mindful of how long. Likewise, it’s important to Merge strategically and gauge how far you need to travel. Sometimes you will not have enough Energy to make the trip, others you will have just enough if you Merge at the right spot. If you Merge with the first thing you see in the Eastern Palace, you won’t have enough energy to stay a painting. When the Energy Meter is fully drained, Link’s Merge breaks and he needs to wait while the meter recharges.
Energy regenerates automatically, but you can find Energy Potions inside dungeons (usually by set-pieces where you’ll be walking through walls for a while). Notably, the Energy Meter isn’t just tied to Merging but replaces Magic, Stamina, and ammunition wholesale. Whether it be firing the Bow, dropping a Bomb, or just throwing the Boomerang, every action Link takes with an item now drains Energy. This not only discourages spamming, the fact Energy recharges on its own means that players are actually encouraged to regularly use items in combat. Without needing to worry about Magic when casting the Fire Rod or how many Arrows you have left, gameplay becomes more dynamic. There’s more you can realistically do at any given moment.
“It’s been a big point of discussion among the staff – how much fan service to give without blowing it.”
– Eiji Aonuma
In spite of A Link Between Worlds’ obvious source of inspiration, there was a conscious effort not to overdo references or pull too much from A Link to the Past. Hyrule Encyclopedia even notes “If it can be changed, it is okay to change it” was an explicit direction given to the staff. A Link Between Worlds is very much its own beast, but it invites unfavorable comparisons by premise alone. A Link to the Past opened in the middle of a rainstorm after detailing the events of a war Hyrule barely won. Link storms Hyrule Castle to break Princess Zelda out of her prison, setting a classically epic tone for the rest of the game.
A Link Between Worlds’ is slow and in the spirit of a modern Zelda: a quiet introduction to Link’s world and the Hyrule around him. There are no enemies to fight, no Uncle dying in vain to rescue the Princess, and no conceivable threat in sight. ALttP grabs the audience’s attention immediately, while ALBW takes its time to build to an inciting incident. The full scope of the narrative makes it clear that emphasis is being placed on framing Hyrule as a peaceful kingdom. This detail becomes especially important with the introduction of Lorule later on, but such a modern opening sticks out like a sore thumb in a game styling itself as A Link to the Past 2.
A Link to the Past’s Hyrule being more or less recreated 1:1 with its SNES counterpart does make it easy to write off A Link Between Worlds as derivative, but the development team used inspiration to their advantage. The benefit of familiarity allows innovation to stand out prominently. Merging would be an impressive mechanic in an entirely original Zelda, but the fact it shows you a new side of ALttP’s world recontextualizes gameplay in a way that’s only possible in a direct sequel.
This philosophy can be best seen at play within the dungeon design. Director Hiromasa Shikata (sub-director of Twilight Princess) misremembered being able to do A Link to the Past’s dungeons in any order, “When it was time to make this game, I had the vague idea that in A Link to the Past, you could clear multiple dungeons in parallel. But when I played the game again, that wasn’t very true.” With the exception of the first, fourth, and final dungeons, A Link Between Worlds lets players save the world at their own pace and in just about any order.
So much focus on non-linearity calls back to the freedom flowing through the original Legend of Zelda, but not without its own quirks. How Link obtains items has been redefined in a radical way. Dungeon Items no longer exist as they once did, now replaced with optional treasure that’s not required to beat the game. Instead, players rent out equipment from Ravio – a Lorulian who makes himself at home in your house shortly after the start of the game. Ravio rents out all equipment that would otherwise be found inside of dungeons, fundamentally changing a core part of Zelda’s gameplay loop. You now need key items before entering dungeons.
More than that, rented items are revoked upon death. Game Overs carry a greater consequence now, especially during the early goings. Ravio will eventually offer items for purchase, but not until you’ve collected all three Pendants of Virtue. Buying an item is also considerably more expensive than just renting. The average item is rented out for 50 Rupees, but sells for a staggering 800. The tradeoff, however, is that owned items don’t get taken back after dying. Having access to every major item right out the gate bolsters exploration as well.
The Item Rental system lets you find nearly every Heart Piece in Hyrule before stepping foot in the second dungeon. As for the second dungeon, you actually have two options after clearing the Eastern Palace: either rent the Hammer and tackle the Tower of Hera or rent the Tornado Rod and head for the House of Gales. Regardless of what players choose, both do an excellent job at introducing audiences to A Link Between Worlds’ unique dungeon design.
“This time, knowing that we could use stereoscopic 3D, we tried putting in ideas making use of height, which we hadn’t tried before.”
– Eiji Aonuma
Much like with A Link to the Past, the Tower of Hera’s main gimmick is verticality. With the benefit of stereoscopic 3D, however, dungeons can play up a greater sense of scale while experimenting with height based puzzles or exploration. The new Tower of Hera’s main item is the Hammer, but in a way it’s never been implemented before. While Link is still expected to Hammer down switches as normal, they actually bounce back up after a set amount of time. You’re meant to Hammer down these switches and jump off them to progress higher up into the Tower.
If you drop down a hole, you don’t lose a Heart & respawn where you fell off, but land where you realistically should. This is a detail A Link to the Past’s Tower of Hera implemented, but its revision is on another scale entirely. You can still see the floors below you as you ascend the Tower of Hera, a constant reminder of where you are inside. Several Jump Platforms move automatically, requiring you to time Hammer strikes accordingly – otherwise, Link misses his target. This is a vertically three-dimensional dungeon in a 2D Zelda.
House of Gales doesn’t strive for the same heights as the Tower of Hera, but it does do a good job at showing off the variety of options players have at their disposal. The main item is the Tornado Rod. Link shoots himself straight up into the air, allowing him to ride gusts of wind. The Rod can put out fires, dizzy surrounding enemies, and a well-timed jump lets Link land on any moving platforms above him. While most puzzles focus on the Tornado Rod itself, there are several out of the way switches to hit but no one item you need to use. Three different players can rent the Boomerang, Bow, or Bombs respectively and all get through the dungeon as “intended.”
The Tower of Hera and House of Gales are compelling dungeons in their own right, but they’re just a taste of the main game. Hyrule Castle serves as A Link Between Worlds’ turning point, dividing the narrative into before and after. Up to this point, ALBW has played out like a more story-focused version of ALttP. The seven sages are all proper characters who Link meets prior to saving, while Yuga – the plot’s Agahnim stand-in – makes regular appearances early on. Yuga shares similarities in character design with Ganondorf, but the two are worlds apart.
Where Ganondorf has a commanding presence that’s naturally intimidating, Yuga borders on unsettling. He has a loud, flamboyant personality but Yuga’s inability to listen to reason while maintaining their composure makes for a particularly chilling exchange when he confronts Princess Zelda. His magic plays into body horror, capable of twisting people into seemingly sentient paintings. Yuga’s also surprisingly proactive. While Link is collecting Pendants of Virtue inside dungeons, Yuga is quietly kidnapping Sages all around Hyrule.
Just like in A Link to the Past, Zelda is in immediate danger the moment Link pulls out the Master Sword. Unlike the dungeons before it, Hyrule Castle is combat-centric and throws a number of enemies at Link. Merging isn’t a core mechanic here, but Hearts and Rupees have been painted onto the walls so it does get some use. The fact Hyrule Castle can let Merging take a backseat shows that ALBW isn’t using the mechanic as a crutch – keeping it from becoming a gimmick.
Swordplay is comparatively quite simple to the likes of The Minish Cap and even the DS duology, but a smooth 60 frames per seconds keeps gameplay fluid and fast-paced. Enemies tend to rush Link on sight, even parrying strikes that aren’t positioned correctly. Nothing ever deals enough damage to be a major threat on a normal playthrough, but the aggression keeps combat tense. The Castle also acts as the perfect opportunity to play around with Link’s items. Each rentable item has combat utility, so pick your favorites and march towards Princess Zelda.
The presentation is especially top-notch. Even though it’s a 2D Zelda, A Link Between Worlds makes some of the best use of stereoscopic 3D on the 3DS. Models pop like something out of a picture book and playing on real hardware feels like looking at a living diorama. Inside the castle, staircases start to fade into the background as Link ascends to Zelda’s chambers, blurring and showcasing just how high up you are. Outside, you can see most of Hyrule down below, from trees in the distance to the waters of Lake Hylia – a reminder of the kingdom you need to save.
Hyrule Castle is light on puzzles, but the stakes are high and a rematch with Yuga has been building for hours. during their fight, Yuga leads Link into Lorule where he summons Ganon. Before Yuga can use the Triforce of Power to finish off Link, Princess Hilda seals the beast and rescues him. Zelda’s double, Hilda tasks Link with awakening the Triforce of Courage – their only means of stopping Yuga now that he’s possessed Ganon. Hyrule’s Sages have been scattered throughout Lorule’s dungeons, beckoning Link to a dystopia that puts the actual Dark World to shame.
“Welcome to Lorule. My name is Princess Hilda, and I have failed you in every way.”
Lorule is Hyrule’s shadow, a kingdom long since abandoned by any light. Lorule is explicitly not the Dark World from A Link to the Past, but its own unique setting. While the two worlds do resemble one another, Lorule’s actual dungeons are uniquely designed and most geographical similarities are superficial. There are also notable changes, like Death Mountain caught in a perpetual winter and Turtle Rock where the Ice Palace should be. Treating Lorule like the Dark World isn’t possible, a fact ALBW tries to make clear each time you enter a new region.
Princess Hilda formally introduces Link to each new province he visits, offering insight into her ruined kingdom. The citizens of the Dark Palace are former Lorulian soldiers who now worship the Gemesaur King, a fact Hilda takes personal responsibility for. Lorule’s Graveyard used to be a holy land comparable to Hyrule’s Sanctuary and Skull Woods are home to nothing but death. The only safe haven left in Lorule is Thieves’ Town, where a Masked Elder slowly builds his cult over the course of the story. The rest of the country is either overrun with monsters or crumbling away in decay. Any survivors outside of Thieves’ Town tend to be hostile on sight. Lorule is an explicitly dystopian setting.
Lorule is also where A Link Between Worlds truly comes into its own. From the moment Hilda welcomes Link into her kingdom, players can either dive right into dungeoneering without any interruptions or explore almost all of Hyrule. It’s possible to obtain all but three Heart Pieces before entering a single Lorulean dungeon, allowing the rest of the game to be pure dungeon crawling. Not that there aren’t other side quests to distract players, though. The sheer amount of content you’re given access to in Lorule is staggering. Doubly so considering how immediately available everything is.
Unlike Hyrule, most of Lorule’s natural geography plays off the Merge mechanic. The kingdom is falling apart at the seams, resulting in multiple crevices and a distinct lack of bridges. Glowing Fissures between Hyrule & Lorule, however, allow Link to Merge between the two worlds. By Merging through a Fissure in Hyrule, Link walks into Lorule and vice versa. Most Fissures offer access to otherwise inaccessible areas. The fact Lorule is so disconnected means players need to rely on Hyrule’s Fissures to explore, keeping the main kingdom an active part of the gameplay loop in the second half. The relationship between Hyrule and Lorule makes for one of the most creative dual worlds in the series.
Between finding lost Maiamais, hunting the legendary Golden Bee, and rampaging through the Treacherous Tower, A Link Between Worlds isn’t lacking in side content. There’s always something to find in either Hyrule or Lorule and always something to do, but it’s worth pointing out the distinct lack of items to find. A Link to the Past’s best hidden secrets were pieces of equipment, some of which even necessary for progression. Finding the Ice Rod is far more exciting than just renting it. The nature of Ravio’s Shop also means items like the Bombos or Ether Medallion have no place. They aren’t traditional dungeon items, so Ravio naturally wouldn’t sell them.
For what it’s worth, A Link Between Worlds makes up for its lack of unlockable items with a proper upgrade system. Mother Maiamai is a giant octopus/snail from another dimension who’s lost her 100 children between Hyrule and Lorule. There are exactly 50 lost Maiamai across both kingdoms, with Mother Maiamai rewarding Link an item upgrade for every 10 babies he rescues (on the condition that Link actually owns the item.) While finding 100 small Maiamai might seem like an ordeal, the map actually keeps track of how many are left in each province, counting down for both Hyrule and Lorule.
Mother Maiamai’s upgrades aren’t just linear buffs in strength, they actually change how items play. The Nice Bow fires three arrows instead of one, downplaying the need for precise aiming. The Nice Bomb is utterly massive with a comparable blast radius. The Nice Fire Rod shoots out a flaming tower that hits enemies multiple times. Once all 100 Maiamai have been found, Link’s Spin Attack even gets upgraded. Not only does the Great Spin deal extra damage, it has an enormous reach that’s especially useful inside of dungeons and during boss fights.
“I have welcomed you to Lorule, but my kingdom…? It ISN’T so welcoming to strangers.”
The first seven dungeons in Lorule can be done in just about any order. Thieves’ Hideout has to be completed before the Desert Palace and Lorule Castle is always last, but there are no restrictions otherwise. This makes progression in A Link Between Worlds refreshingly freeform for Zelda. There’s no set first dungeon or clear order to go through. Where Link starts and how he goes about Lorule is entirely at your discretion. While that alone is enough to carry the experience, Lorule’s dungeons are all impressively built.
Merging naturally influences the level design to feature unconventional architecture that requires critical thinking to traverse around. The Titan’s Mitts inside of the Desert Palace are tucked away in a corner Link can’t reach normally. There are no bridges in sight and nowhere to Merge from at the right height. To actually get to the chest, you have to Merge at a wall from halfway across the room after creating a makeshift bridge with the Sand Rod. Any other Zelda would let you walk up to the Big Chest after solving the room’s puzzle, but A Link Between Worlds makes just getting to chests a puzzle in and of itself.
Lorule’s Swamp Palace makes inventive use of the Hookshot by pairing it up with Merging. Hookshot Panels are attached to walls with no flooring underneath, but you can Merge the moment Link smashes into the paneling. It’s a clever take on Hookshot traversal and a great means of incorporating Merging into a preexisting mechanic. Even without Merging, the Swamp Palace has no shortage of creative uses for the Hookshot – from riding a raft over by shooting wooden posts to pulling levels from afar to raise or lower the water level inside.
Along with the Swamp Palace, the Ice Ruins and Turtle Rock stand out as particularly innovative dungeons. The former is a six floor dungeon with height based puzzles designed around the Fire Rod. You need to melt ice to find keys, clear a path from across the room, or light torches you can’t physically reach. The Ice Ruins also feature a central elevator running through all six floors, allowing you to see & interact with any floors downbelow. A door is locked by an unlit torch on B3 that you can only light by casting the Fire Rod from B2, lending the dungeon a sense of verticality that’s rarely seen (even in 3D Zelda.)
Turtle Rock has you using the Ice Rod to freeze lava into temporary walkways. Lava geysers can be frozen into pillars that Link can Merge onto, allowing him to explore the dungeon’s walls and reach new rooms. See-saw platforms can be locked into place with the Ice Rod, connecting to higher walls players can Merge with or simply serving as bridges. More than most dungeons in The Legend of Zelda, ALBW’s Turtle Rock calls for players to examine and understand the level design around them to progress.
Lorule has a strong set of consistently high quality dungeons, but they all share the same glaring flaw: the difficulty curve, or lack thereof. Since any dungeon can be done in any order, there’s no scaling. Enemies don’t start hitting harder, tougher variants aren’t introduced, and Lorulian bosses need to be designed so they’re never too overwhelming to be a player’s first. Puzzles and combat are still engaging, but Zelda veterans won’t be struggling on a normal playthrough.
Lorule’s bosses may be easy but they’re at least memorable. Since most items deal damage, you’re free to fight with whatever you’re comfortable with. Bosses typically don’t have set weaknesses, allowing for a wide range of combat variety. Stalblind is a notable standout. The boss will block all of Link’s attacks head on, but you can actually Merge onto his shield – distracting Stalblind long enough for you to get some hits in. The Knucklemaster is also explicitly designed with multiple approaches in mind. It has a homing attack you can either dodge by Merging into the arena’s walls or countering with the Tornado Rod.
The final dungeon is the only meaningful spike in difficulty between entering Lorule for the first time and the literal end of the game. After rescuing all seven of Hyrule’s Sages, the Triforce of Courage finally manifests in Link and he marches towards Lorule Castle to stop Yuga. Hilda’s ruined palace is easily the best dungeon in A Link Between Worlds and one of the better finales in Zelda. Puzzles build off concepts introduced in previous dungeons, leading to gameplay payoff that’s missing without a proper difficulty curve.
Lorule Castle itself is split into four key sections: one primarily based on Merging, one focused on using Bombs, another designed around the Hookshot, and the last on the Lantern. These final rooms test your observational skills, reflexes, and general understanding of the core mechanics. Most set pieces are based on preexisting puzzles in-game, but always with a twist. The Dark Palace features invisible mazes that can only be seen in total darkness, while the Lantern Room sets a mini-boss in a similar arena. Skull Woods has a few puzzles designed around tricking Wallmasters into breaking structures above Link, a concept utilized extensively in the Hookshot room – both for tension and practical use.
Lorule Castle’s music only gets louder as you ascend, each floor building to an epic confrontation. The music starts to dull as Link reaches Hilda’s chambers, however, drowned out by the howling wind and rumbling thunder. Before the final battle, Hilda reveals that Lorule once had its own Triforce. Where Hyrule worships the Triforce as a divine icon, the people of Lorule destroyed their Triforce. Its temptation too great, Lorule believed the world would be better off without the Triforce. In reality, the kingdom was unwittingly sentenced to a slow death.
As sympathetic as Lorule’s backstory is, it’s immediately undercut by the revelation that Hilda has orchestrated everything. Yuga was never sealed, Hilda was never in any danger, and Link rescuing the Sages plays right into the Princess’ plan. Upon learning that Hyrule had its own Triforce, Hilda and Yuga devised a plan to steal away the Triforce for Lorule – effectively swapping the kingdoms’ fates. In spite of Hilda’s villainy, the final battle is bittersweet. She really has no choice but to risk Hyrule for Lorule’s survival; and Link has no choice but to stop her.
“We all deserve a happy ending, don’t we?”
Unlike the Zelda games of its era, A Link Between Worlds’ story isn’t in your face. The opening half hour lends the impression that there will be a fair amount of plot, but it doesn’t take long for the storytelling to take a backseat. This isn’t to say the narrative is lacking, though. ALBW’s simplicity is elegant and it manages to comment on the nature of the franchise’s iconography & atmosphere in a meaningful manner. Lorule and the upside down Triforce aren’t just cute inversions of series staples, they’re a means of highlighting what defines The Legend of Zelda narratively: rich lore and the undying inspiration of heroism.
More importantly, A Link Between Worlds uses classic framing to twist classic tropes. The fact the game lifts so heavily from A Link to the Past suggests it’ll be business as usual, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Princess Hilda’s motivations are fueled by Hyrule’s history with the Triforce, her coveting the same holy relic that’s saved the day so many times before. Everything she does is rooted in manipulating what’s expected of a Zelda game. Ganon is revived yet again, but this time as a literal puppet whose body is desecrated by Yuga. The opening establishes Hyrule as a kingdom that’s already saved, with Lorule a dystopia bordering on apocalyptic. Lorule’s isn’t just a dark reflection of Hyrule, but a kingdom that’s lost all semblance of hope.
While counterparts to the franchise’s iconic trio, Yuga, Ravio, and Hilda are three of the series’ most multidimensional characters. Hilda deserves particular praise for being such a nuanced villain. She’s a leader who’s been pushed to her last resort. Princess Hilda is a manipulative extremist who will do anything for her country, even if it means condemning Hyrule to Lorule’s fate. She has Yuga kidnap the Sages to summon Ganon and steal his Triforce of Power; steals Zelda’s Triforce of Wisdom once she’s become a painting; and forces Link into becoming a hero of prophecy so she can have all three parts of the Triforce. Hilda’s not traditionally evil, though, and has an understandable motivation that even Zelda herself is empathetic towards.
Link’s double, Ravio is a talkative coward who flees to Hyrule so he can find a hero that can actually stop Hilda and Yuga. He didn’t have the courage to confront Hilda himself, but he was smart enough to give Link his bracelet and sell him all the equipment he needs to save the worlds. Inspired by Link come the end of the story, Ravio musters up the courage to finally return to Lorule and Hilda – forcing her to realize that what she’s done is no different than the countless wars waged over Lorule’s Triforce. Ravio makes Hilda recognize that saving Lorule by sentencing Hyrule to death is worse than just letting their kingdom die.
Yuga is a personal advisor to the Lorule Royal Family, using crafty deception to unite the Triforce in his favor instead of raw power like Ganondorf. He plays along with Hilda just long enough to steal the Triforce of Wisdom before Link ultimately slays him without fanfare. Where Ganondorf always gets a climactic death, Yuga has no choice but to concede to Hilda. Unlike Zelda’s relationship with Ganon, Hilda lacks the wisdom to recognize that Yuga is using her just as much as she’s using him – resulting in her losing the Triforce of Wisdom and having to be rescued by Link. The fact Hilda’s never fought at all is also worth noting. She doesn’t crave power or carry out a demon king’s bidding, Hilda just wants to save her people at the end of the world.
For all her suffering, Princess Hilda does eventually get her happy ending. After defeating Yuga, Link and Zelda make a wish on Hyrule’s Triforce to restore Lorule’s, shining light on the kingdom for the first time in ages. Everyone deserves a happy ending, a sentiment Link & Zelda come to share after seeing how much Hilda has struggled. The fact the story is so simple up until the last act not only helps recontextualize the entire game, it makes for an incredibly memorable conclusion that’s enthralling from top to bottom. For a story (intentionally) lacking in major character beats, ALBW closes out with incredible character work.
A Link Between Worlds feels like a classic 90s Zelda with all the bells and whistles of a modern game – which goes for more than just story. There’s no partner character yapping in your ear, cutscenes only trigger when absolutely necessary, and an emphasis on pure gameplay that would make Skyward Sword blush. Item rental, non-linear dungeon progression, and two intimately connected overworlds offer immense replay value. No two playthroughs will ever be alike, making it easy to rush into yet another after the credits roll. Best of all, the fast pacing makes ALBW one of the best pick up & play games on the 3DS (a quality very few entries in the series can lay claim to.)
It’s easy to look at A Link Between Worlds and ask “is it better than A Link to the Past?” but they’re fundamentally different games – as paradoxical that may sound. A Link to the Past’s framing isn’t used as cheap fan service, but built upon thoughtfully. A Link Between Worlds is the ideal sequel, taking everything that was great about its predecessor while carving out a wholly unique identity. It’s the kind of game that only works because it’s a direct sequel. Hilda, Ravio, Yuga, item rental, Merging, and nonlinear dungeons would stand out in any Zelda, but they carry more weight in A Link to the Past’s successor. Frankly, it’s a level of confidence the series slowly lost after The Wind Waker.
A Link Between Worlds is The Legend of Zelda in its purest form: stunningly creative, subtly self referential, and ambitious to the point of neglecting long term design consequences. Most importantly, Triforce of the Gods 2 never settles for just being what’s expected from A Link to the Past 2. “If it can be changed, it is okay to change it” flies in the face of “don’t fix what isn’t broken,” but it prevents derivative design – a fatal flaw that risks popping up in any decades long franchise. The Legend of Zelda is at its best when it takes chances and pushes for innovation. ALBW redefines what a sequel can or should be. Few games stand to gain anything from drawing direct comparison to A Link to the Past, but A Link Between Worlds invokes the masterpiece with nothing but grace.