From the day it was announced, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds has been weighed down by nearly insurmountable expectations. It is a direct sequel to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, the game that defined most of what we expect from a Zelda game. Now, almost ten years after its release, A Link Between Worlds is compared not only to its predecessor but also to its successor, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which expands on some of A Link Between Worlds‘ gameplay experiments. But even burdened with the weight of two all-time greats, A Link Between Worlds provides an experience you will not find in any other Zelda game.
The comparisons to A Link to the Past are immediate and inevitable. A Link Between Worlds begins with Link asleep in a house located in the same place as the previous game. You then immediately travel to the Kakariko Village blacksmith, also in the same location, and then to the Sanctuary and then Hyrule Castle. One glance at your map, which is always displayed on the bottom screen of the 3DS, and anyone with even a passing familiarity with A Link to the Past will realize that this game takes place in the same world as its predecessor.
And that isn’t a bad thing. Seeing the same world again delighted me. A Link to the Past was one of my first video games, and exploring its familiar locations brought to life on new hardware still makes me smile, even after several replays. However, the familiar world can sometimes make A Link Between Worlds feel more like a remake than a new game. Remakes always have more expectations thrust upon them by fans of the original releases, and I have sometimes felt the same way about A Link Between Worlds even knowing it is a sequel rather than a remake.
Even though it takes you to familiar places, the story of A Link Between Worlds quickly deviates from A Link to the Past. Storytelling in Zelda has come a long way since 1991, and A Link Between Worlds spends the first few hours introducing characters that will continue to play a role throughout the game. Some characters initially seem to be designed for one side quest or to give an in-universe explanation for a game mechanic, but then unexpectedly play a larger role in the story. That story spans two worlds and includes big surprises and heartfelt moments. I am not exaggerating in saying that the ending always makes me tear up — and not just because the game is over and I want another dungeon.
From the beginning, it is clear that Hyrule is not a place that Link is visiting; it is a place where he lives. Unusually for a Zelda game, many characters already know Link and recognize him as the blacksmith’s apprentice. The same cannot be said of the characters in the second world you visit. Access to Lorule is unlocked as the story progresses. Lorule fills the same role as the Dark World in A Link to the Past. Link is a stranger to the townsfolk of Lorule, and they treat him as such.
Lorule is an alternate, darker version of Hyrule that, unlike A Link to the Past‘s Dark World, you travel to at set points in the overworld. In A Link to the Past, the Magic Mirror allows you to leave the Dark World at any time to reach new areas in the Light World. A Link Between Worlds takes a different approach. Lorule is divided into distinct areas. You access each area by finding a portal in the corresponding area in Hyrule. There are still some puzzles that require switching back and forth between the two worlds, but they are strictly limited to specific scenarios and designed to showcase another key feature of A Link Between Worlds: Merging.
If you know anything about A Link Between Worlds, it is probably that Link can walk on walls. The wall merging ability, simply called Merge, is the primary new puzzle-solving and exploration mechanic of A Link Between Worlds. It allows you to walk up to any flat vertical surface, flatten Link into the wall as a drawing, and then walk left or right along the wall to reach new areas.
Merging is used to reach portals to Lorule and to traverse all the areas of the two overworlds. Nearly every side quest requires extensive use of Merging, and if you are ever stuck in a dungeon a good rule of thumb is “have you tried Merging?” Merging lets you explore the outside walls of dungeons, find hidden back doors to houses, and dodge enemy attacks. It’s an ability that rewards clever players; you will feel smart every time you find a hidden treasure by walking along a random wall or jumping out of a wall at the right moment.
A lot of those hidden treasures are chests full of money and for good reason. In another departure from the rest of the series, all of the key items are purchased from a shop. You won’t find the Hookshot in a fancy chest halfway through the dungeon; you’ll find it in a shop near the beginning of the game.
Early in your adventure, you meet Ravio, a man wearing an awesome purple bunny outfit, and he sets up a shop inside your house. Initially, he only offers to rent items out to you. His entire stock is available from the very beginning, so if you have the cash, you can rent out all of your favorite classic Zelda items from the get-go. But there’s a catch: if you die, Ravio’s bird-like friend Sheerow will take back all of the items you rented, forcing you to pay to rent them again.
Eventually, Ravio offers to let you buy items permanently, so losing all of your items when you die is mostly a concern for the first third of the game. But having access to all of these key items means that, with a few exceptions, the entire world is open to you. If you find a place you cannot reach, it’s usually not because you need to progress further through the story. Instead, you simply need to pay for the right item.
This is where the comparisons to Breath of the Wild begin. Because you can access nearly every item from the beginning, you can also access the entire overworld, and that means you can access all the dungeons. Make no mistake: A Link Between Worlds does not offer you as much freedom as Breath of the Wild. There are still a few dungeons that are prerequisites for others to keep the story making sense, and there is no option to challenge yourself and jump straight into the final boss from the beginning. Still, you can feel how the Zelda developers were experimenting with giving players more freedom. In that way, A Link Between Worlds sometimes feels like a stepping stone to the more free nature of Breath of the Wild. The developers were not quite ready to throw out the whole playbook, but they were rewriting it a piece at a time.
However, this new freedom to complete dungeons in any order comes at a price. It is common to describe Zelda-style dungeons as puzzle boxes that require the use of a specific item found inside the dungeon. A Link Between Worlds still follows this design except that the item is not inside; you have to bring it with you. The developers did not leave any room for error. Early dungeons have signs outside the front door telling you exactly what item you need. Later dungeons are a little more subtle; they are impossible to enter unless you have the right item equipped. For example, the Dark Palace has a large cracked rock blocking the entrances, so you know immediately that this is “the bomb dungeon.”
The dungeon designs suffer because of this decision. While the puzzles and enemy encounters are as well designed as in any other Zelda game, you already know the solution before you arrive. The dungeons are laser focused on Merging and the single key item you brought with you. Bringing the Tornado Rod to the Tower of Hera dungeon will make enemies easier, but you never need it to solve the puzzles. There are still some “ah-ha” moments when you solve a tricky puzzle, but it’s more about executing the solution properly and less about figuring out what to do.
The dungeon layouts, on the other hand, are exceptional. The game is viewed from a top-down perspective like a classic 2D Zelda game, but the spaces are still three-dimensional. So in a single room, you may find that you are Merging at two different levels to solve a puzzle or even sneaking out the window to find something on the outside of the dungeon. Multiple dungeons make use of vertical space by having you climb multiple floors without the use of stairs or falling through floors to reach new areas.
My only criticism of the dungeon layouts is that they feel less like lived-in spaces and more like they were designed specifically to give players a series of puzzles to solve. The dungeons in A Link to the Past immerse you more in the world of the game. There, I feel like I’m exploring a forgotten temple or sneaking into the hideout of a gang of thieves. A Link Between Worlds excels at making exploring the overworlds exciting, but the dungeons do not feel like places that can be explored the same way.
In typical Zelda fashion, the boss battles make use of the same item you needed for the puzzles. Several of them are remixed versions of A Link to the Past bosses, but there are also some completely new fights that I think are among the best in the game. The only problem with boss battles and all combat encounters is the lack of difficulty.
Zelda games are not known for their difficulty, so saying that a Zelda game is not hard does not really mean much. There is a Hero Mode that you can unlock for a greater challenge, but it is easily conquered with some extra healing items and a dedication to collecting all of the hidden health upgrades. Hero Mode in Zelda often just means that the first few hours of the game are harder, and that was true for my Hero Mode experience in A Link Between Worlds as well.
The lack of difficulty in A Link Between Worlds can also be attributed to the availability of all the items at the store and also to the modernized control scheme. The new items are very powerful. The Tornado Rod, for example, is required for one of the first dungeons, and you might use it to solve puzzles initially, but you quickly learn that it stuns groups of enemies. Combine the Tornado Rod with a Fire Rod, Ice Rod, Bow and Arrows, and more, and you have an unstoppable arsenal that makes every enemy trivial.
A Link Between Worlds is also the first top-down, button-controlled Zelda game to feature full 360-degree movement. Standard sword swings and the classic spin attack have had their range increased when compared to A Link to the Past or even a more recent game like The Minish Cap. The extra mobility is a modern quality-of-life feature that is expected of any game in the genre, so it’s not surprising to find it in A Link Between Worlds. But the difficulty of the game has not been adjusted to account for it.
Unfortunately, saving did not receive any quality-of-life improvements and instead took a step backward in A Link Between Worlds. Most Zelda games allow you to save whenever you want, but the Zelda games of the early 2010s took the more outdated approach of adding specific save points. This can be mitigated by using the Sleep Mode feature of the 3DS, but it’s an unfortunate change when previous Zelda games had better saving systems and auto-saving was becoming the norm.
Thankfully, the music received a big upgrade. While Skyward Sword was the first Zelda game to introduce an orchestrated soundtrack, A Link Between Worlds first introduced orchestrated versions of many fan-favorite Zelda tunes. Some of the re-imagined tracks are still the best versions nearly ten years later, and some of the new tracks, notably Lorule Castle’s theme song, have joined the canon of classic Zelda tunes.
I often contemplate the design choices of The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. Merging and giving players the freedom to complete the main quest in almost any order are both exciting ideas that make the game fun to replay. I have played it more than five times and have had a different experience every time. A Link Between Worlds balances being an homage to the past and a glimpse of the future. While I don’t love the outcome of every experiment, the great moments overshadow all the bad and make me excited about what top-down Zelda games could come in the future.