A familiar indulgence: the first hour of The Legend Of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

A Link Between Worlds art

You’ve seen it all before, of course. From the second Link is jolted from his slumber with an insistent ‘Hey!’, A Link Between Worlds is an exercise in fan service, delivered with relish. Its first hour is a steady, indulgent flow of references to, and tropes from, adventures past.

The map is a tighter, more economical version of A Link To The Past’s, its enemies and furniture near-identical; props and characters pinched from Ocarina, Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask are jammed into one dense, self-referential jumble. And the setup is always the same, of course – there’s a damsel in distress, a flame-haired antagonist, magical trinkets to seek out and legendary sages to rescue. The first dungeon introduces the same old light-the-torch, hit-the-switch puzzles and leads out into a boss battle that feels like a top-down tribute to one of Ocarina’s more memorable encounters.

If it continues to rely so heavily on its illustrious past, A Link Between Worlds will be a divisive game. Like those two other component parts of Nintendo’s own triforce, Mario and Pokémon, new Zelda games must always balance expected facets of play with the new; remixing and referencing bygone games is expected – maybe even demanded by longterm fans – but that can’t carry a new game in its entirety.

Even Ravio, chief among this game’s supporting cast, is dressed up as the purple rabbit Link transforms into during A Link To The Past, but at least his function is one of this game’s newer parts. Where traditionally items are earned at the end of each dungeon, Link can rent most of the expected set of tools – bow, hammer, boomerang, hookshot and so on – from Ravio and his oddball flying familiar right from the game’s opening hour or so. Dungeons can, therefore, be tackled in different orders. It’s a new quirk which removes the rigidity of games past, but hardly feels revolutionary.

Like so many other firstparty games, Nintendo persists with playful use of 3D, too. In Hyrule Castle, the first dungeon and while roaming about the overworld, there are pillars, metal grating and variances in altitude which implore you to nudge that 3D slider up a little, though it’s still perfectly playable in 2D.

Thankfully, in Link’s new ability to step into and walk along the surface of game’s walls, we have something truly new, though it’s a conceit which feels like it might have been pinched from the Paper Mario games.

It’s an ability, rather than a typical Zelda item. Where most pickups act as weapons or ways to access new areas and solve puzzes, turning into this chalky caricature feels more like a tool for exploration; it’s also blessed relief to acquire that power near the end of such a pedestrian, predictable opening. This is the one device which elevates the game above the status of rehash, after an hour’s play; it’ll doubtless turn into a neat way for Nintendo to hide secrets in the landscape, signalled only by a thin shaft of light between walls or a slim crevice in a rocky mountainside.

So it’s not an inspirational or dazzling opening, by any means, but given the game’s close ties to its SNES precursor, there must surely be a big twist in this tale. In 1991, A Link To The Past’s Dark World was an audacious rug-pull that made the game feel completely new halfway through play – two decades later, Nintendo can’t merely offer the expected, titular Link Between Worlds, but a surprise revelation altogether more ambitious than that.

Your relationship with this new Zelda game will depend on your history with the series at large, I think; if you grew indifferent to its formulas and tropes years ago, or frustrated by its hardy resistance to real change, then A Link Between Worlds is unlikely to seduce you back. But if you can’t help but melt at the sound of Zelda’s theme, or smile at every little reference, or delight in the cute, snappy dialogue and gentle slapstick, then A Link Between Worlds is a welcome indulgence – a chance to rejoice in revisiting Zelda’s cosy, familiar overworld, characters, devices and dungeons.