Zelda’s legend is destined to repeat, bringing to mind Elizabeth’s deterministic revelation in Bioshock Infinite. There’s always a boy, a girl and a pig demon. There are always three magic triangles. There’s always chicken abuse. A Link Between Worlds brings Nintendo’s cyclical ideas to their natural destination, revisiting the Hyrule purged of evil in A Link To The Past. Enough time has passed for the events of that game to enter legend – retold in a fetching castle mural – but the land is as we left it in 1992.
What role does well-trodden ground have in a series trading on the thrill of discovery? Well, Nintendo toys with your memories, sticking to ALTTP’s rough shape only to diverge in surprising ways. Within minutes, we’re back beneath the Sanctuary, dicing up rats and agonising over booby-trapped switches, only for a strange antagonist – a giggling art aficionado with a touch of Skyward Sword’s Ghirahim about him – to burst onto the scene and remind you that the world is no longer familiar. But part of the fun is seeing what’s made the cut, finding out if the creepy hobo still lurks beneath the castle bridge, for instance. And unfamiliar sights lurk in Dark World replacement Lorule, accessed via dimensional rifts torn in various surfaces that Link can enter using his new wall painting form.
ALBW has the air of a foggy recollection, a story that, thanks to improved host hardware, becomes exaggerated in the retelling. Link now moves with an analogue grace far beyond his 16bit self, welcoming dexterity challenges that have him weaving past projectiles, or in one of the many excellent minigames, dodging a barrage of angry Cuccos. 3DS’s speakers pump out glorious orchestrations of classic themes; expect to spend a fortune on the Milk Bar buskers’ folksy covers of iconic ditties. That ALBW runs at 60fps lends it a fluid physicality, countering the simple geometry that renders it crude when seen in stills.
And then you push the depth slider up. As Skyward Sword showcased motion controls, so ALBW flaunts stereoscopic 3D as both a tool for superficial silliness – watching a plummeting beetle become a tiny speck, for example – and for helping eyes perceive height. The effect complements Link’s new ability to become living graffiti and merge into walls, allowing him to skitter along unbroken horizontal lines and then re-emerge on distant platforms. The game’s perfectly playable in 2D – wouldn’t want to alienate all those 2DS owners – but it’s far easier to grasp in 3D.
Such power awakens the deviously logical Nintendo mindset that gave us Ocarina Of Time’s Water Temple and the Eagle’s Tower in Link’s Awakening. Success relies on comprehending and commanding knotty 3D spaces: launching into a wall run at the right height, deducing the relationship between floors layered below or above each other (easier thanks to touchscreen map), or wielding items with the ability to raise sandy platforms or yank Link skyward with a spin of a propeller. This is a game of heights and distances, although ALBW’s creators are not unwilling to throw in playful riffs on light and shadow or hot and cold as well. The latter are powered by various elemental rods, items that have been noticeably absent in Link’s big-screen adventures.
As a piece of traditional Zelda design, ALBW walks the line between punchy portability and chewier fare. One-button combat and a top-down perspective lends it arcadey zip – tearing up Hyrule with the Pegasus Boots is a giddy delight – but its map is also riddled with treasure caves, a set of miniaturised dungeons designed to test your grasp of an individual item. The resulting Hyrule is more artificial playpen than fleshed-out world, though even this has its charms. Shorn of Zelda’s epic bloat, there’s a better sense of hero making, with defensive tunics and tempered blades transforming Link into a tank over 14 hours. It reminds us what a romp Zelda used to be.
So alien is the 2D rhythm that ALBW’s potentially revolutionary idea – the option to tackle dungeons in any order – can get lost in the noise. Sequential gear gating, wherein each gauntlet of puzzles and combat offers up the item required to unlock the next, is replaced by an item rental service. Raise the rupees and Link’s entire arsenal is yours within four hours. The shop itself is a poor vehicle for the concept, however. Rentals are the cheaper option, but retrieved upon death, though such is the generosity applied to hearts that this only happened to us once. The alternative is to buy outright, but the ostensibly ‘extortionate’ prices are nothing in a world where people use bushes as banks.
Nintendo’s nervousness around punishment, for fear of putting off newcomers, continues to undermine ALBW’s attempts at novelty. Why scavenge for potion ingredients or upgrade weapons with Maiamai babies when the quest is perfectly suited to a base-level Link? Redundant ideas don’t spoil the journey, but they do cloud Nintendo’s true achievement: balancing a playerled adventure and building obstacles to satisfy an infinite variety of Links. The inability to predict what gadgets we’ll bring into every dungeon proves to be a boon, forcing their architects to drop well-rehearsed routines in favour of genuine surprises. Even the trusty old hookshot has something new to say.
But it is one voice in a game of many, an adventure that simultaneously channels nostalgia for a certain place, a taste for a perspective and an eye for harnessing Nintendo’s idiosyncratic platforms. Are there too many variables to draw valid conclusions from the game’s experiments with Zelda’s form? Perhaps not – at least the Hyrule of old acts as a safety net while Nintendo performs its fan-defying acts above.
A Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is out on November 22nd.