I was pleasantly surprised when Nintendo announced their intention to return to the setting of the classic Zelda game A Link to the Past, as was virtually everyone else I am almost certain. I was expecting mostly a slightly updated, yet entirely nostalgic port of the game to current handhelds (3DS, DS, etc.) yet it was different from the previous update the game was given in the form of its other Game Boy port several years ago. A Link Between Worlds may take place in the same Hyrule setting as A Link to the Past, and it may share several similarities with its cousin, yet it is a remarkably different game. I wouldn’t call this simply a graphical or ported update, simply because it does too much more than that, and for the most part keeps A Link to the Past’s experience alive in my mind, while blazing a new path as well. A Link Between Worlds ditches the flashiness of Spirit Tracks and even Phantom Hourglass in hopes of recapturing and rekindling the spirit of the older SNES games, and that is does- quite perfectly, while retaining its freshness of a new adventure at the same time.

I wasn’t quite expecting this to be the game which shook the formulaic foundations of the series, and yet here I stand marveling at some of the changes that it has made to an already established and sturdy formula. The first, and somewhat simplest gameplay change that comes to mind is the fact that you no longer have to seek out and find every single item in order to use it and progress through certain dungeons- thanks to Ravio’s trading shop system, you can now ‘rent’ items and complete dungeons in pretty much whatever order you want for the most part. If this doesn’t scream accessibility, then I don’t know what more you expect. A Link Between Worlds is undoubtedly one of the most open and accessible handheld titles out there, and one of the more open Zelda games as well. Even better, and still related to items, no longer must you buy or discover plethoras of arrows or mana points to power your items- instead, everything that requires ‘ammo’ or magic operates on a meter that replenishes itself over time. This is the simplest, most ingenious idea I’ve encountered as of yet in a Zelda game- since the ocarina and Wind Waker basically, and I love it. Sure, there are still limits to how many times you can use things before they need to cool down and replenish their stored energy, but that is so much better than searching in vain for one more bomb to pass a certain trial- only to have to exit to the store and come back to find the entire dungeon has “respawned” in your absence. A Link Between Worlds is the most open, accessible, and priority-quest driven Zelda game to date.

Renting items is probably the biggest formulaic change to the game series’ values, but that isn’t the only one present in A Link Between Worlds. I will talk about some of the other gameplay changes and updated elements later. When you die, your rented items are returned to Ravio’s shop, which means you have to repurchase them in order to utilize them yet again. However, this is far from the inconvenience you might think it would be. Items are rented relatively cheaply, although you can also buy them permanently- for a heftier price of course. That is one of my few complaints with the game, and one that I’ve noted several of my friends mentioning as well. Actually purchasing an item permanently costs an exorbitant amount of money- roughly one thousand rupees in some cases, which is pretty much the limit to what you can carry at any one time, and thoroughly cleans your wallet out like a Black Friday specials sale. However, that is a small inconvenience only, and as is a natural and reoccurring factor in life, it is sometimes better to pay more so that it saves you money in the long run. In fact, I’m almost positive that A Link Between Worlds is part Zelda game and part economic challenge.

What is pretty amazing is, despite the fact that most items are available to you at an early stage in the game, it still requires a lot of hard work, time, and thinking to find special heart piece containers and other rare items and collectibles scattered across Hyrule and the realm. Another dramatic change to the classic formula shows up (literally) in the form of the fact that you no longer have to worry about collecting or analyzing maps tediously, as the new dungeon layout shows up as soon as you enter a shadowy arena. Thankfully, this does not detract from the classic experience in the least- unless of course you are one of the people who simply loved reading and collecting hundreds of map fragments and critically analyzing them for secret areas. I thought not. Dungeons are filled with some of the most devious and complex traps to date, made better by the fact that they alternate between two and three dimensions- hints the title of the game, and that they offer as good or a better challenge than some of Link’s fully three dimensional console experiences. Seriously, the new and remodeled old dungeons alike are no pushover, even in the beginning stages.

In order to turn back to two dimensional viewpoints, Link learns an ability that allows him to turn into a drawing of himself and sidle along walls, around corners, and over previously uncrossable pits. If at first a puzzle seems all but impossible to solve, it’s probably a good bet that you have to mix three dimensional and two dimensional abilities in order to solve it. This definitely branches out from previous entries, opening up a whole new realm of possibilities- story wise and puzzle wise respectively. This new ability also isn’t limited to specific areas or dungeons alone, as the special items of past Zelda games have been. Now when you learn the ability, you will find yourself using it for the entire duration of your quest around Hyrule, and using it everywhere from open fields to the deepest catacombs. That certainly makes it far more than a simple gimmick or gameplay device, as it easily becomes an important, integral part of your abilities and items inventory, and the single most go-to option throughout the entire game.

The dungeon design is some of the best in recent history- and that includes the new and old dungeons, those making it from A Link to the Past, and those that are never before seen until now. The boss battles feel fresh and are more experimentation minded in that you no longer have to rely solely on that dungeon’s special item in order to defeat bosses, due to Ravio’s rent-an-item shop, and really makes for tons of replay value in that respect as well. There are so many different ways to approach each boss battle and dungeon now, meaning that inevitably, though you may be forced to use a specific item in some sections, you are free to do things your own way in most cases. Some of the best boss encounters were surprisingly not the makeovers of ALttP’s bosses- though those were great as well, but actually some of the newer bosses and also the final battle. The fact that you can find a way to use almost every item and even your newfound two dimensional abilities in boss encounters is just mind blowing in most cases.

As I may or may not have mentioned or even hinted at before, it is also really nice that- as with your free range of selection for items to carry, you are also allowed to visit any dungeon in any particular order you wish. Whether you start with the most memorable from your experiences with ALttP, or you want to try your hand at what used to be the hardest- it’s completely up to you! Even better, you an always rest easy knowing that you can progress despite being stuck in one particular dungeon, as you can always die and visit a completely new one instead of having to continue in the other one before you can advance. This not only makes the game much more appealing to varying levels of players with different skills, but also more fun and open over all- which brings us back full circle to accessibility of course.

There is a firmly stated connection to the past- both the past game, and throughout the story. However, the game is not firmly rooted in the past, and is far from a direct copy or even continuation of the previous game set in its particular Hyrule world. As Pokemon has been accused of several times, particularly in its first few games- the Zelda series has often been told that “each game is the same story, just a different setting” or ‘all the items and enemies are the same.” Obviously, from experience, while some are undoubtedly similar- especially on the handheld devices, we know this to be untrue. Tweaks to the old formula have made this game one of the best, and probably the best handheld Zelda adventure- beating out Spirit Tracks easily, and also edging out Phantom Hourglass and even its spiritual predecessor, A Link to the Past. It is easier to stomach, still maintains the difficulty and challenge though it opens things up more for players, and overall makes things much more enjoyable.

I’ll be the first to admit that the Zelda series is far from perfect, though I am a great advocate of the series- to my friends and to complete strangers alike. There are several things about this game that I was initially skeptical about, and some I am still not completely sold on, however- despite what you may perceive as a “low” score from me, I have few bad things to really say about A Link Between Worlds, and only constructive criticism to give Nintendo for it. The sense of greater freedom and lack of restrictions in terms of items and dungeons and exploration is a welcome and well-overdue change of pace, and visuals and soundtracks are as phenomenal and breathtaking as usual. It is not only a faithful retelling of an old story, but something new to add to the lore as well. Truly, this is a tale of two worlds colliding, and it should rank somewhere towards the top of the classic experiences in the series because of that, and the changes it has borne with ease.

Concept: Improve a classic by evolving the standard formula to include some revolutionary new tweaks, and work better because of it. Far from a simple rehashing of an already known tale.

Graphics: Limited only by the system limits of the handheld device(s) it is on, ALBW has beautiful scenery and a memorable Hyrule.

Sound: Soundtrack pieces both new and old make appearances and all sound classy and classic when mixed together to provide the basis for the game’s musical score.

Playability: The dungeons are well laid out and well crafted, each boss is a perfect fit and the battles aren’t too terribly boring, though maintaining the same level of challenge as before. There is plenty of new content, and this is far from a simple graphical update of the same story we’ve been told several times over. Handles excellently. New ideas work just as well as the old ones they are side by side with.

Entertainment: Boots A Link to the Past out of the number one or two handheld Zelda adventures in my mind, and it has only been out for a short period of time. I’d say that bodes pretty well for it.

Replay Value: High.

Overall Score: 9.0

NOTE: Posted 6 times, so hopefully it shows up in Reviews now...