'The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds' review: Link learns some new tricks

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Despite spawning nearly 20 titles since its 1987 debut, The Legend of Zelda series has seen surprisingly little innovation since fans first fell in love with its princess-saving, Triforce-collecting, Ganondorf-defeating formula. Sure, the graphics have improved and new narrative twists and gameplay mechanics have been introduced over the years, but the core dungeon-crawling recipe has largely remained the same. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds — the sequel to fan-favorite Super NES chapter The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past — finally tweaks the franchise’s tried-and-true template, and the results are as magical as a Fairy Fountain.

This 3DS follow-up to the 1992 classic retains many of its beloved predecessor’s elements — from enemies and environments to its top-down over-world — but doesn’t rely on simple nostalgia to draw players in. Instead, it builds on the appeal and personality of A Link to the Past with some of the series’ most clever and engaging design decisions to date. Toss in a vibrant, high fantasy-flavored presentation that benefits from the portable platform’s oft-criticized extra-dimensional tech, and this absorbing adventure may find some gamers abandoning their new next-gen home consoles for Nintendo’s comparatively underpowered mobile device.

Like most entries in the enduring action-adventure series, A Link Between Worlds introduces a defining feature that affects both story and gameplay. In this case, the Hyrulian hero can transform into a painting capable of navigating otherwise inaccessible areas; this could see him morph into a wall mural to cross a chasm or maybe turn into a 2-D painting to slip through a crack. An inventive mechanic that perfectly complements the franchise’s focus on puzzle-filled dungeons, it also looks damn cool every time Link goes from three-dimensional avatar to flat cave scribbling.

This new trick trumps many of Link’s previous game-specific skills (sorry, Twilight Princess wolf- transformation), but it still takes a backseat to the title’s many sacred cow-slaying additions. While previous entries sent players to dungeons, where they’d discover specific items before using them to solve the crypts’ puzzles and slay their bosses, A Link Between Worlds forgoes this scripted structure for a more free-form approach. Players can now rent — or buy, if they’re banking enough Rupees — signature items such as boomerangs, bows, and bombs, rather than gradually earning them through game progression. Coupled with the fact that rented items are returned to their mysterious vendor upon Link’s demise, this new wrinkle also adds a welcome risk-reward element to boss battles.

This more player-directed approach also means armchair adventurers can conquer dungeons in nearly any order they like, allowing them to explore and experiment in ways previous entries frowned upon. Of course, Hyrule’s bravest wanderers are also welcomed by plenty of side-content, from colorful character interactions and optional quests to treasure hunts and impromptu melees with foes of the fanged, horned, and clawed variety. Combined with ammo — arrows, bombs, and the like — that now regenerates into your arsenal, these fresh twists on the franchise’s familiar formula will have even seasoned Ganondorf-slayers feeling like they’re rescuing the princess for the first time.

Speaking of Zelda’s penchant for being plucked from her palace by power-hungry evildoers, A Link Between Worlds doesn’t exactly break new narrative ground. The presence of a parallel dark world, dubbed Lorule, puts a new spin on the same old yarn, but the best stories here are those authored by adventurous players.

Link’s latest isn’t perfect. While the retooling of the tired template is appreciated and the dungeons are some of the series’ most cleverly designed, the newfound freedom occasionally left me flustered in front of the game’s more melon-twisting puzzles. The tradeoff is totally worth it, though, and longtime fans may find themselves wondering how they ever survived beneath the green tunic without A Link Between Worlds‘ many welcome changes.

GRADE: A-

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