Over the years The Legend of Zelda series has become bloated. While the original Zelda was a streamlined affair focused entirely on adventure and discovery, recent entries in the franchise have become bogged down with things you don't care about: drawn-out dialog, boring quests, and extended tutorials that mean it can take hours before you get to the actual fun part of the game. A Link Between Worlds for the Nintendo 3DS manages to bring the franchise back to its roots, giving you the freedom to explore the world however you like, as well as the tools to make that adventure thrilling. It'll remind you why you loved these games in the first place.
A Link Between Worlds is set a few generations after the Super Nintendo classic A Link to the Past, and it's billed as something of a sequel: it takes place in the same world, and features the same top-down perspective. The sequel also features a similar art style, though the transition to 3D isn't pretty — A Link Between Worlds will make you appreciate just how beautiful Wind Waker is. It stands alone as its own experience, though, so you if you never played the SNES game you won't be missing anything.
A sequel to 'A Link to the Past'
What's most striking about the game initially is just how quickly it gets going; it doesn't take long before you have a sword in your hand as you step into a puzzle-filled dungeon. A Link Between Worlds has a story — an evil magician has been turning people into paintings and plans to revive Link's eternal nemesis Ganon — but it doesn't get in the way of the game. There are short cutscenes here and there, but really the narrative is just an excuse to venture back into Hyrule and go exploring.
That setup also provides A Link Between Worlds with its most inventive, new gameplay twist. At any point you can turn Link into a 2D painting so that he can walk along walls, letting you see the world from an entirely new perspective in a way that's somewhat similar to games like Super Paper Mario and Fez. You can sneak past enemies or around obstacles, and many of the game's puzzles require you to stick to the walls. Chances are if you're stuck, turning into a painting will let you see what you've been missing. The feature also lets you slip between cracks found throughout the world: just as A Link to the Past had light and dark worlds, A Link Between Worlds lets you explore both Hyrule and Lorule, a twisted version of the familiar land.
The most remarkable thing is how much freedom you have
Once you gain the ability, you can switch between the two worlds whenever you want. In fact, the most remarkable thing about A Link Between Worlds might just be how much freedom it gives you. You have a goal to accomplish, but how you go about doing that is entirely up to you. Whereas past Zelda games locked areas and dungeons away until you found a particular item, A Link Between Worlds lets you tackle them in essentially any order you want. Instead of unlocking weapons, you can just buy or rent them (renting costs less, but you lose the item if Link falls in battle). It may sound like a shortcut, but the items are pretty expensive, so you really have to think about what you want to buy and then stick with it — that is, unless you want to go around grinding for rupees.
This structure really opens the game up and brings back that classic sense of adventure that many recent Zeldas have been missing (the previous portable entry, Spirit Tracks, had you exploring via train as opposed to on foot). Every aspect of the game feels designed towards not only giving you freedom, but letting you get down to business as fast as possible. The controls are tight and Link moves with a fluidness that makes combat a breeze, and there's even a fast travel system that lets you quickly zap from one spot to the next. It's like Zelda streamlined to its very essence.
But A Link Between Worlds is more than just a Zelda game with most of the fat trimmed — it's also simply a great Zelda game. The dungeons are challenging thanks to inventive puzzles that make great use of your arsenal of items, while the parallel worlds are filled with secrets for those willing to do a bit of exploring. It's everything you love about the series without all of the fluff. It's enough to make you look past the ugly art. But when a game is this fun, it doesn't really matter how it looks.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds launches on the 3DS on November 22nd.