Saturday, December 28, 2013
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
Sorry beings of similar genetic make-up to me, you will always be second in my eyes to my true family: Link, Zelda, our super hot cousin Sheik, and our embarrassing rarely-spoken-of uncle, Tingle. "The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds" feels like a deeply meaningful family reunion, as we all return back to the good old days. Yes, our modern lives have filled with unnecessary distractions such as cellphones, Facebook, and motion controls, but we can ignore that for this one simple adventure. Back in the days before we had to install our games, back in the days before Nintendo insisted that everybody would have more fun flailing their arms or scribbling on a touchpad rather than using buttons, and back in the days when games were just that, games. You were a hero, you have a sword, you have a princess to rescue, there are things in your way, use that sword and that brain of yours to make those things go away. Ahh, nostalgia. Let's forget modernity and sink back... using this, 3DS game, this link to the past*.
But here's the rub: is "A Link Between Worlds" legitimately a great game or is it just a 3D recreation of "A Link to the Past"? There is no conversation more vapid than "remember when?", no movie less important than a remake, no song more pointless than a cover. This isn't merely a sequel, its a complete recreation of the old game, with 95% of the world map entirely unchanged, the entire enemy roster reborn as increasingly silly 3DS cartoon creatures, and at least half of the bosses retreads from the original. Its not "A Link to the Past 2", its "A Link to the Past 1.5". Its not so bad that you can simply reuse strategies from twenty years ago and assume that the game will play out exactly the same, but its still... too much of the same. I'm glad that my old family hasn't aged a day, but I have, I loved this game for what it was when I first played it, but I can recognize that Zelda and gaming has evolved, and moved forward.
Then again, maybe this jump into the past was exactly what Zelda needed, especially after its difficult adolescence lately. Let us try our best not to summon up memories of that certain other... skyward... game, that's best forgotten forever. I fear even if I mention its name, it will return, with more padding, more nonsense, and more inconsistent controls than ever. 2013 is Zelda's year of the past, it seems, with this game, and an HD remake of "The Wind Waker", the greatest Zelda game of all time. I get the sense that this is a creative team looking backwards, trying to understand what has worked, and what hasn't, in Zelda's history. And hopefully with this cleaning of their pallet, they'll come back stronger than ever, able to combine the philosophies and spirits of the past into something great. Or maybe they'll end up like the Mario team, essentially making games exactly similar to "Super Mario Bros. 3" for the rest of their lives.
The other point I should make is that I am not the average 3DS player when to "A Link Between Worlds". I am a member of an elite class of supreme Zelda players, one who has literally played all of them and only failed to beat that other one that shall remain nameless. Yeah, I might have beaten "A Link to the Past" about one hundred times, but that doesn't mean little Johnny or his sister Janey have**. I may have the world map for that game so well remembered that they could have used me to draw up the design documents for this title, but I'm a freak, one who once beat that entire game during the course of a single extremely dull wedding when I was thirteen on my GBA. So on the one hand, I can appreciate the fine details more than most, how exactly perfect the animations on the little pig monsters in the Dark World are, and how they got the pattern of the trees just right, but I'm so used to playing "A Link to the Past", I don't need any more of it. I beat this new game once, and I think that's all I want. I've mastered this universe before, I've found every damn Heart Container, located all the secrets, had a demon accidentally double my magic meter, Hell, I even beat Ganon without taking damage. I've already had too much of a good thing.
And happily, the entire game is not so bad of a retread that it feels entirely extraneous. Yeah, that's the same cyclops throwing the same bombs, but there are new additions that make the game feel new and interesting. The most notable addition is an ability by Link to merge into walls, turning himself into a Medieval 2D stylized painting, similar to the introduction to "The Wind Waker". This adds an element of puzzle solving, constantly meaning you must think in several directions for every room, like a miniature "Lost in Shadow". I was hoping Nintendo would add in some side-scrolling action for these walls, such as we saw in the Gameboy Zelda titles, but the walls are almost entirely non-action. The other big change is that dungeons can be defeated in any order, since the dungeons don't bring give equipment any longer. Now you rent your equipment from your strange roommate who wears a bunny mask. If you die, you lose everything you've rented, so you either need to not die, or spend a fortune in Rupees to actually purchase your Hookshot.
The story has the same general patterns and pacing as the original. You go through three dungeons in Hyrule, then another seven in the Dark World. You simply bash your way through dungeons as soon as you finish the last one, there is no padding, no robots you need to lead up mountains, no bitchy water dragons, and very little plot between dungeons. There are sages you collect who are at least characters in their own right this time, rather than anonymous girls in octahedrons. If you buy all your weapons early enough, you can plow through the entire run of seven dungeons in a single sweep, without any story to interrupt your gameplay. But on the other hand, one of the things I never liked about "A Link to the Past" was how little story it had. As a kid, I developed an entire universe for that game, creating backstories and personalities for all the bosses***, imagining a whole history for Hyrule beyond the skin-deep
However, this doesn't stop the story from actually going to interesting places. Rather than merely a Dark World created by Ganon, the alternate universe this time is called "Lorule", a bizarro version of Hyrule where their Reverse-Triforce was destroyed ages ago. The villain is Bizarro Ganon, a tranvestite name Yuga. The princess is Hilda, a dark-haired maiden full of sorrow and menacingly cryptic conversations. And as for the hero, he's nowhere to be seen, at least not immediately. Some of the best parts come right at the very end, where the game throws three tons of plot twists right at your skull, making for one of the most memorable Zelda endings in years.
This is a game that really leaves an amazing impression. The final boss is fast and challenging, though I had the pattern generally pre-mastered thanks to it being mostly a replay of Ganon's final form in "A Link to the Past". Then the game creates such a huge uplifting feel, with this sense that this is precisely what the Legend of Zelda was supposed to be. Where previously the story was somewhat silly and fluffy, it becomes very deep and very powerful all in a single throw. This is video game writing at its finest. It seems simple and basic, but its the sign of a game company that has truly mastered its craft, doing victory laps around a tone and emotion it has mastered decades ago. Zelda and Link still don't kiss, but I guess we can't have everything.
* Owww... stop hurting me. I like puns.
** Actually, do children even play Nintendo handhelds anymore? The sense I get is that they're all on iPads now, spending their parent's wages on gougeware, spending twenty dollars to get a T-Rex for their Jurassic Park game.
*** For example, Trinexx, the three-headed dragon boss of Turtle Rock, was in his human form, a handsome and extremely powerful henchman of Ganon. His right arm was covered in red armor that shot flames, and his left arm was covered in blue armor that shot ice. When he was sent to the Dark World, he took his current form. Trinexx loves only the thrill of battle - he never particularly cared for Ganondorf's command, and merely served in the hope for the ultimate opponent, who becomes Link.