Jim: The Legend of Zelda is an iconic series. For more than 25 years, it’s captivated gamers of all generations with solid gameplay, fantastic worlds, and an overall sense of wonder. It’s one of the best examples of how to take a tried and true formula and add to or alter it to keep it from becoming stale, with refined mechanics that have been adopted by other developers in the creation of great titles that pay homage to Zelda, such as Beyond Good and Evil and Okami. Not every entry in the franchise is universally beloved, however. The two games which book-ended the Wii’s life cycle, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, had a fair number of critics who said the games lacked the heart and spark of creativity seen in their predecessors. While I concede that they were far from perfect and had several issues, I still found them to be very enjoyable, with both in my personal picks for the five best Zelda games.

But now, I find myself on the other side of the argument. The latest entry, A Link Between Worlds for the 3DS, has earned high marks from gamers and critics since its release in November. Many are calling it the best title on the 3DS. Gamespot even declared it their Game of the Year for 2013. And yet, after I played it, I found myself disappointed. It just didn’t feel like the great Zelda games I grew up with and enjoyed so much. I was considering posting a review explaining why I didn’t like it, but I was concerned some people might misinterpret it as deliberate trolling, or that I was writing a negative critique just to be contrarian. Instead, I felt a more productive analysis would be a debate with someone who liked A Link Between Worlds, a chance to share our respective opinions and why they differ. Joining me in this discussion is one of the coolest guys I know, Eli Stone, aka The Hero of Tomorrow, The Cartoon Hero, and Oliver from Ni No Kuni. Thanks for joining me, Eli.

Eli: *walks in* Thank you, thank y–*crickets chirping* Well, I should have seen that coming. *sits down* But yes, I have to say I disagree with Jim on this one. Not just because it’s the in thing to do, because I’ve disagreed with critics in the past. *the title card from my Top 10 Cartoons I Hate That Everyone Else Loves rushes in, screaming and on fire, dousing it with a fire extinguisher before stomping it out* As many can attest.

 

But I’ve been known to disagree with Zelda’s critics in the past as well. For a few quick examples–Twilight Princess (the GameCube version, anyway) is my favorite Zelda game of all time, I don’t really like Ocarina of Time as much as everyone else does, and I’m definitely gonna get some hell for this part–I didn’t hate Fi. In fact, I quite liked her. Though I stand by Midna being my favorite Zelda character, I really didn’t find Fi’s advice annoying, and the complaints that she “killed the exploration factor” of a Zelda game–really, for me the pointing thing really came in handy. I love the Zelda series, but I can get annoyed when I get stuck on it. I found Skyward Sword to be fun and entertaining, even if it did have its flaws. And speaking of differing opinions, that’s actually how I felt about A Link Between Worlds as well. Sure, it’s definitely not the best Zelda out there, but I don’t think ‘not being as good as one of the most iconic series in gaming’ should count against it that much. So that’s why I agreed to this. Normally Jim and I have much the same mindset and close to the same sense of humor, so this is kind of a first for me too. But hopefully, playing devil’s advocate won’t be too difficult.

Jim: To be honest, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this with you. Given that we’re often on the same wavelength, it’s going to be interesting to see how our views differ on this subject. So, let’s get down to business.

 

The biggest problem I’d say I have with A Link Between Worlds is a lack of originality. If anyone here is a fan of Zero Punctuation, you’ve probably heard Yahtzee make the joke that The Legend of Zelda is just the same game remade over and over again. And I disagree with Mr. Croshaw on this issue (and several dozen more, but that’s for another discussion). As I mentioned in the introduction, while the basic structure of a Zelda game remains similar from entry to entry, the developers change it up with new mechanics to keep it fresh and original, like time travel or sailing across a vast ocean. Here though, I’m not really seeing anything impressive.

 

A Link Between Worlds was established as a sequel to the classic Super Nintento title A Link to the Past. Series producer Eiji Aonuma said that he was asked by Shigeru Miyamoto to create a remake, but instead chose to create a new title inspired by the 16-bit adventure. That doesn’t show up in the final game, though. Aside from a few differences, it’s almost an exact copy of A Link to the Past. The story structure is practically identical: An evil sorcerer threatens Hyrule, Link alerts Princess Zelda to the danger, she sends him to recover mystical pendants, he uses these artifacts to obtain the Master Sword, Link returns to Zelda’s side but is too late to stop her from being abducted, he enters a parallel world that acts as a dark counterpart to Hyrule, learns that the sorcerer plans to resurrect Ganon, and must stop this evil plot by rescuing seven Sages who were kidnapped from his world.

 

This, for me, was one of the biggest factors that kept the game from being truly enjoyable. When a new Zelda game comes out I expect it to use its predecessor as a stepping stone for a new adventure. Majora’s Mask, Twilight Princess and Wind Waker all drew inspiration from Ocarina of Time, which itself drew inspiration from A Link to the Past, to create their own stories. There were some similarities or reoccurring elements, but not to the extent seen here. A Link Between Worlds also cobbled together aspects from other past games, such as the Sages’ Realm from Ocarina of Time, a door leading to the final confrontation that can only be opened by defeating four previously beaten bosses like in Wind Waker, several characters quoting the line “It’s a secret to everybody” from the original Legend of Zelda, or background items like Majora’s Mask hanging on the wall of Link’s house and a picture of Makar in Kakariko Village. It just doesn’t seem to have an identity of it’s own; it felt like it was just picking pieces from the games that came before it in the hopes of selling based purely on nostalgia.

Eli: Well, to be fair, Zelda has a lot of legacy to live up to. I mean, just recently it had its 25th Anniversary with Skyward Sword, so the people who grew up with the original Zelda titles are probably in their twenties and thirties now, as we are. And is a return to basics really that bad of an idea? If you think about it, the creators have been constantly expanding on the formula and finding new ways to use it, as you mentioned. But a return to formula isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, there are some people I knew who were wanting something like this to happen. Granted, some of those people were the ones who didn’t accept change, and hated Spirit Tracks just because there were trains in a Zelda game (even if, as Chuggaaconroy pointed out, random out-of-place tech has kind of always been a thing in Zelda, but I’m getting off topic) But think about the people who grew up with A Link To The Past, and were turned off by the newer games because that’s what they wanted to play. And let’s not forget that A Link To The Past is one of the most successful Zelda titles financially (besides Ocarina of Time, but as I mentioned, I have my own issues with that.) I had trouble with A Link To The Past, and with A Link Between Worlds I kinda had the opposite problem, but I don’t see how going back to a top-down Zelda adventure is a bad idea in and of itself. And frankly–I’m just glad they remember Majora’s Mask exists. I think (though obviously I can’t confirm it) that Majora’s Mask was a teaser that they’re going to remake Majora’s Mask in the same way they did for Ocarina of Time, and I REALLY hope they do. I rediscovered Majora’s Mask recently, and I have to say I think it’s one of the more underrated Zelda titles, especially in terms of story.

 

Oh, and speaking of story–I don’t think you’re giving A Link Between Worlds‘ enough credit. Now, audience, I want you to bear in mind that this is coming from an Internet reviewer, and as such, it’s part of my job to be critical of things, and as such, I’ve seen a lot of stories. And I will tell you this–I genuinely didn’t see the ending of A Link Between Worlds coming. It was very subtly foreshadowed, and I probably could only tell you that it was having played the game previously, but I like the final twist with Princess Hilda, and it genuinely surprised me. I was thinking that Ravio was going to turn out to be evil, too, but, avoiding spoilers, if anything it was the exact opposite. I can appreciate a good twist when I see one, and this game had a few well-done ones. However, I will admit that the new villain, Yuga–was pretty bland. He struck me as a guy who wanted to have the grace and insanity of Ghirahim, but failed a bit short of the mark. That’s not to say beating him wasn’t rewarding, though. And call me crazy, but I actually liked the new Dark World, too–incidentally, Lorule? That’s actually a pretty hilarious name if you’ve played The Wonderful 101–and how it wasn’t just an “opposite world” of Hyrule, as it felt in A Link To The Past. Yes, it was darker and edgier, but it felt like they tried to do their own thing with this world this time around, and in my opinion, they succeeded. To me, it felt genuinely rewarding to save Lorule in the end.

Jim: I can see your point about long time fans wanting a return to the classic form, and I won’t deny them that. It’s just an issue I have with games, and other media, that try to capitalize mainly on nostalgia alone. Aside from a few exceptions like Cave Story (which is awesome), the majority of titles I see on Steam, XBLA, PSN, or Kickstarter that say they’re inspired by/trying to recreate old school playstyles seem to be focused solely on that, and not putting much effort into story, characterization, or original concepts. They’re just banking on retro gamers buying them because they’re similar to what these people grew up on, and that’s a pretty cynical attitude to take. At least, that’s just my opinion.

But I don’t necessarily have a problem with a return to classic form as long as it shows some thought was put into it. I enjoy a lot of the top-down perspective Zelda games; Link’s Awakeningand The Minish Cap are two of my favorites. However, both of those had the feeling that they were set in their own worlds with their own stories, not just retreading old ground. Not sure if this is the best analogy, but imagine you were going to a concert by a band you really like. They’ve put out three albums in the last five years years, all of which you enjoyed. But when you’re at the performance, they only do one, maybe two songs from each of their more recent albums, and the rest of the show is tracks from their first ten years to cater to the old-school fans. It’s not a bad experience, just a bit of a letdown. And I really couldn’t find Lorule that compelling of a world. Granted it wasn’t an exact copy of the Dark World from Link to the Past since a few changes in the geography were made, but I didn’t find it to be that inspired or creative.

I won’t deny that the ending to A Link Between Worlds after the final fight with Ganon was well done. It did a good job in demonstrating that serious damage can be done by misguided people, even if their intentions are noble, and it was satisfying to see Lorule put back on the path to restoration. I just couldn’t really get invested in everything that came before that. The big twist with Hilda, Lorule’s counterpart to Zelda (oh I see what you did there, Nintendo) I could see coming based on the cutscenes that came after beating the dungeons. Her dialogue makes it pretty clear that she has a hidden agenda she doesn’t want Link to learn about. Despite that, I found her to be the most interesting character: steadfast, willing to take action, truly caring for her people and her kingdom, even a bit manipulative. She was, in my opinion, was one of the high points of the game.

Unfortunately, she was the only character that really stood out. None of the others clicked with me. Ravio, for most of the game, just came off as this eccentric merchant only interested in money, like a less annoying version of Tingle. His surprise revelation near the end didn’t have any weight because it hadn’t been effectively foreshadowed; we never got to see this other side of him at any point before that. And as you said, Yuga was a rather forgettable antagonist. He appears relatively few times boasting about his love of art and all things beautiful, and even shows some forethought by taking measures to prevent Link from reaching Zelda. But once you enter Lorule, he’s pushed aside to bring back Ganon. Honestly I thought Medusa from Shin Megami Tensei IV represented this characterization much better, and she was just one boss fight. The Sages were also rather forgettable. Remember how in Ocarina of Time you spent time with each of the Sages before they were awakened and formed bonds with them (maybe not so much with Impa, but with the others). You don’t see that here, just brief conversations before they’re captured and have to be rescued, never leaving a lasting impact. If more effort had been put into giving the NPCs personality, maybe I wouldn’t be so hard on the game.

Eli: *nods* Alright, I see your point. Catering only to nostalgic fans would be a bad idea. At the same time, though, I can’t hate this game for trying to do it. I mean, it’s not like Nintendo only ever does remakes of older games–even with games like New Super Mario Bros. and 3D World, they added new twists on the Mario Bros. formula so it didn’t just feel like more of the same. But we already knew this game was going to be at least close to A Link To The Past in approach, so I don’t really have a problem with it being like an older game. My main problem came with the lack of challenge. And for that, let’s go back to Ravio. For those who don’t know, at the beginning of the game, this merchant called Ravio in a bunny outfit moves into Link’s house and sets up shop. Because hey, it’s not like you ever went back to your house in A Link To The Past. But here’s the thing–he sells most of the useful items in the game. And I don’t mean just bombs and potions, like most merchants do–I mean he sells actual dungeon items! Now, I could understand it if he sold a few dungeon items, but no, he sells about a dozen of them, and all of them are completely necessary! What’s more, if you can’t afford them, no problem–he can rent items to you until you get a Game Over, then his bird friend takes them back.

Unfortunately, if they were trying to do this to cut the fat from the game, they got a lot of the meat when trying to do so. Usually dungeon items are found in, you know, DUNGEONS. As in, what Zelda is famous for. As in you don’t just get dungeon items by having enough money. I shit you not, I was able to use a portal to Lorule just outside Link’s house to beat up Cyclopses for a few hours and I had enough money to buy every single item without worrying about having to lose them. That’s–pretty lame, I have to say. I could understand it if he had a few special items, but having most of them feels like they cut out what could have made for good gameplay.

And it pains me to say that, because the dungeons that we did get were actually good and quite challenging. Well, challenging is a relative term–I only got actually stuck on a puzzle once, and I probably could have figured that out eventually. But I liked how each dungeon item was used, as well as the new ability this game offered–to merge into walls. This made for some surprisingly well-done puzzles, and even came in handy during the ‘final’ boss fight. I did actually die a few times, which gave me the motivation I needed to buy said items instead of just renting them. If this effort had been put into getting the dungeon items Ravio was selling, I think you and I both would have liked the game better.

Jim: The overall lack of challenge was another significant problem. I can understand the thinking behind having so many of the items available from the start so that players could start exploring as soon as possible, but it takes away so much fun. A good Zelda game, like a good Metroid game, intrigues you by having areas that are blocked off, leaving you to wonder what you’ll uncover once you have the item necessary to reach that location. When you have those tools given to you at the start, there’s less of a drive to go exploring, and having them is cheapened by the fact that you didn’t really earn them. Okay, you paid for them, but you didn’t brave monsters and solve puzzles to obtain the mystic relics. The rental and purchase system does provide incentive to play smart so you don’t have to farm Rupees to buy them back after dying, but since the majority of the game is so easy, you don’t really have to worry about losing them. I only died twice, and that was near the end of the adventure when I’d earned enough to permanently buy every item. And that’s another problem; forcing you to farm money to get all the gear is blatant padding. I also thought the magic/stamina meter tied into item use was poorly thought out, especially with the bombs and bow since you essentially had infinite ammunition.

 

Most of the dungeons were pretty good, and some of them even hid items that Ravio wasn’t selling, like a stronger shield or tunics that reduce damage. I also appreciated how you had the freedom to visit them in any order you chose rather than going in a predetermined path. My personal favorite was Skull Woods since it was built around manipulating Wallmasters (giant disembodied hands that will try to grab you and take you back to the start of the dungeon) to kill enemies and activate switches so you could progress further. Turtle Rock and the Desert Palace also stood out for their implementation of the Ice Rod and Sand Rod (respectively) to bypass obstacles. All the others were rather forgettable except for the Ice Ruins, which I absolutely hated. Not only was it a long, tedious trek to get there, but the slippery snow and ice physics frequently caused me to fall off and lose hearts, or fall from one floor to another and have to make the climb back up to try again. The Tower of Hera also got on my nerves since it brought back Moldorm as the boss, that annoying giant worm from A Link to the Past that keeps knocking you off the floor you fight it on. Truthfully I didn’t think much of the boss fights. Very few of them utilized the ability to become a wall painting, except for Stalblind, which was cleverly done, and Knucklemaster, which relied on the cliched boss fight tactic of tricking the enemy into ramming the wall, knocking it out temporarily so you could attack. All the others were fairly easy, employing the series’ standard method of weakening them with a specific item, then slashing at them with your sword, without any need to use the wall merging feature. The only fight that poses a real challenge is the final battle against Ganon, but even then, if well prepared with potions, upgrades and fairies, it will be a breeze.

The relatively small map also diminishes the incentive to explore as there’s fairly little to do in terms of sidequests. Majora’s Mask and Skyward Sword weren’t very large, but you could frequently find new events that opened up fascinating ancillary stories which further fleshed out the world. Here though, the optional missions are pretty mediocre. Treasure pits, a tower where you fight through floors of monsters, Octorock baseball, and tracking down 100 shellfish like creatures called “Maimais” that make annoying squeaking sounds whenever you’re close to one. There’s nothing that gives Hyrule or Lorule any sense of vibrancy. And the sad thing is, there were several opportunities to create some impressive side quests that were ignored. For example, in Thieves’ Town there’s a small cult forming where all its followers wear monster masks, the leader urging them to worship monsters to save them from the chaos that threatens Lorule. I thought this would have led to a confrontation later on where you had to break the followers free from the priest’s manipulation, but no, all you do is talk to them and hear the same lines of dialogue no matter how far you’ve made it through the main quest. Very disappointing.

Let me balance out my complaints with another aspect I did enjoy; the ability to turn into a painting and move along the walls. As you said, this was a very inventive mechanic and, aside from most of the boss fights that where you used it, well executed. It made for some rather interesting puzzles where you could bypass obstacles or enter cracks in walls to uncover secret areas. However, and while I have no proof to back this up, I suspect that this was born out of a similar development decision like in StarFox Adventures or Kirby’s Epic Yarn. The transformation power, while clever, doesn’t really seem to fit in the world of Zelda. I’m guessing that a designer at Nintendo or Monolith Soft came up with the idea and pitched it to their superiors with the intention of using it in an original title, but management ordered it to be attached to an existing Nintendo franchise for the sake of sales and name recognition. Again, just speculation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the case.

CORRECTION: I was mistaken in this assumption. The idea of Link turning into a painting came from Aonuma, drawing from the Phantom Ganon battle in Ocarina of Time. (Jim)

Eli: I don’t know, some people would say shrinking or flying didn’t fit into the Zelda universe either, but they integrated it pretty well, and I thought the same of the merging mechanic. I also liked the idea that you were using the villain’s trump card against him–I don’t know how many times when I played A Link To The Past as a kid, that I got frustrated when I was blocked off by an obstacle, and it felt kinda cathartic to be able to merge into a wall and walk across to the other side.

You know, when it comes right down to it, I think we agree on a lot of these points…but I guess, for me, the fact that it has these bad points weren’t enough for me to call it a bad game overall–just a flawed one. I dunno, speaking as someone who played through Paper Mario: Sticker Star, I’ve seen much worse sequels to franchises that I liked. I think we can both agree that A Link Between Worlds had a lot of potential–and I would have liked to have seen that potential, even if it WAS just a Link To The Past remake. There are good ideas here, but nowhere near enough for me to even have it crack the top 10 of my favorite Zelda titles. I guess in the end, I’ve seen much worse, and I think “soulless” is a bit of an exaggeration to describe this game. Maybe “half-souled” would be more accurate. Though frankly, even I wouldn’t call this one of the best Zelda titles.

Jim: I suppose in the end it all comes down to our personal expectations. I would hardly say that the game was horrible or the worst in the series. That dubious honor will always belong to…

… yeah, the unholy trinity

I was just expecting more from one of my favorite series. I’m glad that you and others enjoyed it in spite of the flaws, I just wish I could have also. Here’s hoping that the next Zelda game, whenever it comes out, will have a bit more effort put into it and resonate with me more. I know Nintendo can do better, because they have done better.

 

Thanks again for doing this with me, Eli. If I can ever return the favor, just let me know. *brofist*

Eli: *brofist* No problem. It was good working with you.

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