To the avid - and aged - gamer, slotting Zelda: A Link Between Worlds into a 3DS is a bit like getting into a time machine and spinning the clock back 20 years. Because, on the face of it, the latest Zelda feels exactly like the early 90s Zelda title on the SNES, A Link To The Past.
For starters the main map of Hyrule is the same. The isometric viewpoint is much the same too. Ok, so the world is crafted in three dimensions, rather than from 2D sprites, but the overall familiarity - fun as it is - almost has a waft of laziness about it.
Unless, of course, you’re under the age of 25 and don’t know what the SNES was - in which case you’re unlikely to have played the earlier title and A Link Between Worlds will feel totally new. Which is clever Nintendo recycling. Because A Link To The Past was, for us, one of those seminal moments in gaming. Can Zelda in 2013 live up to the same levels of praise?
Scratch and sniff
Scratch beneath the surface and it quickly becomes apparent that A Link Between Worlds is a whole new game. Think of the main map as a homage to Zelda of old, revel in the brand new dungeons, and learn new gameplay devices and it builds up a whole new dynamic.
You’ll progress to a point in the game where Link, the game’s famed green-hatted protagonist, acquires a new power: the ability to become a paper-thin, painted version of himself who can walk across wall surfaces. It’s like art in motion. And that’s an essential tool to progress through the game - whether by slotting between slender gaps, window bars, or, later, rifts between two worlds.
Typical of Zelda games is a linear gameplay format where you effectively navigate to pre-defined areas in order and get rewarded by extended life - represented by heart containers - and acquire special items at given points. At first this doesn't appear so in A Link Between Worlds. If you’ve got the cash - as represented by rupees found throughout Hyrule - you can rent a huge portion of items at the early stages of the game. No need to finish seven dungeons to get hold of the boomerang, or the hookshot, or whatever - you can rent them all and assign them to buttons for quick use.
As you progress through the game exceptions become apparent: you'll need the Sandhook and Titan's Mitt before you're really ready to roll through the latter stages of the game.
You will still need to finish up a number of set pieces and eradicate the big bosses to progress to the next big section in the storyline, but the thinking behind the rental process feels that bit fresher. If you die, however, rented items are returned to the vendor and you’ll have to go fetch them all again. To buy items outright is much, much pricier.
But even with new devices squeezed in to this well established gaming series, it still feels very Zelda. It’s got the right balance of difficulty - those evil guards will get you more often than you’d think - and enough side missions and exploration to keep the adventure and RPG balance scales levelled out just right.
And just like so many Zelda classics there will often be moments where you’re left stumped, scratching your head and wondering "what next?". There are ways to get hints in the game, including ghosts that can help in dungeons, and a fortune teller who has a shop in the main world.
The trickiest part of the game are the dungeons. But they're also the most enthralling part because they're taxing to figure out - you'll need to occasionally pause and mull things over in order to succeed in which switches to press and when, or there'll be a sudden lightbulb moment when you realise you need that special item to get to that elusive floating platform. It avoids rocket science complexity as to be suitable for a variety of ages, but it will make you think. Classic Nintendo on the difficulty stakes.
The big boss characters in each dungeon can be so challenging that they'll be your demise. And if they do get the better of you then rather than need to battle through the entirety of a dungeon all over again, the unlocked doors often leave a relatively easy path to scoot back over and go in for round two.
To save your progress you’ll need to stop off at a weather vane - which politely tell you that you’ve been playing too long and should take a break - at a number of available locations throughout Hyrule. Fast-travel is also available between them via a witchy friend.
The overriding thing about Zelda is how addictive it is. You’ll just want to pick it back up and progress further. At Pocket-lint we’re all grown adults, and yet days and nights we’ve spent seeking out the Seven Sages - we’ll let you discover the implicit meaning of that for yourselves - and working our way through the game. There are hours and hours of gameplay to be had.
When you do get "stuck" it also doesn’t really matter. Because you’ll remember that you’re also supposed to be hunting out one hundred missing Maiamais, while there’s a certain joy to cutting down bushes and seeking out secret passages that makes you feel like an adventurous kid all over again.
The game also looks good, with smooth animations, the hum-along classic soundtrack that’s been reworked and remixed for decades now, although as visible from the screen grabs scattered around this review the small screen’s output is 3DS standards of resolution. Not super-sharp, but it’s hard to tell otherwise at this scale.
The only other thing we’d like to see sussed out is the map areas within Hyrule - there are "invisible wall" sections that scroll the map along from one part to another, rather than always fluidly moving around. You won’t need to wait for a load, though, which is good - but there can be the odd stutter as new info is drawn from the cartridge. Nothing to impact on gameplay though.
Zelda: A Link Between Worlds may sound like a remake of the classic A Link To The Past, but it’s oh so much more than that. It draws on all that was good about the classic game, adds in some new gameplay elements, entirely new dungeons and gets the balance just right. This is classic Nintendo crafted to perfection.
If at first the game feels on a small scale compared to the epic Zelda games seen on Wii, you’ll quickly realise how many hours of play there are to be had. The classic - yet altogether familiar, if not overly recycled - storyline is supplemented by additional tasks, side missions and for-the-heck-of-it exploration that are all genuinely fun. Just as a good game should be.
Zelda titles have always been among the most anticipated games out there. And even though A Link Between Worlds is "just a 3DS title", and one that’s as much about new play as it is homage to the Zelda of years gone by, it’s so brilliant that you’ll lose hours and hours to it invested in addictive gameplay.
For us that’s meant neglecting the brand new PlayStation 4 sat under the telly - now that speaks volumes in itself. Nintendo’s starting to pull some special treats out of the bag in 2013 and A Link Between Worlds is one of them. It's worth buying a 2DS or 3DS just to play it.