To celebrate the 35th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda, we’re running a series of features looking at a specific aspect — a theme, character, mechanic, location, memory or something else entirely — from each of the mainline Zelda games. Today, Kate marvels at the way A Link Between Worlds snuck in a bunch of big changes in disguise…
When I first played A Link Between Worlds, I, too, was a link between worlds. I’d played about one-sixth of A Link to the Past as a kid, unable to get past the first temple, but with about 20 hours plugged into the top-down world of Hyrule, I knew it like the back of my hand. My first few minutes in A Link Between Worlds pumped me full of nostalgia like a doughnut filled with memory jam, but it almost felt like unearned nostalgia for a game I was too crap to complete.
Luckily, A Link Between Worlds doesn’t solely rely on your fond, fuzzy memories of its predecessor — it’s fully its own thing. With the neat mechanic of “Link is a drawing now”, a new world of possibilities opens up — largely to do with being two-dimensional, sure, but given that we currently have six mainline Paper Mario games, it’s not like that’s a limitation.
But this isn’t a review. We already did one of those. You haven’t come here to hear about the fact that A Link Between Worlds is good — it came out almost ten years ago, you already know that. You’re here because we’ve been talking about the Zelda games in weird, interesting ways to celebrate the series’ 35th anniversary. So, what does A Link Between Worlds bring to the table, other than the introduction of Ravio, the thinking man’s Tingle?
The obvious answer is that, much like middle-aged millionaires, ALBW really loves the idea of renting. In real life, having to pay for the use of tools that used to be free might be grounds for a stern letter to your local council (or, at the very least, an angry tweet thread). In a Zelda game, it’s a literal game-changer.
Suddenly, the world is your oyster, and you’ve just rented six different shucking devices. You don’t have to do the Zelda sequence of going dungeon-by-dungeon, unlocking the hammer that lets you smash the boulder that gets you access to the dungeon with the magnifying glass that helps you see the tiny dungeon that has the Triforce in it, or whatever. Now you can go straight to whichever dungeon you want! You’re not my dad, Ganon!
Now, I don’t want to go all Tom Nook on you, but renting objects is an excellent incentive for Link’s adventuring. Suddenly, rupees have meaning again, because they can be used to rent more items, and even buy them outright eventually. Sure, renting benefits the
landlord itemlord far more than the renter, but isn’t that just motivation to get richer so that you can become the itemlord? Hmmmmm. Between Animal Crossing and Zelda, I’m beginning to think that Nintendo games are just undercover landlord propaganda.
The best part about A Link Between Worlds (and, as I can often be heard yelling about after a few beers, every handheld Zelda) is that it’s not afraid to toy with convention that its own designers invented. The general Zelda-loving public has all but canonised the Zelda oeuvre, to the point where we’ve now got a semi-established, sort-of-canon timeline that attempts to explain all the meaningless nonsense that went on in a lot of the early games.
Now, I do love a Zelda, but I’m not generally of the opinion that, for example, the team who made Majora’s Mask did so with a decades-long legacy in mind. I think that a lot of Zelda games, especially the earlier ones that branch off in weird directions, were probably the result of the designers getting a bit bored with the established formula, and wanting to stretch their wings a little.
But, much like how everyone assumes that every tiny detail in Dark Souls is brimming with meaning, even if it’s something like “this door doesn’t open” or “I used debug codes to clip into this man’s body and he has eyeballs inside his feet”, people are very happy to ascribe various things in Zelda to the genius of its creators, rather than just being lucky accidents or beautiful mistakes. Don’t get me wrong — there are a lot of extremely clever design decisions in Zelda games, and the designers at Nintendo are some of the best in the world — but that Hyrule Historia mega-timeline smacks of retconning to me.
But by the time A Link Between Worlds comes out, Zelda as a concept is a mint-in-box, never-opened, kept-in-a-glass-case series, as far as a lot of the fandom is concerned, and they don’t tend to like it when things are different. Remember Wind Waker’s reveal trailer? Or Skyward Sword‘s… everything?
It’s wild to think about, because generally, the Zelda games that are most well-received after release are the ones that do things a bit differently, and yet, every time we get a trailer that makes it look like Link is wearing a slightly-different-colour-of-green tunic, we’ll get all sorts of hand-wringing articles on game websites worrying that it’s a misstep. And yes, I am almost definitely one of them. Listen, games journalists often have to spin 2000 words out of a single screenshot, we’re just trying to have something interesting to say, ok?
A Link Between Worlds not only plays with convention, it literally takes a sacred childhood memory — the world of A Link to the Past — and begins to shuffle it off the edge of a table like a cat with a glass of water. It paints over the top of a version of Hyrule we know and love, and shows us that, actually, change can not only be good, but it can be utterly transformative.
But A Link Between Worlds is also a sign of how tentative Nintendo could be in the pre-Switch era. For all the company’s madcap experimentation, new ideas were often explored in the skins of old ones: Phantom Hourglass is set in the Wind Waker world; ALBW is set in exactly the same place as A Link to the Past; Skyward Sword is an attempt to patch up a hole in the timeline. Even in other Nintendo series released around the same time as ALBW, like Super Mario 3D World, the aesthetics are comfortingly similar. It’s almost as though Nintendo’s plan was to sneak in new things without totally spooking the fans, like hiding your dog’s pills in a piece of steak.
Of course, it worked. Breath of the Wild, the next game in the series (if you don’t count Tri Force Heroes) was a breath of fresh air, set in a totally new world — I mean, yeah, it’s Hyrule, but it’s entirely open and you can do it in absolutely any order, which is 100% a part of A Link Between Worlds’ DNA. Super Mario Odyssey changed stars into moons, and introduced a hat friend that literally turns Mario into different things. Change is scary, but Nintendo’s gently experimental 3DS and Wii U games eased us into it.
So, A Link Between Worlds was part of Nintendo’s plan to quietly, tenderly revitalise an old series. And who better to trust with your sacred nostalgia than the people who created it in the first place? Hopefully, with Breath of the Wild 2 coming soon (maybe), we can continue to see this pattern of change, new ideas, and zero fear in tearing up the paintings of the past and turning them into a brand-new collage.