There's no getting around the fact that the latest entry in Nintendo's Legend of Zelda series, A Link Between Worlds, is dog-ugly. Its simplistic polygons and lumpy visual design look amateurish at best, downright offensive at worst.
I suppose you could pin the blame on the fact that A Link Between Worlds hews so closely to its direct predecessor, A Link to the Past. 1992's definitive Zelda adventure featured a very unusual art style, with a rounded look to its environments that led to oddities like trees that appeared to have been made from injection-molded plastic and rocks that resembled congealed chocolate. A Link Between Worlds reproduces entire elements of A Link to the Past wholesale, and it attempts to recreate quirky 20-year-old bitmap graphics in polygons. The effect, unfortunately, doesn't quite work, and the whole affair is an eyesore -- especially cutscenes, where the awkward appearance of characters (who come off as refugees from the lowest grade of third-party Dreamcast software) deflates any intended dramatic impact.
You can't help but be disappointed by this outcome, as the Zelda games have generally featured fairly attractive graphics. You'd certainly never know about this legacy by looking at this latest entry, though. Even the DS games, low-resolution as they were, demonstrated a pleasant art style that worked well within that system's constraints. A Link Between Worlds reminds me less of Phantom Hourglass and more of those laughably terrible CDi games that Philips developed (leaving a permanent stain on the franchise's reputation to serve as Nintendo's penance for backing out on their "Play Station" deal with Sony). I many hours into A Link Between Worlds at this point, and throughout the entire adventure I've cringed at the agony being inflicted on my eyes every time I glance at the screen.
Jarring as Worlds' appearance is, however, I can sincerely say I don't care. Barfy-looking graphics, it turns out, are a tradeoff... and the benefits greatly outweigh any superficial ugliness. Simply put, A Link Between Worlds is the fastest, smoothest-playing Zelda game ever. Its world may be hideous to behold, but it moves with silky consistency.
This doesn't mark the series' first foray into merging the two-dimensional overhead perspective of older Zelda games with 3D polygons, but it is the first to do so with a traditional control scheme. Moving from sprites to polygons frees the action from the old "grid" style of world interaction, and Link's movements aren't restricted here to the eight directions that they were on Super NES (with the exception of certain items like dash boots, whose nature as old-school throwbacks serves a functional purpose). The DS Zelda games compensated for that system's digital-only controls by making Link maneuver about with a stylus on the touch-screen, and only a stylus. It was clever and accessible, but it also didn't quite feel like Zelda.
Controlling the hero in A Link Between Worlds, on the other hand, feels exactly like a Zelda game should. No, actually, that's not true. It feels better than it should, or at least better than what you've come to expect. Link is incredibly responsive, and he moves snappily through a full 360-degree range of motion. Getting about and fighting enemies feels far more fluid than it did in classic Zelda games, but the forced top-down perspective means you don't have to fuss around with a 3D camera and rely on Z-targeting in order to guarantee you hit your target. There are no cheats or workarounds or "good enoughs" here; merely Zelda mechanics perfected.
The control scheme in A Link Between Worlds is so good, in fact, that it takes some getting used to. Previous games in the series have featured an element of self-correction in their controls, whether through the four- or eight-directional grids that constrained Link's action, or else via a lock-on button that kept the camera pointed at your target. Here, you have a wide range of motions to complement the fact that you gain access to all your usual dungeon tools nearly at the outset of the journey, so you have to employ a touch more discipline than usual to ensure Link aims where you want him to. Before long, though, you'll feel right at home with the game's immediacy and responsiveness.
That -- and the crummy graphics -- are small prices to pay for a game that plays so well. It's hard to know, not having finished the adventure or gauged other people's reactions to it, what place A Link Between Worlds will carve for itself in the Zelda series' history. But if I were to wager, I'd guess it would have something to do with redefining the fundamental playability of the games. It offers the fluidity and grace of The Wind Waker, yet it lacks the crutch of constantly holding down a button to keep your weapons trained on your target. Sure, it looks terrible next to Wind Waker's stunning visuals, but the tradeoff is the fastest-paced, most energetic action RPG I've ever played. That's a compromise I'm more than willing to make.
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