Earlier this week, I had a hands-on session with The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, though I didn't learn much about it that wasn't already known. Nintendo has been incredibly up-front about the changes ALBW makes to the Zelda formula, and these bullet points happened to be the first things hammered into my head when I sat down for my first experience with the game.
Yes, this installment allows Link to visit the traditional series of dungeons in any order thanks to a new item rental system, and its story fits neatly into the Zelda timeline in ways I can't imagine anyone caring about -- outside of you folks who personally annotated your copies of Hyrule Historia, of course. But how does it play?
My 45 minutes with ALBW saw a Nintendo rep steering me in the direction of what A Link to the Past fans would know as the Dark Palace. And, just as in the legendary SNES game, ALBW sees Link jumping back and forth between a light and dark world, known in this iteration as Hyrule and (the all-too-easy pun) Lorule. Instead of running in and out of portals to switch dimensions, though, Link now uses his new "merge" ability to flatten his body and slip into cracks leading to the alternate world -- handy whenever one version of reality doesn't offer a direct path to your goal. This might just be the dressing up of a decades-old mechanic, but thankfully, ALBW approaches Link's 2D form while keeping in mind how much this new ability can lend to traditional, Zelda-style puzzles.
I reached the run-up to the demo session's dungeon, which featured a new use for Flat Link: slipping past various guards in a relatively pain-free stealth section. Like Solid Snake before him, Link can smash his body into ivy-covered walls to slip by enemies undetected. But since this form relies on an all-purpose, slow-to-recharge meter (which also powers all of your items), the pre-dungeon area challenged me to use stealth effectively, all while giving a little bit of wiggle room just in case everything didn't go perfectly. Whenever Link sticks to a wall, the camera zooms incredibly close to him, so it's quite helpful that ALBW provides a few seconds to get your bearings after popping back into 3D form.
While ALBW doesn't offer the same sort of laser-focused emphasis on the touchscreen its handheld predecessors did, its top-down perspective at least gives the system's 3D feature a tiny boost in relevance. Much like A Link to the Past's attempt to simulate depth with sprite effects and Mode 7 trickery, my brief experience with ALBW displayed a real focus on verticality, with the 3D slider offering a bit of assistance in Link's attempts to traverse environmental puzzles. It's not at all necessary, of course -- which is good news for those of us who get inexplicably powerful headaches from the 3DS' titular feature (or bought a 2DS) -- but I can see myself nudging the 3D on (if only to its lowest setting) whenever an extra layer of graphical effects could provide some helpful visual information.
Speaking of visuals, ALBW's have yet to win me over. While technically competent and displayed with a silky smooth framerate, in the wake of Wind Waker's recent HD remake, ALBW feels lifeless in comparison. It actually sort of reminds me of the New Super Mario Bros. series, which, outside of a few notable levels, aspires to the all-purpose corporate blandness of your lesser Dreamworks movies. The original A Link to the Past contains some pretty wild choices -- like giving Link a totally outrageous hot pink hairdo -- so it's more than a little disappointing to see this sorta-remake play it so safe.
My time with ALBW didn't extend further than a single dungeon, but still, the changes on display feel like important steps for the Zelda series, and steps that probably should have been made a decade ago. Sure, Nintendo might be advancing the series by relying entirely on the Zelda game that defined everything that would follow, but after the incredibly linear, busywork-filled Skyward Sword, giving players the chance to stretch their legs and explore on their own terms shows Nintendo has started to remember what made the original Legend of Zelda such a life-changing experience to begin with.