The biggest complaint gamers have about the Legend of Zelda series these days is that the franchise has become too stagnant, too tame, too predictable, too risk-averse. Basically, every Zelda basically follows the template laid down more than 20 years ago in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
Maybe it's fitting, then, that the long-awaited sequel to A Link to the Past -- the upcoming A Link Between Worlds -- Nintendo is apparently throwing out the Zelda formula altogether. Yeah, there's still an overworld (pretty much the same overworld as in A Link to the Past, it appears) and you'll still fight through dungeons with tools and weapons in hand... but aside from those basics, A Link Between Worlds tosses out the bathwater, the baby, and entire tub for good measure.
A Link Between Worlds sounds almost like it'll be a throwback to the original Legend of Zelda, the one where you could literally go anywhere from the very beginning of the game and enter pretty much any dungeon right away. There were a few dungeons you couldn't advance very far into until you got the ladder, and two you couldn't reach without the raft. But if you wanted to start the game by popping into Level-8 to die horribly in an instant, well, the only thing stopping you was your lack of ability to burn open the dungeon's entrance. And that shortcoming was easily remedied with a trip to any merchant that sold candles.
In A Link Between Worlds, you'll also be able to visit any dungeon you like from the outset. And while you'll still need special weapons and tools in order to complete those stages, you're no longer locked into a sequence of delving into one dungeon to find its special item, using that tool to defeat the boss and access the next stage, then repeating the process. Instead, you can buy any of the game's special items at any time -- and if the price of a boomerang or hookshot or whatever seems too dear, you can elect to rent them instead for a much lower price.
Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma recently told ONM that "collecting rupees... will be very important" in Link Between Worlds. It seems safe to say the central importance of the item shop inspired that particular statement.
Will this newfound freedom improve Zelda, or hurt it? The prospect of grinding for cash in order to make the slightest progress in the game sounds deeply unappealing. Sure, the current Zelda structure has grown tired after 20 years of constant iteration, but how do you otherwise direct the pace of the game? The original Zelda relied on obfuscation and maddeningly vague objectives to impede players (forearmed with the knowledge of the game's secrets, you can breeze through it in a few short hours).
The Wind Waker marked the closest Zelda has come to a properly open world since 1986, and in the end it relied on grinding for cash (for the Triforce map quest) in order to extend play time. The recent Wind Waker HD remake actually went back and greatly changed the structure of that quest to make it considerably less tedious, so it would be strange if the same team went and built an entire game around a flaw that they'd only just removed from their prior project. Surely there must be more A Link Between Worlds' shop mechanic than mundane money-hunting... right?
I'm certainly willing to wait and see how it plays out. As a fan of the original Zelda, the idea of a world whose initial state is wide open really appeals to me. The Mega Man games have always done just fine in offering players a whole lot of options right from the outset, and the "chain of weaknesses" inherent in their structure creates a natural sort of balance. And learning that proper order -- the sense of initial discovery -- is both a big part of those games' appeal and a key element that's long been missing from the Zelda series. So there's real potential here.
Then again, maybe it won't matter. The second biggest complaint gamers have about Zelda right after "It hasn't changed enough" is "It's changed too much." It's not like every single Zelda game has clung to the formula established by A Link to the Past, after all; on the contrary, the past few portable Zelda games have struck out in their own direction. And they've generally been reviled for it. It's not at all unlikely that A Link Between Worlds will prove to be simply another unappreciated portable Zelda. The fact that it's a direct sequel to the most beloved entry in the series could potentially be its own greatest stumbling block by setting up expectations in fans before defying them. For better or for worse, we'll see what happens when the game launches next month.