2013 In Review: The Legend of Zelda Told Me to Get Lost

How A Link Between World's focus on player freedom created the best installment in years.

Article by Bob Mackey, .

Halfway through A Link Between Worlds, something astounding happened: I had absolutely no idea what to do next.

In our high-stakes, gargantuan-budget world of game development, the slightest hint of player confusion typically yields all manner of arrows, blinking dots, or unsolicited assistance from irritating "helper" characters to ensure the interactive experience isn't hampered by too much input on your part. But instead of panicking, throwing my 3DS into a roaring fire, and immediately retiring to the comfortable pay-to-win world of mobile games, I instead used this lack of guidance to explore every inch of Lorule's uncharted territory, in the hopes I'd eventually stumble into my next goal -- while collecting a bounty of treasures and items along the way. I mean, isn't that supposed to be the point of a Legend of Zelda game?

At least, it used to be -- exploration really hasn't been a focus of Nintendo's most esteemed property since 2003's The Wind Waker. The gradual dialing back of The Legend of Zelda's mission statement reached an unsettling crescendo in 2011's Skyward Sword, which, despite its attempts at scope and grandeur, rarely paid lip service to Shigeru Miyamoto's original concept of a little boy lost in a big world. The premise of Skyward entailed that its "levels" would be unlocked one-by-one -- in fact, the game didn't make you aware other areas in the game even existed until your next objective revealed them. This hand-holding nature grew to intolerable levels with the addition of Fi, an obnoxious assistant who makes the shrieking, meme-friendly Navi from Ocarina of Time seem almost like a timid Boo Radley figure in comparison. Nintendo tried to hang a lantern on Fi's intrusive, patronizing advice, but in the end, she still offered an endless stream of unwanted help at every opportunity. Useful for those who didn't know keys open locks, I guess.

Where do you want to go today?

That said, 2011 saw Nintendo in a much different place: still coasting off of the phenomenal sales of the Wii, and with the must-be-a-sure-thing Wii U just a year away from release. Just as the safe, linear quality of Skyward Sword stood as the product of a Nintendo that didn't really need to try, two short years later, A Link Between Worlds came into being from a developer with its back very much against the wall. To be fair, ALBW isn't as out-there and experimental as 2000's Majora's Mask, which retooled the Zelda formula so much that it currently stands as the series' black sheep. Even if you aren't old enough to have nostalgia for A Link to the Past, A Link Between Worlds exists as a remix of what's often considered the best installment in the series, and one of the best games of all time. But this streak of typical Nintendo conservatism allows ALBW to institute some of the most sweeping changes The Legend of Zelda has ever seen.

Rather than plugging new items and characters into The Zelda Template, A Link Between Worlds takes a serious look at the most unnecessary elements of the series, and washes its hands of them entirely. The early parts of any Zelda game often shove hours of obligatory exposition into your lap, and after that, Link slowly sees his arsenal increase one item at a time -- so it typically takes a dozen-or-so hours to turn him into the versatile character he's known to be. A Link Between Worlds understands that being rewarded with the same items for the nth time doesn't carry the same novelty it once did, so, right after a brief opening dungeon, the game gives you access to just about everything Link needs throughout the course of his journey.

Because of this change, the game can immediately focus on throwing puzzles in your path which rely on the use of said tools, which makes for some extremely effective dungeons. Since you enter each dungeon with the item that would have been typically found inside of it in past Zelda games, these areas can now focus entirely on the use of these tools, instead of devoting half of their real estate to tracking them down in the first place. This results in much smaller dungeons, but ones where each and every room puts your puzzle-solving skills to the test.

The dungeons in A Link Between Worlds are far more effective.

Of course, the most monument change to A Link Between Worlds is one that really hasn't been seen in a Legend of Zelda game since A Link to the Past. In fact, ALBW's hands-off treatment feels even more like a throwback to the series' 1986 debut, which also allowed players to take on dungeons in any order they chose -- provided they could survive the fearsome enemies within. While A Link Between Worlds marks these locations on your map, reaching these areas and even opening up the dungeons isn't as simple as reaching their respective red Xes. Instead of being prodded along by insecure game design, being unable to reach or even open these dungeons doesn't result in assistance; A Link Between Worlds trusts that you understand its world is full of lots of attractions, so a stumbling block only means the opportunity to focus on another objective, or simply wander aimlessly. It's all too rare to see a game content to let you make your own fun.

A Link Between Worlds might have given the Zelda series the shake-up it needs to stay relevant and interesting, but this doesn't mean the series will inevitably continue down this path. For all we know, this portable Zelda could stand as an aberration, and the Wii U's HD Zelda could very much be in the works. In a perfect world, though, Nintendo would take what they learned from A Link Between Worlds, and give us another game that focused on player freedom -- minus the familiarity of a decades-old structure, of course. Just as I thought I'd outgrown the Zelda series, a Link Between Worlds pulled me back in -- and if the next Zelda doesn't let me get lost, it might just lose me entirely.

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Comments 18

  • Avatar for Stealth20k #1 Stealth20k 4 years ago
    I dont agree with this author at all about the state of legend of zelda. Every single entry is pretty much good
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  • Avatar for kingaelfric #2 kingaelfric 4 years ago
    Stealth20k--With all due respect, I think you should stand in the corner and wear a Minish Cap for that comment.
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  • Avatar for Daryoon #3 Daryoon 4 years ago
    ...only the dungeons were still designed around the use of a single tool, many of which were hardly ever used elsewhere.

    And almost everything was in the exact same place as it was in LttP. Not really much use for exploration when your secrets are cribbed from a twenty year old game. A twenty year old game with, perhaps, a great deal more freedom/reward. The amount of times LBW rewarded me with MORE RUPREES when LttP would hand me an invisibility cloak, or magic spell, or some other tool not required to complete the game, but which offered interesting alternatives. Alternatives LBW never really had.
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  • Avatar for SinewySimian #4 SinewySimian 4 years ago
    Nice writeup Bob, and I completely agree. Twilight Princess dragged; Skyward Sword was unbearable, and I too was just about to write off Zelda as something I'd outgrown... and then out of the blue they give us this — the most enjoyable Zelda game since Majora.
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  • Avatar for Keldorek #5 Keldorek 4 years ago
    @Stealth20k I absolutely agree. "Link Between Worlds" is easily my game of the year, but I don't have a problem in the least with this series. I think people vastly underrate the series' own innovations in every entry. For instance, I played Skyward Sword to completion over the course of a week and found it a total masterwork, while another commenter here called it "unbearable." The world is filled with differing points of view.

    Still loved the article; great writing and great points.Edited December 2013 by Keldorek
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #6 Stealth20k 4 years ago
    Did this entry provide a big shake up? yes. But that doesnt really mean the other entries have been bad because it didnt do the same thing was my point.

    Nintendo can make an amazing Zelda emulating Link between worlds or not. It doesnt really matter
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  • Avatar for DogNozzle #7 DogNozzle 4 years ago
    I've been wondering if the wider game industry will learn from the example set by Demon's Souls, and start to apply those lessons. Less hand-holding, more challenge, more mystery, more moment-to-moment decisions for the player to make, higher player stakes, a sense of danger and discovery.

    While it's a very different game, A Link Between Worlds does feel to me like a step in that direction.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #8 Kuni-Nino 4 years ago
    Fuck. Being a Skyward Sword fan isn't easy. :(
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #9 Roto13 4 years ago
    @Stealth20k Bob Mackey has been hating on Zelda for years and he has been wrong for years.
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  • Avatar for Terpiscorei #10 Terpiscorei 4 years ago
    @Daryoon I liked ALBW, but you've identified the biggest problem I have with the game. Losing your rented items upon death initially seems harsh, but once you've gotten into a dungeon, dying typically costs you at most a little bit of time and 50 rupees. The central conceit of the game is further undermined by the weird decision to place bombs next to every puzzle that requires them (outside the bomb dungeon, of course).
    @DogNozzle I hope you are right, but I'm not sure I see the major publishers becoming less risk-averse in the near future. It's made worse by the mobile gold rush, where the highest grossing games are the ones that tend to ask very little of the player.
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  • Avatar for sam-stephens #11 sam-stephens 4 years ago
    I often disagree with this notion that recent Zelda games are too easy or hold the players hand. Don't get me wrong, I love this game as well as the rest of the series (except the first two for their obtuse design, especially a The Adventure of Link). In fact, I would say that Phantom Hourglass and Skyward Sword are the best games in the series. The are elegant, clear, contain useful tools for mapping the world, and reinvent the series through their use of unique hardware. Are they more linear than older games? I don't really think so. Streamlined is more like it. The series, even A Link To the Past, has never really been about freedom or exploration, or at least no more than Skyward Sword is.

    I often hear how the series should be more like Demon's Souls. I find this view to be either selfish or insensitive to those who are below that game's skill floor. It is great that Demon's Souls exist, but it is a very esoteric game for a niche audience. Video games are for everyone, so I think we should be understanding of things like tutorials and low skill floors. Zelda does an amazing job at acomadating for players of all skill. Just look at Skyward Sword. The begging may seem tutorial heavy, but if you don't learn how to properly swing your sword, you will never make it far past the first dungeon. So the game slowly teaches the player how to use it properly. Building the players skill and knowledge as the game progresses. This is useful for both new and experienced players. They may just not ever realize it. This is how learning works, and no video game series teaches better than The Legend of Zelda. So let's be fair to the recent ges and the innovations they have given us. I think you will find more there than you originally found.
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  • Avatar for Fresh_Paprika #12 Fresh_Paprika 4 years ago
    @Kuni-Nino Don't worry about it. The Zelda fan base is like Goldilocks and the Three Bears: "This one is too close to A Link to the Past, this one isn't close enough." "This game is too green, this game isn't green enough." "This one has too many dungeons, this one has too few." "It's too long, but that one is too short." "Link is too young, but here he's too old." "He's right handed?! I'm ruined!!" And my favorite: "What, no Zoras! What, Zoras again?!"

    Whenever there's a new Zelda somebody somewhere will complain about it. Personally, I love A Link to the Past, Ocarina, Majora's Mask (this one's too weird and hard and not enough like OoT), Wind Waker (this one too cartoony, short, easy and boring), Twilight Princess (this one is too close to OoT and long) and Skyward Sword (this one's too linear and chatty) pretty much equally. They're all masterpiece in my eyes and my favorite games, but people can't stop complaining about anything other than AttP and OoT (and even OoT has been getting some crap in the past few years). I still don't understand what the hell is so wrong about Spirit Tracks. There's no right or wrong, just a lot of petty bickering.

    A Link Between World is really good. I don't necessarily think that being able to clear dungeon F before dungeon D completely changes the game, you can say that Skyward Sword's more linear nature changed it as well, and many do. I love both. What's wrong with loving both? It's magic every time.

    Maybe the fact that people can't stop arguing about the games mean that the series really does deliver something new and different with every installment?Edited 2 times. Last edited December 2013 by Fresh_Paprika
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  • Avatar for Fresh_Paprika #13 Fresh_Paprika 4 years ago
    Off-topic: I really dislike the "thumbs-up, thumbs-down" system in the comments. Some comments get negative reactions even though they just express a simple inoffensive opinion. If it's offensive, flag it or something, but don't discourage people from saying something you don't agree with. All opinions are equally crap. Just roll your eyes like the rest of us.
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  • Avatar for nadiaoxford #14 nadiaoxford 4 years ago
    Skyward Sword's greatest strength is its characters, Fi excluded. Even Link's gestures and facial expressions give him a lot of personality -- something I realised when it became obvious he's nothing but a cipher in Link Between Worlds (don't kill me, it's my GOTY).
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  • Avatar for LunarFlame17 #15 LunarFlame17 4 years ago
    Probably nobody will read this comment, since this article is almost a week old now, but I'll comment anyway. I really don't understand all the hate that Skyward Sword gets. Maybe I'm just more patient than most people, but I didn't mind all the hand holding. Heck, I got massively stuck in that game even with all the hand holding, and stopped playing it for almost a year. When I came back to it, I absolutely adored it, and now it's my favorite Zelda of all time.

    Conversely, while I love ALBW, I never got stuck in it once. None of the puzzles stumped me for more than a few minutes, and I always had an idea of where to go next. I do agree that the next Zelda should be more free form and less "hand holdy". I would love to see what a less linear Skyward Sword looks like. But that doesn't mean I think ALBW is a better game than Skyward Sword.
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  • Avatar for Thusian #16 Thusian 4 years ago
    Its a tricky line to straddle, I loved ALBTW, but it was a bit easy. Furthermore, I like many users here have enjoyed the whole series so far. With the exception, and this is huge, of the first. Mind you I was young, but I had no idea what to do, got the sword wandered around got killed and gave it back to my friend.

    The series takes a lot of crap for not messing with the formula, and that's really why ALBW is held up so high over Skyward Sword. I would argue, however that there is more different between OOT and Skyward Sword than there is across the entire Uncharted series. They both carry their mechanics basically across the series, difference is Uncharted has meh level design, but changes the ascetic, you were in a jungle, now you're in a desert. Meanwhile Zelda retains the world, you will face a water, fire etc. dungeon, but from game to game the dungeon layouts are different asking you to solve the game differently. That's why even if ALBW had not mixed things up, I would still have been satisfied, but it is enjoyable to have a new way too.

    Maybe next time they could try Mega Man style, each boss has a weapon ideal for a different one.
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  • Avatar for DiscordInc #17 DiscordInc 4 years ago
    I just started A Link Between Worlds and I've been enjoying. Another good point about the game that's only kind of touched upon is how the game doesn't try to waste your time. There is some exposition in the early moments of the game, but nothing that lasts more than a few minutes.

    This is going to sound awfully crotchety, but recently I've found my tolerance for games that spend a lot of time on the early parts of the games. It's part of the reason I've never gotten around to starting Skyward Sword. I know there's some good stuff in there, but I really don't want to deal with playing through the opening segment.
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