On the surface, Cadence of Hyrule looks like all your favorite 2D Zelda games. You'll recognize Link's house and Zelda's castle, almost as if they've been plucked from A Link to the Past. You'll admire the Link's Awakening-esque palm trees on the beaches. You'll know the melodies, though here they've been remixed almost beyond recognition at points. You see intimidating Lynels, but they're styled after Breath of the Wild now. This is definitively a Legend of Zelda game, but it's not like any you've played before.
That's because below the surface, it plays like Brace Yourself Games' Crypt of the NecroDancer, the hit roguelike action-rhythm game that debuted in 2015. In NecroDancer, you could sync in your own music Vib-Ribbon style and slash at skeletons and zombies to the beat of whatever song you play, or just stick with the original music. NecroDancer quickly became a sensation, bringing the melodic action of rhythm games to an actual action game.
Still, when Cadence of Hyrule was officially unveiled, it was almost too good to be true. Nintendo, famously, is pretty handsy with its own properties. Here, with Cadence of Hyrule, we see a looser Nintendo; one more likely to share its IP for experimental projects. Maybe it saw the success Sega had with handing off Sonic to a western developer for Sonic Mania. Or maybe it looked back on its own joint project with Ubisoft, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, with pride and joy; or maybe it just really dug NecroDancer like everyone else. The world may never know.
A month ago, I played 45 minutes of Cadence of Hyrule. In the tutorial, I played as the familiar Cadence, the hero of Crypt of the NecroDancer. The tutorial even shakes out in a similar cadence to its indie precursor; you learn how to swing a broadsword to get at foes around corners, and so on. Then it gets interesting: you're given the option to play as Link or Zelda—the latter a first as a playable character for 2D games in the series (unless you count the old CDi games, which Nintendo apparently doesn't)—and their differences are more than just a skin swap.
Link is the easier first-time play choice, a Nintendo representative advises me, before assuring me that I'll be able to play as Zelda for the back half of my demo time. I hop in with Link, awakening from that familiar bed in his little house. I grab my shield, and without much fanfare, I'm off on a journey. With the right bumper, Link can block attacks with his shield, you just have to ensure he's on rhythm. With each directional move—I found it much easier to play using the d-pad on the Pro controller I was playing the demo on—he lunges forward with whatever weapon he has equipped. His default is a sword, but as you go onward, you discover new tools (shovels, torches, etc.) and weapons.
Weapons and tools have durability. Some are even more breakable, like glass weapons that shatter when you take a single hit. Zelda, meanwhile, requires a tad more skill. Instead of a shield that pops up immediately, her block ability is the diamond forcefield Nayru's Love, which takes a couple of beats to wind up and down. It's more difficult to get the hang of compared to Link's simple shield.
I happened upon a unique weapon to her character too: the Glass Rapier sword, which is exclusive to her playthroughs. The Glass Rapier is more powerful than the standard Rapier, but with the one-hit limit of taking damage before it shatters, there's a risk-reward in equipping it. I followed up with Nintendo about any other differences between Link and Zelda's playthroughs beyond their unique starting points and occasional weapons, and have not received a response at the time of publication.
In this story mode that I'm playing, the roguelike rules operate a little differently. While when you die you lose your rupees and keys, you don't lose your entire inventory, such as a tool you unlocked by defeating a boss. Also when you die, you can respawn at any of the Sheikah Stone tablets you've touched across Hyrule. It reminded me of the likes of Dead Cells and other roguelikes that give you some sense of progression. In Cadence of Hyrule's story mode, you're always making some sort of progress, even if a particular dungeon is giving you trouble.
While the world may look different upon spawning back in, the general locale of the tile on your map remains the same. (When I ask how many "tiles"—or screens, if you prefer that wording—are in Cadence of Hyrule, a Nintendo rep says they have "no idea." It's a lot, basically.) The map is always changing, although the strict biomes remain the same. You'll always have your Lost Woods-like forest; your desert, your beaches, and so on. "But how big or small they are changes," a Nintendo rep assures me. In terms of its world map design, it's immediately reminiscent of A Link to the Past and A Link Between Worlds, with maybe a dash of a more NecroDancer identity.
Sometimes in areas you'll even stumble upon secrets. I slashed at a bush that had a butterfly on it, for example, and found a hidden dungeon lying beneath it. There's also vertical exploration, which is a first for the NecroDancer series. Stairs and slopes will take you to a new level on the screen to explore. In one screen, I pushed stairs to make a stepway onto the environment's second level and found a treasure chest. Like any good roguelike, Cadence of Hyrule wants you to explore, explore, explore.
Part of that is through Diamonds, which return from Crypt of the NecroDancer. With Diamonds, you can purchase heart containers, bombs, and other goodies either in special stores you stumble upon or when you respawn. You can find Diamonds in the world, or get them just by defeating all the enemies on a single screen.
Regardless, when you die, the world as you know it gets jumbled up. On one particular death in an area's icy boss dungeon, I re-entered the floor I had died on only to find it very different from what was before. This helps Cadence of Hyrule always keep you on your toes; while it's indeed easier than its semi-related predecessor, that doesn't mean it's devoid of a good challenge. Of course, there will also be a permadeath, run-based mode too outside of the traditional story. And each time seasoned players reboot, they can skip the tutorial in its entirety and jump straight to choosing their character.
It's not just Link and Zelda's journey either. While Cadence is playable in the tutorial, she's just a mere NPC in the world of Hyrule proper. She appears throughout Cadence of Hyrule, usually rewarding Link or Zelda with an item or new piece of gear. From what I've played, Cadence of Hyrule is shaping up to be not just a successor to a universally adored roguelike, but a clever divergence from the classic 2D Legend of Zelda gameplay that we know inside and out, shaking up our expectations like the popular A Link to the Past randomizer mod.
Cadence of Hyrule is set for a June 13 release date on Nintendo Switch. Look for our review after the conclusion of E3.