The Legend of Zelda series used to serve as the showcase for Nintendo's platforms — the awesome, landmark games you'd buy to see what your hardware was capable of. For 3DS of late, though, Zelda has felt more like a herald of death.
This week's "new" Zelda release, Hyrule Warriors Legends, cements it. A conversion of 2014's Hyrule Warriors for Wii U, Legends feels like a neat party trick... but by no means is this the ideal way to experience the game. As with its console counterpart, Legends falls into the "musou" category: A large-scale action game developed by Omega Force, wherein players slash and hack their way through hordes of mindless enemies with a variety of characters as they complete shifting mission objectives across enormous battlefields. Combo-driven action and kill counts in the thousands are par for the course here.
The fact that this game can even be squeezed onto 3DS is fairly impressive. The system has seen only a tiny handful of musou titles in its five years of existence, and Hyrule Warriors is one of the best examples of the style to date. Yeah, it involves a lot of mindless killing, but it does so while cramming in Zelda series fan service to the rafters. Bosses consist of larger-than-life renditions of familiar foes dating back to the original NES title, and by the end of the game you can play as a ridiculous number of characters drawn from across the series, from the obvious picks like Link to more outlandish choices like Twilight Princess' bug-obsessed Agitha. Legends also introduces for the first time a highly demanded playable version of "female Link," in this case the twin crossbow-wielding Linkle. While Legends is admittedly light on the soul of Zelda games (that is, the thoughtful puzzle-like dungeons and progression), it's not meant to be a true Zelda but rather an action spin-off. And it does that fairly well.
For the most part, everything I said in my review of the original game a year and a half ago holds true. The game feels terribly slight if you're expecting a proper Zelda adventure, but if you let yourself loosen up and mindlessly grind through endless mobs of rabble, it's a fine piece of fan indulgence. Dumb, but fun.
Nothing about that has particularly changed in its 3DS incarnation, but the shift in context from big screen to small has a profound impact on the overall feel of the action. Hyrule Warriors, like other musou games, relies on endless throngs of bad guys milling about to give you something to hack at — something the 3DS has trouble handling.
In truth, the standard 3DS has trouble doing any and everything in Hyrule Warriors. I question Nintendo's decision to allow the game to work on the older hardware model rather than restricting it to the New 3DS; playing on a standard 3DS is like running a PC games with the minimum hardware specs. You can do it, technically, but why inflict that sort of suffering upon yourself? Even the New 3DS has a hard time managing the sheer volume involved in this kind of game, though. Do a 180º and then turn back quickly to your original orientation and you'll see entire legions of trash mobs fade from existence, then reappear in a new configuration. You can almost smell the smoke pouring off the graphics chip.
I originally reviewed Hyrule Warriors while traveling, so I played through about half the game on the Wii U Game Pad. That was an acceptable experience, but only just; shrinking the game down to an even smaller screen, and a smaller resolution, crosses over the threshold of tolerability. There's a reason Omega Force's trademark creations only began to proliferate after the advent of HD consoles: You need a lot of hardware power, and a lot of visual resolution, to really and truly enjoy the breezy mindlessness of a game like this. Wii U could deliver; 3DS, and New 3DS, can't.
Of course, Legends does bring with it a passel of new content and new playable characters, as well as new missions and environments. Most of these, however, will also be available to download on Wii U. The small amount of material that will be available exclusively for 3DS ultimately doesn't merit the downgraded play experience that playing on 3DS entails. Really, the most compelling argument for buying Legends is that characters like Linkle can reportedly only be played on Wii U if you buy both versions of the game. That seems more a matter of begrudging acceptance rather than enthusiastic acquisition, though.
Hyrule Warriors Legends marks Nintendo's third Zelda release in the past half-year, and the second for 3DS. Much like its portable predecessor (Tri Force Heroes), Legends doesn't make a case for owning a 3DS — it makes a case for retirement. Tri Force Heroes was a brilliant game concept ruined by technical limitations (neither Bob nor I could manage to play through a single mission without a wireless disconnection — even when we played while sitting just a few feet apart). Similarly, Legends is a perfectly entertaining hack and slash that simply doesn't have room to breathe within the cramped confines of the 3DS.
While it's certainly nice to see Nintendo continuing to support the 3DS well into its dotage, the system's late-life Zeldas mostly serve to make me pine for whatever Nintendo has coming up next for its handheld hardware line. Hyrule Warriors could probably work quite well on a portable... just not this particular portable.