While I have enjoyed The Legend of Zelda since the initial NES game, I will admit that the last game in the series I truly “loved” was The Ocarina of Time. It captured everything in the series that I liked, and was the closest that Link’s adventures every got to what was in my mind.

It’s funny how we interpret art. The original Zelda was a pleasant collection of pixels with an unforgettable soundtrack. But to me, the land of Hyrule looked just like the illustrations in the instruction manual when I played:

I had always hoped that a Zelda game would come along with this graphical style, and while Wind Waker is an attractive game, Link’s goofy facial expressions in that title never came close.

And then A Link Between Worlds came out, and that title is the closest to realizing that visual style.

It’s not subtle in comparison. Link sports a larger “big ’80’s” style harido as he did in the NES games. The enemies share that ’80’s style look. Even the burly, bearded merchant looks like the one from the manual. Nintendo frequently mines for nostalgia, and in this case, they hit the jackpot,

The retro illustrated look isn’t the only high point for the graphics. The 3D really makes everything just “pop” with a fantastic sense of depth and perspective. This is another one of those titles that just loses something when played in 2D, again making me call into question the losing part of that experience playing on a 2DS. This is a title that is best experienced in its full visual potential.

As far as the game goes, A Link Between Worlds is a sequel to A Link To the Past. The similarities between the two titles are apparent, but the Overworld is not a simple cut and paste of the SNES classic. While familiar, there are new areas and ways to explore the world. There is also a Dark World for the game, but it’s now more defined and given more of a backstory.

The “going back to basics” approach with the overhead perspective reminds me of what Nintendo did with New Super Mario Bros. – The difference here is that there are two major new elements introduced in Link’s latest adventure that makes sure the game doesn’t feel like treading previous ground.

The first are the dungeons. In many respects, the dungeons are the same puzzle and monster laden experiences found in any Zelda title. The difference here, however, is that you can choose to complete the dungeons in any order that you want to, and you can rent (then buy) the majority of the items right from the start, instead of having to spend hours questing for everything. It doesn’t sound like a big deal at first, but it opens up the world in a way that makes the experience feel less restrictive and more exploratory from the beginning. Don’t worry: Not all items can be purchased from Ravio’s Shop. You still have to find or earn a few key items, so the game doesn’t dump a lot of content in your lap, then walk away for you to figure it out. And you can also have existing items upgraded to more powerful versions.

The second big change is Link’s ability to merge with walls. Part of a “curse” in the storyline, I didn’t think this was going to be a huge feature, until I realized what you can do with it: Enemy attacks can be avoided. New areas can be accessed. It’s vital to overcoming puzzles and environmental hazards. And frankly, it’s just fun to play with, as secret items and rewards are literally hidden all over the game. The designers came up with some extremely clever uses for this power, and testing the limits of the ability becomes challenging and fun.

The rest of the game plays upon the classic Zelda conventions. The soundtrack is excellent with old favorites and new pieces. The game is extremely responsive, and controls well, without utilizing the stylus/touchscreen controls of the DS titles. There are plenty of mini games and various diversions to pass the time outside of the main quest. StreetPass allows the player to battle other Links, to gain bounty points and mini accomplishments, and the story is interesting, walking a fine line between the whimsical innocence and dark and foreboding that Zelda games can cover. The game just feels satisfying.

I think that’s the thing that surprised me the most about A Link Between Worlds: It just feels fresh. It doesn’t feel like a retread at all, despite being one of the rare direct sequels in the Zelda franchise. And it reintroduces that sense of exploration and sense of mystery around every corner that I haven’t really gotten in a while. That’s not to say the Zelda series hasn’t remained strong, but it had felt like it lost something along the way. For me, A Link Between Worlds restored that sense of wonder, and reminded me of those late night romps on my NES, only now the actual graphics matched what I’ve seen in my childhood’s imagination and game manual so many years ago.

It doesn’t get much better than this.

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