The Legend of Zelda is a series that, at this point, needs no introduction. It has been continually developed for over twenty-five years, and was definitely instrumental in popularizing the combination of puzzle, exploration, and adventure elements that is the series trademark. Games from the series regularly appear on lists of the greatest games ever made, and it is one of the two series that must be present on any piece of Nintendo hardware that is released.
However, it can also be said that as the years have gone by, the series is a case study on stagnation and reliance on formula. After the genre-defining innovations that were present in Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time, and the oddball experimentation of Majora’s Mask, it seemed as if the series was content to take the successful games and use those as templates for its future direction. Admittedly, this was not necessarily a terrible thing at first, because the formula was so good and the level design held up, but after Skyward Sword, it was clear that the series needed some evolution.
Zelda isn’t the only series to face this problem, of course. There are several other series that have been around at least as long, and have all faced variations on the same problem. In some cases, the series fades away through a staunch refusal to alter the formula, and in some cases, the formula is altered so much the series becomes unrecognizable. Sometimes, the problem is oversaturation on a single platform, and sometimes the problem is an increasingly insular or elitist fanbase that actively resists change.
So what do I mean when I talk about the Zelda formula? I’m talking about a bit more than just gameplay mechanics, even though mechanics are a part of it. The other part is the overall structure of the levels, and of the game itself. Since Link to the Past, the general flow of the game has been to go into a dungeon, find a tool or item, use that item to complete the dungeon and open up the next one, and repeat. The other element that is common to each game, in a sense, is the ‘gimmick’. Each game has one: Link to the Past had the Dark World, Ocarina of Time had the age change, Wind Waker had the ocean, Twilight Princess had the wolf, and so on. Rather than be actual changes to the formula, the gimmick is a part of the formula that introduces a new gameplay element without altering any of the series staple elements.
There definitely is a gimmick in A Link Between Worlds, and it’s actually one of the more brilliant ones in the series on more than one level. See, there’s this wizard who turns people into paintings, and he tries to do it to Link, only it doesn’t quite work all the way, because reasons. The result is that Link can turn himself two-dimensional and flatten against walls.
Of course, there are plenty of puzzles that revolve around this mechanic, and they really succeed in forcing the player to think about spatial reasoning in new and interesting ways. It’s also interesting that they used a two-dimensional Paper Mario-esque mechanic on an already two-dimensional Zelda game. It’s like they’re making it double 2D. If that mechanic were added into the formula that has served Zelda since Link to the Past, it would be a passable game, a good game even, a game that keeps up traditions without taking chances.
But surprisingly, and luckily, this game doesn’t settle for that.
The real change in this game is that instead of finding an item in each dungeon, you rent the items from a shopkeeper. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like such a big change, and it’s not, really. But the most important changes to an established formula aren’t the major ones; a change that was any more major than this would probably have broken the game completely.
The implications of the change, while subtle, are quickly realized: having many items available close to the beginning of the game opens up, more or less, the entire map for exploration right away. And after not too much longer, it opens up nearly every dungeon in the game for immediate exploration. The obvious part of this is the part where it makes the game extremely non-linear. There are certainly dungeons that are harder than others, but there is very little set-in-stone order in which they must be tackled.
This isn’t the only implication either. After a few dungeons, I started to notice that something else was different as well. Because the dungeons no longer need to revolve around a single item, there is much, much more variation and innovation in their designs. That, coupled with the whole ‘spatial reasoning’ thing, really makes a person have to think about things, at least more than in the past. Additionally, because rented items are returned upon death, rupees are worth something again, even though they are also more abundant in this game than in past games.
It’s a natural evolution in the game mechanics, and it’s something that should have happened after Wind Waker. While I definitely enjoyed Twilight Princess, that game, and the ones after it, both console and portable, were considerably lacking in innovation when compared to what had come before them. It is good, then, that a return to the Hyrule of Link to the Past is also a return to the days of constant improvement through experimentation of game mechanics.
A Link Between Worlds isn’t a reinvention of Zelda, not in the same way that Metroid Prime was a reinvention of the classic Metroid exploration mechanics in a new gameplay system. Nor do I think that Zelda needed or would have benefited from anything like that. Rather, it is both a nostalgia trip for those who remember the SNES era fondly, and a renewed commitment to constant improvement.