Formal Zelda Comparison: A Link to the Past Vs. A Link Between Worlds
What’s one thing that gamers like to dogmatically protect, wearing nostalgia-stained glasses? A classic videogame series! What month is it here at The Vault? Nostalgia month! What better way to send off this memory-fueled month than, by celebrating one of the most cherished entries in a classic videogame series. Given the deep similarities between the recent Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, and the timeless Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, a formal comparison between the two seems as good a champagne as any to pop for this bittersweet goodbye. So gather ‘round the fireplace kids, and let’s take a look at one of the most influential gaming franchises of all time.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to The Past, released on the Super NES back in 1992, was the third entry in the Zelda series, and reverted back to the top-down view of the original NES game after the wild departure that was Zelda II. Though evoking a similar feeling, A Link to The Past differs from the original most notably in the way it handled progression: while the first game offed the player a large world and nine dungeons that could be tackled in nearly any order, A Link to the Past took a more structured approach that ensured most dungeons were completed in a predetermined order. From this game on, every subsequent Zelda would strictly follow this formula. Skip forward to 2011, the year Zelda: Skyward Sword was released, which had fans bemoaning these now stale traditions. Nintendo, in consideration of the grievances, resolved to solve them in the form of their most recent Zelda game, A Link Between Worlds.
How’d they do? Well, by simply looking at A Link Between Worlds, the fix seems like more of a regression than a step forward: the game takes place in the exact same world as A Link to the Past, containing the same overworld, combat, and dungeon locations. This is the new game’s main deceit, because while that’s true, it’s essential to play the game to see the full breadth of changes that took place under the hood. It was an odd choice, housing some of the series’ most progressive gameplay ideas in the shell of a 22 year old game. Surprisingly, the decision gave birth to the most engaging Zelda game to come out in nearly a decade, one that may even surpass its source material.
In comparing the games, the most obvious difference is the graphical style. A Link to the Past showcases 16-bit pixel art that still holds up today, an inherent blessing of the art style. Color choice is vibrant, and the contrast between the light and dark world is pronounced, still a good-looking title by all accounts. A Link Between Worlds on the other hand, goes the rout of the polygon, and opts to display its world with full 3D graphics. While not pushing boundaries, the game has a cute look that grows on the player, and is just as colorful and vibrant as the original. In fact, A Link Between Worlds’ look allows it to display more complexity, which means some areas – especially the dungeons – look more distinct from each other than in A Link to the Past. Regrettably, Link’s hair is no longer pink in the new installment, which is a total shame.
Also worth mentioning is the music, since Zelda music is hailed as some of the best in videogames and all. The music in A Link to the Past is iconic, and similarly to the graphics, still holds up in today’s climate, now more than ever given the internet’s affinity for chiptunes. A Link Between Worlds too has an outright stellar soundtrack, one that borrows heavily from a Link to the Past. The game also reaches elsewhere, grabbing unexpected songs in the series’ past and often presenting them in surprising ways. That would actually be the best world I could use to describe the game’s soundtrack: surprising. In a good way.
Moving on, something only evident after playing the two back to back: control and game feel. A Link Between Worlds has complete analogue control, and offers quick, circular movement. A Link to the Past used a control pad, meaning Link could only move eight directions back then. The final result has A Link Between Worlds controlling much better, and between movement and combat, feeling incredibly smooth overall. It’s hard to point to another game that moves and feels as fluid as this does, and in fact, revisiting a Link to the Past is a little frustrating at first as the difference in control is made obvious. This feeling fades after a while and I quickly sunk back into the retro mindset while replaying the game, but the improvement is tangible. Another appreciated carryover is the ability to swing your sword as quickly as you want, which offered a feeling of empowerment also present in A Link Between Worlds. Link’s shield however, now operates differently: rather than automatically blocking projectiles like in the original, holding the R buttons allows you block most attacks in general, at the expense of mobility. The new system is more involving, and bears similarity to the more recent games. There’s also a new ability that presses Link flat against a wall, turns him into silly medieval artwork, and allows him shimmy across the new 3D environment. The mechanic gets used in some creative ways, and really asks the player to consider the level design in terms of three dimensions, which is often tough if you approach the game in the same mindset you would the 2D world of a Link to the Past.
All of this is nice, but surely this doesn’t warrant a new game, you say. Tsk tsk dear, those were only the obvious changes. So now we come to the structure, one of the original selling points of A Link Between Worlds. Items – which are obtained midway through any given dungeon in most games – are able to be rented (with one exception) as soon as the item shop opens at the beginning of the game. Here, you can rent any item in any order, which is automatically returned if the player falls in battle, though they are available for purchase if you’re willing to really shell out. Each item pertains to a specific dungeon, and is necessary for its admission and for the puzzles within. The effect of this is threefold: 1.) rented items act as incentive to be more cautious in dungeons, 2.) Link has the item in the dungeon from start to finish, and 3.) dungeons can be completed in nearly any order.
The item rental mechanic changes the way dungeons are approached as compared to A Link to the Past. Fainting in a dungeon carries actual consequences in a Link Between Worlds, unlike the recent Zeldas, where you just more or less reappear in the same room. Though the enemies aren’t as ruthless as they are in A Link to the Past, this invigorates the game with a sense of cautiousness, as the rental system makes it entirely possible to accidentally travel to an area you’re not prepared for. While the game isn’t afraid to kick your butt in these scenarios, one complaint is that taking on a dungeon with the appropriate gear often feels too easy. This isn’t to say the puzzles themselves are simple, as they’re just as clever as anything else in the series, it just removes a layer of uneasiness. Of course, the slight lack as difficulty is remedied by the “Hero Mode” unlocked after completing the game for the first time, which greatly increases the damage you take. This mode is recommended, as I feel it really accentuates the new penalty system quite well, if you’re up for the challenge.
The dungeons themselves are quite the treat, too. They share the same locations and themes as the ones in A Link to the Past, but have new puzzles, music, and aesthetics. The fact that they now exist in a 3D plane as opposed to a 2D one adds to the way in which vertical distance is approached. A Link to the Past’s level design often incorporated different layers, but the interaction A Link Between Worlds offers feels novel in comparison. The fact that the game now has you entering with the required item rather than finding it in the dungeon also does wonders in making the level design feel more rewarding. Right at the start of each dungeon, the player is tasked with discovering the ways they can use the item to interact with the environment, which is then expanded on in clever ways throughout the rest of the level. With other entries, it always felt like this process was somewhat neutered due to how little time any given dungeon gives to exploring each item’s potential.
Finally, the discussion comes around to the flexibility the item renting system allows. In A Link Between Worlds, if a player has the corresponding item, they may clear the obstacle blockading the dungeon and are granted access. This means the order in which these levels are cleared is left up the player, and breaks the barriers A Link to the Past imparted on the original Legend of Zelda. Each dungeon has a different level of difficulty, and holds an unnecessary but useful upgrade (which is usually goddamn well-hidden, by the way), so finding the best route through them add to both the challenge and replayability. The structured approach A Link to the Past took isn’t bad or ill designed; it was a new idea at the time (if we ignore the underrated Zelda II), and works perfectly in the context of the game. The new set-up is a perfect addition to A Link Between Worlds, however, one that diminishes the redundancy the Zelda series has been subject to for the last few generations with an added freedom that would be greatly appreciated in future installments.
So what’s the final verdict, now that the article’s become more of a comparison between old Zelda conventions than one between games? To put it plainly: The Legend of Zelda: A link Between Worlds completely improves upon A Link to the Past, and can safely stand as a full replacement, in a way. Of course, A Link to the Past will always be a seminal entry in the series, and should be remembered as a pivotal turning point for action PRGs in the 16-bit era. Its importance is undisputed, and the game is as fun as ever. Despite that, the classic is surpassed by a reimagining that combines old-school streamlining with modern day sensibilities and progression.
A Link Between Worlds does have one thing holding it back though, which are its links to the past; in this case, A Link to the Past. Many fans have already played the original to death, and while its predecessor bears improvements, the bulk of the game clings close to the source. This lessens part of the impact A Link Between Worlds will have on players who have kept up with the series, and I think the improvements that are here would have been more poignant were they not injected into the corpse of a Super NES game. Although it is true that, to series fans, the formula alterations will stand out when contrasted with the familiar landscape surrounding them, which makes their implementation seem like a symbolic representation of the series evolving from the inside, so that’s cool. But for now, let’s just hope that we can trace innovations like these in future entries.
So, although A Link Between Worlds would have benefited from being set in a new world, the freeform approach sets it worlds apart from many of the tired similarities its sisters share.