Zelda's latest 3DS title is in every sense a link to the past. Its world mirrors the 1991 SNES classic with the same scenery, a familiar top-down perspective, old foes and even sound effects that are tinged with nostalgia.
It's incredible fan service throughout, but even better, at times it is Nintendo mischievously toying with your memories, whilst breathing new life into Zelda's ageing formula and offering a different perspective - literally - to one of gaming's most memorable playscapes.
Within minutes of stepping out of our hero's (still empty) house, it instantly feels like you never left the 16-bit era at all. Soon you'll be clashing with over-zealous green guards on the way to the familiar looking church, swiping at rupee-rich planes of grass and ruffling chicken feathers in the serene surroundings of Kakariko Village.
Exploring 1992 Hyrule - or, for that matter, your memories of it - and locating recognisable landmarks is a unique pleasure, and Nintendo constantly tinkers with your expectations, changing familiar secrets or removing them entirely. But this kind of reverence for its past doesn't stop A Link Between Worlds from adding in its own ideas and changes to the formula.
The key new idea is triggered from an encounter with the game's main villain, a mysterious fiend with a habit of turning Hyrule's residents into crude wall scribbles. But when cast under this spell, Link discovers he's able to take advantage of this trick - he can now shuffle along walls like a living hieroglyphic, and reach parts of Hyrule that his 3D form would find inaccessible.
From this point onwards, the player can merge Link with any flat surface using the A button. It might initially sound like a gimmick - and the Zelda series has had plenty of those in the past - but soon it becomes a traversal mechanic which forces you to rethink how you approach exploration. It's perplexing, but in the way you want it to be.
"Nintendo mischievously toys with your memories, whilst breathing new life into Zelda's ageing formula"
The hieroglyphic Link, who happens to be uninfluenced by the forces of gravity, can effortlessly traverse chasms by clinging to its walls. He can, for example, slide between the bars in prison windows and sneak past enemies doing his best impression as an inconspicuous scribble. The mechanic never feels overused, despite its uses evolving in complexity as you delve deeper into the world, which itself suddenly becomes a giant 3D puzzle in the vein of Echocrome and Crush.
As the story progresses, 2D Link can also access the mirror world of Lorule by squeezing through various dimensional cracks. This is A Link Between Worlds' answer to the Dark World in the SNES original; a bleak, warped and darkened alternate reality. As you may expect, the dual-overworld formula produces the thrill of exploration and discovery that has defined the series for a quarter of a century.
Nintendo has decided to fuse the alternate world with Link's new ability, forging the kind of complexity one doesn't expect from modern Zelda games. Some areas in Hyrule, for example, are only accessible when exploring Lorule and sliding through a hidden wall crack, before returning to the light. Players will need to think about all possibilities at once - those hidden heart pieces and Maimai babies (the game's new collectable) have been buried deep within Link's world.
These features are just some markings of a campaign that is masterfully crafted throughout. This is a no-frills take on the classic top-down formula, with all the tedious fetch-questing purged from the story (you can even reach the game's first dungeon within five minutes). In what is another bold rethink, players can also tackle dungeons in any order that they wish, and every item is available to rent or purchase at the beginning of your quest, thanks to the introduction of mysterious bunny-like merchant Ravio.
Zelda's ambition to stand out even becomes literal with the exceptional craftsmanship in designing the 3D depths and distances. A Link Between Worlds' use of the stereoscopic 3D effect is, by some margin, the best from any 3DS title, transforming previously timid chasm into vertigo-inducing drops. While playing in 2D works fine, the stereoscopy adds meaningful height and elevation to the game's surroundings.
Most in-game items adhere to new rules of height and space; arrows and the hookshot will only hit their mark if fired from the same elevation, while the Tornado Rod propels Link skywards to out-of-reach items. Meanwhile, a new wand item summons pillars of sand to emerge from the earth, providing solutions and stepping stones to environmental challenges.
Because the open-form design can't guarantee which items you have in your possession, puzzles are no longer hinged on whether you have this item or that, and instead will stretch individual tools to their creative limits. All these new ideas, along with the extra dimensions in play, has allowed Nintendo's design team to craft some of the most imaginative dungeons in any 2D Zelda. These labyrinths are laced with challenge, surprises and memorable bosses battles. You'll consider the connection between different floors and, with the intuitive merge mechanic constantly available, begin to approach dungeon exploration as though you were traversing the inside of a Rubik's Cube.
"Nintendo has crafted some of the most imaginative dungeons in any 2D Zelda"
A Link Between Worlds feels like a perfect storm for the series; a swirling whirlpool of nostalgia along with disruptive ideas and twists on the familiar 2D gameplay. In many ways it's the definitive handheld Zelda, with players able to obtain the items that they want, explore with no restraints and build their own hero without any of the overbearing hand-holding that's hampered the series in recent years.
It makes you remember just how thrilling the old Zelda adventures used to be, and then shows you how the format can still surprise and enthral decades after its inception.
Nintendo has embraced Zelda's heritage but doesn't fear change, resulting in the series' best handheld game yet
- Nostalgic overworld with a new perspective
- Among 2D Zelda's best dungeons & bosses
- Brilliant use of 3D
- Incredible soundtrack & presentation