So I just finished the 3DS Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. Having owned it for a few years, I made a point to clear it out of my backlog out of allegiance to the series more than actual preference. See, I’ve always preferred the 3D entries to the 2D games, and with ALBW being a hybrid I didn’t have a lot of interest.
I should also mention that I’ve played all of the main series Zelda games now. I can’t claim to have finished the NES games or Oracle of Ages/Seasons, but I at least have experience with all of them, and here is where I get to my point: A Link Between Worlds should be required playing for any and all Zelda fans.
Any time a media series or franchise exists for a decent amount of time, the fanbase shifts. The people who were satisfied with the origins of the game get differing ideas of how the series trajectory should go. Those fans also age and change, themselves, wanting different things out of their entertainment. One of the biggest trends in the past decade+ has been to make things dark and gritty — we’ve seen it with countless superhero movies, video games, etc. It works for some things, like Batman, because the character and the situations lend themselves well to a realistic, wholly literal environment. But, assuming that you can apply darkness and grit to anything is a mistake in misunderstanding the essence of what makes some things great.
Take, for example, the number of times I’ve heard people clamoring for a realistic, adult take on Pokemon. This is a completely ludicrous idea, not because it wouldn’t be possible or interesting, but because it forfeits some of the key traits that make the series great. By trying to lend realism to the world, you’d only find deeper flaws that were once obscured by its relative naiveté. Put another way: the charm and childish playfulness of battling living creatures would be entirely lost by turning it into a realistic setting.
To return to my subject, I’ve heard some of the same concerns lobbed at The Legend of Zelda series. With the recent re-release of Twilight Princess, a lot of people have been reconsidering their opinions of the game, some 10 years removed. The reaction that people had on initial reveal, on seeing an adult link in a graphically detailed world, hinged on their perception from a post 2003, post Wind Waker, color-soaked cartoon world. And, more than that, Twilight Princess is hardly as serious or dark as people initially supposed: compare it’s twilight-tinged offscreen violence to the blood-soaked walls in Ocarina of Time or the ReDeads.
And yet, the compulsion to adult-ize the series persists through fan theories (if ever there was a more horrifying combination of words) that insist on a unified timeline. I’ll say it now: Nintendo acknowledging a unified Zelda timeline was an enormous mistake. Not only is it convoluted, it is unnecessary. It works against the games, which are already tied together thematically and through a character literally called Link. What the timeline fails to understand is that each instance of Zelda is a self-contained adventure (aside from the few direct sequels: OoT to MM, ALttP to LA, etc). Trying to take these independent events and turn them into a cohesive progression of events diminishes the fight against evil; what impact does a fight against Ganon have if he only rises again in a later game. The timeline also highlights some of the ridiculousness of the Hylian culture: they keep having green-tunic wearing male heroes with the same name save them and, in the case of OoT and TP, they are purportedly only 100 years apart, giving the impression that people have no sense of their own history and that enormous geological changes occur very quickly — all of which is mitigated by ignoring a unified timeline and assuming the games are independent of each other.
So, I’ve been exposed to this and I’ve heard about it a number of times. I’ve talked to people who want a truly mature (M rated) Link in an open-world game with tons of monsters to encounter in something that sounds entirely like an Assassin’s Creed game but only resembles Zelda in the tunic color. To this crowd, I say: play A Link Between Worlds. It’s not the best Zelda game (it’s not even the best on the 3DS), it’s slight, with a relatively small overworld and hardly any new stuff (compared to A Link to the Past) that you can see outside of dungeons. The dungeons are fun, but brief. The game, refreshingly, lets you approach nearly all of them in any order. There is a story and some cutscenes, but it’s not really poignant or memorable until the ending. What is essential about this game is how unserious it is. It’s a breath of fresh air in the series, but not through its newness — through it’s adhesion to simple, classic design.
For as overblown as almost all successful franchises become, A Link Between Worlds is a counterpoint, reminding us that before Ocarina of Time became the most critically lauded game ever, this was a top-down series of puzzles and adventuring. The characters were little and Link’s muteness wasn’t even noticeable. We’re nearly 20 years removed from Ocarina of Time’s release and each year the games in the series get more and more difficult to see with fresh eyes, they become less a game and more a part of a canon, something held aloft on so many pedestals that we’re unable to appreciate it for modesty. ALBW is a palate cleanser that allows for fresh perspective and, hopefully, can act as a reminder of those fundamental Zelda elements that can’t be traded for the stylistic affect of 20/30-somethings that feel embarrassed by the series’ sentimental overtones. Not all things have to be gritty, it wouldn’t serve the art any more than making all things cartoonish and childlike would.