Shall I tell you what you do in the new Legend of Zelda game for the 3DS, A Link Between Worlds, a return to the world of 1991 SNES classic A Link to the Past? Brace yourself: You wake up as a silent boy dressed in hunter green and stumble into an epic quest. You plow through a familiar overworld, chopping down every bush and rock in sight, looking for rupees and secret passages. You solve puzzles to find differently sized keys in unfamiliar dungeons, each with its own magic compass.
You collect tools such as arrows, bombs and mallets that open up the world map so you can retrieve three virtuous pendants and seven abstract sages. You seek out a Master Sword that fires projectiles when your health meter, made of hearts, is full. You battle spectacularly oversized bosses, including a tank-like version of a commonplace Moldworm. You get buttonholed by wizened mentors and inexplicably annoying helpers (hi, Ravio). You are tormented or rapt, according to your tastes, by antic extended cut-scenes. You cross dimensional boundaries to save princess and world, which seem to be synonymous to you for reasons that have never been made sufficiently clear.
None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who has played a Zelda game since the series debuted in 1986. But of course, all of these predictable beats in one of gaming’s most enduring mythological frameworks are spiced up with a new gameplay twist. Taking a page—as it were!—from Paper Mario, Link can go two-dimensional at the press of a button, becoming a mobile painting on the wall in order to cross pits, slide around boundaries or sneak through cracks into hidden rooms. This creates some interesting and spatially challenging puzzles, especially because you can only move horizontally.
Some walls are blocked by sconces or doorjambs, which means you have to figure out the correct route from higher or lower ground to reach certain switches and doors, darting across walls before your magic meter—which also powers all your tools, including infinite bombs—runs out. It makes for a game as vibrant and satisfactory as we’ve come to expect from Zelda, in precisely the ways we expect. It reminds you of being a kid, though it does not necessarily make you feel like one again.
As much as the Zelda series has stayed the same for 25 years, it’s changed in one clear way. It’s gotten easier. A Link Between Worlds, compared to the mutely enigmatic NES title, offers the player a lot of helping hands. Rather than blindly stumbling through the Lost Woods, you solve simple puzzles involving following certain ghosts in a huddle (though the screen with three ghosts to simultaneously track is unreasonable—I’m not a basilisk, Nintendo). NPCs are plentiful and voluble, and should you still get stuck, you have a pair of hint glasses you can use. Rather than striving for each tool over the course of the game, you get them all at once after a couple hours, which is anticlimactic but fun. Most of this is just modern game design best practices, and in any case, a game as opaque as The Legend of Zelda is no longer possible to make after the internet.
This is one reason, besides the finite resource of nostalgia, why the spiffy modern Zeldas don’t capture the fullest sense of mystery and exploration from their original 8-bit progenitor, where we would wander through the Lost Woods for hours or days or weeks until we finally called an expensive tip-line, powwowed with friends who had figured it out, or simply got lucky. When we warped around at what seemed like random by blowing the Recorder, rather than simply ringing a bell and selecting our save-point destination—until once, we happened to blow it in front of one pond, much like any other, which dried up and revealed a staircase leading below. The sense of discovery was real because the discoveries themselves were real, fought-for and hard-won.
After playing Zelda games for over a quarter century, visiting that world is like sinking into a suspension of slow, layered time. For all the modern innovations and conveniences, Hyrule is a place we explore to discover the known rather than the unknown. A Link Between Worlds is not only packed with references to and settings from A Link to the Past, but interweaves with all of the games from the series in certain Pavlovian motifs. There’s a fine line between being in continuity and being in purgatory, stuck somewhere neither new nor old.
Twenty-five years later, we’re still moving the same tombstones to reveal the same ghosts or stairs, salivating to the same dark minor arpeggio. The tension between the tiredness of these tropes and their necessity for maintaining a lineage through different formats and times is not exclusive to Zelda in fantasy adventure entertainment. It’s the same with the Mario games, for instance, with which Zelda shares a proclivity for self-regard through feigned irreverence—think of its ambient awareness, expressed through its NPCs’ bizarre patois, of its own poorly-translated origins. (This is a “Nintendo thing” in general.)
It’s no wonder that a certain malaise can creep in behind all the cheery brightness and adventure—at least for adults, rather than the children for whom these games are ostensibly but not really designed; adults who think about life differently than they did in 1986. Adults might start to wonder, okay, sure, but what next? Will I play a Zelda where Link does parkour, a Zelda where he can turn himself into a spaceship? How much of my life do I want to spend in what’s essentially become a fancy fantasy lawn care simulator, mindlessly hacking at everything in sight? As if I secretly wanted to destroy this game once and for all, to escape it—to stop the diverse world of other games and experiences from passing by with every roundhouse sword swipe, like so many blades of shorn grass?
Halfway through A Link Between Worlds, the dimension hopping starts, there’s a color palette change, and you find yourself in Lorule (get it?), which is like Hyrule but evil, with skulls instead of rocks and poisonous-looking purple blossoms instead of grass and cock-diesel enemies instead of milquetoast ones. This trick doubles playtime without doubling assets, which is kind of egregious in a game recycled from a game that was already drenched in prior games. As kids, we had infinite bushes to cut down, infinite time to cut them. Now we do it with the queasy knowledge that each brings us one closer to our final tally of bushes cut, as the same old majestic field songs and twinkling lullabyes grow threadbare in our ears. New bells and whistles aside, how many more times do I want to do this? I’m sure I’ll play the next one.