It took quite a while until the 3DS got its first original Zelda game and luckily it isn't one of the 3D sort. However, that alone isn't a reason to celebrate, because the top-down Zeldas on the DS have been about as much of a success as the Houston Texans' and the Atlanta Falcons' American football season in 2013. It's for the best to forget about them or pretend they never happened. A Link Between Worlds plays in the same Hyrule as the SNES classic A Link to the Past, so not only will the overworld feel familiar, but there's also no way the game can avoid direct comparisons with a milestone of the genre. It's not an easy feat to prevail against a game that has stood the test of time. Let me break things down into positives and negatives.
What I didn't like
Many people raved about the start of the game, how quick you get the sword and enter the first dungeon. That doesn't hold true though. What actually happens is that you meet several NPCs who like to talk and the thing that is labeled as a dungeon (not by the game, but by gamers) is nothing more than a short underground passage. My best guess is that those people are so used to the introductions of 3D Zelda games that ALBW feels short in comparison, but in reality it's quite a lengthy intro. It felt like more than 20 minutes had passed by the time I was done talking to Zelda and free to go on my adventure. Thankfully the start of the game is really the low point when it comes to pacing, because the dialogue is surprisingly short throughout the rest of the journey.
The trusty sidekick of previous games has been replaced by ghosts that are only visible by putting on some goggles. They are/should be located near spots that might give you trouble. If you pay them a 3DS coin (earned with the 3DS pedometer function), you'll receive a clue. Now some of you may wonder if that isn't actually a good thing. Well yes, it is.
Streetpass: Early in the game you meet an old guy who tells you everything about the streetpass function. You can set up your own Link with your current equipment who will then appear in other people's game as Shadow Link that can be challenged to a fight; obviously, the same applies vice versa, you get to fight theirs. There are 50 medals that can be earned by fulfilling certain conditions during those battles. The problem is that you can't, if you can't streetpass realistically. Spotpass (same thing, but online) isn't supported. Regardless, I had a couple of Shadow Links appearing in my game and they were definitely given to me by the game itself. However, I have no idea what triggers them and if they can be triggered ad infinitum, so that streetpass wouldn't be required at all. As it is, streetpass sucks and I am not getting a chance to earn more than a few medals. This blows.
Dungeons have a balance of about half puzzle, half combat. This isn't what I had hoped for, so a lot of rooms are either devoid of enemies or have very few of them. In combination with a lot of pots to replenish your health, it's an easy going. Especially because the content of pots respawns without exiting the dungeon and because the modern design of Zelda dungeons regularly sends you on circular routes, so running low on health rarely, if ever, happens. Additionally, Link swings his sword at a full 180° angle, so hitting enemies is easier than ever before. Almost every dungeon has also a room with a bunch of fairies. The fact that the unlockable Hero mode makes enemies deal quadruple damage shows that the developers were well aware that the standard difficulty isn't all that. This could have been easily rectified by adding more enemies, but I guess they just like their puzzles too much. That's not to say that the entire game is a breeze, because there are occasionally spikes in difficulty. But the thrill of rooms being packed with a lot of enemies or nasty combinations of enemies (plus statues shooting fire balls at you) isn't there. Hero mode sounds like "Holy hell!" material, but I only used three blue potions (refills entire health) for the whole game, and two of those I used during two separate runs of the Endurance Tower's 50-level-challenge.
The map item for dungeons doesn't exist anymore, instead you have the dungeon layout on the touchscreen right from the start. Yes, it's not that big of a deal, but it still takes away from earning things yourself.
Hyrule is too familiar. While what's inside houses, caves and temples has changed, and some of the overworld layout as well, it's still nowhere near as exciting as a completely new overworld would have been. Lorule picks up on the dual world concept, so its general layout is what you would expect after seeing Hyrule, but it's more different from Hyrule than ALttP's shadow world.
Allowing the player to freely choose the order of the dungeons in Lorule led to the design decision to make all of them about equal in difficulty, so provided you find upgrades, the game will become easier in the later stages. Many gamers have overstated the freedom that the classic Zelda games offered. In reality, if the enemies inside the dungeons kicking your ass wasn't a clear enough message yet, the dungeons also had numbers assigned to them (Level 1 to X). Yes, for the most part it was possible to play dungeons out of order in the original Zelda and ALttP's shadow world, but it wasn't something that players necessarily did. Speaking of the original Zelda, it still has the best Master quest/Hero mode. It seriously upped the ante which is a much better approach than the lazy "let's multiply the damage" one.
Red potions are idiotic. They replenish eight hearts which isn't worth it, even if you find the game challenging. A fairy refills five hearts and has the added benefit of reviving you upon death, plus it's free. Blue (full health), yellow (temporary invincibility) and purple (deals great damage to enemies) potions require ingredients, I suppose that was done so you don't go overboard with them.
I have to assume that the stereoscopic 3D works well in this game, because at times I had some trouble to figure what height I am looking at. Depth perception being thrown off is something that occurs in 3DS games that are deliberately programmed to look good in 3D. I don't use 3D, because I don't want to suffer (no good experiences in the past). Speaking of graphics, ALBW has some framerate issues, most commonly when morphing into a picture in more detailed scenery.
What I liked
The pacing of the game (aside from the slow start) is very good. Almost all the time you get to do what you want instead of being forced into a story. The game has significantly more warp points than ALttP, plus the bell (ocarina replacement) is handed to you early. A necessary decision due to the item renting system. Don't have the correct item with you when getting to a dungeon? Not a problem, activate the warp/save point near the dungeon, warp to the shop, get the item and warp back. Although renting is actually so cheap that by the time I got the option to rent, I could rent them all. The drawback of renting is that all items will be taken away from you in case you die, although money isn't an issue as there are plenty of sources. After a certain point in the game you can buy the items for quite a hefty price; not only does it allow you to keep them forever, but they also become eligible for upgrades which are tied to a major sidequest.
The upgrade system works. Whereas in Skyward it was a bust because you had to collect a lot of random things and the upgrades were basically worthless, things are different in ALBW. The aforementioned sidequest is a variation of the Skulltulla concept and for every ten you can upgrade an item of your choice. Not only is it fun to do the collecting, but many of the upgrades prove to be useful, particularly the fire and ice staves. The final reward for the sidequest isn't anything special, but at least it isn't a complete letdown like in Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword.
There are quite a few minigames and they are all fun in their own ways. This adds to the package of a motivating main quest that is coupled with worthwhile sidequests. The game might only be around 15 hours long (if you bother to explore the entire world), but there is no filler. This is high quality entertainment. There's no part that drags on, there's no part that is annoying. The picture mechanic is seamlessly integrated, it doesn't slow the game down at all. Even the obligatory stealth section is now fun to play because of that. The game may lack in difficulty, but I gladly take a relatively easy game over a more challenging title that regularly throws bullshit at you. ALBW also has a good soundtrack, but most of it consists of remixes of ALttP music.
The button mapping makes sense with two buttons that can be assigned with items, one permanently assigned to the shield and another one for the pegasus boots. The overworld map allows you to use up to 20 markers, so you don't have to remember where an unreachable heart piece or the like was. You can also customize a quick select function for your items, so that you don't have to pause the game everytime you want to switch items. And the bell has its own button on the touchscreen, making quick travel comfortable.
Final Score: 8.6/10
A Link Between Worlds isn't quite the Zelda game that I wanted, but instead of whining what I didn't get, I am happy for what it isn't: Another DS Zelda game. My biggest complaints are the low difficulty and a recycled overworld, but at least the former shouldn't be an issue for many gamers. This is a Zelda game that cuts most of the nonsense that has infested the series and moves the formula back to what it originally was: A highly motivating action-adventure that allows you to experiment with the weapons at your disposal. It's not as great as A Link to the Past, but then again, how many games are? A Link Between Worlds has secured its spot as a must-own for the Nintendo 3DS.