A Link Between Worlds – Possibly the Best Handheld Zelda Game

Zelda, as a whole, is a series I never seem to tire of. As noticeable, distinctive and overtly recognisable the games are, hearing the sprightly trills of The Lost Woods or the assertive jingle of a solved puzzle – no matter how many times I might’ve heard it – gets me as worked up as a caffeinated cucco. So much so, indeed, that I spent two years of my youth sipping beverages almost exclusively from a jar. But although my days of milk-sipping have passed, I look back on the Zelda franchise with an excitement that never appears to waver. Consequently, it’s games like A Link Between Worlds that reassure me that Nintendo are determined to keep the series fresh, and despite its ultimately nostalgic tone, this portable release trumped Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks for flair, character and novelty.

Link Between Worlds Zora Queen

It Knows How to Laugh

From the very beginning, it’s clear to see where Link Between Worlds’ allegiances lie. Overlooking a vibrant 3D rendition of Hyrule’s original design, visuals are the very first to surprise, with wry little nods to previous games surging beneath its newfangled surface. From the original Zelda soundtrack thundering along to your adventures to the unassuming Majora’s Mask hanging in your room, A Link Between Worlds is as just as in love with the series as its fans, whilst distancing itself enough to keep gameplay fresh and innovative.

The story revolves around the main antagonist Yuga, a warlock of amusing evil with a discernible penchant for classic art. After having transformed Link to the Past’s Seven Sages into Romanesque paintings, the revered Hero of Time is called upon once again to free them to defeat Yuga, and thwart his intent to reanimate the unmistakable Beast King, Ganon.

Despite his mostly top-down portrayal, Yuga maintains a scrumptiously wicked facade, and over my time with A Link Between Worlds, I found myself laughing aloud whenever the. It’s plain to see that Nintendo had had a more jovial tone in mind than to say, Majora’s Mask or Twilight Princess, and with campy humour on full-throttle, I found coming to Link Between Worlds from some of the darker or tenser games a positive breath of fresh air.

Link Between Worlds Yuga

It Tickles Your Nostalgia

The art style offers a refreshing contemporary spin on the original, top down Hyrule; something that roots A Link Between Worlds more with the original series than its Wind Waker-esque counterparts of Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks. As a result, Link Between Worlds felt more like a Zelda game than previous handheld titles – and it’s noticeably more memorable because of it.

Troutish Zora and galumphing moblins all make their reprise in Link Between Worlds, and in fully polygonal form. It’s a joy to watch the foes of my original conquests sprawling about in glorious 3D; even if lock-on and aiming issues still persist, and Link’s elegant, portrait form conjures warm memories of the sprite that housed his original Hylian spirit.

Even if you’re not into the series, it’s a game that represents a variety and ingenuity that first appealed in the Zelda games, allowing it to stand perfectly accessible to series newcomers. From generous pepperings of recognisable Teklites and Sandcrabs, to Hyrule castle’s portraits peering upon the origins of Link himself, A Link Between Worlds respectfully homages its own history, whilst proffering to newcomers a stylish looking-glass into the nostalgic history its ancestors created.

Link Between Worlds Ganon artwork

It’s as Freeing as a Nude Summer Walk

Amidst non-portable ravings over The Witcher 3’s rollicking exploration and Far Cry Primal’s paleolithic expanses, A Link Between Worlds evokes a similar freedom that’s rarely done so well in a handheld title. With no official markers or routes pointing the way, you’re left free to explore the luxurious stretches of Hyrule, adopting ample amounts of Link to the Past’s inquisitive charm.

This being said, this certainly isn’t a mere respectful reboot; the introduction of new systems and strategies invoke a remarkable freshness to A Link Between Worlds’ gameplay. You’re flippantly badgered by Ravio, a bunny-hooded salesman who offers a range of secondary weapons to use at your discretion. You can opt, fo 50 rupees, to rent an item, which must be re-rented once Link dies, or purchase it for upwards of 800. Whilst occasionally you might need to postpone your pursuit of illustrious potions to fund your rented inventory, rupees are abundant enough in Link Between Worlds to ensure the practice doesn’t become grindsome, and the eventual chance to buy a selection of weapons makes level traversal more varied, interesting and ultimately liberating than perhaps it ever has.

A Link Between Worlds’ main gimmick is the Merge mechanic. In this installment, Link can spiritually fuse with numerous walls in the game, allowing the player to edge fluidly . The ease with which merging is made possible opens up new ways to confront discovered territories and across the course of the game, merging becomes less optional accessory, more second-nature. This is made especially admirable by the game’s complimentary level design. Worlds are constructed to conceal hidden treasure, items or realms; so much so that melting into walls becomes as reflexive and as engaging as simply using one’s average, Hylian legs.

Link Between Worlds Portrait

There’s no clear-cut way to clear a palace or wander a dungeon (a notion merging seems to cement), and although puzzles have defined solutions, you’re more than welcome to find other ways to nab keys and unlock chests. For example, a cavern that has you using cuccos to glide safely onto platforms is just as easily navigable – if not more so – by breaking out the Tornado Rod to use instead. Instead of taking intricate tours of mountain surfaces in painting form, you can Hookshot your way unto glory. And treasure.

Another prime difference between A Link Between Worlds and its referenced grandfathers is that secondary weapons can be used infinitely. Whilst prior games had the player scouring the land for ammo or rupees once supplies began to run dry, your only restriction here is the ‘energy bar’, which is depleted each time a weapon is used and takes only a brief time to regenerate. It cut out what often drew me away from past games; I sighed at the notion of annoying fetch quests, and the prospect of scrounging with all my might to gather oh-so-precious bombs began to make me feel ever so slightly woozy. There’s a lot more time to explore in Link Between Worlds because of this, and ultimately it’s the least compromised fun I’ve had with a portable Zelda title.

link between worlds hookshot.jpg

It’s Still Zelda, Just Fluffier

I suppose the risk with such a game as A Link Between Worlds is its comparison to the titles it homages. And when doing so, you’re inevitably going to find a few snags. Despite the undeniable beauty of A Link Between Worlds’ vibrant, polygonal world, the sense of majesty I felt trudging the realms of A Link to the Past was noticeably blunted. Of course, the previous angularities of the S/NES sprite are considered obsolete in terms of new Zelda games, but their efficacy at creating a foreboding atmosphere was something that greatly intensified the grace and mystery of the originals, in addition to their innovative features. Whilst there’s certainly no shortage of clever mechanics, intricate design and challenging boss battles in A Link Between Worlds, it’s all decidedly cute, and the softened world somewhat undermined the primitive danger Hyrule possessed prior.

Link to the Past boss

Commendably Caught Between Worlds

Luckily, rarely is Zelda a game enjoyed for visuals alone, and the game’s merits lie far beyond its superficial design. A reverent hark back to its admired predecessors, it’s a game that flaunts its roots whilst striving to build upon the open, freeing conventions the Zelda series forged for itself. Proffering a storyline with uncompromising humour, A Link Between Worlds bursts with the same hallmark sense of character that rendered me incalculably enchanted by Zelda in the first place, albeit with a lighter heart and a sharper grin.

Deadpool – Meta Go-Getter And Plenty French Letters

If Bertolt Brecht was here to see the trajectory of his alienation principle, he’d either be abhorred or touched. It’s true that I experienced a similar conflict having thrown myself verily into the realms of Deadpool, but sandwiched as I was between unfettered dick jokes and merciless slants at alternate timelines and X-Men budgeting, it was a conflict I began to find stomach-churningly alluring.

It’s fair to say that my recovery from X Men Origins: Wolverine sparked more than a faint tremor of trepidation at the prospect of a Deadpool revival. The mercenary was fiendishly manipulated, leaving the Merc With the Mouth with a distortedly blunted charisma and a questionable lack of…well, mouth.

Deadpool drawing

And Deadpool could well have made made similar mistakes, if it wasn’t for Ryan Reynolds’ cheerful dedication to ensuring the potty-mouthed, katana-wielding mercenary got what he, and his fans, deserved. Deadpool is spiked with irony and pop culture references, and considering its comparitively meagre budget against its Marvel compatriots, it’s a film that vehemently and viciously validates the ‘hero”s seven year haitus from the clutches of the silver screen. From the opening credits’ exchanging production info for slants at Hollywood archetypes, naming the director as ‘an overpaid tool’, and the producers ‘asshats’, to Stan Lee’s delightfully naughty cameo, Deadpool manages to live up to the comic book character’s intended representation, whilst managing to consistently surprise in the process.

Reynolds is Wade Wilson, the sweary chieftan of Deadpool’s bombastic tale, whose abrupt on-screen birth assumes a heated taxi exchange. It soon comes to light that Wilson has been forced to undergo a physical mutation by Ajax, played by Game of Thrones Londoner, Ed Skrein. The protagonist (a term you’ll be truly left to question over the course of the film) embarks on the typical herohood pilgramage, but for a refreshingly selfish vengeance, as opposed to self-appointed gallantry. There’ll be the discernible warring between faculties and hurricanic destruction, with more than its fair share of romantic pursuits. But Deadpool is well aware of these hailed tropes, and it goes to extreme lengths to ‘act out’ between the archetypes.

The spandex-sporting antihero would sooner lop off his hands than join any superhuman academy and amidst his violent penchant for superheroic proclivities, the heroic inner struggle is sumptuously butchered with nonchalant matter-of-factness. Instead, Deadpool hashes together its own Avengers-style tag-team, including all of two Marvel confederates. It feels like they’ve just been thrown in – and Deadpool‘s financially-aware script makes it obvious they have been – but Colossus’ withering attempts to steer the ireverrent Deadpool coupled with Negasonic Teenage Warhead’s excruciating teenie-bopper foibles translate well into Deadpool’s wayward charm, and it’s a joy to watch them squirm against the garrulous surge of Deadpool’s ludicrous world.

Deadpool standing

My mother found a soft spot for the X-Men films, and has committed her evenings mercilessly to observation of Hugh Jackman’s illustrious midsection and Stewart’s luminous scalp; events in which I’d gleefully partake. But I’d be hesitant to add Deadpool to the Saturday night agenda. This isn’t a film as easily adapted for family occasions. Despite Reynolds’ additional crush on the adamantium-boned mutant, there are sharper edges in Deadpool that set it apart from the standard hero flick. It’s a film that swings capriciously from ironical bubblegum cheeriness and unabashed cock shots, to mournful reflections of loss, pain and solitude. And indeed, on occasions such as the origin story, the two palpitate so venemously that I found myself quite unnerved by what I was watching. Contrapuntal soundtracks truly shine here, that’s all I’ll say.

Mostly, however, Deadpool is a litany of churlish arse jokes and perfunctory dismemberment, and in a way that is as superficial as it is juvenile, it’s beguiling. It’s aware; unashamed, and with a comic violence comparable to Tarantino’s exuberant slashiness, it’s an effective action movie that pays homage to the overarching culture Marvel has become. The eponymous Deadpool takes time out from immeasurable baddie-beating to address the audience directly, whilst raising a simultaneous middle finger to corporate claims against the R-rated superhero; a project seldom-visited since Blade’s cult garnerings. Blade is grateful, Reynolds, and perhaps there’ll even be more sweary, adult-themed slaughterfests to follow after the commercial success of 2016’s ladybug-shaded antihero.

Amongst its most alluring elements is its unwavering honesty. Deadpool‘s relentless jabs at his own film’s budgeting renders his would-be-Avengers backup of Colossus and ‘Obligatory moody-teen’ less forced, more endearing, whilst his near-pantomime erection for Hugh Jackman dispenses with the anticipatory anxiety around the film as a panderer to the X-Men franchise. Instead, it’s a cheerfully brutish break from the valiant endeavours of Xavier, or Wolverine; a crazed romp that stands defiantly alone in its adult themes and wry referential tone.

deadpool walking

It knows it’s schlocky, vain and boorish, and it doesn’t care one jot. The very foundation of the love story.

Monster Hunter: Then and Now

Monster Hunter is a painfully misunderstood series. Indeed, I’ve never played a game so adamant to undermine its own gaming ethos through its complicated design choices. But its technical oddities, for many, have contributed to a challenge level many have dedicated their time and sanity to navigating, and with veritable ‘Felyne’ prowess. And yet, I just can’t stay away from it. It’s retained a cultural atmosphere so reassuring that it inspires me to keep fighting, even if those wonky camera controls frustrate and impede.

Monster Hunter 4 1

So having ventured from the realms of the PSP’s Freedom Unite, I went ahead and obtained its younger brother. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is the latest installment in the ambivalent franchise to come to the West, and in many ways, the most accessible. But despite making some admirable leaps in some places, it displays much of the challenge and caprice (and distinct frustration) of its Playstation-infused roots.

What’s fair to say of the series is that since the release of Freedom Unite, it’s beguiling to see Capcom having fun with it. Character creation, whilst not Bethesda-esque, is noticeably more varied, sporting some humorously obscure expressions that affords a brief titter before the hunting raucous begins.

You’re equipped with a feline friend to aid your hunting quests now too, and although Felynes could be called upon in Freedom Unite’s times of need, it’s fun and ultimately more beginner-friendly, to know you’ve your own miniature soldier – a Palico – to deploy when times are dire. Mine’s called Crakajak. He’s a ginger tabby. Yes, he wears a waistcoat. And yes, he is adorable.

Also, about that pig. Totally still there.

poogie

A similar friendliness struck me upon the starting quest. Whilst text tutorials still feel unnecessarily lengthy, they’re much more compulsory in 4 Ultimate, presented with a lighter mood that strikes as welcoming to Monster Hunter initiates. Prompts appear over gatherable items and slain enemies, with hunter notes more easily located than Freedom Unite’s elusive how-to’s.

Since the game erupted more as a beloved culture than it has a series, Capcom certainly seemed to have translated a lot of this sense of togetherness into Ultimate’s environment. Understandably, the result is more welcoming than Freedom Unite ever was. The frost-bitten village of Pokke was homely, even welcoming, but there was always a sense of isolation there (perhaps due to technical hindrances at the time) that kept me very much at arm’s length.

Ultimate’s hot-running Val Habar, on the other hand, is a bustling hotchpotch of caravaneers, smithies, chefs, nomads and anthropomorphic Palicoes. You have to side-step to evade incoming traffic, and are caught between glances within the patchwork variety of the townsfolk. It’s not to say that Pokke couldn’t be a home, but there’s a vivacity permeating Val Habar that makes the ‘safety-hub’ of the game more refreshing to return to after a taxing hunt.

There’s plenty of humour canvassing Ultimate’s welcoming abode, too. Ultimate is much heavier in dialogue than its PSP ancestor, but alongside its still quite lengthy tutorial explanations, each conversation is laced with a decidedly anime style. The Caravaneer is playfully exaggerated, whilst the quest-giving Guildmarm will tease you, with an esteemed tendency to call you ‘Doodle’. Outside Ultimate’s more active narrative, you can expect references aplenty as such Nintendo greats as The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario make an appearance during optional side quests and DLC.

Monster Hunter 4 Zelda

In terms of controls and progression, the Monster Hunter series has been moving steadily and slowly upward, and in Ultimate, the notion is literal. Whilst Tri, the previous Wii (and subsequent 3DS) release, included underwater combat, Ultimate presents a focus on climbing, encouraging a more lateral approach when it comes to hunting monsters or items. True, Freedom Unite comprised a labyrinth of snow-capped peaks and moss-sodden caves to explore, but they were circulated easily and required laboriously sifting through each zone during Gathering Quests. There’s much remedy to be had in Ultimate; in addition to remembering the gathering spots of your targeted beasties, you’re encouraged to clamber atop overhead canopies and dip down into shrouded alcoves, and discovering each for the first time feels like a cherished, but intensely secret venture. Gatherables generally stick out more within the luxurious environments, allowing you to take in the scenery without needing to scower it. Whilst this reduces difficulty for Gathering Quests, it does mean that Ultimate presents the explorative experience that Freedom Unite had aimed for six years prior.

Movement is also much more fluid in Ultimate, thankfully incorporating greater speed and agility alongside its trademark, pillar-like weapons. Ultimate‘s hunter is a speedier climber, sprinter and gatherer, and it does wonders for the game’s general pacing. You can even spring from various ledges to initiate a valiant jump attack.

With my frustration comparatively lessened, I found myself much more open to the game’s worlds in Ultimate than I had done in Freedom Unite – and more importantly, the study of each of its irrevocably beautiful fauna. Ultimate introduces 10 new monsters to its already formidable roster; not an unpredictable development considering the game’s premise. They are, however, depicted with a crisp, flowing animation that truly shines on the 3DS, and on the New 3DS, they’re even more attractive. Great, spined behemouths like the Shah Dalamadur are as elegant as they are terrifying, but attention to detail isn’t reserved for more pivotal foes. The smaller, more capricious beings of Monster Hunter often transpire as favourites of mine, and observing the skittish deer-folk, the Kelbi frolic amidst the prehistoric world of the hunt, is more enchanting now than ever before. The visual rift between Freedom Unite and Ultimate is impressive, and I’ve begun to make a habit out of alternating between the two. Kid’s gotta have fun, right?

kelbi

It’s these reassuring additions that make the series’ antiquities all the more apparent, however. Six years on, camera angles are as integral to combat here as it had been in Freedom Unite, and still sporting an unintuitive camera and a lack of lock-on features, it’s plain to see that the series hasn’t perhaps progressed as much as it could have. Exuberant glades and archaic caverns are stunning to behold, and the graphical leap is stark, but if the controls obstruct the game’s objectives, it feels like Capcom focused their aims on the wrong aspect of the series.

Across the Monster Hunter series, soundtrack has remained at a veritable constant, and perhaps as to be expected, Ultimate matches the valiant compositions of its predecessors. Grand, rich and orchestral, I usually hear a boss before I see it, and their crafted themes really contribute to the notion of grandeur each mammoth beast deserves.
That, and the notion that I’m going to get my ass kicked.

Monster Hunter still suffers from the issues of its predecessors; issues that – unfortunately – obstruct its crossover into the mainstream audience. But coming from Freedom Unite is a real treat. Despite its evident blots, it’s a series that is at least moving in the right direction. With roaring visuals and a friendlier first impression, Monster Hunter 4: Ultimate rallies with comedy and odyssey driving the boat, and with a fifth release looming (and the possibility of its Western ventures), Ultimate shows some reassuring signs.

The most reassuring of which is the return of that pet pig. I’m head-over-heels for that little guy.

Retrokick – Super Mario Land

The void is a beautiful thing. The more I engage in the humdrum regularities of life’s to-ing, fro-ing and woeing as I tarry inexorably into the complex realms of adulthood, the stronger the allure of a few moments of vacuous bliss transpires to become. It’s not a bad thing, for I’m still a complicated person. I’m practically parfaited with tendencies, joys, fears and intolerances; including a consolidated compulsion to hoard conkers like a gargantuan squirrel. I’m a multi-tiered blood-cake of stuff, and I’d imagine you are too. Unless you’re reading this as an absolutely new born baby, in which case, kudos.

Level 1

But there’s a value to be had in simplicity, and for my platformer-mechanised thumbs, none hit the mark quite like Super Mario Land.

Super Mario Land is an odd little thing. It was one of the last titles that depicted a still rather adolescent Mario. His identity wasn’t set in stone yet, allowing Nintendo tried on a few different components on before settling with the peppy plumber we know today, among the extensive cast of Bowsers, Peaches, Toads and Waluigis that all very much have their own brand. Mario even pursues Princess Daisy here, rather than his regular beloved, Peach.

In that way, you could play Super Mario Land without it feeling truly like a Mario game, and as such, the adventure feels as fresh to me now as it did upon my ingenuous first encounter with the mustachioed protagonist.

super mario land

Unlike its counterparts, Super Mario Land is set in the new environment of Sarasaland.

Whilst Retrokick’s whippersnapperous delving has mostly covered systems that were technologically impressive at launch, the Game Boy’s restrictions were well noticed even back in 1989. This knowledge meant that compact, simplistic games took priority for the Game Boy, and among Tetris and a smattering of sports titles, Super Mario Land debuted alongside the console.

This was one of the only Mario games not produced by the protagonist’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto. The glory for Super Mario Land laid with Miyamoto’s mentor, Gunpei Yokoi. Manager of Nintendo’s oldest developer – R&D 1 – and daddy of the D-Pad, a possible reason for Super Mario Land’s enduring freshness was Yokoi’s technological perspective. He approached Mario Land’s production aiming to use dying technology in a creative way, and perhaps as a result of that, there’s still an incredible youth to Mario’s monochromatic exploits today.

jump

During an interview with Imanishi and Masayuki Uemura, it was explained that Mario’s original nickname was ‘Ossan’ meaning ‘Middle Aged Guy’, before making numerous transitions to Mr. Video, Jumpman and Mario.

Of course, simple platforming and sidescrolling design choices formed the game’s core. But with inspiration drawn from arcade shooter Gradius, Super Mario Land implemented different styles in the form of two scrolling shooter levels, switching up the difficulty to mark pivotal narrative moments. Mario also left his weighty fireballs at home here, instead able to propel powerballs that could bounce off of scenery, through the air to attack enemies and collect coins, if the player’s angles permitted.

More than a mere gimmick, Yokoi introduced an elegance to level progression that had never been seen before, often allowing players to alternate between platforming and puzzle elements with a fluency that made speedrunning delectably satisfying, and the accumulation of extra lives (as collecting 100 coins equaled one Mario life) eased the tension the further you progressed.

Rest assured, the comfort was minimal; with 12 checkpointless levels to progress, and the game’s total reset after lives were depleted, the lamp-lit sessions I spent in Sarasaland were ones spent sifting every available coin to beef up my longevity.

game over

Oh yes, Super Mario Land is as much a real-life-simulator as it is a platformer.

Super Mario Bros. had you stomping about repetitive Mushroom Kingdoms. Each frame was embezzled with the same cheery blue sky and viridescent pipery, again and again. And that was okay; I never played Super Mario Bros. for the groundbreaking visuals. But if Bros.’s world was vanilla, Super Mario Land’s was Neapolitan.

In terms of visual capacity, the NES trumped the Game Boy, but even considering the portable console’s algae-hued limitations, Super Mario Land offered a greater variety, creative flair and a surprising sense of humour than Bros. had, often through world design alone. Mario sprinted through ancient Egypt, China, even Atlantis; taking on pharaoh Lions, aquatic overlords and sentient Moai statues. An undersea robotic invasion even joined the overalled protagonist’s opposing roster. A far cry from the Goomba-Koopa ubiquity.

Although for me, Mario had always been about hopping about gleefully gathering coins like a capitalistic rabbit, Super Mario Land’s many realms made it an adventure. The odyssey was incredibly potent within the game’s ancient depictions, and as such, they communicated a powerful sense of plot without thrusting a narrative right under the player’s nose.

Seahorse boss

The Underwater ‘Muda’ Kingdom was inspired by the ‘lost kingdom’ Mu, and Bermuda.

When I finally reached Daisy (that is, the Daisy that doesn’t experience some sort of Kafka-like transmogrification), it didn’t just feel like a victory because the levels were challenging. It was a victory because I’d battled through all these gauntlets, traveled all these mystical lands of odd little creatures to reach her. Old romanticism doesn’t always die hard.

The variety didn’t cease with the design. Hip Tanaka’s chiptune compositions are recognisable across Metroid, Tetris and Kid Icarus, and characterised Super Mario Land’s levels in a way that was straightforward and undecorative. Void of the hailed jauntiness of the Super Mario theme tune, each kingdom proffered its own theme, blending the game’s numerous mythical representations with the distinctively electronic chipset limitations of the Game Boy. The ancient China levels comprised jaunty chimes, whilst the boss theme managed to be unforgettably ominous, often playing well before the player uncovered the villainous golem blocking Mario’s path.

 

Daisy

But what if this Daisy is Peach inside a Daisy suit? Does Daisy even exist?!

Super Mario Land stood as a lesson in minimalism when the Game Boy first launched, and it still stands as one today, even if its mother console has retreated into antiquity. This simplistic platforming odyssey integrated mystical locations with a charming sense of humour, communicating a malleable narrative that could align with the player’s own experience. It broke conventions, even when the Mario brand was still shaky, and it’s one of the weirdest, boldest and ultimately most beguiling Mario games to date because of it.

If there’s anything I wish I hadn’t taken from Super Mario Land, however, it’s my inescapable paranoia that women I like will irreversibly turn into flies. Of course, before I realise that that isn’t a feasible thing that can happen.

That’s not a feasible thing that can happen, is it?

 

oh daisy