It’s happened to every Zelda fan at some point. You’re exploring Hyrule when you suddenly discover some cleverly hidden secret that lands you a small treasure chest. You know it’s not a heart piece, or an upgrade for an item; it’s a rupee, but it doesn’t matter how much it’s worth, because your wallet’s full. Why is your wallet full? Well, more often than not, it’s because there’s just not a whole lot to spend it on.
The truth is, in most Zelda games, there often isn’t a whole lot at stake. What you can store in a bottle for free is often more useful than what you can get with rupees. Holding a fairy (captive?) will prevent you from a game over in a hectic battle. Grandma’s elixir soup comes with two servings that not only recover all of your hearts, but double your strength until you’re hit. They’ll let you hold water, bugs, and even Deku Princesses.
Rupees tend to simply provide a means to upgrade your inventory in passive, unnecessary ways. Play a mini-game to get a bigger quiver. Use them to compete in a dog race and win a heart piece. However, Zelda: Skyward Sword took a step away from this by giving the player more incentive to spend them—you could upgrade your main items, for example, or brew potions with effects that go far beyond recovering hearts. Now, if Skyward Sword amended the philosophy that rupees don’t do much, then A Link Between Worlds abandons it entirely. Rupees are so vital to A Link Between Worlds’ new item-renting system that they profoundly affect the structure of the game. In fact, rupees will, in several ways, determine how you experience the game.
For example, renting the Hookshot—which requires rupees—will grant you access to Rosso’s Mine on Death Mountain. Meanwhile, renting bombs will let you find hidden grottos and hideouts in the overworld. Without certain items, you’ll only be able to reach portals to specific parts of Lorule’s overworld. Don’t worry though—you’ll often have enough rupees to rent several items at once. Just be careful! If you get a game over, rented items go right back to Ravio’s shop, and you’ll have to pay to pick them up again if you want to continue exploring.
In essence, what you can rent often determines which areas you can access, and how many rupees you have determines what you can rent. For that reason, there is always something at stake. Even though your wallet is bottomless from the get-go, how you ration rupees is at the core of A Link Between Worlds’ gameplay. You’ll be using rupees to rent and eventually purchase items, but you won’t be using rupees to upgrade them. Instead, A Link Between Worlds begs you to explore it.
Early in the game, you’ll meet a powerful… er, squid? Octorok? Let’s just say magical cephalopod, named Mother Maiamai. Her children are scattered all across Hyrule and Lorule. You’ll find them hiding on the tops of trees, underneath large boulders, and sitting at the bottom of hidden pools, all of which require particular items or powers to retrieve. Each time you bring Mother Maiamai 10 of her babies, she’ll upgrade one of the items you’ve purchased (not rented) from Ravio. With 100 Maiamais to find, you’ll get to do this 10 times throughout the course of the game. Certain maiamais require the use of items or powers you can’t get from Ravio, though, so these upgrades feel well-paced and help keep combat fresh—and don’t worry about keeping track of how many you’ve found, because the game does it for you. And if you use the Maiamai icon next to the map, you can see how many are left to find in each region.
If all of the items are available at Ravio’s, though, then how does the game reward you for exploring dungeons? Those are the core of Zelda games, right?
By bringing the puzzle elements of dungeons into the overworld, A Link Between Worlds is able to decentralize the use of items. Instead of each dungeon focusing on an item you’d find there, each dungeon focuses on awesomely creative puzzles that demand the use of multiple items. Solving these puzzles often lands you a piece of gear. Gear is more passive than an item: Blue Mail will halve the damage you take from enemies, for example, while the Titan’s Mitt will let you lift huge boulders. Alternatively, the Magic Scroll will double your stamina meter, allowing you to use items more frequently and traverse walls as a painting for a longer duration of time. Each opens its own avenue of exploration. All three are essential for progression, but won’t completely limit your ability to explore.
Meanwhile, exploring dungeons will provide you with the means to upgrade your Master Sword. Hidden in the lands of Hyrule and Lorule are four pieces of Master Ore. If you bring two pieces of Master Ore to the blacksmith in Hyrule, he’ll temper your sword and make it more powerful. Seeing such masterful craftsmanship will inspire his Lorule double to do the same, if you can also bring two pieces to him.
Gear and item upgrades are the secret to success in the Treacherous Tower, which pits you against several floors of enemies you’ll have to clear without depleting your heart gauge. Winning will provide you with plentiful rupees, allowing you to purchase more items and, in turn, access more upgrades. It’s a synergistic system driven entirely by itself. As a result, every minute of my time in A Link Between Worlds felt meaningful. Every minute of exploration yielded some kind of reward. With some effort, you’ll find mini-dungeons that require you to master specific items, landing you some rupees or a much-revered heart piece.
Free exploration comes at a price, though. Just as Skyward Sword’s strict adherence to story necessitated its linear progression, the freedom to choose where you go in A Link Between Worlds necessitates its lax narrative. The story isn’t particularly compelling and characters like Hilda and Yuga are hardly fleshed out. For some, the ending may reconcile this lack of narrative, and for others, a lacking story will be a fair price for amazing gameplay. This doesn’t stop A Link Between Worlds from being both a perfect sequel for long time fans and a perfect entry point for new ones.
Food for Thought:
1. A Link Between Worlds has some unavoidable structure to it. For instance, you will always need to do the Thieves Hideout before the Swamp Palace. You will always need to get the Titan’s Mitt before entering the Skeleton Woods. That’s really about it, though.
2. If any of you are looking for solid proof that Majora’s Mask is coming to the 3DS, you won’t find it in A Link Between Worlds. You will, however, be reminded that Nintendo “hasn’t forgotten about Link’s adventure’s in Termina,” as this marks the first major appearance of a milk bar in Hyrule since the game debuted on the N64. To clear up any speculation, no, Ravio is not the Happy Mask Salesman, Lorule is not Termina, and Majora plays no role in the story what-so-ever.
3. Much to my surprise, I used every item in the game equally. The upgraded tornado rod will be your best friend in the Treacherous Tower, so do not under estimate its power. Even the sand rod doesn’t lose any of its magic despite being mapped onto a button. These were two of my favorite items from Spirit Tracks, and I loved using them again in A Link Between Worlds.
4. The two musicians in the milk bar will play the following songs if you’re willing to part with 10 rupees: The Overworld Theme (Legend of Zelda), Hyrule Castle Theme (ALttP), Ravio’s Theme (ALBW), Title Screen (ALttP), Dungeon Theme (Legend of Zelda), Fairy Fountain (ALttP), Dark Mountain Forest (ALttP), Zelda’s Lullaby (ALttP), Yuga’s Theme (ALBW), Hilda’s Theme (ALBW), Kakariko Village (ALttP, OoT), Item Fanfare (several).
5. There’s plenty to do after the game. The stakes are even higher the second time through. You’ll have to find out why, though, by playing it yourself.