It was at Spaceworld 2001 that Nintendo first unveiled the cartoon style of their then latest Zelda game, The Wind Waker. It was quickly dubbed 'Celda' as the people bemoaned their precious series transforming into what they perceived to be a kid's game. In retrospect, however, Wind Waker was a mature piece of storytelling beneath its exterior.
Yet the Zelda series had always been a cartoon. 1992's SNES classic A Link To The Past is remembered as a hardcore adventure, but its art style was far from adult. Fast forward to 2013 when Nintendo released A Link Between Worlds for the 3DS, a game that takes the art of A Link To The Past and updates it for a modern audience.
The result is the kids aesthetic we always feared. Zelda, Link, Ganon et al look more cutesy than ever. There's a whimsical, fairytale feel but it lacks the distinction of the varying art styles of the home console games and instead feels bland and uninspired.
In combination with the twee and saccharine story, A Link Between Worlds feels like a Zelda game aimed at children. Link must traverse Hyrule and its dark parallel Lorule to save seven sages (given little introduction) who have been turned into paintings by the evil wizard Yuga. Link himself is disappointingly a characterless and silent cipher, while the remaining cast are given simple, clichéd dialogue. The game even prompts you to stop playing after a while to rest your eyes, like your mum would do when you were eight years old.
The kiddy image is intriguing when much of the game's appeal lies in nostalgia. A Link Between Worlds is a direct sequel to A Link To The Past, with the same art style, a world map and enemies that are practically identical, a story with similar beats and recognisable music. At times it does spark warm and fuzzy memories - a literal link to the past - but mostly it's disappointingly overfamiliar. On discovering a repeat of an infamously annoying boss at the top of one dungeon - that giant cross eyed bug thing *shudder* - I felt simultaneously comfort and despair.
Getting there, however, is a joy. That's because this Zelda features some of the most enjoyable dungeons in the series. Their names do repeat the past and often riff on familiar ideas - the multiple levels of the Tower of Hera; the rescue mechanic in Thieves Hideout; the exterior/interior dynamic of Skull Woods. And yet the designers have twisted the familiar. Each dungeon offers theme and variation, with clever puzzles just on the right side of tricky as you change water levels, manipulate columns of sand and use darkness to your advantage. I wasn't stumped for long in each relatively short dungeon but completing them was immensely satisfying.
The art may be childish but the use of 3D brought out the child in me. The world is like a little toy box to be played with and the 3D heightens the gameplay. This is to Zelda what Super Mario 3D World is to Mario, proving the worth of the console's 3D effects. Link falls to his death through the screen or leaps out of it before your eyes, and the puzzles make great use of this new depth. Enemies do too: the bosses often have an obvious weak spot (it's the eye!), but their imposing nature is enhanced by the 3D. And never have Floormasters been scarier, those creepy hands that hover over the screen before slamming down on top of you.
But it's perspective as a whole that the designers played with. The main twist for this game is Link's ability to turn into a 2D image to walk along walls, allowing for an extra layer to consider when solving puzzles. It adds up to an incredibly satisfying adventure with depth to its visuals as well as its gameplay. Rarely has a handheld game felt so immersive.
However, the game's attempts to shake up the Zelda formula are ironically flat, with changes to the structure that don't push the boundaries far enough. Dungeons can be completed in any order, creating a welcome freedom of progression, but instead of your weapons being discovered in the dungeons, they are rented from a cheeky chap in (what else?) a bunny suit. Die and you're forced to hand them back.
This is meant to add tension and allow for creativity in Link's equipment, though in execution this isn't a success. Each dungeon still focuses on one weapon which is usually signposted on entry. Is there really much difference between finding a weapon inside a dungeon rather than renting it beforehand? Rupees are spread liberally around the world, so soon you'll have enough cash to buy the weapons permanently instead, negating any fear of death. And rarely does the game reach the high difficulty of its predecessor. That'll keep the kids happy.
As Link traverses dark and light, 2D and 3D, Nintendo traversed old and new with A Link Between Worlds. The changes it brought weren't enough to refresh the series - fans would have to wait for Breath of the Wild for a true breath of fresh air. Yet as a fun and clever little puzzle-adventure game, A Link Between Worlds does the Zelda name proud.