Save the boat and train rides for the real life.
Here we go again, another Zelda for a handheld and a surprise; this pretty much might be the best Zelda released on a handheld. I remember Minish Cap with vagueness and good will. The both Oracle ones were pretty sweet. Still, this might be better suited for a comparison between the two most recent ones. Phantom Hourglass brought back the boat from Wind Waker and took it to a whole new level, not necessarily a good one. Spirit Tracks tried to base its roots on another type of vehicle and the result wasn't all that great. It's good to know they didn't try anything new as a mean of transportation this time.
Recent Zelda made the right move to create a clear distinction between console and handheld, it focused on Toon Link to give a more casual soul to it. The games were funny and Link wasn't meant to be the savior of mankind as much as usual. The silliness was quite appealing. In Spirit Tracks Zelda, or her soul, could possess bodies of anemies to help Link in the adventure, in Phantom Hourglass you could pimp your ride to ride the mean seas with style. The handheld was a chance to try a few things which in a more serious console release they probably wouldn't dare.
Still, there was the touch screen, and it was a major selling point, especially in the beginning. People were buying the console to utilize it, so they had to find a way to make it work. The answer was frequently gimmicky, but who cares, we need to take this new baby to its full potential. It's pretty clear they didn't have a choice, though slashing the screen every time you needed to perform a sword attack wasn't really a dream coming true in touch controls. If what you do with the touch screen could have been simplified by a button mash you have a problem on your hands.
See, newer controls are meant to push the gameplay forward, not jeopardize it by unnecessary additions to make the life of the player miserable. Controlling the direction of the boomerang allowed for some nifty puzzles. Both Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks had some interesting puzzles to be solved. Some were quite tricky too. The haunting presence of the main tower in Phantom was not what kept the player coming back, but really the idea that further into it things would get even more interesting.
Zelda Links Between Worlds is a blast from the past. The transition between parts of the map reminds us of the first games. The touch screen is used primarily for menu browsing. Absolutely no item requires the use of it, not the boomerang, not anything. You shoot arrows using a button press, you grapple hook using a single old-school button press. The fact they didn't feel the urge to showcase how cool it would be to slash the screen to see the slash of the sword pleased me; how revolutionary, how incredibly different it was from everything you had ever seen before. Their focus was on the game and the game only.
The map is not that big if you think about it, after a few minutes you might have traveled to most of the places you'll be vising again and again. Newer items allow for better exploration but the overall thing is there right at the start. A genius move. Take Phantom for example, how many of those islands were memorable? None of them. You probably remember the main one but the rest was quickly forgotten as soon and you had reached the end of the nearby temple/dungeon.
Link Between Worlds is not afraid to make you feel at home at all times. There's one town, Kakariko Village, and that's it. It used a similar trick to Ocarina of Time when they crafted a whole new world mirrored in a new dimension called Lorule. This new world shares the same overall aesthetics found in the main Hyrule, except that monsters are tougher and it seems to be in a more decadent situation than the former. As the story unfolds you discover that this dimension also has a princess and a triforce, though it was destroyed in an unorthodox move that had prosperity in mind, though what it brought was merely damnation.
You start in Hyrule gathering the three stones needed to reach the top of the castle, after that Link is transformed into a painting by the game's main villain. In a surprise turn of events Link manages to undo the gloomy magic cast upon him, allowing him to merge inside the walls as he then pleases. He's able to traverse within the walls as long as nothing stands in his way, like lack of bricks or miscellaneous rocks.
Link can only stay inside the walls for a limited period of time and what measures this is a magic bar. This bar actually controls everything in the game. Bombs, arrows and even the power needed to use the hammer all come from this bar. There's no pick-ups like in other Zelda games, to use the bombs you simply need to have the amount of magic needed to use them and you're good. The magic is recovered in time, it's just a few seconds for it to fully recharge. It's a strange system at first but it works fine.
Another strange aspect is how the items are "given" to the player. You have to actually rent them form one of the NPCs, in case you die during the adventure, you need to collect enough money to rent them all again. This is even stranger. Some dungeons only require one of two different set or weapons so you might choose to save some money instead of renting everything just for the sake of it. If you have the ruppees and the will to do it the player can have the whole set of items throughout the whole adventure right away! After a while you get the chance to actually buy and even upgrade them. It's again all a matter of having the dough.
The most incredible aspect of this is how simple everything seems to have been laid out, and yet, how incredibly soulful it all feels. The graphics are much more linked to classic 2D installments than the 3D counterparts of Zelda after Ocarina. The fact it took Nintendo all this time to realize handheld games should be handheld, not miniature 3D, is a testament of how poorly made their decision have been in the past 10 years or so. The soundtrack is among the best in a Zelda title. Again, lots of reminiscing about the past and not a vast variety, but each tracks has a place in the whole.
Don't mistake simplicity, yet fulfilling what it strives to achieve, with lack of audacity, undaunted. This game offers much more action time than the other two DS releases. If you think about how much time was spent going from one place to the other in a silly boat or riding that boring train, you suddenly realize that most time spend in this new Zelda was well-spent. No unnecessary dialog, no recurrent tower, no gimmicky control needed. It's pure enjoyment. I'd rather play this kind of time waster.