People call them “aha! moments”. They’re the moments in games where you figure something out on your own and you feel clever for it. Sometimes it’s applying an item in a new way and sometimes its just finding a solution to a problem you’ve been butting heads with for a while. Good “aha! moments” make you feel like you understand the game better, less good ones feel more like relief.
That’s why I think a lot of people praise the Portal games. Both games have a lot of these moments that make you feel smart. The game is designed around that feeling of discovery. In a lot of ways, it’s a game about learning.
I like games that teach well through their design. It’s rare because throwing up instructional text is safer and easier—which is also two words to describe some fair criticisms of big budget games. We’re told how and when to do things so explicitly in games nowadays that the first 20 minutes are incredibly overwhelming and a real bore for those already familiar. By definition games need to explain mechanics somehow, so I’m not here to fault the games that do it by text. That’s one option. But there’s another way. A more elegant way. And that’s through these “aha! moments.”
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, like Portal, seems designed around these eureka moments. It runs at a much faster pace than previous Zelda games and uses that constraint to emphasize its dungeons. Access to them and their respective items is almost completely open from the start. I spent about a week doing a dungeon a day. Each one was like a puzzle with multiple layers of thought to solve.
The dungeons themselves are incredibly dense. The game uses very simplified geometry and doesn’t get too complex in the arrangement. It works great for the top-down perspective. Any larger and my mental capacity would have failed, and the game would’ve probably been frustrating if I had to revisit areas to simply remember where things were. See, a lot of the dungeons operate on multiple floors. Some require you to jump back and forth from different floors to reach keys and items you couldn’t before. You need to master the whole layout, and in the end, you will. The level design reaches a Dark Souls level of intricacy at times. And I adore Dark Souls’ level design. Absolutely adore it.
In Dark Souls, those “aha! moments” are mental feedback, and Zelda mimics that. Instead of opening a door, which is quite often the case, discovery in A Link Between Worlds also gives you another layer of understanding. It’s almost more rewarding than just progressing further into the dungeon.
When you do finally squeeze the dungeons dry, you get a boss fight. For me, good boss fights are like thesis statements. Even though they go on top, it’s usually best to write them last. They summarize. I think the best boss fights call upon all your previous learning. Bad ones introduce new mechanics, which A Link Between Worlds is guilty of in one particular instance.
Most of A Link Between Worlds’ boss fights are good, although some of them are far too simple for how complex your understanding of an item is. Some of that is the game wanting to be a direct homage to A Link to the Past. Many bosses are very similar to the previous game. I would have liked bosses that really test your knowledge under pressure, but I’m probably a fool to forget how important tradition is to Nintendo.
I should also mention that A Link Between Worlds is the first Zelda game I’ve ever really dug into and finished. It’s very modern compared to the rest of the series. And by that I mean it’s fast and open. It’s crazy to see that a game so different from the others exists, but it’s also great that I can finally have a Zelda game that I find satisfying and incredibly well-designed.
When I finished A Link Between Worlds, I was surprised. I’d like to think I wouldn’t be if I would’ve played any other Zelda before it, but I didn’t so let me have this one. I had many, many, “aha! moments” and I enjoyed every one. It disperses them like some kind of drug I needed a fix on every few hours. It’s just plain fun to explore and conquer the world in a sort of pure sense that was sadly absent from the best experiences I’ve had with games this year. It’s so weird for me to say it considering my history with the series but I like it. I like it a lot.