LOS ANGELES - For nearly three decades, spikey-eared hero Link has captained a boat, mastered a magic flute and flown a giant bird in the name of rescuing Princess Zelda from dastardly foes.
In his latest quest, he's morphing into walls. That may sound like a flat development for the wholly untarnished "Legend of Zelda" franchise, but it's as "aha!"-inspiring as previous installments.
"The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds" ($39.99 for the Nintendo 3DS and 2DS) starts with a flamboyant villain named Yuga storming the fantastical kingdom of Hyrule and transforming the land's Seven Sages, as well as Princess Zelda and Link, into 2-D illustrations. Luckily, it ain't 1991 anymore, so Link isn't only confined to the wall. He's able to pop on and off at will.
With his newfound ability, the blacksmith's apprentice can slip into mountain sides and move across chasms or fling himself into castle walls to slip through tiny crevices. It's a simple twist, one that opens up a breathtaking array of mind-bending spatial puzzles, the kind that captured the public's imagination long before any candy-crushing sagas.
The other major switcheroo is that "A Link Between Worlds" is almost completely a nonlinear experience. The gear required to solve puzzles within the dungeons where the Seven Sages are held captive is available to either buy or rent from the outset. The catch with borrowing? If Link falls in battle, he'll lose all rented items and must check them out again at full price.
Such small "Zelda" adjustments have a big impact on the game's flow.
The lack of handholding gives players the freedom to explore Hyrule (and its creepy sister, Lorule) in any order they choose. It also adds stakes if gamers decide to take a chance, say, by renting a fire-spewing staff necessary for trekking through some icy ruins instead of merely purchasing it outright. For those who take the risk, they could save hundreds of Rupees.
Over the past three years, there's been several "Legend of Zelda" remakes, rereleases and anniversary editions unleashed by Nintendo for the 3DS. None of those has been as captivating as "A Link Between Worlds," an original "Legend of Zelda" epic created especially for the glasses-free 3DS.
While the 3-D functionality of most 3DS games can be written off as gimmicky, a few platform-maneuvering, vertigo-inducing instances in "A Link Between Worlds" practically demands to be played beyond two dimensions. "Zelda" mastermind Eiji Aonuma and his development team have thoughtfully crafted a game that really should be experienced in 3-D.
"A Link Between Worlds" is exactly what anyone could want out of a hand-held "Zelda" adventure. That's also its greatest deficiency. The game's open 3-D world is a welcome - and much needed - change to the been-there-grabbed-that formula of past "Zelda" titles. There's nothing all that unexpected about "A Link Between Worlds." Three-and-a-half stars out of four.