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‘Hyper Light Drifter’ Is the Best ‘Zelda’ I Played in Years

Hyper Light Drifter captures the wonder of exploring and deciphering a new world for the first time.
Wow. Image: Heart Machine

Assuming Nintendo doesn't delay,

sometime this year

it will release a new Zelda game for the Wii U. As always, the question going into it is whether the legendary game company can live up to what is one of the most beloved and influential game series ever made. Judging by Nintendo's last few efforts, I am skeptical.

The problem, as it has been for years, is that Nintendo has lost the spark of inspiration that made Zeldawhat it is in the first place. Whereas older Zelda games used to feel like portals to new and mysterious worlds I've never seen in a video game before, recent entries like Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword feel like portals to previous Zelda games.

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For years, fans have pined for a more fundamental change to the formula. Maybe make the game's hero, Link, a girl, or set Zelda in a science fiction world instead of a fantasy one. Understandably, Nintendo has been reluctant to tinker with its masterpiece this way. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

It's not entirely surprising, then, that the best Zelda game I've played in years isn't a Zelda game. It's called Hyper Light Drifter, and it was made by a small team called Heart Machine after a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013.

It's clearly inspired by Zelda, and specifically my favorite game in the series, A Link to the Past. But without the baggage of fandom and shareholders, Heart Machine is able to push the boundaries on this type of game in all the ways Nintendo is afraid to.

The first change is that, yes, Hyper Light Drifter borrows from science fiction just as much as it does from fantasy. Actually, it's a 50/50 split. The hero has a sword, but also a variety of futuristic blasters. He explores ancient temples, but they're powered by lasers and ancient robots covered in moss.

This mix gives Heart Machine an interesting world to play with visually, and it doesn't miss the opportunity, rendering it all with a beautiful, pixel-neon aesthetic.

I mean, look at it:

Holy hell. Image: Heart Machine

Are you kidding me? Image: Heart Machine

I'm only a couple of hours into it, but the other aspect of Hyper Light Drifter that struck me is how little it does to explain itself. A common criticism of modern Zelda is that it spends way too much time easing players into the game. Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword spend hours painstakingly explaining every little aspect of the game with boring tutorials.

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Hyper Light Drifter has no training wheels. The game introduces its world with mythic imagery, not words, and with the exception of explaining which buttons do what, asks players to figure out the rest themselves.

I believe this is why I've seen several friends compare Hyper Light Drifter to the notoriously difficult Dark Souls, but it's not that Hyper Light Drifter is incredibly difficult. It requires some accuracy, and the patience to observe an enemy's attack pattern and find the right time to counter. It's simple and fair.

What the Dark Souls comparisons are referring to is a sense of discovery and mystery, which Hyper Light Drifter deals in masterfully. It's best trick in this regard is shutting the hell up. I had no idea what was happening the first time I pulled a pillar that looked like a server rack out of the ground, but I knew I was doing something. Eventually I realized that if I found enough of those pillars, I'd be able to open previously locked doors. Eventually I realized that the yellow circuits I was picking up were a currency I could spend in town to buy new weapons.

The point is that Hyper Light Drifter trusted me decipher its alien language myself, rather than saddle me with a talking cat or fairy that held my hand every step of the way, telling me exactly what to do before I had a chance to figure it out. It adds an element of archaeology to the game, which is something players really dig about Dark Souls, and what Zelda used to be like.

When people talk about what defines a Zelda game today, they usually talk about its iconography (the green tunic, the triforce, the master sword), or the open world and dungeons structure, where the player acquires a new item, then uses that item to defeat a boss or solve a series of puzzles.

Hyper Light Drifter is great in all the ways it's supposed to be great. It looks good. It's fun to dash around enemies like a ninja, slash a crow wizard with my sword, then turn around and blast another one across the room with with my pistol. It has a killer score by Disasterpeace. It has that open world structure.

But it also cuts through these elements to arrive at something much more important: the wonder of discovering a completely different world for the first time.

Hyper Light Drifter is available for PC and Mac on Steam for $20.