Zelda spinoffs are not great. Considering the pedigree of the franchise, the spin-offs tend to be, at best, fine or passable. The general consensus is that Link’s Crossbow Training, a simple light gun game, is the best of the bunch, which says a lot.
But that long streak of mediocrity ends with Cadence of Hyrule, the unquestionable king of the Zelda spin-off, which easily matches the quality of the main series.
Cadence of Hyrule is made by the same team behind Crypt of the NecroDancer and uses many of the same mechanics. It’s a top-down, roguelike RPG where you’re forced to move around the map to the beat of the game’s soundtrack. You’ll stumble if you start to move out of beat, and doing so causes you to lose momentum while likely getting swiped by a nearby monster.
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But Cadence of Hyrule isn’t just a reskin of NecroDancer with some Zelda tunes mixed in. NecroDancer is punishingly difficult, for instance, starting players mostly from scratch after every death. That mechanic is at odds with the Zelda franchise’s tenets of free exploration and character progression, and major changes were made in Cadence of Hyrule to hew closer to classic Zelda.
As I start exploring the world of Hyrule (playing as Link, though Zelda is also an option), I quickly stumble upon a few classic staples: a small blue shield, a sword and, a few screens later, a hookshot. This gear, usually hidden underground in mini-dungeons, sticks with me, even after death, making subsequent playthroughs much easier. Heart containers carry over, too, letting me explore deeper into the world without the insta-deaths that make the first few hours of NecroDancer so punishing.
Hyrule remains as well, at least in story mode. I uncover more of the map as I explore, moving screen-by-screen in the same manner as the classic Zelda games. NecroDancer was fully randomized after every death, but here I can to return to areas I’ve already visited, besting enemies that were previously too strong. I feel like I’m getting stronger and more capable as I play, just like I would in a traditional Zelda game.
And the music helps sell this as a “real” Zelda game. Danny Baranowsky, a well-travelled indie game composer known for the soundtrack of games like The Binding of Isaac and Super Meat Boy, does a fabulous job remixing familiar tunes like the themes from the Hyrule overworld, the Lost Woods and Death Mountain. Baranowsky makes these classics his own without distracting from the game itself, which is a tough needle to thread. Considering how closely the music is linked to the action, the strong soundtrack elevates the entire experience.
The artwork is also a major upgrade from NecroDancer. The look of Cadence captures the feel of the SNES’ Link to the Past, with clean sprites that are full of animation and life. The game’s zones, which vary as much as they would in a traditional Zelda game, each have their own style, from gloomy swamps to arid deserts. It’s especially exciting to see franchise enemies like moblins and lynel reimagined in the updated art style.
Switching over to Zelda in another campaign, I find a completely different set of powers at her disposal, complete with her reflecting crystal ability from Super Smash Bros. The map has also been shifted around from Link’s world, with specific landmarks and power-ups scattered in different locations. If this sort of randomness appeals to you, the settings are fully customizable, letting players experience a brand-new map layout every time they play.
And, if you’ve really got a masochistic streak, there’s even a permadeath mode, truly starting you from scratch after every death, à la NecroDancer. This play-how-you-want mentality aligns perfectly with some of Nintendo’s latest releases like Breath of the Wild.
The greatest compliment I can give to Cadence of Hyrule is that if I didn’t know any better, I would say this was made by an in-house Nintendo development team. The amount of care and affection found in every area of the game makes it feel astounding that an indie developer was able to pull this off with such confidence.
Even more astounding is that Nintendo was willing to grant the team at Brace Yourself Games so much control over one of its most successful and iconic franchises. It was a risky endeavor that paid off, and I hope this heralds a future willingness to be even more experimental with the faces and franchises we’ve come to know so well.
Cadence of Hyrule was released June 13 on Nintendo Switch for $24.99. The game was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a final “retail” download code provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.
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