It’s easy to look at Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the Necrodancer Featuring the Legend of Zelda and see a simple reskin of an indie darling with the look of one of gaming’s biggest names. But there’s so much more to it than that. Cadence of Hyrule cleverly blends rhythm and roguelike elements from Crypt of the Necrodancer with the canonized world and structure of classic Zelda games like A Link to the Past and, in doing so, brings fresh new ideas to both series.
Cadence of Hyrule advances and expands on the rhythm-based gameplay ideas of the original Crypt of the Necrodancer, applying them to a world with more than dungeons. On the other hand, it also feels like a Zelda game. That’s not just because the people and places are based on Hyrules past, but because it inspires the same sense of curiosity and whimsy. The result is a best-case scenario: a mashup of the rhythm gameplay and procedural generation from Necrodancer and the evergreen adventuring fun from The Legend of Zelda.
Each enemy moves and fights according to a unique pattern which you have to memorize so you can “dance” to intercept them without getting hit, turning every enemy and combination of enemies into a fresh, fast-paced puzzle. The concept is as magical as it was in Crypt of the Necrodancer. Though you are constantly thinking through and solving new problems, combat never really feels like a conundrum: you’re acting and reacting as you would in any action game, but setting those reactions to music. The whole process feels a lot more purposeful and, thus, rewarding than the average hack-and-slash experience.
The beat makes it feel more rewarding than the average hack-and-slash experience.
Like so many Legends of Zelda, Cadence of Hyrule has a relatively simple story, but there’s a unifying musical theme: Cadence, hero of Crypt of the Necrodancer, gets magically transported to Hyrule just in time to help Link and Zelda thwart Octavo, a mostly flavorless musically minded villain who’s taken over Hyrule. Many of its central puzzles involve recreating the classic songs from Ocarina of Time, and the four temple bosses are all Zelda foes redesigned to represent musical instruments, which are also the treasures you have to collect to stop Octavo. It’s a little on the nose, but it’s never so aggressive that it loses its charm.
As Link or Zelda, you explore a comparably small Hyrule map and collect instruments, just as you would in any Zelda game. This version of the world is based primarily on A Link to the Past, but items, enemies, and influences from many Zelda games, both 2D and 3D, abound. (Don’t worry, there’s only a little Tingle).
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Though Cadence of Hyrule’s map looks and feels like a Zelda world, there is a Necrodancer element: it’s not entirely set in stone. At the start of each new game the world tiles are swapped around to create a new layout. It isn’t wholesale randomization, though. Based on one full playthrough and two other partial playthroughs, the individual areas – shown as tiles on the world map that generally represent a single screen’s worth of Hyrule – do not change, except to add or remove walls when necessary, and stay grouped by environment. Generally, I didn’t really notice that the world was formed and reformed this way, which is the best thing you can say about procedurally generated maps, when you think about it. Plus, this opens the door for more variation on subsequent playthroughs.
Random crypts mostly lack the clever level design in Zelda’s best dungeons, but still feel intense.
Dungeons, on the other hand, are completely procedurally generated aside from a hub entranceway. They adhere to Zelda tradition in that you need open locked doors and chests to find a map, a compass, and a “big key” on your way to the boss’ lair, but feel much more like Necrodancer because their structure relies on tools like shovels which are used to dig through some walls and torches to increase visibility in dark dungeons. There are even familiar tricks like hiding cavities full of extra enemies in the walls for you to stumble upon. As a result, these crypts mostly lack the clever level design in Zelda’s best dungeons, but they still feel intense because they present Cadence of Hyrule’s most intense combat/puzzle challenges.
Like in Necrodancer, when in combat you must press buttons to move and act in time with the beat of the song playing. The music, which is made up of keyboard and drum-heavy rock remixes of Zelda’s most iconic songs, is really fun to listen to, especially as a fan: I never knew the Link to the Past overworld music would benefit from a synthy keyboards up front, but it does. In addition to sounding good, the soundtrack also really emphasizes the mechanically relevant beat. That said, there is also a visual representation of that beat at the bottom of the screen, which remains very helpful for beginners and even Necrodancer veterans.
That combat/puzzle-solving process becomes a little more complex in Cadence of Hyrule than it ever did in Necrodancer. In true Zelda fashion, you find a variety of key items throughout your quest, including Zelda staples like the boomerang, bombs, bow, and… Deku Leaf. Instead of single sword upgrade path, you can find the full range of weapons from Necrodancer, each of which changes the range of your attacks, including a spear that hits two tiles directly in front of you and a flail that lets you move forward when you make a killing blow.
It’s enough to create that delicious roguelike-style tension that builds when you’re on the brink of death.
Though you keep these items permanently once you find them, some of Necrodancer’s run-like qualities return. When you die, you lose all your rupees and a number of temporary items including boots, rings, shovels, and torches. These consequences add stakes to death in Cadence of Hyrule. Though the temporary items are meant to be disposable – they also break over time, so losing that gear never feels like a huge loss – it’s enough to create that delicious roguelike-style tension that builds when you’re on the brink of death and hoping to stumble onto a miraculous string of healing hearts.
Having access to all that gear, to all those options, makes combat feel much more forgiving in Cadence of Hyrule than Necordancer or even some of the older Zeldas. While I died my fair share of times during my playthrough, I rarely found a situation that required too much finesse to overcome. The best players will be able to optimize their dancing style for efficiency and speed, but novices should not have a problem scraping their way through a fight even if they miss a few steps.
When you’ve defeated all the enemies in an area you are no longer beholden to the music, and being able to move at will makes poking at puzzles and backtracking through the world much easier. Fighting to the beat is fun, but slows the pace a bit too much when enemies aren’t your primary concern.
Which brings me to Cadence’ one relatively big annoyance: the distinction between combat mode and exploration mode is a hard binary – you’re either in combat because there are enemies present in the “room” you’re in or not – but there were times when I wished it had been more fluid. For example, there are a few areas in the world – namely the areas around a dungeon, which don’t appear to change from game-to-game – which are larger than a single screen. In these areas, you can be completely safe with no enemies in sight, but still be constrained to moving in combat mode because there may be a few monsters on the other side of a lake a few screens over. (Technically, you can turn off the rhythm-based movement entirely, but it’s not meant to be turned on and off at will – and using it at any time lumps you in a different, no-rhythm leaderboard).
Speaking of which, Cadence of Hyrule is a relatively short game – I completed my first run in just over eight hours – but that map randomization means it is clearly designed to be repeated. There’s a daily challenge mode, the ability to create custom games, a leaderboard for speedrunners, and the opportunity for co-op, which I didn’t find to be quite as fun as the original Crypt of the Necrodancer because it’s harder to keep time with the music when playing with someone else. Still, these variations take advantage of the procedural elements and give you more reason to replay Cadence of Hyrule than most Zelda games.
Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the Necrodancer Featuring The Legend of Zelda takes inspiration from a popular indie game to create a fun little detour on the path of Nintendo’s beloved adventure franchise. Its rhythm-based combat is playful and fun, but also smart and tactical, making every step feel like the next step in the solution of one giant puzzle. Despite using procedural generation, its semi-randomized map evokes the charms of Hyrule, and inspires the same wonder. I think the nicest thing I can say about Cadence of Hyrule is that it absolutely deserves to stand in the Zelda canon alongside the best of its 2D games.