The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening – the 1993 Game Boy release which was the first handheld Zelda game – gets a second round with a fresh coat of paint, and an eye towards preserving the original game’s weirdness… For better and worse.
Link’s Awakening stands out within the franchise mainly due to that which it doesn’t include. There’s no Zelda to speak of, and no Ganon. The game isn’t even set in Hyrule, instead taking place on Koholint Island, Link beginning as a castaway discovered on its shores. There are even cameos from completely different Nintendo franchises.
A vein of strangeness runs within the game, something that makes it more akin to entries like Majora’s Mask than Ocarina of Time or Breath of the Wild. Ultimately, it’s a perfect game to revisit, a time and place when a different kind of playfulness inhabited the series.
The best thing about Link’s Awakening is also its most obvious, in that the game looks fantastic. There’s a rich cartoonish friendliness to everything which reminds more of the Super Mario games than The Legend of Zelda. Enemy animations (like the jittery Tektite) are unique and fun, details like water and mist are simple yet beautiful, and the game’s score has been rerecorded with a grand-but-not-too-grand orchestral touch.
Nintendo clearly placed a lot of worth on maintaining the game’s original environmental feel, while also stretching it out as an uninterrupted open world, rather than the screen-by-screen navigation of the original. This small but dense map is a good fit for the remake’s tilt-shifted ‘living miniatures’ style, with everything rendered in vibrant, playful colour. Under the surface, what’s really impressive is the attention to detail in the recreation of the original map – from the specific layout of whole areas, to the placement of the smallest decorative flowers, the visual remaking of Link’s Awakening is absolutely a success.
However, while the overworld map is littered with detail and unique biomes like misty forests, arid mountains and spooky cemeteries, dungeons suffer from a sameness which permeates through all of them. Braziers of fire, stone walls, ceramic pots… and that’s about it. There’s an offensive amount of backtracking to be done in some of the later dungeons, and in one instance you’re tracking your position across multiple floors to solve puzzles, which eventually becomes a chore.
We also experienced some issues with framerate during our playthrough, with the game taking on a distinct choppiness while loading certain areas, a massive shame for a game this pretty from a studio like Nintendo.
There are certainly quality of life improvements here though. A full map (with the ability to add markers) is at your disposal, and your sword and shield are now always available, rather than having to be unequipped and reequipped while you shuffle through whatever special items you might need for a puzzle.
Also new is a dungeon creation mechanic, where you can construct your own out of rooms that already exist in the dungeons of the game itself. There certainly aren’t Super Mario Maker 2 levels of granularity here, and ultimately dungeon building feels underdeveloped. You can’t even share the dungeons with other people.
Playing Link’s Awakening ends up feeling a bit like time travelling. At its core, underneath the graphical updates, this is still a 1990s video game, and there are several little bits of design that really show their age.
Remember the other Zelda handheld games, Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages? We had the former and never finished it, simply due to getting stuck at one section of the game, with no idea what to do next. Perhaps a bomb was needed to open a secret passage, or a pit could be hook-shotted over, but the game had no intention of solving those problems, or even giving an indication of what you might need to do next. These were the kinds of gaming conundrums that were solved by your smarter older sibling, or by sharing in-game discoveries during lunchtime at school. Link’s Awakening is simply chock full of them.
Resurrecting dead animals hidden underground to solve a puzzle on the other side of the map, only being able to use spin attacks on a boss. necessary items squirreled away under bits of scenery you didn’t know you could get under – yes, like we said, this is a 1990s videogame, and it’s truly incredible that a game like Link’s Awakening came from the same studio that included a character like Fi in Skyward Sword. There’s a sweet nostalgia to it though – the problem solving, prodding at the edges of a puzzle with whatever you have in your toolset – and to remove these parts of Link’s Awakening would be to tear out things that make it special.
Ultimately, the line being walked in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is one of compromise – a beautiful, vivid reimagining for fans and newcomers alike, inextricably linked to game design that we just haven’t seen in a while. You take the frustration with the nostalgia though, and ultimately Link’s Awakening wins out with a fundamentally enjoyable loop of dungeons and puzzle-solving, all wrapped up in a cute visual package.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is available now on Switch.