I never played the original 1993 Game Boy version of Link’s Awakening. My earliest experience of The Legend of Zelda was playing A Link to the Past on an inherited SNES when I was around six years old, which then led me on to the N64 iterations, through the Gamecube and Wii era’s and all the way up to Breath of the Wild on the Switch, but the handheld Zelda’s are something that just happened to pass me by. I’ve heard a lot about it, of course; Link’s Awakening is cherished by pretty much anybody that has played it, including my brother who absolutely hammered the 1998 Game Boy Color remake, and many people still consider it as their favourite Zelda game of all time.
Understandably then, I was pretty damn excited to get my first experience of Link’s Awakening, especially given the snazzy new makeover that the game has received. In Link’s Awakening, Link washes up stranded on Koholint Island, and quickly discovers that the only way he can return home is by waking up the island’s guardian, the Wind Fish, who sleeps in a giant egg at the top of the mountain that overlooks the island. To do so, he first must collect the eight instruments of the Sirens, which just so happen to be located in various dungeons across the island.
This is one of the few Zelda titles not to take place in Hyrule or feature the titular Zelda, so it’s important that Koholint Island thrives with life and character of its own. It does so thanks to a charming cast of inhabitants who keep you company along the way, offering you hints for what to do next or simply to act as a means to gain an item such as a Piece of Heart or a Secret Seashell. The game gives you a reason to actively seek out and speak to each person on the island through an entertaining trading quest which sees you constantly swapping items with different people, like gifting a hungry climber with some food or giving an old lady a new broom. It’s pretty bizarre stuff at times but that’s what gives Link’s Awakening it’s own identity, and that’s only emphasized by the numerous Nintendo cameo’s that feature in the game. You’ll fight numerous Goomba’s and Kirby’s on your travels, and you’ll get roped in to taking somebody’s pet Chain Chomp for a walk. It’s madness, but it works.
The charm of the game is only intensified by the new art style, which is nothing less than absolutely gorgeous. Gone are the days of the pixelated, 2D, Game Boy aesthetics and in are cartoon-like, bright visuals that bring the world to life with stunning vibrancy, whether you’re playing in handheld mode or with your console docked. There’s something distinctly toy-like about the Link’s Awakening remake, like your Funko Pop figures have come to life and created a world of their own, and it fits the game down to a tee. There were plenty of people that were vocally against the new art style when the first trailer for the remake dropped, but I wouldn’t want the game to look any other way. Strangely, there is a small technical issue with intermittent slight frame rate drops when you transition from one area to another, which seems strange considering this is a machine that can run Breath of the Wild pretty seamlessly, but it’s never enough to really hamper the experience.
Like I said at the top of the review, I never played the original Link’s Awakening, but the consensus among practically everybody that has played both is that this remake is incredibly faithful to its source material, recreating the original game in near-identical form. Koholint Island is a relatively confined space, but its limited space is thought out and utilized with such expertise that every inch of it is used to its absolute maximum, with all aspects of it carefully considered and designed in a way that leaves it brimming with different areas to venture around and puzzles to solve. The near-identical recreation makes the Switch version of Link’s Awakening a beautiful-looking version of a game that was built in 1993, which means the game guides you down a relatively linear path; different areas of the map are inaccessible until you have the right equipment to get you there, meaning the game only allows you to journey through different parts of the map as and when it wants you to go there. As you progress through the game the map opens up more and more, but it happens on the games terms and at Nintendo’s pace rather than due to any explorability. It’s pure 2D Zelda stuff, and it’s not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, but rather a display of Nintendo’s incredible capabilities in design and pacing.
There are eight dungeons to complete on your journey to awaken the Wind Fish, and each one is designed with expert intricacy and care. The level design is absolutely exceptional and still holds up by today’s standards, which is quite an achievement for a game that is over 25 years old. Each dungeon is full of enemies to defeat and puzzles to solve as you follow a familiar path; solve puzzles, get keys, backtrack to locked door, get new item that helps you solve more puzzles, and so on and so forth. It could be quite easy to get lost in these dungeons, which are effectively labyrinths of individual rooms, but the map makes them easy to navigate
That word, easy, is a word that could be attributed to most of Link’s Awakening. The level of faithfulness to the original makes this a pretty straight forward game compared to today’s standards. The puzzles are pretty self explanatory and straight forward, especially if you’re any kind of Zelda veteran: that crack in the wall means that I can bomb a hole in it; that block can probably be pushed aside to reveal a set of stairs; I need the hookshot to get across a gap of that size. The dungeon compass gives you a very audible signal that solving a puzzle in a particular room will provide a key, and the Stone Beaks that you can pick up in dungeons and insert into the owl statues provide hints on how to complete certain puzzles, and by “provide hints” I mean practically tell you what to do. There are a few occasions where you’ll be stuck in a dungeon and unsure of what to do next, but a couple of minutes of checking your map, considering what items you have at your disposal, and backtracking to check for any details you may have missed will likely solve your issue. Some enemies can only be killed with certain items or by performing certain attacks, but all it takes is a little bit of trial and error and you’ll soon discover their weakness. I absolutely flew through the first few dungeons, and while your pace does noticeably slow down later on in the game, that is largely due to the excessive amount of backtracking that the game has you do in the last couple of dungeons in particular. They’re still fun to play through and satisfying to complete, but they’re no great challenge.
The games ease is present outside of dungeons too. A wise owl pretty much tells you what to do next every time you get to a point where you’d be unsure of where to go, and there are telephone booths dotted around the map that do the same. Enemies follow easy-to-telegraph movement patterns and can be killed in one or two hits, meaning they’re never difficult to defeat unless you’re rushing and not taking care. Cutting grass, destroying rocks, and killing enemies nigh on always provides you with whatever item you need – if you’re short on health you’ll get hearts, if not you’ll get rupees.
The games relatively low difficulty level is intensified by a number of quality-of-life changes that would noticeably not be present in a 1993 Game Boy game. You can pin markers on your map to flag points of interest that you want to revisit, there are more fast-travel points, and there’s an audible sensor to help you find the collectible Secret Seashells. The increased number of buttons available on the Switch compared to the two-button Game Boy also makes Link’s Awakening a much more user-friendly affair; a number of items such as the Pegasus Boots or the Power Bracelet now work passively without having to equip them to a slot, your sword and shield have their own dedicated buttons, and then you can still map another two items to X and Y. That drastically reduces the need for jumping into your inventory to change out items as and when you need them, something which was much maligned on the Game Boy version. I have to say, having played this version, that must have been a massive pain in the arse.
It may sound like I’m talking about the games ease as a negative point, but I really don’t consider it to be one. Some people will see it as a draw back, but you have to accept that this game is a product of 1993. I wasn’t playing this game for an incredible challenge but rather to experience a much-loved, classic game that I missed out on the first time around. The relative ease of the game only serves to make it accessible to everybody, and it never detracts from the fun of the whole thing. In many ways, it acts as a throwback, reminding me of a simpler time when games were more bothered about just being fun rather than being insanely difficult or overly complicated. It’s a nice change of pace.
One thing, however, that I do sadly need to talk about as a negative point is the stand out new feature that was added to the Link’s Awakening remake – Chamber Dungeons. Once you’ve beaten the games second dungeon, you’ll gain access to Dampe’s Shack, which is unsurprisingly occupied by Dampe, the legendary grave keeper that lived in the Kakariko Village Graveyard in Ocarina of Time (remember having to race him? What a nightmare that was). Here he’ll introduce you to Chamber Dungeons, which is essentially a dungeon editor where players can create their own dungeons by piecing together various rooms from dungeons that they’ve already completed in the game. It’s very quick and easy to learn how to use it, but that is down to the fact that it’s so simplistic. Creating any kind of complex dungeons akin to those experienced in the game is impossible; instead, all you end up with is an amalgamation of rooms from different dungeons mashed together into a very easy-to-navigate order. Worse still is the fact that you can’t upload your dungeons for other players to run even if you want to. You can store them to an amiibo and transfer them to another player that way if you so wish, but they’re so simple that it really isn’t worth the effort. It’s a real shame, the idea of creating my own 2D-era Zelda dungeons got me hyped, but the execution falls way short of what I had hoped.
Overall though, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening for the Nintendo Switch succeeds in becoming the perfect way to experience this much-loved classic entry in the series. The gorgeous new art style fits the tone of the game perfectly and brings a 25 year old classic right up to modern standards, and the slight frame rate issues aren’t near bad enough to hamper that. The act of remaking a game from the early nineties with such faithfulness to the source material may result in a game that doesn’t pose any real challenge by today’s standards, but that keeps the experience fun and makes it accessible to all players of all ages. Having finished it and enjoyed every second of my first experience of Link’s Awakening, I find myself not only marveling in wonderment at what a fantastic job Grezzo has done with this remake, but also completely baffled as to how Nintendo ever managed to fit such a masterpiece of a game on to a Game Boy cartridge.