There’s a violent storm and Link’s tiny makeshift vessel is devastated by its awesome might. Link opens his eyes to find himself on a strange island filled with monsters, but also an island that’s home to a peaceful village. His memories are foggy, but there’s one thing the player can surmise and that’s that Link has been on this journey before.
This is The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. It looks unlike anything Nintendo has put together, with a dazzling new art style that looks like something one would find inside a shoebox. But for all that’s new, this is an entirely familiar experience. If you’ve played the original Game Boy classic, you’re about to relive that same dream again. But that’s definitely not a bad thing, as Link’s Awakening shows that given an all-new coat of paint, an all-time classic can still hold up and excel in the 21st century.
Link’s adventure starts off similarly to some of his other ones. He’ll get up and search for his sword, he’ll journey to explore the world, and he’ll jump headfirst into some dangerous dungeons. However, while the Legend of Zelda formula is largely the same, Link’s Awakening is a side story through and through. There’s no Hyrule, there’s no Triforce, and there isn’t a single mention of Princess Zelda. This is a game that broadens the series’ greater mythos, expanding Link’s horizons beyond Hyrule’s borders and into a world he didn’t know existed. (There’s a reason he didn’t know it existed, but let’s keep this review spoiler-free.)
Link’s central mission is to wake the Wind Fish, a mammoth deity shrouded in mystery. The only knowns regarding the Wind Fish are that while he sleeps, monsters are running wild in Koholint. This kicks off a quest for the Eight Instruments of the Sirens, which can wake the Wind Fish when they all play his ballad simultaneously.
Finding each of these dungeons proves to be a multiple-step process and one that takes Link across every corner of the island. The puzzles aren’t just exclusive to the dungeons. They’re also scattered across the island’s overworld, as Link searches for paths forward.
Nintendo has done an incredible job of re-creating each section of Koholint from the ground up and making it all fit in beautifully with the diorama art style. Unfortunately, the beauty is momentarily blemished with some nasty frame rate hitches that frequently pop up when jumping back into the overworld. It’s the sort of lag that one would expect out of Link’s NES and SNES adventures, but in 2019, this level of frame rate lag should not have also been part of the remake package.
Awakenings across generations
As mentioned, there are some noteworthy changes in this incarnation of Link’s Awakening. Beyond the visual aesthetic, shifting to a different art style has shifted the remake to a more skewed perspective, as opposed to the straight-up top-down view of the original Game Boy effort. That means you’ll come across a few instances where you might try and view an object and it might be obstructed. It’s a minor annoyance, but one worth enduring given how gorgeous the final product came out.
Everything else, including the dungeon layouts and the boss battles, are largely faithful translations from the original game. What’s remarkable about seeing this product, mostly unchanged from the source material, is how well it all holds up. The dungeon design ranges from clever to cleverly devious, testing players’ critical thinking skills, their penchant for backtracking, and occasionally their patience. Enemies will occasionally respawn, which proves to be more of an irritating factor in the later dungeons.
While Link’s Awakening uses a lot of the tried-and-true and time-tested design mechanics from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, this game added a few mechanics that make this feel noticeably different from the typical Zelda game. Roc’s Feather essentially gives Link a jump button, which is largely unheard of for this series, but it’s implemented so smoothly and adds greatly to the experience. The staircases expand on the 2D sections of the original NES Legend of Zelda, giving Link micro-challenges involving anachronistic enemies from the Mario universe. And then there are the bosses, which stick with the Zelda series’ idea of using the main dungeon item to defeat them while also managing to feel unique in themselves. It’s not often that Link is accosted by a clown in a genie bottle, but here we are.
What makes this particular incarnation of Link’s Awakening feel special is that it’s a picture-perfect example of an old-school game that can be made to feel entirely new. This isn’t a carbon copy of the old game with HD or 4K resolution. Nintendo went a step further. The overhauled art style and character designs, combined with the retention of the original level design, put forward the idea of how games should be remade. How they should be introduced to new audiences. It’s different, yet it’s the same, and everybody is better for it.
There is one major new feature to Link’s Awakening and I honestly wish I could be a little more positive about it. The Chamber Dungeon editor allows players to put together their own dungeon layouts. Unfortunately, the implementation feels rather limited. The mode is largely comprised of dungeon areas that you’ve already encountered. So there’s a sameness feeling to it.
Worse, some of these dungeon rooms don’t necessarily fit when mixed together. The Eagle’s Tower gives Link a full dungeon-length challenge that involves finding a giant marble and using it to knock over towers throughout the labyrinth. Taking bits and pieces of that dungeon for a makeshift dungeon doesn’t quite work or have the same effect. While it’s possible to earn unique tiles from Dampe or through amiibo, there isn’t enough to make these creations really stand out. There’s no chance to be truly creative, in the vein of a Super Mario Maker. It’s more controlled creativity, with a lot less freedom.
Worse yet, it isn’t possible to share or play these dungeons through an online interface. You can only play these dungeons locally by handing the controller to a friend or by saving your creations to an amiibo and loading them on a friend’s Switch. The lack of online functionality feels like a missed opportunity. The Chamber Dungeons could have been so cool, but instead, it feels like a novelty that will wear thin over a few weeks.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening has been an overlooked treasure for a long time. As new generations of players have grown up, having grown up without the primitive Game Boy, this classic was running the risk of eventually being forgotten. Nintendo has reminded everybody of what a marvelous adventure Link’s Awakening truly is, thanks in part to an innovative art style.
But most importantly, Nintendo didn’t overly meddle with the original game. The endearing characters, the challenging dungeons, the humor, the puzzles, and the heart-wrenching twist? Those have been there all along, present since 1993. But with the 2019 reimagining of Link’s Awakening, Nintendo simply provided a new way to appreciate an all-time great adventure.
This review is based on a Nintendo Switch code provided by the publisher. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is available now on the Nintendo eShop for $59.99. The game is rated E.