When I was a kid, If you asked me about my favorite game franchises, one of the first I’d mention was The Legend of Zelda. What I wouldn’t tell you is, what I knew about the series boiled down to two games: Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker. I owned other games in the franchise, but whether it was A Link to the Past, or Link’s Awakening, nothing kept my attention. I seemed to naturally prefer 3D Zelda titles. When Twilight Princess was built up as the key Wii launch title, I got excited. A gritty evolution of Wind Waker’s design was precisely what thirteen-year-old me wanted, yet. I came away supremely disappointed, as the interplay between the light and dark world elements seemed recycled from what little I knew about A Link to the Past. The wolf segments felt forced, and learning to howl sounded worse than anything I ever did with an ocarina or wind waker baton.
At that point, I figured Zelda just wasn’t for me. I got lucky and grew up with a couple titles, but I could’ve just as easily fell in love with Buck Bumble and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Skyward Sword and A Link Between Worlds came and went, and out of nostalgia, I decided to pick up Wind Waker HD on the Wii U. I found I enjoyed the game even more than before, thanks to some fixes the port made. It made me realize that I might’ve been too harsh on Zelda. With the right game, I could see myself falling back into the series again.Then Breath of the Wild hit and I thought that might be the one, but changed my mind, because buying Twilight Princess solely on reputation burned me, and I wanted to avoid a similar fiasco at all costs.
Fast forward to this year, 2019, when Nintendo unveiled a remake of Link’s Awakening in February. The trailer caught my attention with its art style, looking like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer meets a clay diorama. It stuck with me, and looked even better when a second trailer debuted during E3 2019. The thought entered my mind: why not? I went for it. I pre-ordered it, also deciding that if I was going that far it would probably be worth giving the old version another shot for the full experience.
I grabbed the old Game Boy cartridge I had lying around, plopped it into my GBA SP, and hoped for the best.
Twenty-six years on, what’s most surprising is how the spirit of the series is still there. There’s no Ganon, no Triforce, nor a princess, but the world is alive with character, and the dungeons and puzzles are as complex as ever. Washed up on the beaches of Koholint Island, Link learns that his only escape is to wake the Wind Fish sleeping on the highest mountain using the eight Instruments of the Sirens. To get the Instruments, Link must battle through eight dungeons, but the game suggests to the player that this is a deliberate choice they must make. Cryptic messages warn that everything you see might be a dream. Some enemies mention that Link’s success means everything on the island will be obliterated when the dreamer awakens. On the other end, there are forces pushing you on, like an Owl who tells you the location of each dungeon, and an old man Ulrira — the player is encouraged to call for help, should they ever need a hint.
Still, to abandon the journey is to not play the game. If players want to move forward, they must press onward through the dungeons. I recognize that with age, the hardware limitations of the Game Boy have only become more apparent. Link’s Awakening does its best to nudge players along with characters like the Owl and Ulrira, but they’re only so helpful. In dungeons, the player is pretty much on their own, which leaves them at the mercy of puzzles. Solving most of these puzzles is just a matter of expanding on the mechanics the game has already taught the player, but if they’re not perfectly in sync, some will prove downright frustrating as time goes on. There were times when the game made me feel like a genius, but also moments where I’d swear at my GBA, begging it to level with me, so I could understand what it wanted.
In remaking this title into a Switch game, one of the biggest questions is how Nintendo will translate the overall experience. Will they stick closer to the older text, or fill out the world for a newer, less patient audience to appreciate like players did back in the ‘90s? In the overworld, a lot of time is spent talking to Koholint Island’s colorful inhabitants and figuring out which hints you can trust and when. Part of the magic is the way everything is slightly off-kilter as all of this is going on. A few of the hints are addressed to the player, not Link. Some of the Island’s citizens are taken out of other Nintendo games, like Chain-Chomps and Goombas.
This mix of following hints and meeting strange people gives the game a very specific, dream-like feel. In the Iwata Asks column “The History of Handheld The Legend of Zelda Games”, released as part of a larger series focusing on The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, Zelda series director Eiji Aonuma mentions this was intentional. Speaking with the director of Link’s Awakening, Takashi Tezuka, Aonuma recounted that Tezuka “wanted it to be like Twin Peaks, but characters that looked like Mario and Luigi were appearing.”
In a Game Boy game from 1993, only so much could be done to evoke that sort of surrealism. They succeeded, in my estimation, but now that a full-blown remake is coming to Switch, there’s the possibility for so much more. Luckily, during E3 2019, Nintendo posted an extended gameplay demo to give us an idea of the remake’s direction:
A number of graphical touches seen in the video are immediately apparent. The edges of the screen are slightly out of focus, as if in a dream. Trees and bushes have a plastic sheen that stand out against the environment, potentially making the player slightly uneasy and adding to the surrealism. These are elements that weren’t possible on the Game Boy, but look to make the game more tonally consistent through out.
There’s another moment in the video, that shows how much more the player will be directed than in the original. After winning the Yoshi doll in Mabe Village’s crane game (an early objective), Link is approached by a boy outside and told that his family really wants the doll and he should go to their house and hand it over. In the original game, players had to stumble upon this by talking to the mother of the house, noting her desperation for the doll, and choose to win it if they entered the shop. This time, the order of operations doesn’t matter as much, as the game is willing to adapt and say, “hey, you won that doll, this is where you need to take it.”
One other huge thing the gameplay demo shows off is the brand new Chamber Dungeons. Over the course of the game, players will unlock different rooms of the dungeons they’ve beaten and, in this new mode, arrange the rooms to create brand new dungeons. Curious players are asked to make dungeons of specific shapes, or with special layouts in mind, to complete a series of challenges. and these dungeons can be played by friends to set new time records. When I first heard of this idea, I was all on board with being the Zelda Maker we never got, but now that I hear more about it, I’m reminded more of Crosswords DS or Sudoku, than a user-generated diversion.
Nintendo appears to be updating the game to take advantage of the Switch, but keep Link’s Awakening’s original spirit alive. We can’t be sure until it launches on September 20, but at this point, I’m glad I got to experience the original version to have this context. There may be a lot more going on in this remake, but there’s no better primer for understanding it than playing the original game.
Has my experience so far converted me back into a Zelda fan? Not yet. I like Link’s Awakening, but it feels a bit simple compared to the mechanics of Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker. This is expected, but that doesn’t mean Link’s Awakening is a bad game. Its tone holds up well. The difficulty of some of the later dungeons could make it frustrating enough to turn some people off, but patient players will find a lot to enjoy. If you need a splash of vibrancy, there’s a Game Boy Color version, Link’s Awakening DX, still floating out there, too.
The most promising sign is that, unlike my frustrations with Twilight Princess, Link’s Awakening doesn’t feel like a retread of anything. No Zelda has since captured the same surrealism and fourth-wall breaking humor. I was probably too hasty to declare that Zelda wasn’t for me anymore all those years ago, because if I played a few more entries that are on this level, then I’d be happy to keep looking forward to what’s next. I’m already looking forward to the Link’s Awakening remake, but perhaps sitting down with Majora’s Mask and Breath of the Wild could be in my future as well.
Editing by Jon Gregory and Zackh Mackey