The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening Review
A worthwhile trip to the past and a great intro to the series for newcomers
The announcement of Link’s Awakening came as a bit of a surprise. Everybody was expecting a successor to Breath of the Wild, especially given its blockbuster success on the Switch which helped to propel the console to the top of the sales charts all over the world. Instead, we got a remake of a 1993 Game Boy game.
Has Nintendo gone crazy? Is this just a stopgap to keep fans warm? Read on to find out.
Link’s Awakening was born as a side project within Nintendo, mainly as an experiment to port A Link To The Past, the 1991 masterpiece for the SNES, to the monochrome handheld console that was taking the world by storm.
Being an after hours project, a lot of experiments were made that deviated from the Link to the Past gameplay, such as the inclusion of platforming levels in the style of Super Mario (or, closer to home, Zelda 2 for the NES) and numerous cameos from other popular Nintendo franchises such as Mario itself (look out for Shy Guy and the numerous Goombas) and Kirby.
The dev team had a lot of fun creating this game, and it shows. Although the title transitioned from this proof-of-concept stage to become a fully sanctioned development project within Nintendo, much of the spirit and weirdness from the original experiment was retained and eventually polished for a commercial release. This, alongside a great story line, ensured that Link’s Awakening became a chart topper for the Game Boy, also receiving much critical acclaim along the way.
But that’s not the end of the story.
In 1998, five years after the original release, Nintendo bested itself by releasing a DX version of the game targeted at the newer Game Boy Color. This new version addressed the biggest complaint about the original, its inevitable lack of color due to the original Game Boy hardware, and threw in an extra dungeon for added fun and perhaps to give a reason to purchase the newer version for owners of the original.
Combined, the monochrome and DX versions went on to sell about 6 million copies worldwide. This commercial success alone makes a strong case for a remake, but does a 26 years’ old game stand the test of time?
Plot and gameplay
The plot for the remake follows closely that of the original. Link is caught in a storm while at sea and washes up on the shores of an island in the middle of nowhere. Here he is found by Marin, a girl who then takes him back to her house to rest and recover.
Upon waking up, Link mistakes Marin for Zelda, the only mention of the titular princess throughout the game, and he is told about the shipwreck. Link then sets off to recover his belongings at the shore where he was found and, upon retrieving his sword, he come across a talking Owl who will guide him throughout his adventure on this strange island.
The Owl informs Link that monsters have started becoming restless since he washed ashore, likely because he’s the hero from prophecies who is destined to awake the Wind Fish, a mythical creature laying asleep inside an egg on top of Mt. Tamaranch, the volcanic mountain that towers over the island. Only after waking the Wind Fish will Link be able to resume his voyages at sea.
This Owl returns throughout the game, as Link progresses in his quest by clearing dungeons and retrieving magical musical instruments that will awaken the Wind Fish. Marin and other NPCs also join him at various stages, all leading up to the final boss encounter and the ending (which I am not going to spoil for you, but I will say it’s pretty melancholic).
The gameplay is mostly standard Zelda fare: there’s an overworld leading into different dungeons to clear, each with their own unique boss. As the story progresses, Link learns new skills that allow him to access parts of the world that were previously blocked off, and allow him to clear further dungeons and more powerful enemies on his way to the final boss.
In addition to the main story, the Switch remake includes a new “dungeon builder” mode reminiscent of Super Mario Maker. I didn’t enjoy this mode as much as playing through the main quest, mainly because it lacks an online system where you can play other people’s dungeons, but maybe further updates will fix this and change my mind.
The main story however is very enjoyable. It’s short enough (around 20 hours) to be completed in a weekend or two, but complex enough to make you feel invested in Link’s quest and stick to play the game through its end credits.
Actually it’s a bit too short for today’s standards of a triple-A title, but it’s nevertheless fun and captivating. It definitely stood the test of time.
Controls and mechanics
The developers did a great job in modernizing the controls for the game. The Game Boy version was limited in its ability to assign two abilities at any given time to the two buttons of the handheld console, making at times for a frustrating gameplay.
The Switch version turns the formula on its head, allowing for two assignable buttons (X and Y) for the majority of the power-up items, while keeping Sword (B), Shield (R), Pegasus Boots (L) and Power Bracelet always equipped once you have acquired them. The A button is dedicated to Use, including interaction with NPCs and lifting objects.
Movement is exclusively relegated to the left analog stick. I would have preferred the option to use the D-Pad on the Pro Controller, but overall this worked fine.
In my time with Zelda, which I played through to completion in 3 evenings, I never felt frustrated by the controls as much as I did on the Game Boy version, mainly keeping the Roc’s Feather on X to allow me to jump around and using Y for the most suitable weapon for the current dungeon.
Graphics and sound
Nintendo’s chosen graphic style works very well for the game; it marries up well with the overall atmosphere. The overworld looks expansive and detailed, and the dungeons feel more engaging and varied than in the original, with great lighting choices to make them feel more realistic as underground chambers.
The overall art style is cartoony and reminiscent of A Link Between Worlds for the 3DS. I would have preferred a flatter 2D look similar to Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, a remake for the Switch of the classic Sega Master System game Wonder Boy III, but overall I am happy with the final result achieved here.
Also, I would have liked the platforming sequences to be in pure 2D, in the style of the 8-bit sections of Super Mario Odyssey. In fact, I found these platforming screens somewhat of a nuisance in the overall scheme of the game. They don’t offer any real challenge (except maybe for the one with ice blocks towards the end), and they often felt out of place when traversing dungeons.
The music is also on par with any other first-party title for the Switch. It’s a reimagination for full orchestra of the chiptunes from the original game, and then some. The various themes fit well with each of the scenes in the game, and I particularly appreciated the use of an 8-bit style synth for some incidentals throughout the game, heightening the nostalgic feel of the adventure.
Overall, this new entry in the Zelda line feels well executed and definitely worth considering for both new players and old timers looking for a trip down memory lane.
The real question here is whether it’s worth its US$59.99 MSRP. The main story is quite short and there isn’t really much to do after completion, save for making your own dungeons and collecting seashells that unlock some extra items in the game. For the same price, you can pick up Breath of the Wild, which is a much more complex and mature game, though with an entirely different kind of story and feel.
Personally, having paid around US$45 for a physical copy over where I live (Hong Kong), I don’t regret my purchase. I had a great time playing the main story, and I spent some time wandering around after completion to just admire the game’s graphics and slash some monsters in the process, picking up the odd seashell here and there.
I wish the story were a bit longer, perhaps with some new subplots deviating from the original for some extended playtime and a fresher experience for returning players, but maybe Nintendo felt that altering the story would ruin the charming balance of the game. After all, you don’t really want to mess with a classic, and this faithful remake updates the original for the modern era without spoiling it.