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Lifewire / Emily Ramirez
Beautiful art direction
A little short at 15 hours per playthrough
Puzzles can be obtuse
Link’s Awakening is one of the most visually captivating takes on a classic game that we’ve seen to date. If you like classic Zelda dungeoning, this game is a must.
With the massive upgrades in technology over the last few console generations, there has been a growing itch to remake our favorite games of the past. Enter The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, a Switch remake of a Game Boy classic from 1992. The remake is a beautiful reimagining that manages to stay faithful to both the spirit and the gameplay of the original in a way that few remakes manage to pull off.
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While it’s certainly not on the level of The Last of Us or The Witcher 3 in terms of storytelling, Link’s Awakening crafts a very enjoyable narrative throughout its playtime. Link was traveling by sea when a storm takes him and leaves him stranded on Koholint Island. He cannot leave until he wakes the Wind Fish from his nightmare, but what will happen when he does so?
Along Link’s journey, you meet the inhabitants of Koholint island: sweet Marin, who dreams of leaving to sing for the whole world; Ms. Meow Meow who keeps Chain Chomps as pets; Ulrira, who’s always itching to talk over the phone but clams up at the idea of an in-person meeting. The characters in this game have a lot of personality, and they each go about their lives as you go about yours.
For fans of other Nintendo franchises, particularly the Mario franchise, there’s a lot of cameos in the world. There’s Goombas, Piranha Plants, Cheep Cheeps, Mr. Write, and more. Meanwhile, Link’s typical friends and foes are nowhere to be found—no Zelda, no Ganon. Storywise, this is not a typical Zelda game.
Unlike many remakes, Link’s Awakening does its best to keep the gameplay as close to the original as possible
The most interesting character is the Wind Fish itself, or more specifically, what it represents. Link’s journey to wake the Wind Fish calls into question the very definition of reality, and of what memories you want to have. I will delve into spoilers a bit from here on, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, know that Link’s Awakening provides a deeply emotional journey that you’ll fall in love with.
Throughout the game, it is clear that Link’s objective is to leave the island. Waking the Wind Fish is the only way to do so. However, waking the Wind Fish will erase Koholint Island, along with all the people who live on it. The game asks you whether its inhabitants, the memories you created, the struggles you faced were ever real, or if they were all a dream. It asks you: how do you value your time on Koholint Island?
At the end of the game, Link smiles. To him, even though Koholint Island no longer exists, his time there was real. The people were real. The challenges were real. His experience was real. He said goodbye to it all, but it all still lives on inside him and inside the Wind Fish, who flies overhead singing the Tune of the Wind Fish. Just because something (or someone) is gone does not mean it no longer lives on. You have the power to keep those memories, those dreams, alive.
Ultimately, this game is an ode to the past, a celebration of your memories and the people and times you’ve loved. They may no longer be around, but they will exist as long as you decide to keep them alive in your memory. You should not fear letting go of your past, for it will always be a part of you, just as Koholint Island will always be a part of Link and the Wind Fish.
Unlike many remakes, Link’s Awakening does its best to keep the gameplay as close to the original as possible. Some quality of life changes were made, such as making certain mechanics into permanent upgrades (the power bracelet, for instance), but the developers were careful to leave other elements untouched. It provides an interesting look into the limitations of past game consoles and how certain design choices simply feel outdated today, while other choices can offer a chance at reflection that’s been lost in game developers’ pursuit of making games convenient.
You have to equip Roc’s feather (your jumping ability), for instance, instead of having it permanently mapped to, say, a bumper or trigger. The game gives you two ability slots, where you will mostly rotate between jumping, magic powder, bombs, a boomerang, a shovel, and a bow. I basically had jumping always bound to one slot and rotated between the rest as the need arose.
Rotating between abilities takes precious time going through my inventory and remapping buttons, but it also made me appreciate each ability more and try to increase its usefulness before I saw myself forced to switch to another. They could have been mapped to the unused D-pad, but this small inconvenience really made me think about the mechanics I had in the game, and it pushed me to be more creative with the tools I had instead of defaulting to some “best” solution.
When designing this remake’s new aesthetic, the dev team wanted to capture the feeling of a tiny toy diorama. It resulted in one one of the Switch’s best-looking games.
Combat in Link’s Awakening is incredibly rewarding. Enemies move in predictable patterns that are easy to spot but difficult to master. Timing is important in order to take down mobs and to avoid or parry their attacks. Boss fights often require more creative, unique tactics that are not seen elsewhere in the game. Maybe certain bosses need to swallow a bomb, or other ones need to come out of their lamp. Every new mob will keep you thinking until you find the best way to take them down.
Where Link’s Awakening shows its cracks as a Gameboy game from 1992 is in its puzzle design. Some puzzles required clever thinking, such as certain chess pieces’ jumping patterns, but others were a game of trial and error. I won’t be too specific so as to not spoil the game, but I had to rely on guides more times than I’d like to admit when the solution to a puzzle involved doing a specific task in a specific order, and no in-game clues were provided to hint at neither the tasks nor the order. Puzzles were not so much a test of ingenuity as they were an obstacle to an otherwise great game.
Still, seeing this specific game’s approach on puzzles was a great chance to reflect on how the Legend of Zelda series has grown since Link’s Awakening. This has always been a series known to reward clever gameplay. Ocarina of Time’s dungeons have some of my favorite puzzles of all time, testing your ability to recognize patterns hidden in the chaos, and Breath of the Wild revolutionized how we think of open-world environments thanks to its physics-based solutions to common problems.
By contrast, Link’s Awakening is a lot closer to old-school puzzle games such as Myst or even something like Ace Attorney. Solutions require clever thinking, but often problems are more like riddles, allowing for only one specific solution. They exemplified video games’ limitations as bundles of code. Along with software, puzzles in games have progressed to allow unorthodox solutions that were only really allowed in more flexible environments, such as tabletop RPGs or, well, real life. If you want an example of the unique problem-solving I’m highlighting, I suggest you look at people trying to solve Breath of the Wild’s shrines in brand new ways.
When designing this remake’s new aesthetic, the dev team wanted to capture the feeling of a tiny toy diorama. It resulted in one one of the Switch’s best-looking games, holding its own against titans like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Luigi’s Mansion 3. It’s harder to compare to a game like God of War because Link’s Awakening is the furthest thing from a realistic style possible— it attempts to take the unreal and make it feel real.
Everything in Link’s Awakening looks like a little plastic figurine that you could feel in your hands. It’s ridiculously charming, no doubt, but what really stands out about it is its willingness to take aesthetic risks that haven’t been seen since Wind Waker. While the game feels doubtlessly modern, it also maintains a retro spirit that’s faithful to the 1992 release.
Link moves linearly in 8 directions, as he did in the original. All the objects and foliage in the game occupy invisible tiles, as they would in an indie retro-inspired game. The game changes very little about the original in terms of placement, feel and underlying mechanics. It feels like Nintendo took the original and just added a fresh coat of aesthetic paint, and for the most part, it works beautifully.
Atop the cartoony sprites and grass tiles, there’s a lot of visual effects to add to the ambiance. The water looks so translucent that you can feel the wetness. As you cross the Mysterious Forest, a dizzying haze and mist follows you. Sometimes, the effects get in the way of gameplay, however. In open fields, like those immediately surrounding Mabe Village, there’s a lot of lens distortion around the edges of the screen, as if reality is blurring out the further away it is from Link. While it certainly adds atmosphere, it also detracts from the gameplay and makes it slightly annoying to plan out movement in these areas.
Animations in this game are simple but crisp, having an old-style feel to them. Every monster and friend in this world has a very snappy saunter to their movements, from their run-styles to their attacks to their occasional singing. The clarity really shines through in mob fights, where each attack pattern is clearly defined relative to the animation cycles. Mastering combat in this game thus becomes a ritual of watching the enemies for when and how they will hit, as opposed to just shielding or dodging whenever they move toward the player.
There are some minor performance issues with the game, especially if you are running it on the dock or off an SD card. Frame rates drop when transitioning between areas in the game, sometimes below 30fps. However, the drops do not happen often, and they certainly didn’t impede gameplay or even noticeably impact enjoyment.
This is simultaneously the weakest and strongest part of the entire game. On the one hand, the twinkling soundtrack is a delight to listen to and fits the tone of the game perfectly. On the other hand, the music is simply not that diverse, and it can feel repetitive after a while since you’re often backtracking the same few areas of the map over and over again. It would have been incredible to hear remixed versions of overworld themes playing as the game progressed, but even with the repetitiveness of the themes, I still found myself humming along to the chimes on my adventures.
The game’s dungeon soundtracks and its SFX design are particularly stunning. Each of the nine dungeons has its own theme that fits the environment perfectly, amping up the tension each time you step into the entrances. Sound effects are liberal in this game, each item you collect rewarding you with the classic Legend of Zelda jingles we all love, imbuing the player with a great sense of accomplishment for things as simple as catching a fairy. If only this game had more chests to hear that sweet melody many more times.
There’s isn’t a whole lot of voice acting in this game, following in typical Legend of Zelda footsteps. Link and the NPCs make the occasional grunts and humphs in response to the world’s events. Marin’s singing is really cute, and it’s always really fun to hear the moblins’ squeal of surprise when they spot Link, but the real highlight is Link’s colorful noises on Koholint Island. He has a noise for everything: jumping, thrusting, pulling, struggling, even drowning. It’s adorable, just like everything else in this game.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening for the Switch is a faithful, breathtaking remake of the Game Boy original.
There’s no current DLC for this game, and there hasn’t been any news on upcoming DLC as of January 2020. Because this is a remake of a previous Legend of Zelda title, it would be surprising to see any new content for this game in the future. On the bright side, you can look forward to a Breath of the Wild sequel coming up.
I greatly enjoyed my time with Link’s Awakening, but would I say it’s worth its $60 price tag? No. I beat the game in about 15 hours, and there’s not much of a post-game except for building custom dungeons in Dampe’s shack. This game simply doesn’t offer as much content as many other Switch titles at this price, if you’re looking for a game that will occupy a month of your life.
More importantly, as a remake, it doesn’t add that much value on top of the original game from 1992. It looks really polished and it has quality of life upgrades, but the core gameplay and campaign are virtually untouched. If you haven’t played the original, or if it’s a childhood favorite, by all means, get it, but you won’t find much new to love if you weren’t a fan of the original.
The two big Zelda games on the Switch are Link’s Awakening and Breath of the Wild (view on Amazon). Despite having some similarities in terms of characters and gameplay fundamentals, they’re fairly different games. The Breath of the Wild is much more of a character-driven RPG based around equipment, combat, loot, crafting, and stats. It has more in common with other RPGs like Witcher 3 or God of War. Link’s Awakening is more of a classic game, with a top-down view and puzzle focus. Depending one what you’re in the mood for, both will be fun to play, but at $60, Breath of the Wild has a lot more content to offer.
A faithful remake that keeps things fresh.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening for the Switch is a faithful, breathtaking remake of the Game Boy original. It manages to reimagine the game as a fun and gorgeous adventure that feels simultaneously fresh and nostalgic. Unless you never cared for the original, you’ll probably love Link’s Awakening.