The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is a game that any Zelda fan should play. Its unique take on the early formula was ahead of its time in redefining expectations of a still young series, and the mysterious Koholint Island is one of the most memorable worlds Link has set his feet in. That being said, it is difficult to justify the 2019 Switch remake of a 1993 Gameboy game to many. Full disclosure that I am no massive retro enthusiast, nor have I any nostalgia for Link’s Awakening beyond playing the first hour on various platforms. However, I’d like to share my thoughts on this wacky, thought-provoking game and criticize its position as a remake.
Remake, Remaster, Recycle, Relink
In my opinion, Link’s Awakening for the Nintendo Switch is a perfect example of an HD remake. Visually, the toy-like, shiny world perfectly fits the atmosphere and story of the game and stands out as a uniquely beautiful endeavor separate from the style of every Zelda release to date. It feels like the team at Grezzo was able to fully realize the imagination of the original developers in the ‘90s. The music is expectedly excellent, though because I don’t have any fond feelings for the original tracks, the soundtrack stands as simply quality modern Zelda tunes.
While visuals are an important pillar in what makes an HD remake a remake, gameplay is the most important part of any game. It is up for debate whether a modern take on an old experience should maintain the classic feel, staying faithful to the source material, or take creative liberties to modernize issues born in a different time. Ultimately, this balance comes completely down to player preference, and the needs of the original game. There are some objectively necessary and great upgrades present in Link’s Awakening such as mapping the sword, shield, and dash to the added buttons of current controllers. This kind of thing is required for any good remake. Where it gets tricky is in the core game design. On the Gameboy, Link is restricted to movement in eight directions. This carries over, even though he can only be controlled with a control stick. I am fine with the decision to keep Link's movement feeling almost exactly the same as the original because the world was created with that restricted movement in mind--and somehow it still feels smooth to control.
Beyond the simple gameplay that is mostly constant across the 2D outings of Link, the level and world design of older games is always the worst part of going back in gaming time. Many games hold up well, many are a chore to endure. The world of Link’s Awakening, Koholint Island, a separate place from Hyrule, is just as creative and compact with charm as ever in the remake. However, I can’t help but feel the ambiguity of earlier game design shines through. Maybe I’m just really bad at games, but I was lost in the progression of the game without a clear destination multiple times. When I finally discovered the solution, whether in dungeons or exploring the overworld, after running in circles or checking a guide, I can’t help but feel a little unsatisfied when my destination was an exact but obscure location without any clear indication of why that was the next step. Maybe this adds to the charm for some, but it just adds tedium to an otherwise well-designed experience. This being a remake feels like the perfect opportunity to throw in an NPC that can mark the next destination on your map. Perhaps modern entries with multiple solutions and well-designed directions has rendered me weak.
There is some added content here, another pillar of remakes. It is a dungeon-creator similar to Super Mario Maker where you arrange rooms of the premade dungeons to create your own based on designated layouts. This had no appeal to me, and because I heard from others that it was a waste of time, I didn’t even attempt to spend any more time in the dungeons’ tiles than I had to.
As mentioned before, Link’s Awakening is a decent departure from the Zelda formula. There’s no Zelda, Ganon, or lack of Mario enemies--features that have become standards for the series. If you’ve played a Zelda game with only two dimensions before, you know what you’re getting here structure-wise. You explore a restricted overworld to find dungeons that give you items to progress the story and further explore the world. It’s a simple structure that works across genres, and it works just as well here.
While I admittedly found myself stuck a few times in the adventure, I was pleasantly surprised to find some of the best 2D Zelda dungeons. Each dungeon has a distinct theme, and don’t overstay their welcome, being completable pretty quickly if you have a good memory. Another great surprise to me was that almost every dungeon item stayed relevant for the rest of the game. Traditionally, after a Zelda dungeon is over, you’re done using its unique item. There was also a plethora of options as different items could complete the same task, so it left tasks open for personal preference.
The story is one of the strongests aspects of this game. It’s pretty great. Characters are charming, cute, and memorable. While it’s unlikely you haven’t had it spoiled already, I won’t reveal any plot beyond that it is indeed unique, and surprisingly dark beneath a sparkly coat of paint.
Worth your Rupees?
It is rare that I will mention the price for a game because the cost of a game should rarely affect enjoyment of a game, but will only serve as a barrier to playing one game over another. The Goomba in the room is the $60 price tag for an experience available for $5 or less. Value of games is completely subjective and has a broad interpretation, but looking at it as a handheld-feeling game with less than twenty hours of gameplay for most players, it is clearly hard to recommend this game to most players at full price.
I greatly enjoyed Link’s Awakening. I was charmed from start to finish, felt satisfied, and was simply glad to have experienced this beloved game. This tale deserved a remake this good. Make no mistake, this is the best way to experience one of Link’s most unique adventures, but if you aren’t a hardcore Zelda fan it might be worth waiting for a discount if interested. After waiting a couple decades to play it, what’s the harm in waiting a little while more for a price drop?
Though before diving in, do be warned that this game features the scourge of all video games: monkeys.