[Review] The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening – Nintendo Switch

Written by Richard Strachan
  • Developer: Nintendo
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Release date: 20/9/2019
  • Price: £49.99/$59.99
  • Review code provided by: Nintendo

This year the Game Boy turned 30! How fitting it is then that we see the remaster of arguably its greatest game. I must admit that after the initial excitement of the reveal during February 2019’s Nintendo Direct, my excitement waned. I started to wonder whether a game from 1993 would be able to act as a follow up to the groundbreaking Breath of the Wild. Suffice to say, I needn’t have worried. The remaster of the Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is magical and shows that good design, even after all these years, wins every time!

The Trendy Game

Many of you will be familiar with the original game, but those of you (lucky sods) who are young enough to have missed it will be wondering “what’s all the fuss?”. Link’s Awakening is a top down action-adventure game in the same vein as the original Legend of Zelda, the SNES follow up “A Link to the Past” or the more recent remaster/remix – A Link Between Worlds.

The game kicks off with the protagonist, Link, washed up on a beach following a massive storm while he is at sea. He’s found unconscious and rescued by two locals on the mysterious Koholint Island and begins a quest to awaken a creature known as the Wind Fish, by collecting 8 musical instruments.

As with any good Zelda game (notwithstanding Breath of the Wild), the treasures are found deep within a series of dungeons. Despite their age, the dungeons turned out to be some of my favourite in the entire series. Zelda dungeons tend to be self contained sprawling labyrinths filled with layered puzzles. Link’s Awakening shrugged off the limitations of the original Game Boy, by crystallising the simple gameplay mechanics in a way that gave each dungeon a laser focus. Dungeons trim away all the fat and leave the player with a lean puzzle box where they can unravel the various secrets contained within.

I didn’t have a great memory of the actual gameplay of the original, so most of the dungeons felt completely new when I played through them. I was consistently impressed with how much creativity was shown in the different mechanics found in each of the dungeons. Part of the reason I was skeptical when the game was announced was because I felt there was no way the original game would have been able to offer the complexity we expect in modern games. Nintendo proved me wrong and showed that even with basic technology they can deliver timeless magic!

Dream game

Remasters and re-releases are all the rage these days. It’s easy to feel a bit jaded when yet another one is announced, but Link’s Awakening has been remade in such a way that it feels as fresh and vital as any game which could be released today. The original game was impressive for a Game Boy game, but was limited graphically by the tiny dot matrix screen. A DX version was released to take advantage of the Game Boy Color, which included a special dungeon taking advantage of the ability to display in colour. The Switch remaster brings the graphics kicking and screaming into the 21stcentury, with an eye-popping graphical style.

If you haven’t seen it, which is unlikely unless you live in a cave, the game does a great job of showing off the lush, vibrant world of Koholint Island. Everything looks like it has been made of plastic or play-doh, like a diorama or child’s toy.This is all presented with a really narrow depth of field, giving everything a surreal, dreamy look.

The game feels like a bit of a fever dream, with enemies appearing from other Nintendo series including the Mario and Kirby games. Some dungeons include 2 platforming sections which feel especially strange, but in a good way!

The music in the game is absolutely amazing, with a combination of orchestral pieces and chiptune elements layered to offer an amazing homage to the original soundtrack. The melodies of the original are still so catchy that when layered with strings and other instruments they provide that rush of nostalgia that you can only get from something truly special. The music in the Face Shrine and in Tal Tal Heights were absolute standouts for me!

There are some nice quality of life improvements, including hotkeys for the Shield and Pegasus Boots. These allow you to map two additional items to the face buttons, avoiding the constant juggling and remapping of items present in the original. This really improves the flow of the game and fixes one of the major niggles present in 1993.

This remaster includes all the content of the DX version, including the optional extra colour dungeon, and also includes a new extra mode where you can create your own dungeon. This, unfortunately, sounds more exciting than it is.

Dead on Arrival

The original game included a function which could take advantage of the Game Boy Camera and Printer. Nintendo don’t seem to have plans for a Switch Camera and Printer, unbelievably, so they had to replace this sorely missed content with something equally exciting.

For this they drafted in Dampe the gravekeeper from Ocarina of Time. Dampe’s shack occupies the space where the Camera Shack used to be and allows the player to collect chambers, consisting of rooms included in each of the game’s dungeons. These chambers can then be used to create your own dungeons, before running through these. The system allows you to consider the placement of sub bosses and bosses, but detail like the positioning and contents of chests are much more limited. To position a chest you simply choose a room with an existing chest and place the room. You have no control over the positioning of chests or the criteria to make the chest appear. The game then automatically fills the chests with items such as keys or rupees. 

For those thinking this could be the Zelda equivalent of Mario Maker, it is sadly far from it. Zelda dungeons tend to offer a coherent theme which applies throughout a dungeon. Puzzles are usually layered and rely on the player working to understand how their actions in one part of the dungeon can affect other areas. The way the chambers work in this mode, there is very little scope for building puzzles based across multiple rooms. The end result leaves these home made dungeons feeling more like something from a third party imitator. I’m sure the wider community will find ways to make more interesting creations but unless you can pop over to their house, you won’t be playing them!

Nightmares

Nintendo, in a move that surprised no-one, have seen fit to limit the ability to share these creations by Amiibo only. There is no online functionality to allow players to share and download dungeons, but rather they must be scanned to an Amiibo and passed to a friend. This is a great idea for kids who can share Amiibo with friends, but as someone with a child and a full time job, my opportunities to see friends are limited these days. Needless to say I won’t be getting much use out of the sharing functionality.

Amiibo functionality also extends to the newly released Link Amiibo, which unlocks an additional feature in this mode which is not unlike the Shadow Mario sections in the Mario Sunshine and Galaxy games. Other Zelda Amiibo can be used to unlock additional chambers for use in the creation mode.

The performance in the game is a bit of a disappointment as it is a little uneven. Significant frame rate drops kick in every time you load into a new area. The game isn’t broken up into individual screens as the original was, but moving from an area such as Mabe Village into Ukuku Prairie sees the game stutter for a few seconds. This is jarring initially but I eventually stopped noticing it. It never hampered my enjoyment of the game, but it does seem surprising given Nintendo’s usual standards of quality control. The game doesn’t seem to be the most technically demanding, but I would imagine if it could have been sorted it would have been smoothed out in time for launch.

Final thoughts

That may have sounded like a lot of negatives, but the game really is magical. It manages to refresh an old classic in a way that makes it feel vital and modern. There are a few brief sections where the game shows its age, but on the whole it is an absolute triumph.

The quality of life improvements help to iron out some of the main drawbacks of the original platform and the graphical improvements make the game an absolute pleasure to watch. The frame rate hiccups can distract initially, but the overall level of polish still impresses. Seeing the characters you remember from 26 years ago redone in gorgeous HD is a treat. The fishing pond in particular impressed me! I spent a good bit of time playing the fishing minigame as a kid, so seeing it looking so vibrant was pretty special.

Link’s Awakening is essential for any Switch owner. Those that played the original will find great joy in revisiting areas and seeing how they have been remade in a way that respects the original whilst looking truly beautiful. Anyone lucky enough to be experiencing this world for the first time will find a dense, focused Zelda experience that is the polar opposite to the (sometimes overwhelming) freedom offered by Breath of the Wild.

Nintendo have shown once again that their imagination and creativity can offer timeless experiences and have proven me wrong in ever doubting that a Game Boy game could hold its own in 2019! Now where is that Skyward Sword remaster Nintendo?

Pros

  • A perfect laser focused Zelda experience
  • Very respectful of the original game
  • Music and Graphics are both stunning

Cons

  • Shaky performance
  • Dungeon creating mode is disappointing
  • Sharing limited to Amiibo

Verdict

The 2019 remake of Link’s Awakening is a beautiful, distilled Zelda experience. The quality of life improvements keep the game from showing its age and the dungeons offer some of the most satisfying puzzles in any Zelda game. This is a must for fans of the original and those who have never played it! The shaky performance and disappointing creation mode are the only things keeping this from a perfect 5!

4.5/5

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