Nintendo is no stranger to remakes and remasters. Heck, they were probably one of the first companies to ever issue a remaster way back in 1993 with the release of Super Mario All-Stars on the Super NES, which took the original NES games and updated them with improved 16-bit graphics and sound. Also released in 1993 was The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening for the Game Boy. It would mark Link’s first foray onto portable devices and it certainly wouldn’t be his last. It was later remastered into color for the Game Boy Color, which threw in some nifty extras like a new dungeon. Now, 26 years after its initial release we get what Nintendo likes to call a “reimagining” with the Nintendo Switch release of Link’s Awakening. Failing to beat either of the earlier iterations, I was determined to see this one through to the end and I sure am glad I did! It has now become one of my favorite Zelda games to date, which is no easy feat.
For the purpose of this review, I think it’s important to note my history with this game to put my views in perspective. I was barely a teenager when we got our NES in August of 1988 and my love affair with Nintendo games really took hold. The following year for Christmas I was lucky enough to receive a brand new Game Boy. I played it quite often over the next two years, but a new console was on the horizon. By the time the Super NES was ready to launch in August of 1991, I had saved up all of my money from babysitting and mowing lawns to purchase one at launch. It was my most hyped system of all time and I couldn’t wait to finally get to play Super Mario World.
Before the console even arrived, gaming magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly had already shown off screens of a new Zelda game. I would spend hours and hours pouring over every ounce of information I could find and stare at screenshots for what I am sure was an unhealthy amount of time. So, when A Link to the Past finally arrived in April of 1992 I played the heck out of it. Needless to say, I had almost completely dropped playing my NES and Game Boy because the Super NES was so much better. Perhaps I was a graphics snob back in the day, but if I had a choice I’d always rather play the 16-bit games over anything else.
When Link’s Awakening finally appeared on the Game Boy in 1993 I picked it up soon after it came out. I remember really enjoying it and having a good time with it, but my biggest annoyance was the constant need to go in and out of the sub-menu to change equipment. Much of the game relied heavily on the shield blocking mechanic as well as the need to jump, which required an annoying amount of pausing the game, switching gear, and then resuming. This, combined with a constant stream of new awesome 16-bit games and the incoming Sega CD (which at the time I was sure was the future of entertainment), meant I didn’t get far into the game. If I had to guess I probably went through two dungeons total. Fast forward to the Game Boy Color release and I once again happily shelled out money to play the game in color! I still had the same issues with the item swapping and probably played it about as much as I did the original. As time went on I constantly heard on various podcasts and sites that Link’s Awakening was really a special game to so many people. That’s why when the game was announced for the Switch I knew it would finally be my chance to experience the full game once and for all.
For me, Link’s Awakening on the Switch was practically an entirely new game. It had been so many years since I spent any time in the world that it all felt completely original. I remembered small things, like Bow Wow the Chain Chomp in the starting village and a few of the NPCs, but other than that I was essentially embarking on a completely new quest. From what I understand, this version of the game is almost identical to the prior installments, so if you know all of the secrets and how to solve the puzzles then perhaps you might have second thoughts about dropping $60 onto what is essentially a prettier version of a game you already know so well. Then again, if it’s a game you cherish and love and is one of your favorites of all time, then maybe the value proposition is worth it.
I can wholeheartedly recommend this one to first time players because despite it originally appearing as a Game Boy game, this is a full-fledged Zelda experience. Somehow I kept thinking that maybe it would be lacking dungeons or it would feature fewer items or be over in just a few hours. This just comes from my experience with Game Boy games back in the day like Super Mario Land, which featured only four worlds, or Mega Man with only four bosses. Luckily there’s nothing to worry about here, as the game is fully loaded with tons of places to explore and secrets to uncover. My playtime clocked in at around 15 hours once all was said and done and I didn’t even collect all of the hidden seashells or Nintendo figurines. Suffice to say, there’s plenty to do here.
With way more buttons at the ready, this version of Link’s Awakening definitely plays the best. The developers were able to map the shield to the R shoulder button and the running boots to the L shoulder button. The sword is permanently tied to the B button and both the Y and X buttons can be customized to any item in your inventory. I typically had Roc’s Feather on the Y button (to jump) and then would swap out X for whatever I currently needed, be it bombs, arrows, or whatever else. Simply utilizing more buttons makes the game much more approachable and gives the game a modern day quality of life that was so desperately needed.
The biggest changes that will instantly be noticed are the improved graphics and music. The second I set my eyes on the new art style I was immediately hooked. The game still retains its top-down viewpoint, but everything looks so different from before. Gone are the pixelated sprites and in their place is what looks like plastic figurines. The entire game, from the characters to the buildings to the environments looks like something ripped out of a miniature toy set. The animation style slightly reminded me of the classic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer cartoons that featured stop-motion technology. It’s not quite the same here, but the plastic trees, and stone facades that almost look cut out of clay certainly invoke the same aesthetic.
Combined with the top-down viewpoint, many of the scenes almost give a feeling of looking down into a diorama or something, and it’s quite an awesome effect, especially in the dungeons. Bringing it all together is a truly amazing job with the lighting effects and color saturation. This game is simply beautiful to look at and is so bright and colorful that it almost hurts sometimes. The water looks insanely realistic, especially the small rivers and lake. The enemies animate beautifully and I love the various reactions when Link blocks a spear with his shield or bounces a stone back at an Octorok. The various locations look like they’ve been crafted by hand and it never looks like someone copy and pasted a tile set to create an area. The amount of detail is impressive and I absolutely adore the decision to go in this direction.
Equally impressive is this game’s soundtrack. I have to give props to the original game in this regard as well because I never realized just how much time went into the large number of musical numbers featured. Zelda games prior to Link’s Awakening featured one or two dungeon themes throughout, but this one has eight distinct themes – one for each labyrinth. The composers have taken the original tunes and modernized them with orchestrated samples that sound fantastic. In most cases the chiptune has been expanded on and the length vastly increased to avoid the song repeating very 30 seconds or so. On top of that, several pieces of music integrate some of the original beeps and boops for that extra dose of nostalgic glee. The sound effects are equally satisfying with the usual clinks and clanks of your sword and shield. Also, a special shout out to the jingle that plays when you discover a secret, like blowing up a section of wall – that never gets old!
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is a return to the core of what makes a Zelda game a Zelda game. You have a ton of puzzles integrated into the overworld as well as the underworld and secrets seemingly on every screen. First time players are in for some real head scratching puzzles here and there and these are exponentially more satisfying when you figure them out. There’s a great cast of characters throughout that you get to know via short conversations and as the game progresses and some of the plot is revealed I couldn’t help but feel a sense of sadness come over me as I realized what the finale of the story would likely entail.
Although the majority of the gameplay and locations are identical to the Game Boy release, there are some differences here. In addition to more collectibles and slightly different dialog in places, the biggest addition is the inclusion of the Chamber Dungeon. You can find dungeon rooms and place them in this sort of Zelda dungeon maker mini-game that allows you go create your own labyrinth to run through. This is fairly easy to learn and I can see some having a great time designing their masterpieces. In a very Nintendo-like move you can’t share dungeons online, but instead you must save it to the Link amiibo and then a friend can tap it to their copy of the game and play your dungeon. I spent maybe a total of 20 minutes messing around in this mode, but it just didn’t appeal to me. Your mileage will probably vary.
Perhaps most impressive of all is that this game proves that there’s plenty of room for multiple styles of Zelda game on the Switch. Link’s Awakening is a much more focused and linear experience than Breath of the Wild, but both manage to satisfy that same craving for an epic adventure. Small issues with some frame rate stuttering and the tendency for the game to railroad you into one-way paths where backtracking can be somewhat painful do little to detract from an otherwise marvelous experience that shouldn’t be missed.
The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening
- Graphics - 9.5/109.5/10
- Sound - 10/1010/10
- Gameplay - 9/109/10
- Lasting Appeal - 8/108/10
Final Thoughts: EXCELLENT
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is a fantastic experience from start to finish. With an incredibly adorable art style and stunning soundtrack the most noticeable upgrades, it’s the improved control scheme that really makes this game more approachable than ever before. Newcomers can expect at least 15 hours of game (more if you want to collect everything), whereas veterans should have no trouble blowing through the game at a much quicker pace. The value will be in the eye of the beholder, but after seeing the credits roll I felt the $60 price tag was more than fair.