It can sometimes seem to the casual bystander and consumer of popular entertainment that there are two letters on any executive’s mind: RE. Everything, from film to television to video games, is now centered on these two letters. Remakes. Reboots. Remasters. Re-releases (double whammy). For so long, these two letters mostly meant bad omens, as remakes were all too commonly poor imitations of their predecessors, technology not far enough advanced to fully warrant an updated copy without looking hokey. In 2019, this isn’t the case. Especially in video games, industry standards have progressed so far that remakes, reboots, and remasters are able to aptly maintain the spirit of a game, retaining what fans loved so much about the original, while progressing the story, gameplay, or presentation without sacrifice. Already over the last twelve months, we’ve been blessed to dive back into updated classics like Resident Evil 2 Remake, Pokemon Let’s Go! Pikachu and Eevee, Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled, and Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition. Soon, fans will be able to sink their eager teeth into a MediEvil remake and, in early 2020, the long-awaited Final Fantasy VII Remake.
Title: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
Available On: Nintendo Switch
Reviewed On: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: September 20, 2019
Game Purchased for the Purpose of This Review
Fans of retro gaming have a lot to be thankful for, not in small part due to the diligence of Nintendo to update some of their own historied catalogue to modern audiences. For me, I have reveled in the recent trend for Nintendo to release updated, high definition, and sometimes completely remade versions of classic games, specifically in the Legend of Zelda franchise. I’ve been playing Zelda since my wee years, drawing maps and memorizing dungeons, getting lost and then found again, making my way through vast landscapes of uncharted plains and waters. No franchise is more dear to my heart than this. Imagine my glee when Nintendo and developer Grizzo announced a fully rebuilt HD remake of the GameBoy classic The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, an episode in the series that some gamers consider the very best. Whether you agree with this or not, one thing is certain – with charming graphics, a stellar soundtrack, and a nearly untouched world and story, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening for the Nintendo Switch is the finest Zelda remake Nintendo has made to date.
You’ve heard the story before: Link, an adventurous elfish boy, destined for greatness and hero-hood, embarks on an epic quest with sword and shield in hand to gather pieces of the mythical triforce to save the helpless Princess Zelda from a great evil threatening the balance of the very world — except, of course, none of that is true in Link’s Awakening. For being a Legend of Zelda game, Link’s Awakening is very unique in its plot and game world. For starters, LA doesn’t even take place in Hyrule, but rather on Koholint Island. Following the events of the Super Nintendo smash hit A Link to the Past, Link is traveling via primitive raft on the open seas when a storm causes him to wash ashore the island beach. Hyrule is not the only Zelda mainline feature missing; Zelda herself doesn’t appear in the game aside from a passing mention, and the pieces of triforce are entirely absent. Not even the Lord of Darkness Ganon himself shows up to terrorize our hero. Instead, Link battles aptly named Nightmares as he collects various instruments to awaken the Wind Fish, sleeping in an egg atop a peak in the island’s mountainous biome.
Sound… abnormal? It is. Link’s Awakening is a strange game with unusual themes and characters. Talking animals and helpful mermaids are the norm on Koholint Island, which itself may or may not even be real. Did Link drown during his rafting accident, and this is his passage to the afterlife? Maybe. Is the Wind Fish merely dreaming, and we are characters conjured by its imagination? Possibly. This world is simply different when compared to other Zelda worlds, and Nintendo and game leads Takashi Tezuka and Shigeru Miyamoto leaned into the weird when materializing this entry. The influences from Nintendo heads are present, with chain chomps, goombas, and cheep cheeps all making cameos. In 2019, even more classic Nintendo characters make appearances in the form of either enemy or collectible plush doll. If Link’s Awakening on the Switch is your first trip to Koholint Island, you’ll be quick to notice its deviations from other franchise staples.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening has been beautifully recreated from the original 8-bit graphical release. LAHD adheres to the same top-down perspective as the original game, and every bush and tree is where you originally found it 26 years ago, but sprites have been refashioned into fully realized 3D models. The original black and white palette (or rich, earthly colors of the DX release) are replaced with bright, vibrant hues, and Link has morphed into a cute “chibi-Link” incarnation of the hero. In fact, everything in this game can be described as “cute”, with beady eyes and exaggerated movements. Sword swings leave trails in the air, and bush leaves playfully float for a split second as the bushes are chopped down. The design is anything but realistic, but lends itself to the overall theme of a strange (and maybe near-death experience) fever dream. Movements from Link and supporting cast are brief and choppy, like watching a stop-motion video of action figures. Edges of the screen are blurred in a way that suggests a camera is focused on the center action, or perhaps emulating a popular television technique of blurred periphery representing imagined (or dreamed) scenes. This effect is jarring at first, but I soon grew to appreciate it as a unique addition to a truly unique adventure.
Despite the beautifully rendered graphics, Link’s Awakening is as faithful of a recreation as long-time Zelda fans could hope for. After all, don’t fix what isn’t broken! The story and action of the game progress in exactly the same pace and sequence as the original. Dungeons and bosses remain unchanged and new items are found in the same chests Link found them in during my childhood. In an era of rampant remasters, it’s nice to return to a classic to find that you can pick up and play almost the exact same game from your yesteryears.
That is not to say that Link’s Awakening doesn’t host a handful of welcome changes that ease this admittedly aged game into the 21st century. For starters, and most importantly, the Nintendo Switch accommodates many more buttons than did the GameBoy, and you are able to adventure much more comfortably without opening the menu for item mapping nearly as frequently as you once did. Link’s Awakening once featured a control scheme where every (and I mean every) item needed to be mapped to one of the GameBoy’s two buttons, A and B. This included sword, shield, pegasus boots, feather, and even power bracelet for lifting heavy items. Now, simply owning the power bracelet allows you to lift boulders, pegasus boots and shield are mapped to their own shoulder buttons, and the sword is thankfully and mercifully given its own unique input. You will still need to equip the various usable and situational items, like bow, bombs, or feather, but removing the constant need to open your equipment screen is the most impressive (and requisite) update for a 26 year old game. Other changes include more frequent fast travel points, more secret seashells, and a fluid overworld map instead of the traditional tile-based exploration.
Perhaps the biggest new addition to Link’s Awakening is the Chamber Dungeon system, hosted by Dampé in his graveyard-adjacent shack. After completing one of the game’s eight dungeons, the tiles from that dungeon are then available to Link to place into a template, becoming a unique, player-created experience for the first-time ever in a Legend of Zelda game. Nintendo has not been shy in demonstrating this mechanic in trailers and gameplay previews, advertising it as a main selling-point of the game. Unfortunately, chamber dungeons aren’t realized enough to be Zelda’s own Super Mario Maker. Lack of ability to share these dungeons online initially seemed like a glaring omission, but since the dungeons are comprised only of tiles of those previously cleared, you’re never really playing anything that feels new. Making a cohesive experience out of a dungeon isn’t as easy as it looks, either. My advice: if you want to play good dungeons, just play the game over again.
Mixed in with all of this new-era nostalgia mashup comes an absolutely brilliant soundtrack, full of atmospheric arrangements of classic Zelda tunes and sounds that fans have come to love. Composer Ryo Nagamatsu built upon the foundation created by Minako Hamano and Kozue Ishikawa in the original GameBoy release of Link’s Awakening with brand new recordings that top my list for favorite background music of the year so far. The original soundtrack doubles down on the classic-but-fresh feel of the game, as most songs feature full wind and string (with the rare brass horn) orchestral arrangements, like the “Overworld Theme”, which sounds like an eight-piece string orchestra reimagining the traditional Zelda overture, and the theme for “Tal Tal Heights” (my personal favorite), which includes minor variations of riffs from the Legend of Zelda theme song backed by timpani drums. Listen closely enough to this track, though, and small beats of MIDI synthesizer pierce through the band. In fact, these electronic inclusions appear unsparingly throughout the entire soundtrack, but instead of sounding like an unwelcome guest at a fancy dinner party, provide a beautiful contrast to the game’s classic GameBoy roots while presenting a wholly updated HD package. Songs like “Marin’s House” and “Boss Battle” stick so closely to the original MIDI recordings that I wondered if they were directly pulled from the 1993 cartridge. That is not an insult, however, and if this sounds like a weird soundtrack with peculiar twists, that’s because it is. Ryo Nagamatsu emphasized through his compositions the strange world of Koholint Island, with the theme to “Animal Village” featuring barks and meows for the melody, and “Telephone Booth” sounding fuzzy as if coming through an old handheld receiver with intermittent ringing. The whole soundtrack brings the island alive; dungeon themes echo, boss themes are frantic, and the sense of adventure is ever present. No soundtrack has complimented a game so well in 2019.
Link’s Awakening gets so much right that it would be easy to overlook the issues one might encounter on their journey, but I would be remiss to not mention a few annoyances that spoiled an otherwise great masterpiece. As I’ve mentioned, the chamber dungeon (though working as intended) is an addition that seems tacked on and unimpressive. A new, though surely unintentional, addition to this classic is a stuttering framerate that occurs every time Link walks into a new area of the map. The drop is dramatic and noticeable, and though only lasting a few seconds, feels unacceptable for a console game without ultra-realistic graphics or a large, expansive overworld. The difficulty is overall underwhelming for such a sweeping journey. Some of this is due to Link’s increased freedom of movement, including diagonal running and jumping made possible by the Nintendo Switch’s analog sticks. Diagonal movement is welcome to this updated release, but an uptuned difficulty to account for this small change may have increased the satisfaction from downing the overly-simple dungeon bosses. The only boss that will present almost any challenge to most players is the final Nightmare, which is jolting considering the ease with which one can finish the rest of the game. Hero mode is available when creating a new save file, with double damage from enemies, no heart drops, and less frequent fairies (despite the HD inclusion of fairy bottles), but the chasm between normal and Hero playthroughs is too wide to feel natural.
After 26 years, returning to Koholint Island was a pleasant escape that provided a thoroughly realized game world that I had forgotten how much I loved. Most players will finish Link’s Awakening in under 10 hours, though collecting every seashell and piece of heart, or journeying through Hero mode after finishing a normal playthrough, will extend that game time dramatically. To some gamers’ dismay, this game is priced at $59.99 retail and in the US eShop. Complaints range from the relatively short campaign and cartoonish graphics to the fact of it not being a new game at all, but I would be challenged to find a more polished and charming game in 2019. For me, the weird, wonderful world of Koholint Island, with all of its funny characters, clever dungeons, and inspired background music, made the price tag worth every penny. If you are a fan of the original, this is a must buy. If this is your first time playing Link’s Awakening, you are in for a beatiful, pleasant surprise.