'The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening': Game Review

'Link's Awakening' Still - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Nintendo
A vibrant reimagining of the Game Boy classic.

The Switch version of the beloved handheld title maintains every bit of charm and magic of the original, 26 years later.

Nintendo has perfected the art of capitalizing on nostalgia. For many Switch titles, remakes and reboots are the order of the day. The latest game to receive a completely revitalized installment is the 1993 Game Boy classic, The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. 

This Switch-exclusive adventure is a gorgeous reimagining of the Zelda series' first handheld iteration. Despite being the second re-release of the seminal title, this one is far the greatest offering. Having meticulously recreated what many regard as one of their favorite Zelda titles with a picturesque, insanely detailed diorama-like version of the game’s expansive island with “toy” versions of Link and crew, Nintendo has breathed new life into a familiar story. It’s safe to say if you haven’t yet played the Link's Awakening, you might actually want to hold off on the original version and play this one instead.

Picking up some time after The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Link's Awakening finds the stalwart Link, the Hero of Time, traveling throughout the world by ship. After his vessel is destroyed in a turbulent storm, the elven swordsman finds himself washed ashore on the picturesque Koholint Island, where he meets a girl named Marin. She kindly guides Link to her home, which she shares with father Tarin. 

Enamored with Link and his connection to the outside world, Marin expresses her desire to leave the island to travel the sea. While Link's getting accustomed to his new surroundings, he comes across a mysterious owl who advises him that he may return home, but there's one important task to be completed first: wake the Wind Fish that's sleeping encased in a giant egg on top of the massive Mt. Tamaranch, which can only be woken up by playing eight mysterious instruments. Thus, Link’s adventure begins. 

Rarely do Nintendo Switch titles look this vibrant. Utilizing a "retro-modern" art style with character sprites that look more like small vinyl toys than 3D renderings, Koholint Island comes alive with rich goldenrods, viridian grass and tilt-shifted visuals that give it a unique look and feel.

The effect is a bit lost when it comes to interior designs, however. Stepping into a dungeon from the bright, cheery overworld dampens a bit of the rustic, toy-like aesthetic. It makes sense gameplay-wise since these dark and dingy areas are meant to be muted, but it’s far easier to appreciate when exploring the exterior of Koholint Island. Overall, the effect is marvelous, and a great aesthetic choice. 

But, more importantly, how far does this version stray from the original formula? Are there new, terrible plot threads that replace the poignancy of the Game Boy classic? Short answer: No. In fact, in terms of the narrative, basic mechanics and puzzle solutions, most everything is the same. So if you memorized the correct order to defeat monsters in exchange for a dungeon-specific item or have inclinations to speed-run using knowledge from the original game, you’re in luck. You can tear through the game a lot quicker than newcomers, at the very least, since you’ll still be able to get around using the old directions you memorized. 

Some of the biggest differences actually come in the form of fantastic quality-of-life improvements and alterations that only serve to augment the original content in a big way. One major change that may not seem like a big deal at first blush actually makes the Switch version of Link's Awakening feel nearly like a different game. That’s reason enough to play, even if you wore your Game Boy or Game Boy Color copies out. 

Both your shield and sword have dedicated buttons now. Previously, you had two inventory slots, which meant you were forced to continuously swap items in and out by traveling to the menu. In a game where it's simple to slip into an immersive state as you travel from dungeon to dungeon, constantly making inventory adjustments was such a pain that it was by far one of the game's most detrimental aspects. Being able to carry two items in your inventory in addition to using these two very important tools is such a boon that the game feels totally transformed for the better. 

Plus, using the shield via the ZR button now eliminates some of its inconsistency. Sometimes it would automatically shield you, and sometimes it wouldn't. Being able to shield yourself when needed makes Link's Awakening feel much closer to a modern Zelda title, and leagues better than the origin. Additional items, like the Pegasus Boots and other power-ups, receive the same treatment. That means you'll spend more time exploring and figuring out puzzles than swapping out items Link is carrying and that's a good thing.  

You can also satisfy your curiosity by checking every nook and cranny for stuff to collect with the addition of more goodies scattered throughout the island. There’s a higher total of Secret Seashell collectibles, for one, and statues you can gather of Mario universe characters, including Goombas and Pokeys. Instead of making drastic changes to the game that would feel jarring or even disrespectful to players, Nintendo simply improved upon a winning formula. 

An intriguing addition comes in the form of the Color Dungeon, an optional area first included only with The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX. The Game Boy Color re-release and update featured the vibrant area that Link could enter after obtaining a special item called the Power Bracelet. It's rife with pantone-centric puzzles, including switches Link must hit to bring them in sync or monsters he must defeat according to their hue. It gets a stunning, vivid update in the Switch edition, and is all the more exciting given how great everything looks now. 

One optional aspect you can explore in-game are the Chamber Dungeons, which let you design your own custom Zelda dungeons. This addition replaces the Camera Shop in Link’s Awakening DX that could be used with a Game Boy Printer. Brought to you by Dampé the Gravedigger, the new mode task you with completing a dungeon to earn all "rooms" for the Chamber Dungeon creator. Once you've done so, Dampé will make them all available for you to rearrange into your own unique configuration. Don't mistake it for a Super Mario Maker clone or a Super Zelda Maker facsimile, as it's nowhere near as full-featured as that game would presumably be. Instead, you can create only within a set number of parameters. 

Once complete, you have to journey within and beat the dungeon. While the concept of creating your own dungeon may sound appealing, essentially rearranging a series of rooms you've already finished before in a slightly different manner isn't very exciting. But this is a very minor issue in the overall scheme of things, especially as it’s not required in any way to mess about with. There are other cool extras, too. If you happened to get your hands on the special Link amiibo figure from the Link's Awakening series, you can summon Shadow Link, who will chase you throughout dungeons and make things more difficult, thus offering better rewards upon completion. The other figures in the series can be utilized for other power-up effects, too. 

The Switch version of Link’s Awakening is just as charming and magical as it was 26 years ago. Rife with useful updates, additional content and some of the best-looking art direction the system has seen, it’s the perfect embodiment of a modern gaming update. Whether you’re a newcomer to the Zelda series or simply looking to dive in nearly 30 years after the game first hit handhelds, you’re going to be in for a real treat.