When news first began to swirl that a Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening remake would be coming to the Switch this year, many fans were excited – myself included. I first played Link’s Awakening as part of the 3DS Ambassador program for early adopters of the handheld. That was a re-release of the DX version that had initially been on Game Boy Color, itself an update of the original Game Boy classic.
The “quintessential” Zelda game
The Switch version is an even bigger update, with stylized graphics and a very cool anime-style cinematic opening that follows the pixelated source material beat for beat. In fact, many players will probably be surprised at just how closely the new Link’s Awakening follows the original. Even with the glossy new coat of paint, it plays almost exactly like the 1993 version – which is a surreal feeling. Imagine holding a Switch Pro Controller while looking at a very obvious modern 3D game, but it handles more like Mole Mania than even other modern handheld Zelda titles like A Link Between Worlds.
Yes, some things have been updated – you won’t be struggling to switch between items as much – but beyond that this really is essentially the same Link’s Awakening that series producer Eiji Aonuma called the “quintessential isometric Zelda game”. That may sound odd at first, considering Princess Zelda isn’t even in the game, but when you play it you’ll see what he means.
What does it get right?
Despite being a top-down game of A Link to the Past‘s era, Link’s Awakening feels like it has more in common with Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask – at least in tone. In fact, as I played through the romp through Koholint Island again, I got an almost unsettling vibe that felt very Majora’s Mask-esque. Believe it or not, that’s probably due in no small part to the fact that Link’s Awakening was heavily inspired by the cult classic American TV show Twin Peaks according to director Takashi Tezuka. (Don’t trust them owls, man.)
Whether you’re talking to neighborhood kids in the village or woodland critters in the forest, every character has a vaguely suspicious air about them. There’s a palatable, yet often charming, uneasiness just beneath the surface in almost every interaction. The narrative depth of the story is a timeless strength of the game.
Obviously this is an entirely different setting and genre than David Lynch’s brainchild, but tonally Tezuka and his team hit the nail on the head perfectly. It also reminds me of Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer a bit for good measure.
The remake captures that feeling even better than the original in many ways. The toy-like graphics. The gaussian blur that borders the game from the onset. The sometimes-disorienting feeling of using old-school control inputs with new-school visuals.
Mix that in with the original madness as well, like Link being able to actually jump (even getting his own 2D platformer sections) along with a steady parade of cameos from the Mario universe (including Yoshi, Goombas, Spinies, Bob-ombs, Buzzy Beetles, and BowWows – I mean, Chain Chomps – to name a few), and you’ve got yourself one beautifully bizarre Zelda title.
You have to be in awe when you realize how many different gameplay styles and elements Link’s Awakening managed to seamlessly incorporate in the Zelda universe. Even by today’s standards, it’s impressive. Truly, it was ahead of its time.
What does it get wrong?
The only area they might not have improved on tone-wise is the soundtrack. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still very good; this is a Zelda game after all. It’s just not as other-wordly as the original 8-bit music. Perhaps Nintendo should have included an option for that in its settings, like the recent Dragon Quest XI port.
Also, with all of the things Nintendo imported from the original, many players probably won’t help but wish they could’ve imported an old school price for this remake. The recent Spyro trilogy on Switch retails for $39.99, and it includes three games; so Link’s Awakening‘s $59.99 price tag bites a little.
Nintendo did throw in a Dungeon Maker feature to sweeten the deal, but it’s barebones. All you need to know is: don’t expect Mario Maker levels of quality here. It’s a nifty afterthought, not a fully fleshed-out experience. Also, you can only share the dungeons you make by saving them to the Link’s Awakening amiibo and loaning it to a friend. That’s right, there’s no online functionality.
And the worst part about the whole game? It has framerate issues. Yes, even at $59.99 the gameplay gets noticeably choppy more than occasionally. Now, while there’s nothing gamebreaking here, it was noticeable enough to take me out of the experience at times. In a game that relies heavily on its own atmosphere, it’s very important not to break the illusion.
It’s also disappointing considering this is not only one of Nintendo’s biggest titles of the year, but it’s a Zelda title for heaven’s sake. And not just any Zelda title, it’s Link’s Awakening!
So where does that leave us? It leaves us with one of the best Zelda games of all time (and by default, one of the best games of all time), that has some framerate issues. When put in perspective, that still leaves us in a very good place. And I still highly recommend Link’s Awakening for Switch, even at full price.
Some people might complain that it’s not on the same playing field as Breath of the Wild. I disagree. This was the equivalent of Breath of the Wild for the Game Boy, and now it can be preserved and introduced to a whole new generation of gamers in an even purer form than other Game Boy remakes on the Switch (like Pokémon for example).
Some technical issues aside, Link’s Awakening for Switch is a game that you’ll want to revisit again and again. Despite the relatively short length of its playtime when compared to Breath of the Wild, it’s like a fine wine that gets even better with time. You owe it to yourself to experience it whether you played the original or not.
Here’s hoping Nintendo will give the same treatment to The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages.
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