The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is a trip back to a simpler time, when handheld game systems had monochromatic screens and two buttons were all you needed to go on a grand adventure. The new Switch remake marks the second revival of the Game Boy classic, and it brings the quirky Koholint Island back to life in style. Without taking any wind out of the original game’s sails, the revisions drastically enhance the look and feel of the environments and characters, all the while map layouts and puzzle designs remain incredibly faithful to the source material. Nintendo has implemented a few other new features and some new collectibles that will keep veteran players on the hunt, but the renewed presentation is easily the star of the show.
Having been transformed from little pixelated people to shiny, cartoony toys come to life, everyone in Link’s Awakening brings newfound energy. It’s equally true for monsters and bad guys as well. Game Boy games have retro appeal, but the remake casts aside ancient aesthetics for something entirely different that works on its own terms. That which existed only in our imagination before comes through in new animations, accompanied with lively sound effects and music that make you feel like a kid again. It’s the sort of look that grows even more attractive over time, and you might, like I did, start to imagine what other Nintendo properties would benefit from a similar visual upgrade.
It can, also, be the one thing about the game that irks, as the frame rate takes a noticeable hit when most scenes load into memory. The problem seems to be tied to the game’s pronounced depth-of-field effect, which employs an exaggerated blurring effect to enhance the miniature-toy feel of the presentation. Don’t get me wrong, this is more of a minor annoyance than anything–which should tell you a lot about the quality of everything else.
Link’s Awakening will no doubt feel old-fashioned, which is fair considering the original version is over a quarter century old at this stage. It feels wrong to make any comparisons between it and Breath of the Wild, but in the case that 2017’s game of the year was your first foray in Link’s boots, kiss the open-ended quests and sprawling Hyrule goodbye. Link’s Awakening is a tightly designed adventure on a small but dense map. Eight puzzle-filled dungeons comprise the bulk of your journey, but you’re also required to meet and greet the inhabitants of the quirky island. Link washes ashore after a calamitous boating accident to find himself stranded in paradise–or it would be, if not for the Nightmares residing in the aforementioned vaults.
This setup suggests that Koholint is but a trite land compared to the embattled and sacred Kingdom of Hyrule–an inconvenient pitstop for old Link, if you will. Yet, Link’s Awakening never feels like it’s trying to butt up against the series’ more epic entries. It works, instead, as a fanciful side story, and it ultimately stands out for its playful attitude and moments of bittersweet melancholy.
By and large, the flow of the game is managed in a clear fashion. A sage-like owl helps guide Link from one primary task to the next. With each dungeon comes a musical instrument, and with them all, says the wise owl, Link can secure his way off the island. It always appears at just the right time, when one task ends and the other is about to begin, but you’re also afforded advice from a shy man named Ulrira. Chat with him at any of the numerous phone-booth trees scattered around the island; just don’t bother him in person–he will sheepishly ask that you stick to the phone, anyway. For the remake, you also have the new option of revisiting past conversations via the map menu, and the ability to mark locations on the map using a small selection of different icons.
This may prove useful for several reasons, most notably while you’re hunting for collectible items like seashells and pieces of heart. There are more of each in the Switch remake than in the original Game Boy game, and though you may have a clear sense of where some are, many will remain inaccessible until you discover new gear that extends Link’s capabilities.
With the Switch’s expanded button count, Link’s Awakening is a lot easier to play now because you have access to more items at once without jumping in and out of your inventory. In the past, you could only have two items in hand at any given moment. On Switch, Link’s sword, shield, dash, and Power Bracelet strength are always ready to use, and two configurable slots for other items let you juggle even more in any given moment. This greatly diminishes the annoyance of constant menu-flipping and can make certain boss encounters feel easier than ever. For players that want a challenge in battle, a Hero mode exists, where enemies don’t drop health replenishments and Link takes twice as much damage as usual.
Largely, however, the more manageable enemy encounters aren’t to the game’s detriment. Link’s Awakening is primarily focused on testing you with its circuitous dungeons and an overarching item-trading quest line that requires you to take a closer look at the people who call Koholint home. Their identities and stories aren’t all that deep, but your interactions and exchanges help shape the identity of the locale and brighten up your time spent outside of dark and dreary dungeons. Some of the multi-floor dungeons can take the better part of an hour to figure out, with fluctuating obstacles and subtle environmental cues ensuring that the final stages will either test your memory of the original game or your present observation and deduction skills. There are times when you suspect that you’ve explored every option yet can’t find the path forward. As is par for the course, you probably need to take a closer look at your tools and surroundings. Even if it won’t test your fighting spirit, Link’s Awakening’s most challenging puzzles will test your intellect in surprising ways.
Like many of the best Zelda games, Link’s Awakening gives you a sense of purpose, motivates you with discovery and growth, and delights you with its charming personality. These qualities, unfortunately, don’t carry over to the remake’s other big addition: the dungeon maker mode. Here, with the help of the series’ favorite gravedigger, Dampe, Link can create virtual dungeons derived from rooms seen throughout his adventure. Amiibo can also factor in, either as portable storage for sharing your dungeons with other players–no, you can’t upload them online–or as a means of unlocking special additions for your custom dungeons. The Link’s Awakening Amiibo, for example, will introduce Shadow Link as a mini boss. Defeating him, or simply playing dungeons, will net you extra consumables, like bombs and arrows, and a bounty of rupees. These are good options to have, and there’s some delight that comes with laying out your own dungeon, but because you are limited to premade room tiles and disposable rewards, the dungeon maker mode is easy to dismiss. It’s a curiosity at best, and definitely not the Zelda Maker you might be waiting for.
Though the remake has a couple of blemishes, it’s still an easy game to recommend. People speak of Link’s Awakening as the secret best Zelda game. That’s a tough call to make, but it’s definitely one of the best. If you haven’t touched a classic Zelda game in a while, Link’s Awakening will almost instantly transport you back to the ’90s. It’s simple, in many ways, but the orchestrated journey still conveys a sense of adventure, and this new version is without question the best way to experience it. And more than anything else, it will put a smile on your face. Remakes are a dime a dozen nowadays and often easy to overlook. Don’t make that mistake with Link’s Awakening.