If you didn’t already know that Link’s Awakening first came out on the Game Boy way back in 1993, you’d be forgiven for thinking the latest Legend of Zelda game is brand-new. Virtually everything about the new version, which launches this week on the Nintendo Switch, feels modern — whether that’s the lushly detailed visuals and diorama-like presentation that make it feel like you’re in a living, miniature world; or its tightly connected map that forces you to think carefully about every tool in your arsenal in order to proceed.
The new Link’s Awakening is an almost perfect example of a remake: it retains everything that made the original so memorable, while making it work for a modern audience. And if you really didn’t know about Link’s Awakening to begin with? You’re in for a wonderful surprise.
Link’s Awakening is, I think it’s safe to say, one of the weirder Zelda adventures. For starters, it doesn’t feature Zelda at all, nor the iconic fantasy realm of Hyrule. Instead, it starts with Link crashing his boat and washing up on a mysterious island. The standout feature of the island is a large mountain, atop which sits a giant, spotted egg that’s so high up it’s surrounded by clouds.
Before long, Link learns that the egg is home to a sleeping creature called a wind fish, and that the only way to get off of the island is to wake it. In order to do that, he first must find eight instruments hidden across the island. It’s a lot of legwork, but it at least gives you a clear goal for your long journey. In fact, you can see the egg from the very beginning, and it sits there tantalizingly throughout the entire quest.
This is Zelda of the top-down variety, much like the seminal SNES game A Link to the Past. (In fact, Link’s Awakening was originally planned as a Game Boy port of that game.) As always, there’s a large overworld to explore, which is home to multiple dungeons where you find the necessary tools to progress. The island is like one big, interconnected puzzle, one that you solve by steadily getting new abilities and items.
What this means is you’ll regularly come across impassable points that you can’t actually cross until later in the game. That might be a rock that Link is too weak to lift, or gaps that are too far to jump across. Over the course of the game you’ll come across new items — bombs, arrows, and other Zelda mainstays — that you can use to eventually get by these obstacles and find secret locations, new biomes, and dungeons to explore. Link’s Awakening’s map isn’t especially large, but it feels dense, the kind of place where you need to carefully explore every inch to find everything.
This is all true of most Zelda games, and there are a lot of familiar moments here. You’re still looking for cracked walls to bomb and bosses with glowing weak points to hit. But there are a few things that make Link’s Awakening different. For one, there’s the setting, which is a nice change of pace from the familiar Hyrule and one that quite often feels downright strange.
One of the weirdest things about the game is the copious Super Mario references. There are side characters who look like Mario and Luigi, side-scrolling sequences featuring goombas, and a woman who keeps chain chomps as pets. It’s all the more strange because it’s never actually explained, yet somehow it just fits. The Link’s Awakening island has the kind of lived-in, historic feel the series is known for, but it skews a bit toward the silly side of the spectrum.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about this new version is how closely it sticks to the original Link’s Awakening, and how well it stands up despite this. Original Game Boy games don’t typically age well, but for the most part, Link’s Awakening doesn’t feel dated. There are some pacing issues, and times when you’ll likely find yourself stuck because you missed something tiny. (The annoying trading sequence makes a return here, so you might want to keep a walkthrough handy.) But, more so than most Zelda adventures, it also provides overt ways to guide you. There are cryptic owls that provide hints, a literal phone line you can call when you’re stuck, and a map that you can mark up to record places you might want to return to later on.
Far and away the most modern thing about the game is how it looks. Link’s Awakening is equal parts adorable and stunning, a richly detailed world that really invites you to explore. Link and the characters he comes across are like tiny figurines in a handmade diorama, and there’s a tilt-shift effect that blurs the edges of the screen, making everything look even smaller. It’s all just so cute, even the one-eyed jumping spiders.
But it’s not just a sweet, adorable world, it’s also one filled with a surprising amount of detail. When Link gets the ability to swim across lakes, you can see right through the clear blue water to the rocks on the lakebed. Old ruins look appropriately ancient, and houses are filled with endearing touches like framed photos and meals in the midst of being cooked.
Even the sound design is charming; I can’t get enough of hearing Link’s shoes slap across a shallow puddle, or when he strains pushing a too-heavy stone statue. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Link munch on an apple. Some of the game’s best moments are the quiet ones where you can really appreciate these details, standing around listening to someone sing for no other reason than you want to.
Zelda games have come a long way. While the focus on adventure has always remained intact, there’s no mistaking the NES original for Breath of the Wild. The games have become bigger, more expansive, and more dynamic. Link’s Awakening harkens back to a simpler time, one before terms like “open world” even existed. But thanks to some modern tweaks and a beautiful presentation, it approaches something close to timelessness.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening launches September 20th on the Nintendo Switch.
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