Link’s Awakening, the first The Legend of Zelda game for a handheld system, first came out 26 years ago. As far as video games go, it’s a relic of a bygone age – but it’s one (especially its 1998 Gameboy colour DX re-release) that’s highly revered by fans of the series. Two and a half decades after its debut, it’s back on a new platform and with an exceptionally shiny coat of paint to boot.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s awakening is as loving a remake as Capcom’s recent Resident Evil 2 Remake, but it’s not nearly as thoughtful. Capcom spent time modernising Resident Evil 2, and on the surface of it, The same can’t really be said for Link’s Awakening. While it has just been given a new and wonderfully delightful art style, incredible remastered music (that’s still tumbling about in my head, days after I’ve finished the game) and a few modern touches that make it less fiddly to play, it’s fundamentally the very same game that was responsible for mountains of dead AA batteries in the 90s.
As I said though, there’s a lot of love here, and that’s immediately apparent from the game’s intro, which gives the original pixelated 8-bit art a hand-drawn, anime makeover. Link, lost at sea in a terrible thunderstorm, washes up on Koholint Island, rescued by Island natives. Guided by an owl, he discovers that the only way off the island is to wake the mystical Wind fish – stuck in a great big egg on the top of a mountain – by finding an octet of magical musical instruments, each of them hidden within a dungeon. For some reason, the island’s inhabitants don’t believe that there’s anything beyond the horizon, nor are they especially keen on finding out if there is. Look, nobody really plays Legend of Zelda games for their engaging or sensical stories.
Instead it’s all about finding the deviously hidden heart pieces to increase your health, completing increasingly difficult and clever dungeons by finding new equipment and procuring weapons that allow you to enter previously inaccessible areas, as you figure where to go next and how to get there. That’s the real magic of Legend of Zelda, and that’s all here. It is, admittedly one of the more obtuse games in the series, especially with its infamous “Trading Game” that has you collecting an item and trading them one by one with Koholint’s diverse citizenry until you end up with the right McGuffin you need to open more of the map.
Its all been perfectly recreated, though it’s perhaps a little too faithful. Sure, it’s no longer a flat, two-dimensional game and there’s a slight tilt giving it an enhanced perspective, but it’s the very much the same game. Items, roads and even flowers are all in the exact same places they were decades ago. As if guided by muscle memory, I had no trouble breezing through the early parts of the game, knowing exactly where to find my sword, and what to do from there, even breezing through the first dungeon. It was only in the winding, confusing later dungeons where my memory failed me, and I spent far too long, running back and forth through cascading screens to find my way to each boss.
Thankfully, Link’s Awakening is a great game to begin with, and the new quality of life improvements make it worth playing through again. Instead of having to constantly change abilities mapped to the Gameboy’s two buttons, you now have four face buttons, letting you keep your sword and shield permanently equipped, along with two more abilities that you can switch out at will. The power bracelet that lets you pick up heavy objects and the Pegasus boots that allow Link to dash are also always equipped, so this modern version of Link’s Awakening is a lot less fiddly, and you’ll be spending far less time in menus switching things. There’s also a much better overworld map, that allows you to mark places of interest. Other noteworthy changes that I’ve noticed are an increase in the game’s hidden shells (which means it’s a lot more work to get that upgraded sword) and an increase in the number of pieces of heart.
The newly added “do-it-yourself” dungeons are, however, a terrible disappointment, especially given how fantastic Super Mario Maker is at letting players design levels. In Link’s Awakening, once players have stumbled across series stalwart Dampé, they’re able to build their own dungeons, sharing them with friends using Amiibo, or just using them as dungeon runs for their own amusement. The creation system is unfortunately stilted and stifling, with every single user-created dungeon strictly adhering to a formula. You must have a dungeon start, you must have an end with a boss, and you must have as many chests as you have locked rooms. Each chest will dish out a key, with the very last one giving the key that leads to the boss. You can only use pre-designed rooms culled from the game’s nine or so dungeons, so in effect, all you’re able to do is remix the existing ones you’ve already beaten. There’s none of the excitement of solving a puzzle, of discovery or the “aha!” moments you’d find in Legend of Zelda dungeons, and that strips away the fun and frankly, the point of them.
There are a few challenges too, where Dampé asks you to build levels in specific shapes for example, but they’re uniformly dull and a blight on what is otherwise a lovely remake. Those who only know the Zelda series through Breath of the Wild will be frustrated by the limited scope of Link’s Awakening, while the cute aesthetic (which I quite like) is divisive. There are also those who don’t see much value in paying $60 for one of the shortest Legend of Zelda games, and that’s fine too. Those who’ve beaten Link’s Awakening multiple times in its original guise, there’s little reason to play other than for nostalgia or adoration, both of which are perfectly good excuses to return.
Always one of the quirkier Legend of Zelda games, Link’s Awakening is sometimes a little off the wall, especially with its suggestion – long before Smash Bros was a thing – that Nintendo properties exist in the same universe. Link encounters Goombas, shy guys and piranha plants from Super Mario Bros, there’s an enemy that’s a dead ringer for Kirby, there’s a Yoshi doll – and more.
Link’s Awakening is a great remake that’s probably more fun to play now than it was 26 years ago, but there is a problem with the game’s framerate. While it’s not in any way game-breaking or frustrating, the game does sometimes stutter in both handheld and docked modes – and that’s just a little disappointing.
Last Updated: September 19, 2019