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Zelda: Link’s Awakening review: This beach adventure looks 2019, feels 1993

Welcome back to Koholint Island, the world of <em>Link's Awakening</em>, newly reborn as a lively, plasticky world of toys.
Enlarge / Welcome back to Koholint Island, the world of Link’s Awakening, newly reborn as a lively, plasticky world of toys.

What can you expect from an official remake of a Nintendo classic? For nearly three decades, the answer has been all over the map. Sometimes, the company serves a graphical touch-up and nothing more. Sometimes, we get a full redo of a classic with new controls, mechanics, and plot. There’s also an in-between zone where a classic returns more-or-less authentically but with clear “quality-of-life” changes and other surprise twists.

This year’s remake of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, which debuted on the original Game Boy in 1993, stands alone in the company’s re-release pantheon. No Nintendo game has ever returned with this much of a luxurious, jaw-dropping coat of audio-visual paint—while also gripping so fiercely to its original gameplay. As a result, you may not find a more polarizing first-party game on the Nintendo Switch.

Spoiler alert: It’s pretty much the same

Let’s be frank: You can spoil most of the new Link’s Awakening by watching an existing YouTube playthrough of the Game Boy original. It’s that allegiant to the source material, right down to the placement of terrain, enemies, and doorways. Need to solve a puzzle? Wondering where one of the game’s “seashell” collectibles is hiding? Stuck on a boss’s weak point? Go ahead, read an ASCII-formatted, decades-old walkthrough on a site like GameFAQs. It’ll work.

Nintendo has rewound to a very specific adventure design era, somewhere between 1986’s Legend of Zelda and 1991’s Link to the Past, by re-releasing its final 8-bit Zelda game in such authentic fashion. What does that mean, exactly? On a basic level, this is top-down Zelda adventuring of old. You play as Link, an adventuring child in a green tunic who wakes up under mysterious circumstances. You proceed through a large overworld and its many dungeons to acquire keys and items while battling monsters and bosses. And many of the world’s puzzles hinge on finding and using brand-new items.

That all will sound familiar when talking about pretty much any Zelda game. But this window of the earliest Zelda fare speaks to a different quality: the game is full of opaque riddles and stopping points. Whenever you get stuck in Link’s Awakening, the answer you seek is somewhere, certainly, but it might be hidden away in a single dialogue bubble in the game’s main town—and that dialogue changed after you beat one dungeon, though you’d have no reason to know that. Or it might be vaguely referenced by a sign or an owl statue. Or you might just have to run around and bang your sword, shovel, bombs, or other items on random spots for a while.

I don’t point this out to whine about the game being too difficult but rather to emphasize that the common Nintendo assumption of an abundance of help, clues, and cheats—like an invincible Luigi option in newer side-scrolling Mario games—won’t be found here. If you get hung up on what to do next, you’ll do the same thing you did in the original: find one of the game’s tip-line phone booths, where you’ll get the same tips in 2019 that you did in 1993 (and this text ranges from vague to obvious). From there, you might simply retrace your steps a few times before happening upon the required action to open up the next dungeon.

Still, that golden era of Zelda design isn’t a bad foundation to start from, and Link’s Awakening includes a few surprisingly advanced mechanical systems in its 8-bit core. The best is its frequent swapping between top-down and side-scrolling action. What starts as a gimmick eventually allows the quest to hide some clever paths to collectibles, battles, and dungeons, and no other Zelda game has had as much fun with that gimmick since.

Link’s Awakening was also the first Zelda game to include a fully swappable control system so that players could equip any two items to the Game Boy’s A and B buttons. This gave players a lot of flexibility about how they battled and dodged through challenges, and it even let them sheath their sword and shield (the horror!) to equip a jumping feather and a pair of fast-running Pegasus Boots, instead. On the Switch, thankfully, players get more dedicated buttons by default: sword, shield, dash, and lift. This change alone makes the original Game Boy version all but moot, unless you really like constantly tapping the Start button to shuffle your abilities.

ARS T

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