When The Legend of Zelda Link’s Awakening first arrived on the Game Boy in 1993, it completely blew gamers away. It would have blown me away but I’d just been born (and thus had no concept of impressive technical feats), so I had to settle for being blown away by the game around ’98.
When I finally did grow a few years, develop a love of Zelda, and turn on Link’s Awakening for the first time, I was mesmerized. I was and still am incredibly impressed with the way Nintendo managed to fit an entire Zelda title onto a portable console.
What’s great about Link’s Awakening is that it isn’t just some pocket-edition Zelda – something Nintendo could easily have done and would have sold incredibly well, I’ve no doubt. Instead, they made a fully-fledged world for us to explore.
There are dungeons to conquer (some of the best in the series), towns to visit, NPCs to meet, bosses to battle, secrets to discover, and sweet, sweet music to listen to as you go about your adventure (again, some of the best in the series).
I haven’t even mentioned the game’s story. I won’t spoil it here if you somehow have managed to avoid it for the last few decades, but the ending of Link’s Awakening is one of the most powerful, poignant, and unexpected twists in a Nintendo title.
All of this is to say that I was obviously Very Excited Indeed when Nintendo casually announced that they’d be releasing a complete remake of Link’s Awakening for Nintendo Switch, and I was Even More Excited when I realised I’d get a chance to go hands-on with it at E3 2019.
So, what did I think of it? I’m incredibly happy to report that Link’s Awakening on Switch is an absolute joy. It doesn’t exactly have me gawping at the technological marvel of running on a handheld device anymore (we have Breath of the Wild for that), but it does strike at the nostalgic zones of my head and heart with a surgical precision.
This, I think, is the big thing to take away from Link’s Awakening. Anyone expecting the next big Zelda game from this remake will be disappointed. It is exactly what it has claimed to be since announcement, which is a Nintendo Switch remake of a Game Boy game. That means it plays and feels pretty much exactly as it did in 1993.
That is not a bad thing. After Breath of the Wild took the Zelda formula and shook it its core, there are undoubtedly fans who want a simple, back to basics adventure – myself included.
That means the eight-dungeon structure of Link’s Awakening, complete with its item-based progression and overworld that gradually reveals more of itself as you gain more equipment, is just what many of us are after while we wait for the next core installment in the franchise, which will no doubt do even more to shake up the series.
Anyone who played the 1993 original – or any top-down Zelda, for that matter – will be right at home with Link’s Awakening from the start, then. The game offers a birds-eye view of the world, and our pint-sized hero can potter around in any direction.
Combat is a case of one button for a sword swipe, and another button to hold out Link’s shield in front of him. Other items, such as the bow and bombs, can be assigned to the X and Y buttons for further use in combat or puzzle-solving.
If it sounds simple… well, that’s because it is. Apart from a few modern touches like an overhauled map screen and the ability to pin certain locations on the map so that you can return to them later with the proper item, it really is just a retread of the original game.
In my fifteen or so minutes with it, I managed to blast straight through to the end of the demo (the start of first dungeon) precisely because my muscle memory kicked in and I knew exactly where to go and what to do.
Again, I have to stress that this is absolutely not a bad thing. Link’s Awakening is a beloved game for so many reasons, and a faithful recreation of it is absolutely welcome in my book. It helps that the game looks completely gorgeous, too.
Nintendo has adopted an entirely new art-style for the remake that stays true to the whimsical, dreamlike nature of the Game Boy original while also being an absolute treat for the eyes. Playing through the game feels like staring down into a doll’s house full of Nintendo-themed delights. Everything has texture and depth in a way that the Game Boy could never have allowed.
There’s an almost claymation vibe to the game, as everything in the world – from characters to trees – have smooth, shiny textures, as if they aren’t quite made of the thing they’re supposed to be. It’s a fascinating take on Zelda, and I much prefer it to if they’d have simply taken a hand-drawn approach or slightly flashier pixel art.
There are some new features I’ve yet to be able to test – such as a side-quest that involves crafting your own dungeons – but for now Link’s Awakening is less a bold trendsetter, and more a charming, utterly joyous return to the kind of Zelda that we grew up with.
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Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.