The original Link’s Awakening has a special place in the hearts of those who played it. Its surreal, Twin Peaks-inspired atmosphere and its character-driven story combined to create a unique Zelda experience that is still yet to be matched, even after a quarter of a century. After lying dormant for years, Nintendo has given a facelift to this beloved classic so a new generation can experience it first-hand. Even with a fresh coat of paint, does this game still hold up or should it have been left sleeping in the fond memories of nostalgic gamers?
Lost at Sea
Link’s tale begins after being shipwrecked on the shores of Koholint Island, a mysterious place brimming with dangerous monsters and colorful inhabitants. A talkative owl issues Link his main objective: awaken the Wind Fish, a being that sleeps in a giant egg atop the island’s highest peak. Only then can Link hope to leave the island. Link’s Awakening’s story works as a stand-alone adventure since the narrative isn’t bogged down by any baggage that typically comes with other Zelda titles. Gone are any mentions of Hyrule or the Triforce. As a result, the story can be enjoyed purely on its own merits and the game’s poignant ending will resonate even with those who’ve never played a Zelda game.
Koholint Island may be small in scale, but it’s brimming with people to meet and secrets to uncover. The main quest will take you through eight dungeons, and they all still hold up rather well. Each one plays out like a miniature puzzle box. You’ll need to poke around every room to uncover puzzles that reward you with keys to open locked doors, before culminating in a tricky boss fight. It’s standard 2D Zelda fare, but even after all these years, this process still gives way to many ‘Ah-Ha’ moments to satisfy newcomers and certain riddles may even stump returning players. Outside of the occasional puzzle that’ll tax your brain, the game’s overall difficulty is on the lighter side. Those looking for a challenge can select ‘Hero Mode’ from the title screen, this doubles enemy damage and removes random heart drops—an option best suited for Koholint Island veterans.
Though it’s linear in nature, Link’s Awakening has a real, crafted feel to the pacing. Every dungeon rewards you with a new item that unlocks new paths for you to traverse in the overworld, the adventure sustains this steady and rewarding loop throughout, which makes exploring new environments a consistently enticing process. You’ll also spend a lot of time interacting with the quirky islanders and their personalities make a lasting impression that draws you deeper into the world.
This 2019 remake also comes with a wealth of quality of life improvements like more warp points for fast traveling and skippable dialogue boxes (finally!). Hands down, the best change is how some key items are now mapped to specific buttons. In the original game, you’d spend a lot of time navigating menus to assign items to certain buttons, now things like the heavy-duty lifting Power Bracelet and the speedy Pegasus Boots are permanently set to dedicated buttons once unlocked. There’s a lot less downtime in this remake and exploration no longer feels so cumbersome thanks to this small and very welcome change.
There is one brand new addition to the game in the form of Chamber Dungeon Maker and to be honest, it’s pretty underwhelming. Here you can arrange rooms of dungeons you’ve conquered in the main quest to create your own challenges which can be shared with friends locally via Amiibo transfers. Small prizes like Heart Containers and Fairy Bottles offer a tiny incentive to those willing to engage, but deja vu sets in quickly while building and replaying familiar dungeon rooms; thankfully this mode is entirely optional.
An Island Paradise
What struck me most in replaying Link’s Awakening is just how damn good the game’s music is. The original chip-tune soundtrack has been been rescored to sound more playful and ethereal. The captivating and melancholic “Ballad of the Wind Fish,” in particular, has never sounded better and a sense of space is conveyed expertly by the rest of the tracks. The sound design is also immaculate; those who play with headphones will be treated to the comforting sounds of birdsong while traversing the overworld and the echoing drips of water while spelunking damp caverns.
The trailers don’t do the visuals justice, whether you play in portable mode or on your TV, Link’s Awakening will blow you away when you boot it up. The clockwork toy aesthetic is whimsical in motion and the ways characters move and emote is sure to put a smile on your face. At first glance, everything looks minimalistic, but if you take a closer look you’ll be staggered by the tiny details. Stone walls can look photorealistic at times and the way water sparkles in the sunlight is remarkable. Not only is this one of the best looking games on Switch, it faithfully recaptures the artstyle of the original game, which makes going around revisiting all the familiar villages, dungeons, and monsters feel like a brand new and wondrous experience.
As beautiful as the visuals are, it comes at the expense of stable performance. The game’s framerate typically targets 60 frames per second, but it’ll frequently drop to 30 even when nothing appears to be taxing the system. Switching between regions in the overworld is the number one thing that causes the framerate to tank, but sometimes even the simple act of killing an enemy can send engine into a funk. It’s frustrating because when it runs at 60fps its looks and feels stunning and that makes the frame drops hurt all the more. it’s a real pity the performance isn’t consistent because it distracts from an otherwise enchanting experience. With any luck, they’ll be a performance patch somewhere down the road, but there’s no official word yet from Nintendo if we’ll be getting one soon.
This is the kind of remake that fans dream about getting. Link’s Awakening is a truly faithful re-imagining of one of the best 2D Zelda games and it dazzles on Switch. Admittedly, the lack of new features makes it harder to recommend to those well-versed with the original game, but if you’re a newcomer or just haven’t played the game in years, this remake is the perfect way to rediscover Link’s most personal adventure.
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