"Link's Awakening for Switch is like a wonderful dream that you never want to end, even though you know it must."
There are some games that felt like impossible miracles when they were first released. Mario 64, for example, changed the video game landscape by plunging it into a 3D world. Final Fantasy VII set the bar for cinematic storytelling with its jaw-dropping CGI cutscenes. For me, however, nothing will beat the shock of playing The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening on the original Game Boy.
Way back in 1993, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for the SNES was only two years old. But somehow, Nintendo managed to not only squeeze every groundbreaking gameplay mechanic from the 16-bit title into a Game Boy cartridge, but also tell a heartfelt story full of memorable characters. Link's Awakening had items and abilities that its 16-bit "big" brother didn't, like being able to jump or combine items like the Bomb Arrows. There were side-scrolling sections filled with, of all things, enemies from Super Mario Bros.! It was a game that didn't feel like it should have have been possible, given the technological limitations of the system it was on. This might be why it went down as one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) games on the original Game Boy. It was so popular that it even scored a partial remake five years later with Link's Awakening DX on Game Boy Color. Now, over 25 years after the original's release, Nintendo has revisited The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening with a full-fledged Switch remake. And they absolutely nailed it.
After defeating Ganon in A Link to the Past, the legendary hero Link sets sail into vast unknown on a journey of enlightenment. Soon after, a violent storm tears his ship apart, and he washes up on the shores of Koholint Island. Nursed back to health by kind-hearted island girl Marin and her father Tarin, Link sets out to explore the island and find his way back to Hyrule. However, there is much more to Koholint Island than meets the eye. On his quest, Link discovers that the only way to leave is to somehow wake the legendary "Wind Fish," housed in a gigantic egg at the top of the island's mountains.
Right off the bat, Link's Awakening changes up the Zelda formula by, well, not including Zelda. No need to save the Princess this time around, as your end goal is to get off the island. NPCs, previously little more than basic character sketches in the first three Zelda games, suddenly have fleshed-out personalities and motivations unseen in the series up to this point. The roleplaying aspects of Link's Awakening are also vastly expanded. You can take a break from the main story to enjoy side quests like finding end-game items out of order, or even engaging in a massive, island-wide trading sequence. While the world of Link's Awakening is technically smaller than that of A Link to the Past, given everything that you can do in it, it feels much bigger. Plus, compared to Hyrule, Koholint Island is just... weird. Everything is just a bit "off," including the inhabitants. This bizarre sense of humor eventually followed into many of the future installments of the series, including fan-favorite Majora's Mask.
Nintendo wisely left the heart of Link's Awakening untouched in this remake. Almost everything from the original is fully intact (including the exclusive Color Dungeon from Link's Awakening DX). The game follows the traditional Zelda formula of tackling a series of dungeons in a set order, each containing an item that holds the key to beating the boss and opening up the overworld a little bit more. This type of exploration was perfected by the series decades ago, and still works as well today as it did in 1993. Does it feel a little dated as compared to more open Zelda adventures like Breath of the Wild and A Link Between Worlds? Yes. Does it bother me? Not even slightly. The linear dungeon/item system is still a very strong framework for the action-RPG genre, and Link's Awakening is a prime example of one of its most refined forms.
To say that Link's Awakening looks gorgeous would be an understatement. Nintendo is no stranger to drastic redesigns in Zelda games (see The Wind Waker), but even for them, this is out there. The island and every character on it look like an arts & crafts-style diorama. Everything has a plastic, toylike sheen, with 3D, super-deformed HD characters taking the stage instead of tiny 8-bit sprites. The good news is that it looks spectacular! Everyone, from full-screen bosses to the most fleetingly-seen NPC, is lovingly animated with care and an abundance of character. Just watch as Link sprints across the screen with the Pegasus Boots and you can't help but be tickled by the charming art style.
Despite the deceptive simplicity of the diorama style, the environments are considerably more detailed than in the '93 original. Easter eggs are around every corner in the decor of the homes and dungeons on Koholint Island. Adding to the beauty of the game are the depth-of-field effects added to the overworld. The landscape "above" you is blurred and out of focus until you get closer to it. This effect is very much like you are looking across an actual diorama at a 3/4th perspective. Plus, the camera automatically adjusts when Link is hidden behind something to a full top-down view, a very nice quality-of-life enhancement.
One interesting aspect of advancements in processing power is that screen scrolling is a thing of the past for the overworld. The Zelda convention of the camera freezing and moving quickly to the next screen as you move was wisely left behind in the Link's Awakening remake. Admittedly, this method of screen scrolling (which you still find in dungeons) would have felt archaic in 2019, but it does have the side effect of "shrinking" Koholint Island. Instead of being made up of 256 rectangular screens, most of the island is one large landmass, smoothly scrolling along with Link. Because of this, Koholint Island feels much smaller in the remake. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as small open worlds can be just as engaging as large ones. It does, however, change the feel of exploration that was present in the original. There are also some framerate issues as you transition between regions of the island, though the severity of this can change depending if you are docked or handheld mode. On my TV, I barely noticed it. When sitting in bed playing, it was a momentary distraction. If you're super sensitive to framerate issues, it might bother you a bit, but it doesn't affect the playability of the game.
The original Link's Awakening has what could only be described as a legendary soundtrack. With over 70 pieces of music, there is a musical track for every conceivable mood, character, and location. Music even plays a key role in the story, as you need to collect the eight magical Instruments of the Sirens to play the song that will awaken the Wind Fish. So, how did they handle the music in the remake? By expanding the tracks and adding in brilliant remixes to dungeons and other locations! The Link's Awakening remake pushes an already-epic soundtrack into a new realm. No more MIDI-only; instead, we are treated to full instrumental arrangements of the classic tunes. They even effortlessly weave in samples of the original Game Boy soundtrack, complemented by the real wind and string instruments. It creates an intangible, dream-like mood that underscores the already otherworldly feel of the island. This might be one of the greatest Zelda soundtracks ever composed (even including the stunningly-remixed soundtrack of The Legend of Zelda: Cadence of Hyrule).
There have been some slight updates to the gameplay of Link's Awakening, most of them welcome. The extra buttons on the Switch controller mean that item management has become a whole lot less tedious. Your sword and shield are now always equipped, fixing one of the most irritating aspects of the original game. There are additional warp zones all over Koholint, allowing you to fly across the various island sections with ease. This change eliminates the vast majority of backtracking, speeding up the overall pace of the game. The placement of heart pieces and some secret seashells have been moved, making them impossible to miss, unlike in the original. There are also more of them, giving you up to 20 hearts and 50 seashells in total. There are additional collectibles, like the Super Mario enemy trophies that you can win from the Trendy Crane Game in the main town. However, the big change to Link's Awakening comes in the form of the new Dungeon Editor.
Many hoped this new gameplay feature would pave the way for a full-fledged "Zelda Maker," in the vein of "Mario Maker." After playing with it for a few hours, I'm not so sure it's a great idea. Unlike Mario Maker, where you have access to all the elements of Mario levels across its many 2D iterations, in the Dungeon Creator, you can only place already-existing dungeon rooms in a grid format. This means that every dungeon you "design," no matter how much thought you put into it, will be a mismatched remix of previously-completed levels. With these limitations, it's almost impossible for these dungeons to have a consistent theme or central mechanic. In Dungeon Creator, you might walk into a swamp dungeon, that will transition into a volcano dungeon, to a water dungeon, ending with an already-beaten boss. Dampé, the titular Zelda gravedigger, will present you with dungeon-layout templates that must include certain conditions, making the system more of a tedious puzzle game than a creation tool. Thankfully, the Dungeon Creator is an entirely optional activity, only hiding a few hearts and secret seashells as rewards. If you aren't aiming for a 100% run, you can skip it. The Dungeon Editor is a disappointing addition to the Link's Awakening remake, but thankfully one that can easily be ignored in favor of the greater game.
Link's Awakening for Switch is like a wonderful dream that you never want to end, even though you know it must. It leaves everything remarkable about the original intact while adding in quality-of-life features, a jaw-dropping new art style, and a beautifully remixed and orchestrated soundtrack. Even though the addition of the Dungeon Editor falls short, it does nothing to disrupt the overall experience. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening was always a game ahead of its time. Today, the video game landscape has caught up, but that doesn't make it any less of an achievement, still feeling new and exciting. If Nintendo decides to release more remakes of their classic library, Link's Awakening is the gold standard they should be looking to for guidance!
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.