The Legend of Zelda is a series, I believe, that needs no introduction. The 25th anniversary of the series in 2011 featured the release of Skyward Sword on the Wii, Ocarina of Time 3D on the 3DS, and Link’s Awakening on the 3DS virtual console. Link’s Awakening DX was the first of the three to be released, and it is possibly the best deal.
When the Game Boy was released 20 years ago, developers saw it as an opportunity to earn more money by downsizing their console games to fit onto the handheld. This often meant lower quality games on the handheld, either because very little attention was paid to the game or because a console game simply didn’t translate well onto the smaller medium.
Of course, Nintendo would have none of this nonsense, and accepted the unenviable challenge of recreating the full experience of a 16-bit Zelda on the handheld. A tall order, to be sure, but the result is one of the most beloved Zelda games in the franchise, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. The game was received with such critical and commercial success that Nintendo rereleased it for the Game Boy Color as Link’s Awakening DX, making use of the system’s full color palette to enhance an already excellent game. Now, over a decade after the rerelease, Link’s Awakening DX finds further renewal among a new generation of gamers and those wanting to relive the original handheld Zelda at a bargain price.
Link’s Awakening begins with Link, who is stuck at sea in less than optimal weather. The storm eventually gets the better of him, and he ends up washing onto the shore of an island. He is discovered by an inhabitant of the island named Marin, who brings him to her home and nurses him back to health. After eventually finding his equipment, Link embarks on his quest to leave the island. The story receives little exposition, and has some of the oldest clichés in the book, but this works in the game’s favor, as it hails from a time when the Zelda series had plots, narratives, and themes more similar to children’s storybook wonderland.
The visual and aural aesthetics are exactly what you’d expect from a decade-old game. Once upon a time, they were the cutting edge of handheld gaming, with well-animated 2D sprites and music that was translated surprisingly well to a system with only four sound channels. Today, they stand as a welcome throwback to simpler times when the less-detailed 2D graphics and tinny, low-fi sound effects and music required some imagination to enjoy fully. The game is emulated perfectly on the 3DS, but suffers slightly from the difference in resolution between the Game Boy Color and the 3DS screens. The option to surround the game display with a border graphic fixes this somewhat, giving the game an appropriately retro feel.
Gameplay has always been the heart and soul of the Legend of Zelda franchise; while many will argue the subjective quality of each Legend of Zelda game, it’s almost a unanimous agreement among fans that Link’s Awakening is among the most well-designed and fun to play in the series. The story and aesthetics were designed in service to the gameplay, and it certainly shows. The game follows the same Zelda progression system where Link starts off with a pitiful life bar and the most basic equipment, but each new item he adds to his arsenal increases his effectiveness as a warrior and adventurer.
The game has a large number of items, none of which are underutilized or unneeded, and the puzzles that require the use of said items are incredibly well-designed. There is no puzzle here that can’t be solved with a little bit of creative thinking. They are difficult, to be sure, but never so frustrating that they require a guide to complete. Some items even introduced new concepts to the series that made Link a more versatile character than his contemporary 16-bit counterpart.
For its 3DS release, Nintendo has added some additional functionality to the game that makes it a better portable experience; a save-state function allows the player to save his or her progress without requiring use of the game’s actual save feature, which is a boon due to the original save function’s unwieldy and archaic nature. On the other hand, the game has kept functionality that utilized either the specific hardware of the Game Boy Color itself or other hardware Nintendo was producing at the time of its original release, and these functions end up doing nothing on the 3DS version. Ultimately, however, this is an incredibly minor issue in the face of a 15 to 20 hour game.
Link’s Awakening DX is considered one of the best and most well-designed Zelda games for a reason – the graphics and sound are archaic but add to the charm of the game, and the gameplay and dungeon design is arguably some of the best the series has to offer. For a mere $6, it offers one of the best price-to-quality ratios of any game on Nintendo’s Marketplace. If you are a Zelda fan, old or new, you owe it to yourself to give this game a whirl.