The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening for Nintendo Switch is a tough game to review because there are a few different aspects about it to consider.
First of all, is the game itself good? In short, yes.
Secondly, is it a good remake? In most ways, also yes.
But does it feel like a product that is worthy of its $60 price tag? As a lifelong Zelda fan who has adored Link’s Awakening since the original GameBoy version, I am disappointed – but not entirely surprised – to say that I don’t think so.
There’s a lot leading me to that answer, so let’s take a look at this with a little more detail.
Link’s Awakening was originally released in 1993 on the GameBoy. What started as an after work experiment and eventually an attempt to port 1991’s Link to the Past from the far more capable hardware of the SNES soon turned into its own project that would utilize the more limited hardware as best as it was able. The result, while not as sprawling and complex as its console brother, turned into a fantastic entry in the series and laid the template for the eventual Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons on the GameBoy Color.
Storywise, the game opens abruptly with Link struggling on a ship stuck in a storm out at sea. A bolt of lightning strikes and Link awakens (pun intended) on the shore of an unknown island with a strange, giant egg perched on the highest mountaintop. While knocked out he was rescued and treated in a small village not far from the beach where he washed up. After venturing back to that beach, Link finds his sword and is told by a friendly owl that he needs to wake the Wind Fish in order to escape the island.
Out of respect for any first time players even this long after release, I will avoid any further mention of the story. Though for a brief overview, it’s a rather strange and almost surreal journey that – while not as macabre as Majora’s Mask – isn’t as bright and sunny as Koholint Island may appear from the outside.
The game world itself is split up into a 16×16 grid, with each square filling the screen of the GameBoy. A bit on the smaller side to match the hardware limits, but still packed full of content and secrets including 8 main dungeons, 26 Secret Seashells to collect (increased to 50 in the new remake) and an assortment of side quests. All told this game can take upwards of 15 hours to complete everything in your first run.
Those 8 dungeons are, in my opinion, the highlight of the game. It starts out simple enough to ease you in, but the difficulty ramps up evenly and reasonably across the full game as more items are added in. Some of the later ones have an interconnected design that most would reasonably not expect from a GameBoy game, spanning multiple floors and requiring specific positioning.
Rounding out the game is a selection of mostly-classic items that were established in previous entries. Notably, there’s an item received early on that allows Link to jump at will – making this the second out of 4 games at this time to allow Link to jump whenever he wants.
In an interesting design decision to work around the hardware restrictions of the GameBoy, rather than having items assigned to a specific button you would instead choose any two main items to use at once. While inconvenient, it also allowed a couple of weapon combinations, such as shooting bomb arrows if you use both a bomb and the bow at the same time.
There’s also a built-in hint system in case you can’t figure out where to go next. While the efficacy of these hints may be up for debate, It’s still a nice touch that was in some ways ahead of its time.
All told, it is a great game that has stood the test of time. So what was done to remake the game?
Needless to say, it looks better than the limited sprite capabilities of the GameBoy. Or at least, it’s certainly more detailed. Enjoyment of the toy-like, cartoonish art style is a matter of personal preference. I enjoyed it, though I can also understand being put off by it.
Dragging down the higher resolution visuals is a blurry filter around the outer edges of the screen. While it adds a dreamlike feel to the visuals and isn’t necessarily distracting, it’s a bit disappointing that ⅓ of the screen seems to be covered in vaseline. This is all the more apparent when exiting a dungeon, as this filter is not applied while you are inside. An option to toggle this would have been appreciated, as I probably would have just left this filter off.
What is certainly distracting, however, are the frame rate drops. Usually when going from one major area to another, the frame rate will inexplicably take a nose dive for a few brief moments. While it never lasts more than a second or two, it’s jarring how frequently it can happen when traveling across the map as quickly as possible, and it shows a lack of polish that you typically don’t see in a major Nintendo release.
On the topic of going from one area to another, the overworld “grid” from the original has been done away with. Now the overworld scrolls seamlessly (frame rate dips aside) from one end to the other without those artificial barriers. Even without this grid the game world from the original has been meticulously remade, seemingly down to the pixel. So where the more powerful hardware of the Switch would allow for more variation and freedom, all of the plants, rocks, houses, chests, and such are in the exact same locations as the original.
Likewise, movement is restricted so that it mimics the D-pad of the GameBoy, only allowing you to move in 8 primary directions. Although it certainly works and isn’t bad, so to speak, it’s still jarring to see a fully 3D world where your character moves as though it were still a 2D game. This also allows the puzzles in each dungeon to be faithfully recreated as they already existed.
Unlike the original, there are massive quality of life improvements here that take advantage of the additional buttons on the Switch. Sword, Shield, Pegasus Boots, and Power Bracelet have dedicated buttons this time around, with two additional buttons remaining to swap between as needed. While I usually dedicated one of those two buttons to the Roc’s Feather (jump item) for convenience’s sake, there was far less item swapping as a result which led to a much smoother feel. More than anything this will be missed if I replay the original version of the game.
As far as new content goes, there is the dungeon creator mode which I didn’t enjoy enough to spend much time with outside of its introduction. The added dungeon from Link’s Awakening DX on the GameBoy Color also makes its return here, with the same effect. And nearly double the number of Secret Seashells to find, with the rewards you receive tweaked accordingly to match the higher number of collectibles. There are also a few bottles you can collect to catch fairies for a quick health restore, though I never felt the need to use them.
Similarly, Hero Mode was added and is available from the start. This mode doubles the damage you take while not spawning any health regenerating items. I didn’t play this mode, but I’m also not sure that I could give it a fair estimate of difficulty with how familiar I am with the base game. Even so, having the choice is nice.
The soundtrack was also remade to mostly great effect, using orchestral arrangements and “real” instruments to replace most of the bleeps and bloops of the original. The level of changes across the board is a bit uneven, but as with the rest of this series the music is still enjoyable.
At the end of the day, even though the game was remade from the ground up, the strict adherence to the original game means it feels almost exactly like the original. Much like Shadow of the Colossus on the PS4, this exists almost exclusively to give you a much prettier way to play a classic game – while also preserving its warts. So in more ways than one, playing this remake just left me wondering, “Why?”
Does a remake really have to adhere so closely to the source material? Would some creative liberties, modernization, and content addition truly make this a different enough product to warrant avoiding such a change?
On the other hand, when the source material is this good does it even need to be changed when just some quality of life updates provide such a vastly superior experience?
Even for such a great game, is it worth paying the full retail price when you could buy an entirely new experience for the same cost? A very pretty GameBoy game sitting on the shelf next to Breath of the Wild for the same $60 is a truly bizarre consideration.
These are questions I can only answer for myself, and despite my adoration of this game I just can’t justify the full retail cost. And yet, especially with the visual enhancements and quality of life improvements, someone else playing it for the first time could very well get a full $60 worth of enjoyment out of the game.