The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is the first Zelda game on the Nintendo Switch since Breath of the Wild, which is now over two years old. While some fans may be waiting for the sequel to the open-world game that came out in 2017, the prospect of a GameBoy classic being rebuilt for a whole new generation 26 years later is also compelling for long-time followers of the franchise.
I had never played the original version of Link’s Awakening, so I went into it with little knowledge of what to expect. I did play the original for a while during the review period to understand how this remake improves upon it, and how it doesn’t. Let’s take a look.
World and plot
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening takes place after the main playable character, Link, is caught in a sea storm and washes up unconscious on the beach of Koholint Island. Upon being found and rescued by Marin, Link needs to find a way to leave the island he accidentally wound up on. This is the only Zelda game I’ve played where the titular character of the franchise does not make an appearance, which is interesting.
In fact, many things about the world of Link’s Awakening feel odd, though not necessarily in a bad way. Some of the characters you meet will feel very familiar, but not just from the Zelda franchise. You’ll find “dogs” that look suspiciously like Chain Chomps from the Mario games, enemies like Goombas and Piranha Plants, and more.
Beyond those obvious nods to other Nintendo franchises, the way things are worded throughout the game feels just a little bit off. It’s hard to explain, but while it doesn’t not make sense, it always feels like the speech isn’t exactly what you’d expect from a Zelda game. I think this has to do with the overall theme of the game, which makes more sense once you’ve gotten far enough into Link's Awakening.
Exploration and progression
Link’s Awakening is a much more traditional Zelda game in regards to the pacing of the exploration and how it guides you through the story. Whereas Breath of the Wild gives you the basic tools to play the game in the first few hours of the game before leaving you to brave the world on your own terms, the structure of Link’s Awakening is much more rigid. Your ability to move through the world is constantly limited by the items you don’t yet have, similar to Metroidvania-style games.
That means you have to memorize where certain limitations exist, which is made easier by the fact that the Switch version of the game lets you place markers on the map. It also means that, if you’re not familiar with all of the items in the game, you may end up attempting to do something over and over, only to realize it can’t be done without an item you’ll only get later. I lost many lives in this game because I often assumed I was doing something wrong, and didn’t always consider I’d get an item to allow me to do a specific thing later on.
Dungeons and boss fights in this game are good, with clever puzzles and gameplay elements that are somewhat unique in the franchise. The 2D side-scrolling sections felt like something of a gimmick at first, but seeing them used for some boss fights was actually surprising and it kept the game feeling fresh, while also making it stand out from other games in the franchise.
Koholint Island is a fairly small game world, but there’s something to do or collect at almost every turn in the game. There isn’t a lot that isn’t part of the main story, though, and even things that feel optional at first end up being required to complete the game. In fact, I often felt lost in this game because I wasn’t sure where the plot continued and where I had side quests to do. I felt like the game didn’t do a great job of explaining itself and making it clear what things are relevant to the plot and what’s just world-building.
This is probably because of how old the original game is, and how games used to be designed to give players a little more work. I’ll admit that I’m likely the kind of person that pushed the gaming industry to make things easier and more obvious for players. There were certainly times when I wished it was clearer what I needed to do, but I feel like I need to take at least part of the blame for this.
Visuals and presentation
Transitioning from the graphics capabilities of the GameBoy to the Nintendo Switch naturally entails a huge update to the looks of the game, but even with that in mind, Nintendo did a wonderful job with the art direction for Link’s Awakening. We’ve seen the company make 3D top-down Zelda games before, such as A Link Between Worlds on the 3DS, but the art direction here is significantly different.
Instead of that standard cartoon-ish look, the textures used in this game make it feel like it’s made of clay, and it’s an incredibly unique style that pictures can’t do justice. It really does make the world and characters come alive in a different way. All the enemies and actions are also smoothly animated, with little details making it feel like a lot of care was put into the game. Everything from cutting grass, to the way some enemies throw spears at you feels really smooth. The opening and closing sequences of the game are also presented in an anime-like way that’s new to the Zelda franchise, but again, it works wonderfully.
On the flip side, the game uses a weird tilt-shift effect, which blurs the edges of the screen when you’re in the outside portions of the world, which I think adds nothing to the game or its artistic style. It seems completely arbitrary.
Even worse than that is how much the game struggles to maintain a stable framerate in certain situations. While the game does look beautiful, it doesn’t do it in a way that should require the Nintendo Switch to use as much power as it does, so it’s incomprehensible why it stutters so much, especially after transitions between different parts of the world. There are much more graphically-intensive games on the Switch that perform better.
In regards to the music, which is always one of my favorite parts of a Zelda game, the soundtrack in Link’s Awakening fits right in with the rest of the franchise. The music sounds as great as it always has, with some tracks that stand out for being a little more refreshing and different from the rest. I wouldn’t say it has one of the best soundtracks in the franchise, but it’s still very much enjoyable.
For the most part, Link’s Awakening on the Switch is incredibly faithful to the original title on the GameBoy, from the plot to the world’s design, and the dialogue. It’s a near-perfect match, with a couple of exceptions.
A very notable change, that I especially appreciated after playing the original, is in the controls - despite the fact that the game forces you use the analog stick to move the character for no reason. The GameBoy only had two action buttons in addition to the D-pad, and every single item you got in the game had to be assigned to one of the buttons. That meant you could only ever have two tools available at any given time, and you’d have to keep switching between them in a very repetitive process.
In the Switch version, items like the sword and the shield have dedicated buttons that are permanent, and many items are automatically activated once you get them, so you have a much smaller need to constantly be switching around action items. While it’s an improvement you’d probably expect considering how many more buttons the Switch has, it does make things a lot more manageable and less infuriating.
The only other major change with the Switch version of Link’s Awakening is the addition of chamber dungeons, levels that players can create by arranging chambers in any desired order to create a unique challenge. The concept is clearly inspired by the success of games such as Super Mario Maker, and in theory, it’s a fantastic idea. A game like Link’s Awakening is the best place to start with a concept like this, too, because you don’t get the excessive complexity of something like Breath of the Wild.
Like I said above, the idea of making your own Zelda dungeons is a wonderful one. To do it, you have to progress through the game, which unlocks chambers based on the dungeons you complete during the story. You can then arrange these chambers to create unique dungeons, and of course, the more chambers you have, the more you can create. You can’t edit the design of the chambers themselves, which removes some complexity and makes it easier for anyone to create a dungeon.
I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t like what this feature offers, but there are a ton of things wrong with it. Each chamber has a set of characteristics attached to it, and you can’t change any of them in the creation process. If a specific chamber design has four doors locked with a key, you can’t change that. And sometimes you may need a specific shape for a chamber with a chest, for example, but then the only available chamber with those criteria may also have stairs, and you can't remove them. If you add a set of stairs to a dungeon, it has to link to another set of stairs somewhere in the dungeon, which creates a hurdle in the process if you didn't want to add any stairs in the first place.
What’s even more annoying, in my experience, is that you can’t even control how sets of stairs connect to each other. If you have more than one pair of stairs in your dungeon, the game will automatically set up the pairs, and it won’t let you change it if it doesn’t match your vision for the level. The way it automatically sets it up can feel completely random, too.
But the absolute worst thing Nintendo did is completely miss the point of being able to create your own dungeons. Super Mario Maker and its sequel were successful because you can create your levels and share them with other people to play. Here, the only way to share dungeons is by storing them in an amiibo figure. You have to pay an additional $13 for an amiibo so you can share your levels, and that's assuming you have people you meet up with to be able to share the levels with. There’s no online sharing functionality, which is an absolutely blatant omission.
All in all, chamber dungeons in Link’s Awakening are a start, a very bare bones version of what could eventually be a fantastic tool. But right now, it feels like Nintendo threw this feature in without any consideration for how players would want to use it.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is certainly a unique experience in the franchise, and it stands out from the original for its beautiful art style and refined controls. It’s not as grand of an adventure as we’ve seen from past games in the series, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It also introduces a level creation mode for the first time, which is more than welcome despite its limitations.
I don’t want to be unfair towards the game, but as with any review, it’s important to keep in mind it’s a personal opinion. For me, the amount of time I spent feeling lost took away a lot of the joy from playing the game, so I can't wholeheartedly recommend it. On the other hand, actually making progress felt as nice as always, and dungeons and their respective bosses were satisfying to complete.
I’d recommend this game especially to those who are familiar with the original title, since it will allow them to enjoy the game with a fresh coat of paint and big improvements to item management. Even if you haven't played the original, this version is likely to be enjoyable, so long as you aren't as prone to getting lost as I am.