I don’t think we’re in Hyrule anymore.
Washed ashore after his ship is struck by lightning, Link finds himself stranded on the mysterious Koholint Island. His only chance of returning home is to collect all eight instruments and wake up the Wind Fish. Does The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening do enough to defy the old adage, “There’s no place like home?”
Before we dive in, it must be stated that this is a remake of the Game Boy game with the same name. It is to my understanding that this is essentially getting the same pint-sized adventure with added HD graphics, orchestral music, and some meaningful quality-of-life updates that improve the moment-to-moment gameplay.
The pea soup graphics of the Game Boy original have its redeemable qualities, but the look of the Switch port is marvelous in its own right. Rendered with a distinct flair that gives everything a toy-like aesthetic, this is one of the most aww-inspiring games I’ve come across. Even when Link is falling into a bottomless pit, he can’t help but look cute as he flails his limbs wildly before descending into the abyss.
Nintendo also took a pass on bringing the chiptunes of the old game to life. Instead of going with a grandiose orchestral score, most of the game is performed with a handful of orchestral instruments. The small-scale soundtrack accentuates the bitesized feel of the game in a way that I really enjoy.
Most of the time, this cutesy adventure runs at a buttery 60 frames per second. However, its frame rate takes a few obvious tumbles in spots. During moments where the game struggles, such as the transition between major areas, or in the village, or in the swamp, the game will dip to 30 frames per second. Though it’s actually an improvement over the pre-release build I played at Fan Expo this year, the performance drops are uncharacteristic for Nintendo’s games. Certainly not unplayable, but it is a bit disappointing to see the game hiccup a bit more than I’d like.
Thankfully, these hitches and dips don’t really impact the way Link’s Awakening plays. Running around Koholint Island with that top-down camera makes this feel a lot like a classic Zelda game. Swinging Link’s sword has a snappiness to it that also harkens back to the olden days.
Though much of the game is a 1:1 recreation of the original, there are some great quality-of-life improvements with the remake that improve the experience a great deal. For starters, Link can now move, attack, and attack in eight directions instead of four. The extra mobility makes the game play more naturally, especially in combat encounters where you used to have to swing at awkward angles in order to hit a diagonal enemy.
Another limitation of the original that’s thankfully been addressed is the number of items you can use at once. On the Game Boy, you only had two buttons to work with. With one pretty much dedicated to the sword, you would constantly have to shift things around on that second button. By virtue of being ported to a modern platform, you now get access to your sword, shield, and two item slots at all times. You’ll still have to shuffle things around from time-to-time, but it’s more in line with modern Zelda games in this regard.
Cleaning these things up makes it easier to enjoy this quirky game in all of its glory. By leaving Hyrule behind, it introduces a number of weird NPCs and enemy types that don’t appear anywhere else in the franchise. Most notably, there are a number enemies from the Super Mario universe that will stand in your way. A number of areas and dungeons also feature 2D sequences that add a wrinkle to the experience.
Unlike Breath of the Wild, Link’s Awakening is a bitesized adventure that feels great as an experience that one can finish in about 15 hours. Even with its small map and compact dungeons, there’s still a lot of secrets to find and challenges to overcome. In particular, its stellar dungeon designs finds a great balance of exploration, combat, and puzzle-solving in relatively short bursts.
A gem in the franchise that may have been lost to time has been saved thanks to this remake on the Nintendo Switch. Accompanied with modern graphics and quality-of-life adjustments, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening received quite the glow-up. Its frame rate issues prevent it from being a perfect translation, but it’s a minor foible in the grand scheme of things. Thoroughly enjoyed my time with this one and it’s an easy one to recommend playing.