The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening Review: A Friendly Reminder

2019 is a great time to revive The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, the series’ quirky 1993 Game Boy game. In its day, the handheld entry sported some odd deviations for the series, but ultimately helped cement the mold the The Legend of Zelda would follow for over two decades. But the last few Zelda games (A Link Between Worlds, Majora’s Mask 3D, Breath of the Wild) have taken to breaking those molds. How does a curious little portable entry — which in its time played loose with the rules of Zelda and helped establish them — fit into how we see Zelda now?

Link’s Awakening is an exemplar of the exploration, puzzle solving, and dungeon crawling tenets that have worked for so long; there are no time warps, dark worlds, or shrinking mechanics that push you to rethink how you view those tenets. Because of that, Link’s Awakening is a reminder of why that original mold endured for so long. But, in subtler ways, it also showcases the series has flourished by not always playing by its own rules. The result is a game that’s as cleverly enigmatic now as it was back then — even if its quirkiness sometimes works against it.

Zelda Links Awakening Review

More Than a Face Lift

As a remake, Link’s Awakening features a completely overhauled art style (along with a wonderful new soundtrack). That’s what sticks out most at first glance. The new look adds a sense of realism to the world (trees glisten in the sunlight), but maintains the diminutive, cartoonish look of the original, giving it much more color and verve (the new pattering animation of the Pegasus Boots is just phenomenal). But the revamped art also highlights parts of the Game Boy original that still shine today.

For starters, its cheery tone is a welcome change of pace. The Zelda games that followed the original Link’s Awakening (Ocarina of Time, The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess) began filling in gaps that had long been left to players’ imagination. Just who are Link and Zelda, the main characters? What does each entry say not just about itself, but the series as a whole, with its tangled timelines and recurring characters? Link may not speak in Breath of the Wild, for example, but he has a history; you can imagine the kinds of things he’s done, and what kind of person he might be as a result.

In Link’s Awakening, our hero is as much an empty vessel as he was in the first Legend of Zelda. Koholint Island and its inhabitants look like a giant diorama populated by toys: objects that get our imaginations going by letting us insert ourselves into them. At the same time, they let us become someone else. The remake revamps the look of many locales and characters from the Game Boy original to make them seem more tangible, but keeps that toy-like essence It makes it easy to see ourselves as the hero — something The Legend of Zelda veers away from as it honed in on specifics. Even as someone who’s become invested in the series’ larger story, this is a wonderful change of pace; it’s a reminder that, as serious as the series can be, its heart is ultimately in its curious wonder.

It also makes it easier to gel with the more whimsical aspects of Link’s Awakening’s more: like rescuing a Chain Chomp, or that there’s a shy old man you can call through a bunch of phone booths around the island to get hints if you’re stuck. Things that looked out of place and strange in the original feel more in line with the overall look of the game now, but still stand out as strange and fun on their own.

Link’s Awakening also looks wonderful in motion. I regularly felt like I was playing around with living figures. The Nintendo Switch can’t keep up with the illusion, however; the framerate chugs and hitches regularly enough to be annoying, but not so much that it ruins the effect. Here’s hoping these issues are addressed in a patch. Otherwise, Link’s Awakening looks downright immaculate in the most imaginative way possible.

Zelda Links Awakening Review

Just a Little Bit Weird

Link’s Awakening’s sense of whimsy is about more than stomping on Goombas and peeks at the fourth wall. While it doesn’t have a singular “hook” or gimmick the way other Zeldas do, it prods at the blueprint in subtler ways. It plays with a slightly different sense of logic than the series usually does, pushing the whole thing off-kilter just so. Items you usually get in a dungeon (like the bow and bombs) can simply be bought at the shop. Yet they’re still key to making progress. An elaborate trade sequence, usually something you do on the side, is a major staple of the main story quest. These were curious differences in 1993, before the series had just cemented itself with A Link to the Past, and they actually feel like striking changes nowadays.

That dreamlike logic plays well with whimsy, though; the trade sequence, while a bit of a clunker at first, gets you talking to the islands’ many outlandish residents. It highlights just how quirky and fun they all are. The way go along throughout your journey is a little different, too. Whereas your goal is usually clear, how you reach it (which often involves coming to some insight the game doesn’t lay out in front of you), encourages you to talk to every character you meet in search of a hint or clue about where to go next.

That logic isn’t flawless, though. If you don’t talk to everyone, or scour large portions of the map before heading to your next objective, you’re probably going to get stuck at some point. Those phone booths can help you out, sure, but they can be hit or miss. At one point, they told me to simply head in the cardinal direction of my objective (which I already knew). At another, I was given conflicting signals about where to go since the Owl, who also guides you, told me to go somewhere else.

Zelda Links Awakening Review

Even with those oddities, Link’s Awakening thrives on the classic mix of short and long-term puzzle-solving Zelda has always excelled at — for better and occasionally for worse. Progress comes in small, quick bursts of brilliance that make it hard to stop playing, and the insight or items that will crack the map wide-open always feel just within reach. The lack of an overarching gimmick or theme highlights the strength of this intoxicating mixture. However, on occasion, I also got the feeling I was simply running through “just another Zelda game.” That’s far from a bad thing. But it does mean I didn’t get the kinds of incredible one-off moments that come from throwing a major wrench in the works.

In dungeons, Link’s Awakening has a knack for tweaking things. That manifests in similar tricks that, while clever, don’t deliver standout moments. There are dungeons with more keys than locks (so you don’t accidentally get locked out permanently), a mini-boss fight that spans multiple rooms, and floors that interact with each other. They’re all fun novelties that highlight why 2D dungeons, while not as impressive physical spaces as their 3D counterparts, can still deliver some stumpers. But outside of Eagle’s Tower, I’d be hard pressed to distinguish between dungeons — outside of the items I found within.

The remake does iron out some roughness. Key Cavern, for example, now clearly marks which doors need you to throw pots at to open. That felt vindicating for someone who got stuck at entrance in the original. Throwing pots at doors just… wasn’t something that had entered my Zelda puzzle-solving schema. Bosses can be a trifle, too, as often as they are brilliant. Not to mention some of the larger areas are laborious to backtrack through. On the whole, though, this is a solid grouping of puzzle boxes. Each highlights how Link’s Awakening took established formulas before the series really did that sort of thing.

Zelda Links Awakening Review

Failing to Meet Its Maker

As for totally new features… Well, Link’s Awakening lets you create your own dungeons by visiting Dampé’s newly-built shack in Tal Tal Heights. It’s a great idea on paper! You might be dazzled by the possibility of a “Zelda Maker” at first. But that only only frustrated me with how poorly the remake implements a fantastic concept.

You can’t create the kinds of interlocking puzzles or layouts (like the one in Eagle’s Tower) that make dungeons so much fun to take apart. Instead, you can only build with preexisting rooms from dungeons you’ve already beaten. As a result, the dungeons I made felt more like obstacle courses than puzzle boxes, which is disappointing.

Even if you tune your approach to create courses instead of dungeons, you still wind up with a laundry list of issues that make it frustrating to bring whatever ideas you have to life. You can’t manually determine how any two sets of stairs link up, for instance. You can’t have players acquire items mid-dungeon, so you don’t even get to implement that classic feeling of finally getting the mid-dungeon gear that will turn the level on its head. You also can’t share your creations online (you have to load them onto Amiibos…), which is a downright baffling omission.

As someone who drew their own Zelda dungeons as a kid, I’d love to see if any of my ideas could actually work. But the dungeon creator in Link’s Awakening feels like a rudimentary and disappointing proof-of-concept for something that could work so much better. Instead, it feels like a throwaway bonus to help justify the remake.

Zelda Links Awakening Review

A Link Between Worlds

With Zelda taking new and exciting forms as of late, returning to Link’s Awakening is as invigorating as it is comforting. As newer entries interrogate what it means to be a Zelda game, coming back to Koholint Island is a sharp reminder of what parts of the old mold still work, as well as why they occasionally need to change. And as others continue to flesh out gaps in The Legend of Zelda — gaps that have come to define it as of late — this remake hearkens back to the simple, elegant core that captivated players in the first place.