The Switch remake of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is a pretty great example of how tricky it can be to get remakes just right.
The 1993 Game Boy classic was the first video game I ever owned. Admittedly, I was too young to fully grasp how it worked, and it took a long time to learn the basics. In fact, up to that point, I had never played anything but side-scrollers. It took me a moment just to grasp the idea of playing with the top-down perspective of the series.
At the time, Link’s Awakening was a fairly sophisticated Zelda game. There were hardware limitations to a certain degree but not very much. For a Game Boy game, it was certifiably massive. Unfortunately, after its sequels and subsequent installments on future handhelds, Link’s Awakening feels much less like the grand, epic adventure that blew my mind nearly 30 years ago. In fact, playing it again on the Switch makes it feel even more compact and bite-sized than ever before.
I can’t really say this is a fault. In terms of being a pure remake, Link’s Awakening is about as faithful as it could possibly be to the original game and its updated Game Boy Color version, Link’s Awakening DX. Aside from the camera mini-game and the hidden photo ops from DX, Link’s Awakening for Nintendo Switch is a pretty straightforward remake – save the massive graphics overhaul.
Of course, the new art style is a big part of its charm. The Switch version is designed to look like a diorama, with intentionally plastic-looking models and environmental designs for Link, NPCs, enemies, and virtually everything on Koholint Island. I think the style is a real love-it-or-leave-it kind of thing, just like Wind Waker was on the Gamecube – but it’s undeniably cute, especially the little expressions on Link’s face.
The old-school Zelda gameplay is also here in full force. So those who recently played the open-ended Breath of the Wild or the 3DS installment A Link Between Worlds might find the game design a bit restrictive. Each of the eight dungeons found on Koholint Island features a special item to find. The item is used to solve the dungeon’s puzzles and defeat the final boss, as is the tradition in all of the classic games in this franchise. It might not offer up quite as many nonlinear gameplay options, but it still works, and the items in Link’s Awakening were always pretty fun to use. I always enjoyed the Roc’s Feather item that allows Link to jump independently. It’s something not usually seen in Zelda games.
My only complaint is that the controls are limited to two buttons for equipment items. The triggers are locked to your shield and your dash attack when you find the Pegasus Boots. When playing in handheld mode, it would have been really nice if you could switch between items on the touch screen.
Unfortunately, the archaic Zelda routine of going in and out of your equipment menu is all but necessary sometimes, especially in later dungeons when you must frequently change your equipment between the Hookshot, Magic Powder, and the Ocarina. Even if this was only useful for playing in handheld mode, it would benefit people who decided to play the Switch version a bit more like its handheld original and not like the bigger, beefier, console-based Zelda releases.
Not your typical Zelda game
I never quite realized how unique this installment was among other Zelda games until I got a lot older. The oddball nature of the game certainly holds up, even today. Link’s Awakening takes place within a dream. This is why the game has always had so many random tie-ins and cameos, including beloved Nintendo characters and baddies. For example, there are bad guys like Goombas, Bloopers, and Pirahna Plants from Super Mario Bros. found across the island. There’s a doll based on Yoshi, as well as other characters from Nintendo games. There’s even an appearance from Mr. Write, of SimCity fame.
The NPCs throughout the game reference Link’s deep dream state and the legend that Koholint Island will disappear forever if Link manages to complete his mission and awaken the Wind Fish. To do this, Link needs to gather the eight legendary instruments from each of the dungeons in this strange world. Then, he must reach the summit at the center of the island, where a massive egg rests. There, he’ll play the “Ballad of the Wind Fish” and end the slumber of the mysterious creature, concluding the tale once and for all.
Link’s Awakening isn’t going to take quite as long to complete as later games in the series – and the story is admittedly not quite as deep or involved – but there are still plenty of secrets to find. There are enough Heart Pieces to find and collect to fill up two entire rows of Heart Containers, not including the eight containers you earn beating the dungeons. There’s a trade sequence that goes nearly the length of the game, ultimately rewarding you with the Boomerang – arguably the best damn weapon in all of Link’s Awakening. There are 50 buried, secret seashells to uncover and collect. These are used to unlock upgrades like Link’s blade beam attack and a powerful, upgraded Koholint Sword.
There are mini-games, such as the Claw Game in Mabe Village, and the River Rafting challenge in Tal Tal Heights. These offer rupee prizes and even bonus Heart Pieces and seashells. The fishing mini-game also returns and took plenty of my free time between completing many of the dungeons. Finally, there are ten hidden figures that can be won in the Claw Game and placed on pedestals throughout Mabe Village.
The one new feature in this remake that’s worth mentioning is the dungeon designer mini-game, which is operated through Dampe’s Shack, near the Graveyard and Tal Tal Heights. This mini-game is certainly interesting, but I think there was a point where they missed the mark in terms of making it intuitive and exciting to customize. I felt like it was more of a chore just to earn a hidden Heart Container and secret seashell. It’s not a part of the game that I feel compelled to go back to ever again.
If you have fond memories of the Game Boy or Game Boy Color versions, Link’s Awakening is still a blast to play through all over again on Switch, but I would like to avoid letting nostalgia cloud my judgment.
Make no mistake: this is a pretty fantastic remake. I just think it would have been a better fit if it were released on the 3DS. It would have been even more authentic and faithful to its portable roots rather than feeling a bit skimpy. The 3D effect could have made the diorama art style pop even more than it already does.
Hell, a lower price – $40 instead of $60 – would have helped quite a bit here, too. As it is, the full package for Link’s Awakening on Switch just doesn’t quite have the massive weight and amount of content compared to what we saw in Breath of the Wild, or even the Nintendo 3DS remakes of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask.