The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening Is About As Good As Remakes Get

26 years after its initial release on monochromatic Game Boy, and 21 years after its slightly more visually pleasing re-release on Game Boy Color, it’s time for Link to wash up on Koholint Island’s sandy shores once again.

That’s definitely not a bad thing, since Link’s Awakening is rightfully considered by many as one of the most underrated entries in Nintendo’s longstanding franchise. It’s also one of the rare occasions in which the action doesn’t take place in Hyrule. There are no golden Triforce pieces to collect, no princess Zelda to rescue, and no Ganon to defeat. Instead, Link must collect eight magical instruments to awaken a mystical fish inside a giant Yoshi egg sitting atop a mountain so that he can escape an island. Yup, nothin’ nutty about that.

I’m not sure who will get more out of this update: fans of the original game, or newcomers. On the one hand, this traditional adventure plays as the perfect antidote to Breath of the Wild’s limitless open world. If Breath of the Wild was your first foray into the Legend of Zelda, this is one of the great OG experiences you’ve been missing since the series launched in 1986.  

Old school gamers will notices that every blade of grass and Cucco chicken is exactly where it originally was in 1991. If you’re familiar with the island of Koholint and its nine dungeons (counting the Game Boy Color bonus dungeon), you’re pretty much going to know exactly what to expect, puzzle-wise. Since I’ve always been enamoured with Link’s Awakening’s unique backdrop, it was a pleasure to simply take in all the wonderful sights and sounds this remake has to offer. At no point was I challenged in battle or stumped by a puzzle, but that’s just dandy because I loved seeing Koholint come alive in ways my younger brain couldn’t imagine when I first played it back in the day. There’s a hero mode that you can play right from the start, with tougher baddies who no longer drop hearts. For the sake of meeting this review deadline, I opted for normal mode, but seasoned players may want to consider ramping up the difficulty.

This update certainly gives Wind Waker a run for its money in terms of sheer adorableness. Aside from making the leap to HD, Link’s Awakening looks more like the recent Yoshi and Kirby games than anything in the Legend of the Zelda canon. Somewhat like Yoshi’s Crafted World, as opposed to the primitive top-down 2-D of the original Link’s Awakening, this version has a tactile diorama vibe mimicking a miniature toy set. The game even employs a charming tilt-shift perspective to make it resemble a vintage kids’ show. The only visual hiccup occurs whenever there’s a little too much going on at once. This leads to frame-rate dips, which are a minor grievance, but immediately noticeable and fairly consistent. Here’s hoping this can be ironed out in a future update.

While the story, maps, and puzzles are pretty much unchanged, there are several additions to entice old school gamers beyond a delightful new aesthetic, lovely orchestral music, and a brand-new anime opening (and closing) cut-scene. Starting with the smaller stuff first, this version contains more secret seashells and heart pieces to collect. As someone who knows this map pretty darn well, it was fun hunting for new goodies in familiar areas.

One HUGE improvement is not having to constantly pause the game to equip an item, since the Game Boy only had two damn buttons. Link’s sword and shield never have to be swapped out, and the Pegasus Boots, Roc’s Feather, and Power Bracelet no longer need to be selected in order to be used. That leaves you with two free slots that can be equipped with bombs, arrows, your trusty seashell-scavenging shovel, or anything else.

The overworld is no longer limited to being traversed one screen at a time.  Going from one area to next is now seamless. However, walking through doors or bombing through walls in dungeons will give you that single-screen feel, which I suppose will come in handy if you using a walkthrough.

A really fun section of each dungeon that’s been retained is the 2-D side-scrolling sections that include familiar Super Mario baddies like Goombas and Piranha Plants. Elsewhere in the game, you’ll face off against a Kirby doppelganger and team up with a Chain Chomp. It feels so wrong mixing up these two disparate franchises… and yet oh so right.

It would’ve been grand to see this kind of playfulness added to the game’s biggest new addition: the chamber dungeon creator. This is a very welcome addition to the game, but it’s neither as zany nor as ambitious as Mario Maker. As you complete each dungeon in the main story, you’ll be able to visit Dampé the Gravedigger at his shack (that was formerly the camera shop that made use of that sweet, sweet Game Boy Printer) in order to reuse individual room templates to create your own unique dungeon layout, along with other chambers won in mini-games. There’s no ability to share these online—however, you can use your trusty amiibo as a vessel to transport your dungeon to an IRL friend’s game. Other Zelda-themed amiibo unlock extra goodies like bomb and arrow refills, while the new Link’s Awakening amiibo will drop Shadow Link into your created dungeon. The reward for defeating Shadow Link is a whole buncha rupees. All and all, the new dungeon creator is a decent first stab at something that I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is out now exclusively on Nintendo Switch. Check out the trailer below.