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Review: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening Is an Enchanting Remake

It’s impressive how much the simplest acts in Link’s Awakening remain so gratifying hour after hour.

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The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening
Photo: Nintendo

The story of Nintendo, as a publisher and a developer, can be told solely by the Zelda titles released during each generation of console. With that in mind, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is telling a much different story about the Switch than The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but probably a more accurate one. So much of the Switch’s library is about bringing the neglected past—be it design ideas, genres, or just the more simplistic mechanical joys of the old days of gaming—into the present, all dressed up, and ready to go anywhere players want. The lovely, quirky little delicacy that is Link’s Awakening makes much more sense as the second Zelda title on the platform in that context.

First released on the good old brick-sized Game Boy with the spinach-green screen, Link’s Awakening is something of a conceptual bridge between the original game’s quaint screen-by-screen exploration and the ambitious scope of its bigger brother, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, on the SNES. Here, Link is stranded on a deserted island and forced to gather a bunch of magical instruments loud enough to awaken the spirit of an entity called the Wind Fish, which lays dormant in an egg on top of the highest mountain of the island. There’s a couple of last-minute twists, but it’s probably one of the easiest Zelda titles to lose the plot of.

Still, it’s a testament to just how immaculate the original top-down formula for Zelda is that Link’s Awakening has been ported to the Switch with absolutely no changes to its level design, enemy placement, or mechanics and the game still feels just as appealing and vital as it did 26 years prior. What little has aged for Link’s Awakening as a game—some obtuse puzzles, and the occasional poorly explained breadcrumb leading players to their next objective—still feeds into the game’s most addictive hook: the simple joy of sending young Link adventuring into new places and having him find new friends, enemies, or hilarious weirdoes hiding around every corner of the map, and in the process bringing him closer to his ultimate goal.

It’s impressive how much the simplest acts in Link’s Awakening remain so gratifying hour after hour, from the adorable way that Link swipes his sword to the Flintstone-y patter of his feet when he gets a running start. The addition of side-scrolling 2D passages inside dungeons has more in common with Mario games than the black-sheep experiment that was Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and while a full game consisting of these areas might be stilted and awkward, these quick passages never outstay their welcome. On the Switch, the game is an endless cavalcade of enchantment, and Nintendo, wisely, hasn’t tried to fix what isn’t broken, only present it to a new generation of kids and kids-at-heart.

The only major change to Link’s Awakening with this Switch port is the look of it all: the swapping out of the primitive pixels of the Gameboy version for an utterly magical stop-motion aesthetic that suggests a Rankin/Bass Zelda Christmas special, which makes the game’s gentle charms all the more effective. Other than that, the game has mostly gotten quality-of-life improvements. The Switch not being limited to only two buttons on its controller means that many of the logistic problems of the Game Boy version—like having to manually equip one item at a time to perform simple tasks of traversal—are nonexistent here. People who’ve put years of play into the original game will be able to waltz through Link’s Awakening on the Switch in mere hours, with none of the logistical hassles tripping them up.

Ironically, it’s the elements tacked onto the game that wind up sticking out like a sore thumb. A color-themed dungeon from the DX re-release of the game is possibly too cute and gimmicky for its own good, and a new side quest involving building a new dungeon is half-baked and monotonous, when it should have been the Zelda equivalent of Mario Maker. Both are optional distractions from a game that, by design, has no choice than to keep players on task, looking to use newly discovered abilities to move forward. Comparing Link’s Awakening to Breath of the Wild, the latter showed there’s still so much more this series—Nintendo, even—is capable of. The former is proving just how much they can do with so little.

This game was reviewed using a retail Switch copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: Nintendo Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: September 20, 2019 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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