The Legend of Zelda is a series that has been pivotal to my understanding of game design. Nintendo has repeatedly put on a masterclass in what good game design should look like with the likes of Majora’s Mask, A Link Between Worlds and Breath of the Wild. One of the most highly-revered entries, Link’s Awakening, is a game that I never had the chance to play in its original form, but it was one that I was actually planning to play this year. So with the announcement that it was being remade with a modern set of visuals (and a new art style that is remarkably different to the likes of ALBW), I could not have been more excited to experience one of Nintendo’s most cherished works from 1993. While it’s not exactly perfect, this remake is a great attempt at bringing a golden relic into the modern age.
For the uninitiated, Link’s Awakening is set in the land of Koholint Island, following the untimely destruction of Link’s boat out at sea during a torrential storm. A young girl by the name of Marin finds the boy in the green tunic washed up on the shore of the island and houses the would-be seafarer until he regains his consciousness. After some introductions and the recovering of his sword, Link meets a wise bird who explains what his purpose on the island is. He then sets out on an adventure (just like Bilbo Baggins) and quickly learns that there is a dark secret to the island. There is a lot to Koholint Island; from the dastardly troublesome moblins to the secrets laying within Mabe Village there is far more than meets the eye. While it’s hard to really discuss the intricacies of the plot without spoiling the whole thing, the game does an excellent job at conveying the mysterious nature of the island through random NPC dialogue (including the dungeon bosses), world design and even some of the NPC behaviours.
Koholint Island is not an overly large area to explore but don’t let that fool you into thinking that it won’t reward your intrigue. In fact, you won’t get far without properly exploring the depths of the levels and obtaining the rewards within them. Some of the rewards come in the form of items that are pertinent to progress, whereas other rewards come in the form of information which is key to solving a number of the puzzles that the world puts forth. The game wastes no time at making effective use of all the tools that are available to the players, allowing for the world to be full of really interesting level design that can often have the player returning to familiar places to finish exploring previously unreachable areas. Not to be too anecdotal but I remember seeing all of the paths that I could take using the hookshot, which I didn’t have yet, and the moment I was able to traverse these paths I immediately returned to those areas and explored everything that I could – a prerogative that ensured I found almost all of the heart pieces scattered throughout Koholint Island without any form of guide (I’m usually pretty bad with that).
The biggest of the changes that has been brought into Link’s Awakening is the Chamber Dungeons. Chamber Dungeons are a new idea that allows for players to create their own custom dungeons, which can help with the replayability of the game once you have beaten the 12-15 hour core adventure on offer. Hosted by Dampé, there are a number of dungeon-building challenges that both act as a challenge (surprise surprise) and a tutorial. In addition to the challenges, there are also entirely blank slates that you can work with, though you will definitely want to finish all the challenges before you do these as they will eventually reward you with cool things like modifiers for rooms and such. While the dungeon building can be a little basic, it at least feels like the testing grounds for something akin to a Mario Maker-esque type of game (at least I hope it is).
Naturally, the 8-bit music of 1993 doesn’t exactly cut it as the standard soundtrack for a 2019 release, so the entire soundtrack has been revamped. One of my favourite revamps is with the classic Zelda theme, known as the Hyrule Field theme in most of the 3D games. It has been remade with charming woodwind instruments like the flute, which actually complement the new art style. But outside of that one specific case, all the new instrumentalisation of old tracks works exceptionally well – the works of Minako Hamano and Kozue Ishikawa translate perfectly with the new instruments. My only gripe with the soundtrack is the lack of any way to revert it to its classic form, so everyone can experience what it was like back then and compare it to how it is now.
In terms of visuals, there were a lot of directions that Nintendo could have taken the 1993 classic in. They could have adopted a visual style that is more akin to the later 2D Zelda games, ALBW being a prime example. Instead, Nintendo adopted a chibi art style (it’s why Link’s face looks so bloody weird) and it actually translates really well. There’s a fine line that has to be walked when it comes to an art style like this. Go too hard with it and the game can risk being a little too bubbly, which can undermine the underlying tone that is trying to be communicated in the world. Thankfully, Link’s Awakening doesn’t cross that line and effectively uses its art to put forth a bright and endearing world. One that is inviting but also conveys the mysterious intricacies of the world, something that the Zelda series repeatedly does. Even in terms of graphical fidelity, Link’s Awakening just hits a point that most other games can’t hit on the platform. Lighting is crisp, textures are surprisingly detailed and even the water looks phenomenal. The game also makes quite a heavy use of volumetric fog, a bold choice which pays off visually but comes at the cost of performance.
The only real flaw that I had in my time with Link’s Awakening has to do with its technical performance (I can hear Editor-In-Chief, Kieran Stockton, letting out a groan as I write this). While docked, the game runs perfectly fine and outputs a consistent 60 frames per second. There isn’t really much to say here. In handheld mode, however, is where the problems lie. The game still has a target of 60 frames per second in handheld, and it actually meets this target quite often. Unfortunately, it is also quite common for the game to not meet this target framerate. When loading in new areas, the game will dip to below 30fps and, after spending the time to load and unload the new area tiles that are needed for tile transitions, will jump back up to 60fps if possible. The jump back up to 60fps isn’t always possible, though. This is best demonstrated in the final dungeon, where the volumetric fog is just too much to maintain that framerate in some tiles. It’s a shame because I much preferred to play Link’s Awakening in handheld mode rather than docked mode (I rarely enjoy anything in docked mode, to be fair).
Nintendo has a knack for creating great new experiences for their platforms as well as remaking a select few to bring them up to date (like with Wind Waker HD) and Link’s Awakening is no exception. Through an effective use of an art style that helps communicate the ideas and tone the game puts forth to a fun little addition that doesn’t break the game in any way, Link’s Awakening successfully captures the brilliance of the 1993 classic and presents it in a way that will please most. Even technical blemishes in the form of average performance in handheld mode can’t truly detract from what a great experience Link’s Awakening really is. For people who have never experienced this game (like me) and longtime fans, this is definitely a game that I can recommend.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch // Review code supplied by publisher