Game review: The Legend Of Zelda: Link's Awakening is a portable classic

One of the best old school Zelda games makes the jump from Game Boy to Nintendo Switch, but how does it compare to more modern rivals?

If you were one of those people that were upset that Zelda: Breath Of The Wild didn’t have bigger and more complex dungeons (which is a perfectly valid point of view) then the old school approach of Link’s Awakening is going to be right up your alley. It’s a remake of the 26-year-old Game Boy game of the same name, a console so technologically backwards your fridge probably has more processing power nowadays. Which makes it all the more incredible just how well the game stands up in the modern era.

When it first came out, Link’s Awakening was only the fourth ever Zelda game. And if you discount the black sheep of the family that is Zelda II it was only the third to use the original formula. At first it was just supposed to be a port of SNES game A Link To The Past, but while the map is similar the story evolved into something quite different and became one of the few entries not to feature Hyrule, the Triforce, or Princess Zelda.

Despite this the gameplay and structure is very traditional – just imagine A Link To The Past without the light/dark world gimmick – but the tone and atmosphere is much more whimsical than other Zelda games, despite having one of the best plot twists in the series. And yet beneath its cheery exterior lies a full-fat Zelda experience that offers just as much challenge, surprise, and invention as the very best entries in the franchise.

The story behind Link’s Awakening is as minimalistic as normal for a Zelda game and involves Link being caught in a storm at sea and ending up shipwrecked on a mysterious island. You’re told that awakening the Wind Fish, who apparently resides in an egg atop the highest mountain peak, is the only way you can leave. Which in turn involves recovering eight magical instruments guarded by the bosses of some very old school dungeons.

Most of the items are familiar from other Zelda games and while there’s no central gimmick there is an unusual amount of short 2D sections and the curious, and never officially explained, presence of numerous Mario enemies, from chain chomps to goombas. But rather than ignore these odd additions the remake leans into it and embraces the less serious tone.

As you would expect, the graphics have been significantly upgraded from the Game Boy original and while the game is still viewed from a top-down perspective the art style makes everything look like wooden or clay models, with the human characters portrayed as dinky little Fisher-Price style action figures and the monsters as grinning, cartoonish villains. It looks great, with a clever use of depth of field that make it seem like you’re looming over some sort of toy shop diorama.

In terms of level layout and gameplay though everything is more or less exactly as it was in the original. The overworld now scrolls around in all directions, but the dungeons are still made up of flip-screen rooms with identical designs and puzzles. And while Link has a little more freedom of movement, and a dedicated sword and shield button, combat is really no more complex than it was before.

The lack of change is a testament to the quality of the Game Boy original and the whole point of the remake is that everything is still perfectly entertaining the way it is. The combat and artificial intelligence may be considerably more simplistic than Breath Of The Wild but the puzzles are often more complicated. You’d think there wasn’t much you could do with single-screen dungeon rooms but a number of them had us scratching our heads (and in one instance watching a Game Boy walkthrough for a solution) more than for any other recent Zelda.

Where Link’s Awakening and Breath Of The Wild definitely have something in common is that both are completely devoid of quest markers and explicit instructions, and often all Link’s Awakening does is suggest a generation direction on the map and leave you to work out the rest. Sometimes progress can revolve around a seemingly random discovery, such as a hidden stairway beneath a hedgerow, but there’s always a clear logic and a breadcrumb trail of clues leading you forward.

In terms of explicit differences in the remake you’re talking about very small details. Fairy bottles have been added, although they don’t trigger automatically, and the maximum number of hearts you can collect has increased. There’re also more fast travel warp points than before, but these are really the only attempts to lessen the difficultly (which was never particularly high, by the standards of the time).

All of this makes total sense from a design standpoint as, at around 15 hours, the length of the game is perfect in terms of not outstaying its welcome. Shoehorning in extra dungeons or areas would probably never have worked, especially as there technically is one already, added by the DX version for the Game Boy Color, and it still looks and feels completely separate from the rest of the adventure.

Since this is a full price game though, there is a serious question to be asked in terms of value for money. The only attempt to add extra longevity is via Chamber Dungeons, which allow you to create your own dungeons by piecing together rooms from existing ones into new layouts. You collect more rooms as you beat normal dungeons, and there are challenges to create layouts with specific entrances and boss areas, but we didn’t find any of it in the least bit compelling.

It’s certainly not Super Mario Maker for Zelda and without any story elements, and given you’ve seen all the rooms before, it adds nothing to the experience. The only other flaw is the game’s curiously fluctuating frame rate. At first, we weren’t sure whether it was some attempt to replicate the low-tech movement of the original, but instead of just locking the game to 30fps Nintendo seems happy to let it flap up and down as long as it doesn’t cause any actual slowdown.

It’s the question mark over the game’s value for money that’s the only serious issue though and if you can accept that we found the whole experience utterly charming from beginning to end. We were playing the game mostly on an original Switch but it’s easy to see why it would be released on the same day as the Switch Lite. Because while Link’s Awakening works just as well on a TV it is, like the original game, an almost perfect portable Zelda experience.

The Legend Of Zelda: Link’s Awakening

The Legend Of Zelda: Link’s Awakening review

In Short: The lack of any meaningful additions is a surprise, but it only underlines what a fantastic game the Game Boy original was, in what is still a classic Zelda title that thoroughly deserves the star treatment.

Pros: The underlying game is great, with some excellent dungeon designs and well-judged difficulty. Charming new visual style. Surprisingly long and varied considering the game’s origins.

Cons: Very little new content and the Dungeon Builder is completely uninteresting. Peculiarly variable frame rate.

Score: 8/10

Formats: Nintendo Switch
Price: £49.99
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Grezzo and Nintendo EPD
Release Date: 20th September 2019
Age Rating: 7

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