Release Date: Sept. 20, 2019Platforms: SwitchDeveloper: GrezzoPublisher: NintendoGenre: Action-adventure
It never ceases to amaze how well Nintendo’s titles age over time. The new Switch remake of the 1993 Game Boy classic The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is a bright, shimmering, lovingly made update that looks and sounds brand new but most importantly captures the magic and whimsy of the original. While it’s bolstered by a modern presentation, in essence, this is the same game us “olds” played over 25 years ago, and it’s as brilliant as ever.
Link’s Awakening, much like the trippy, off-beat Majora’s Mask, occupies a unique spot in Zelda canon in that it’s pretty freakin’ weird. Princess Zelda and Ganon are absent from the narrative, and instead of questing after the Triforce in Hyrule, you’re searching for a giant, polka-dotted egg on top of a mountain on the island of Koholint after being shipwrecked. It’s a strange, wondrous story with an ambitious ending (and secret ending) that’s as inspired as any in the series.
The real selling point for this remake, though, is its presentation. On that front, developer Grezzo did a fantastic job on almost all fronts. Almost, because — let’s get this out of the way — performance-wise, the game has some framerate issues that are surprisingly persistent for a first-party Nintendo title. The framerate seems to dip when entering into new areas, though there are times when the dips feel sort of random. Not a huge complaint, but the drops are definitely noticeable.
Now, allow me to gush: this game is so cute it kills me. In place of the original game’s 8-bit graphics are gorgeous 3D models and environments rendered in a chibi-like style that invokes plastic miniatures or children’s toys and their elaborate toy sets. All of the game’s characters and enemies look adorable, and the way they’re animated is just as enchanting. Link bobs up and down as he roams the island’s forests and prairies, and enemies’ movements and facial expressions feed into both the art style and gameplay (baddies almost always telegraph their attacks). The overall art style is like a mix between Animal Crossing and Lego. Very cool.
The original score has also been re-recorded, this time with full orchestra tracks that’ll hit you right in the feels if you’re a longtime fan of the series. The arrangements are lilting and playful, and decidedly less “epic” than other entries in the series, which matches the visuals and overall tone of the game. Grezzo has put together a super-tight package here, which elevates the original game to new heights while also paying respect to the original game’s artistic intent.
The original gameplay and level design remain intact as well, with some subtle improvements included to smooth things over, such as the ability to equip Roc’s Feather in a second inventory box so you can slash, block, and jump without having to go into a menu — one of the original game’s wrinkles.
The map is essentially a tile-for-tile recreation, mostly because there’s nothing to fix, really. This is open-world gameplay in its purest form, and it’s still a blast. You’re free to roam the island however you like, though certain areas are blocked off until you acquire special equipment. Combat is simple but tight, with each enemy type requiring a different strategy to defeat, and while the game’s difficulty is never punishing, even on “hero mode,” the challenge level is pitch-perfect and just hard enough to keep you engaged.
The seven dungeons the game has to offer are as fun and clever today as they were in 1993, and though some of the items and puzzles could be viewed as rudimentary by today’s standards, they’re so well-thought-out and elegantly designed that it’s hard not to appreciate how entertaining to unravel they are all these years later. The new dungeon editor feature feels like a natural fit for the game, and while I was a veritable idiot when it came to designing a cool, fun dungeon to puzzle through, it deepened my appreciation for just how much work goes into putting these maps together. Plus, much like in Super Mario Maker, the fan community is sure to concoct some wild, nightmarish dungeons to explore in no time. It’s easy to foresee Nintendo releasing a stand-alone Zelda dungeon editor game in the future, and there’s no doubt that it’d sell like nobody’s business.
Link’s Awakening isn’t the most revered entry in The Legend of Zelda, but perhaps it should be. If anything, this remake is a reminder of just how meticulously crafted this game is, and it’s heartening to know that a new generation of gamers can experience the game in even better form than we old-heads did in the ‘90s.
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.