It's been almost 20 years since I played The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX on the Game Boy Color. An entry in the long-running franchise that drew visual inspiration from the now iconic pixel-art style seen in the Super Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Although the Game Boy Color was underpowered and quite limited in terms of storage capacity and resolution, Link’s Awakening still flourished. A smaller game compared to the 16-bit A Link to the Past sure, but the world was densely packed with Nintendo goodness - featuring some truly impressive design that kept you invested for hours.
With the built from the ground-up Link’s Awakening remake arriving on the Nintendo Switch it’s important to talk about its origins and some of the constraints Nintendo had when dealing with old-school Game Boy hardware. First off, simply getting to play a Zelda game on a handheld back then was a revelation. But like the 8-bit NES original, Game Boy Zelda was limited to rendering action screen-by-screen. The image would not scroll with Link, so the game’s environments and dungeons and top-down combat were designed with this limitation in mind. That said, Nintendo made the most out of it and jammed something interesting to see and do on every screen.
Fast forward to today, and many Zelda games later, we can now revisit this Game Boy classic on the exponentially more powerful Nintendo Switch hardware. From the moment you boot up The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening on Switch, it's clear that this remake has been a labour of love. And really, the new visual look is without a doubt the prettiest Zelda game I've played. The re-designed introduction transforms the handful of frames seen in the Game Boy original into a stunning sequence of beautiful hand-drawn art. This sets the tone because everything here is, for lack of a better word, better than ever.
“From the moment you boot up The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening on Switch, it's clear that this remake has been a labour of love.”
Visually, playing Link’s Awakening on the Switch evokes the feeling of being part of a vibrant dream. Thanks in part to the always-on and immersive tilt-shift blur effect. This is fitting, and the accompanying art-style gives off the impression of playing Zelda inside a tiny diorama come to life. Fans of the original will feel right at home. Why it's Luke, Obi-Wan, and my favourite Chewie - they’re all here! First prize! Ahem.
Officially this is the third time we’re visiting the strange and wonderful Koholint Island. And this remake builds upon the mythos that debuted in the Game Boy original, and then again in the Game Boy Color version. Released in 1999 that version made some changes of its own with the addition of a new colourful dungeon to promote the Gameboy Color. Which, as per the name, did that thing TV’s did back in the day when Black and White was considered ancient - Now in Colour!
If this is your first time playing Link's Awakening, it’s best described as a traditional Zelda experience that draws quite a lot of inspiration from A Link to the Past and the NES original before it. That said, it’s also one of the most quirky entries in the series. You’ll find Goombas, Piranha Plants and even some side-scrolling jumpy platform action.
Instead of going through all the changes and differences, for that there’s YouTube and the inevitable swarm of ‘Every Change Made to Zeldo Ice Bucket Meme Challenge!’ videos. But, I'll go over the major ones that revitalise the classic Link’s Awakening gameplay and make it feel, well, more modern.
As the Gameboy only had two buttons, A and B, Link’s Awakening was designed around being able to change-out only two pieces of equipment. This meant that at the time you probably wouldn’t use the Shield much as that would take up one of your precious button slots. Instead you would equip a Sword and maybe Roc’s Feather, or a Bomb and Arrows and forgo your Sword altogether. As you progressed further you got more items and were forced to try out different combinations to solve puzzles, so you’d be stuck going back and forth through the menu way more often than what one would consider ‘Menu Healthy’.
“If this is your first time playing Link's Awakening, it’s best described as a traditional Zelda experience that draws quite a lot of inspiration from A Link to the Past and the NES original before it.”
More buttons to work with is a huge and welcomed quality-of-life change. You still have to map items to buttons and swap equipment out, but the Sword, Shield, and a few other important abilities you pick up later on now have dedicated buttons.
Another big change is the addition of the scrolling camera, which follows Link as you wander around the overworld. As this is such a condensed world, the ability to see beyond one screen adds depth and amplifies the often stunning geography of Koholint Island. But, the single-screen experience was the cornerstone of many dungeon puzzles in the original, so there’s a clever hybrid approach taken. The overworld is full free-camera with the dungeons mostly isolated and layed out screen-by-screen. It’s a natural evolution for Link’s Awakening, blending both the old and the new. It’s seamless in execution too, so much so you’ll quickly forget how the old one felt.
In an effort to make Link’s Awakening more like a like a home console Zelda, the heart count has been upped to 20 from 14. The result is more heart pieces hidden around the world in addition to a lot more sea shells to find and collect. This addition makes sense, at least on paper. The constant reward you get for exploring, experimenting, and looking closely at the environment for oddities is all Breath of the Wild. On that front, and to reiterate, this is fun-sized Zelda. In my review playthrough I completed the game in under five hours with only a few hidden collectables left to find. I would imagine a playthrough for a Link’s Awakening newcomer would take between 6-8 hours to complete.
But, with all the additional hearts you can get, Link’s Awakening immediately becomes one of the easiest Zelda games to play. Those looking for any sort of challenge, there’s Hero Mode where you receive double damage and no heart drops. This is the way to go as playing on normal is a breeze. Either way, my advice if you plan on picking this up is to put off the ‘color dungeon’ until the very end. The reward for completing it without ruining it for new players is pretty much Easy Mode.
To alleviate some of the title’s brevity and add something that Zelda fans would dig, Link’s Awakening comes with a Create Your Own Dungeon feature. In a way it’s basically Mario Maker Lite, and for me at least not really a draw. The idea being, the more dungeons you complete in the main game the more tiles you have available to create your own. There are many helpful tutorials in the form of challenges, like; create a dungeon with stairs, or make sure there are treasure rooms on these tiles. It’s all very easy to use and intuitive so if the idea of creating your own classic top-down Zelda dungeon sounds like fun then you’ll probably get a kick out of it. A major downside to this mode though comes with how sharing works. Currently the way to share a created dungeon is via Amiibo, and you see, right there that immediately rules me out. On the account of me going all Comic Book Guy when it comes to Amiibo. I won't take mine out of their boxes.
“IThe constant reward you get for exploring, experimenting, and looking closely at the environment for oddities is all Breath of the Wild.”
Now, let’s go back to just how pretty this game is, from the use of colour, the impressive lighting, and the subtle touches found in the animation. Seeing the fire from torches reflecting on rocky surfaces, the sparkling glint seen in the sand, everything looks wonderful. Nintendo and developer Grezzo have most certainly nailed the look they were going for. Best of all, everything feels above and beyond what one might imagine a remake of Link’s Awakening could be. I’ve been a fan of how Grezzo has been handling Zelda ports for a while now, their Ocarina of Time Nintendo 3DS endeavour was a testament to a studio understanding both the source material and the hardware they were working on.
Which, strangely, brings us to the only major downside of the re-imagined Link’s Awakening, which is the inconsistent frame-rate. If you’re sensitive to frame-rate changes then playing this can become quite irritating. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what is making the game hitch, but every time you enter a house, the overworld, move around to new areas or talk with an NPC, these transitions tank the performance to 30 frames-per-second and below. The problem is that it happens all the time and becomes quite jarring when, for the most part, Link’s Awakening runs at a smooth 60 frames-per-second. The only real area where the action constantly runs at a low frame-rate is the swamp, which is reminiscent of the Korok Forest issues found in Breath of the Wild. Hopefully these frame-rate inconsistencies gets patched out in the future as it’s an experience I plan on revisiting soon.
In the end, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening remade and rebuilt for the Nintendo Switch is downright delightful. A memorable return to the stunning Koholint Island, and for newcomers to experience a journey they’ll savour for years to come. The Switch just got its second must-play Zelda.