The Legend of Zelda is arguably the most beloved video game series of all time, and few of its entries are as cherished as Link’s Awakening. Though it was the fourth installment in The Legend of Zelda, it was the first to be released on a handheld console. One of the main reasons Link’s Awakening built such a strong reputation for itself was due to it retaining the series’ sense of depth and exploration, despite being released on the original Gameboy in 1993.
Keep in mind this was still a time when a series being translated to a handheld system meant the compromise of its quality (even Mario didn’t quite feel like Mario on the Gameboy). So the fact that Link’s Awakening still very much felt like The Legend of Zelda was a stunning achievement in itself in 1993.
Link’s Awakening started development as a port of the Super NES classic, A Link to the Past, released one year prior. But somewhere along the line, it became its own beast. Though it couldn’t quite reach the same heights as its SNES predecessor, Link’s Awakening still managed to capture a good deal of its magic, and has certainly held up better than the NES Zelda titles. The title proved so popular that when Nintendo released the GameBoy Color in the late 90s, one of its biggest selling points was a re-release of Link’s Awakening in 1998.
Now, twenty-one years after its GameBoy Color release, Link’s Awakening has been remade from the ground up for the Nintendo Switch, in what is undoubtedly the definitive version of the beloved title.
It’s a match made in heaven, really. Link’s Awakening played a pivotal role in Nintendo’s earlier years in handheld gaming, being one of the few games on the original GameBoy that most would agree felt as big as a home console title. And with the Nintendo Switch being a hybrid of a home console and a handheld, few Nintendo classics would be so fitting for a Switch remake.
2019’s Link’s Awakening is a beautiful recreation of the 1993 GameBoy classic. Taking on a toy aesthetic, this Switch version features character models that resemble Gashapon figures, and environments that look like dioramas. The art direction is oozing with charm, making it baffling how some sections of the Zelda fandom cried foul when the visuals were first revealed (you’d think Zelda fans would have learned their lesson by this point). The art style, combined with the HD sheen of the Nintendo Switch, make Link’s Awakening look right at home in 2019. There are admittedly a few frame rate drops here and there, but nothing too bad.
On the gameplay side of things, Link’s Awakening on Switch features the same timeless gameplay to be expected from 2D Zelda titles post-A Link to the Past. Link is every bit as fun to control as ever. But there are even a few modernized improvements made to Link’s Awakening where needed, the most prominent of which being that Link’s sword, shield and upgrades are permanently equipped once gained. This is something of a godsend, as the limitations of the original GameBoy’s hardware meant players had to constantly be switching out Link’s items and abilities. But with the Switch’s extra buttons, Link is easily able to keep hold of his standard items and abilities, as well as equip two ‘special items’ gained from dungeons at any given time.
Perhaps the only questionable decision with this modernization is that the Roc’s Feather item, which allows Link to jump, isn’t among the permanent abilities, and still has to be equipped like the other special items. This is questionable because, with how fundamentally useful the ability to jump is, you’ll almost always have Roc’s Feather taking up one of your two item slots. The Pegasus Boots – which allow Link to dash at great speed – become automatically linked to a specific button without needing to be equipped. Roc’s Feather probably could have used the same treatment, seeing as I found myself with it equipped for almost my entire playthrough.
Other changes made to the game include more collectibles to give the side quests some extra heft. The total Heart Pieces to be found in the game has increased from the mere twelve found in the original GameBoy version to thirty-two, while the Secret Seashells have gone from twenty-six to a whomping fifty that can be collected. Though simple, searching for the Heart Pieces and Seashells prove to be fun diversions to the main quest.
Perhaps the biggest brand new addition to Link’s Awakening is the inclusion of a dungeon editor. Before you get too excited, it has to be said that the dungeon editor is incredibly limited.
By visiting Dampé, players can edit their own dungeons by utilizing chambers collected from the dungeons the player has completed throughout the game (the main quest retains its eight dungeons, and the optional “Color Dungeon” from the GameBoy Color release makes a return). On the plus side, putting a dungeon together from pre-existing rooms and making it all make sense has a fun puzzle element to it. On the downside, the player doesn’t have the ability to edit anything about the chambers themselves. The player can’t place doors, decide what enemies to litter about or what walls can be destroyed with bombs, or even choose what rewards await in treasure chests (if your dungeon ends up having a certain number of locked doors, the chests will at first provide the number of keys required to unlock them all, then have a random amount of Rupees, with the final chest opened always containing the boss key).
Again, the dungeon editor can be fun in its own right, but don’t get your hopes up that it’s the Zelda equivalent of Super Mario Maker (though here’s hoping its presence is something of a test run for just that).
Aside from being a standout game on a handheld platform in the early 90s, another reason Link’s Awakening holds such a fond place for many is that it’s quite possibly the weirdest Zelda title. Taking inspiration from Twin Peaks, Link’s Awakening sees Link stranded on Koholint Island, where he must collect the eight Instruments of the Sirens in order to awaken “The Wind Fish” (who is actually a whale) – the island’s deity – who is in a deep slumber inside of an egg on top of a mountain (as whales do), if he ever wants to escape the island.
Not only is the story delightfully weird (and being one of the earliest games in the series, it’s also refreshingly absent of that convoluted “Zelda timeline” nonsense), but Link’s Awakening is also a ‘weird’ entry in that it features many elements from the Super Mario series (as well as a Kirby cameo).
While Mario and Zelda have always referenced each other – seeing as they’re the two series most strongly associated with the Nintendo name, and both originally spawned from Shigeru Miyamoto’s mind – Link’s Awakening took things to another level by directly featuring enemies and characters from the Mushroom Kingdom and a profuse amount of side-scrolling sections that pay homage to Mario’s early adventures. Many fans were worried that – much like the Superstar Saga remake on 3DS was absent of a certain cameo found in its original GameBoy Advance version – that the Mario elements would be removed or downplayed in this Switch remake. Thankfully, not only are the Mario cameos and references in full force (complete with the first 3D appearance of Super Mario Bros. 2’s Wart), but Nintendo even doubled down on them with a new side quest focused on collecting Mario figurines. There’s just something about the Mario series that makes the presence of its characters add a little more fun to any game.
Although the writing may not necessarily be anything to write home about, the Twin Peaks influence definitely shines through in some wacky dialogue and the overall strangeness of the adventure, an influence which I like to think has carried over to subsequent entries in the Zelda series, given its often bizarre characters. That weirdness started here, and perhaps (sadly) hasn’t been outdone by subsequent Zeldas.
Now I have to make a confession, I was never the biggest fan of Link’s Awakening back in the day. It was certainly a considerable improvement over the NES Zelda games, and I loved that aforementioned weirdness of it all, but for one reason or another, it never quite clicked with me in the same way A Link to the Past and some later Zeldas did.
That’s all changed with this Switch remake, which has won me over to Link’s Awakening so strongly, that I would probably now rank it among my favorite Zelda games. The adventure is long and deep enough to feel rewarding, but short enough as to not overstay its welcome. To think that this game was originally a GameBoy title is somewhat baffling. Sure, it’s still on the “smaller” side of the Zelda series, but it was so big back in its own day that Link’s Awakening still feels like a meaty addition to any Switch library.
I’m not sure whether this remake has simply opened my eyes to Link’s Awakening’s full merits, or if its changes and additions have made the game that much better (again, that art style!). Maybe a bit of both.
Whatever the case, Link’s Awakening on Switch is an ideal video game remake and, quite fittingly, something of a dream come true.