Link’s Awakening – a Charming Nostalgia Trip (Switch)

The Link’s Awaking remake on Switch has been, by far, my most anticipated release of the year. Besides being the first Zelda game I ever played when I was a kid, and the first truly immersive story I ever got to experience in my life, I’ve played through it countless times over the years. From the original Gameboy to the Gameboy Color (playing the DX Edition), to the Super Gameboy on the SNES, and then years later on emulators.

Side note, playing the DX version on the Super Gameboy was absolutely incredible – imagine sitting there playing on your 2″ Gameboy screen one day, and the next day playing it on the family television. It was pretty mind-blowing at the time, and looking at the Gameboy/Super Gameboy combo now, it was actually pretty similar to the Switch! I wonder just how long Nintendo’s been sitting on this hybrid console concept…

They really focused on mimicking the old map which was not 100% necessary, but did wonders for my nostalgia buzz!

Anyway, you can probably understand why this game is so special to me. Upon the announcement I was simply left speechless – from the literal first frame I knew this was Link’s Awakening. The game is truly ingrained into my minds. Well, that, or I stumbled upon some accidental psychic powers. Either way, I just knew by the bubbles that one of the Zelda franchises’ most overlooked titles was coming.

“Holy shit, is this Link’s Awakening!?”

So, how did it all pan out?

The short answer is, Link’s Awakening turned out exactly as I had hoped and expected. It’s a pixel-perfect modernization, not like that’s a bad thing – as the game itself has aged exceptionally well in most circumstances, but they really went above and beyond with the quality of life improvements.

This second take at Koholint Island essentially took the first iteration, improved all of the bad things, slapped a new skin on it, doubled down on the charm and called it a day. With the exception of a few new features, I do understand why some may bat an eye at the full $60 price tag, but keep in mind that creating a game engine is no easy task, nor is the level of polish that we’re used to seeing on Nintendo properties. Overall I think it was a fair asking price for what you get, so let’s get into that.

Nostalgia can be a tricky thing to work with, but a few years ago I went on a Zelda bender, replaying every single game in the franchise over the course of a few months. This was back in ~2013, so pre-Switch and all of that. But what I learned was that a) Zelda games have aged exceptionally well, generally speaking, and b) that the game worlds are definitely not as big as I remember.

I recall getting lost on Koholint Island for hours, the map absolutely gargantuan, needing to reference the map constantly. You’d move one screen up, “wait, no that’s not it,” move a few more screens over, and try again. I used to get lost constantly – even during my more recent replay I kept running into dead ends. Doubly so for the Oracle games, wherein you had to alter the time period or the season to move obstacles out of the way.

What changes in Link’s Awakening 2019 is that there is no longer a technical need for screen transitions. You move through the map with absolutely no pauses, and thus, you rip through entire chunks of the map in a minute or two. I remember it taking forever to scale the mountains or get to the desert, but armed with your Pegasus Boots you can cross the map diagonally in about 5 minutes flat.

Of course, this says more about modern game design where everything has to be Bigger, Faster, Better, More, More! And of course, following Breath of the Wild’s ridiculously oversized map, the size of Link’s Awakening’s map seems pretty barebones.

This isn’t all bad though, because Link’s Awakening is supposed to be a bite-size of that Zelda charm. In fact, the size (or lack there-of) perfectly suits the context, and since I don’t want to spoil anything in the game, I’ll just leave it at that.

While the map may be tiny, the dungeons are challenging and plentiful. There’s a whole lot to do on Koholint Island, from fun trade routes to a new collectible minigame which breathes new life into the famous Crane Game, introducing even more Mario Universe references in the form of figures that you must arrange all over Mabe Village. There’s also the hidden Color Dungeon which gives a nice reward for those curious enough to seek it out.

So many Mario references!

Probably my favorite addition to the Switch remake is the Mario Statues. Inside most of the houses in Mabe Village, there is a little statue stand with a name plate on it. This name plate is the name of a Mario character, the statue of which can only be won at the Crane Game! If you’ve read my stuff before, you know I’m a huge fan of crane games, so I went absolutely ballistic when I realized there was more to it then in the original.

The original Crane Game was a tricky beast, as the pixel graphics didn’t allow for much in the way of precision pickin’, but the new and improved crane game actually feels like a real-life crane game, even in how it “jiggles” when the crane reaches the top. What you get is a super addicting mini-game that’s by far the highlight of the remake for me.

Watch as I get totally jipped trying to snipe a Wiggler:

One thing about Link’s Awakening that I always enjoyed, and it’s been too long to remember if this was the case with the original as well – the trade route is actually required to progress in the game. This isn’t the case with all Zelda games, as in a lot of cases it only served as a fun distraction that got you some bonus upgrades, like the Biggoron Sword in Ocarina of Time, or the Magic Armor in Wind Waker. But in Link’s Awakening, it forces you to interact with nearly every single NPC in the game, and you really get that rewarding feeling of helping everyone, which is a huge driving force in the game.

As I’m writing this, I’m realizing just how difficult it is to review, or even discuss, a remake of a game that’s so important to me – the most compelling argument would be to just play it yourself – but the fact is that the game hasn’t really changed at all in this version. It looks better, it feels smoother, it has that polish we’re used to. It adds some nice charm and some side content. But it’s still the same great game as the original.

But there is one part I’d like to mention – Dampe’s Dungeon Creator. Err, I mean the Dungeon Chamber.. maker…? The Dungeon Editor. What’s this thing called? Super Dampe’s Dungeon Chamber Maker Deluxe. Yeah that’s it!

Originally conceived as a desire to have Super Mario Maker-esque features in a Zelda game, the Chamber Dungeon feature allows players to create their own custom dungeons in a sort of optional minigame. As you progress in the game and clear dungeons, you explain to Dampe your tales of triumph, and the rooms from said dungeons become available to you to construct your own.

Not only that, but there are several challenges you must undertake using the Chamber Dungeon, such as organizing rooms in a special way, placing special rooms (like key rooms or boss rooms) on certain tiles, and… well, that’s about it. It’s a boring minigame at worst and a half-baked decent idea at best, but one thing is for sure – I was bored to tears before I entered the second dungeon.

The thing with Zelda dungeons is that they are expertly crafted. See, I’m not an expert Zelda dungeon craftsman – I make websites for a living – so my dungeons suck. No one would want me to design Zelda dungeons, mark my words. So when Dampe handed me the keys to the castle, I said, “oh, this is not going to go well at all.” And folks, I can say with full confidence that it did not.

Zelda dungeons need to follow a theme, an ebb and flow, if you will, or the rooms seem random and out of place. Without the context of a dungeon room, you’re just slapping word magnets together on a refrigerator, hoping they form some sort of coherent sentence. In the case of Chamber Dungeons, you basically shove rooms together so that a) all of the rooms connect to other rooms, with no broken exists, and b) that enough keys exist for the unlocked doors.

Once you’ve managed to do this and get a “Dampe approved” dungeon, buckle up, because now you get to play an entire dungeon which you created removing any elements of surprise, to play all the rooms you’ve already beaten, without any of the context of the actual dungeon.

I will say that they may be on to some cool ideas here, but the final result present in Link’s Awakening is absolutely not the golden egg. It’s also the first time I’m opted not to find 100% of the collectibles, once I learned that some of the Secret Seashells and Heart Pieces were locked behind this minigame.

It’s a real shame because I think they could have really done something special here if they gave it more time to cook in the metaphorical oven.

To focus on the real upgrades to the original game, the most glaring problem of OG Link’s Awakening is that the Gameboy didn’t have enough buttons, meaning you spent all day staring at a pause screen, changing around your items. Even your sword had to be bound to one of the two buttons, ostensibly meaning you never used your shield, since you typically needed something else to get around, like the Hookshot or Roc’s Feather.

With the sword, shield, Pegasus Boots, and Power Bracelet all permanently bound to available buttons, it practically does away with all of the inconveniences of the original version. This, my friends, is exactly why game remakes are sometimes very necessary, as it lets players experience the game in the way that the original developers intended, but lacked the ability to provide.

A nice addition is the Seashell Sensor, which you get after finding a bunch of Seashells organically. This will make your Switch buzz and ding when you are close to one.

Link’s Awakening has been selling very well and I’d love to see developer Grezzo do more great work with the franchise. Now with five (!) Zelda games under their belt, I have the feeling that taking on the Oracle games would be an obvious next step, and that they are fully capable of bringing that glorious duet to modern times.

I was able to beat Link’s Awakening in a week and a half from receiving it, in about 15 hours – but keep in mind I knew exactly where to go 95% of the time. This is a meaty game and will certainly keep new players busy for a while. I cannot recommend the original title enough, but if you’ve got a Switch, this is the version you ought to play. It’s bite-sized Zelda perfection, and is truly deserving of a place on your physical or digital shelf.

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