Remaking a Classic
The original Link’s Awakening on the game boy was an experience that never left me. Even as an adult in my early 30s I can still clearly recall road trips through South Dakota, sitting in the back of the car plugging away at my green-shelled Game Boy, trying to uncover every secret of Koholint Island. Looking out the window of the car at the passing countryside I used to imagine the giant egg of the Wind Fish actually sitting on one of the hills in the distance.
Many gamers feel that the original Zelda is the best version of the game that has ever been released, and it’s not hard to understand why. Since the original game in 1987, the series has seen 18 mainline entries, but this one still stands out with its unique setting, story, characters, mechanics, and even some Nintendo cross overs, which I imagine some younger fans would be stunned to see in a Zelda game.
26 years after that original handheld release, Nintendo has decided to remake the game from the ground up on the Switch. The only question now is the dream as sweet as we remember?
What Dreams Are Made Of
The story of Link’s Awakening follows the titular protagonist getting caught in a nasty storm out at sea. Despite his best efforts, the storm capsizes our hero’s boat and he finds himself washed up on the shore of Koholint Island. This mysterious land is full of wacky characters, dangerous monsters, and a giant egg that rests on the peak of the island’s tallest mountain, looming ominously.
Link is saved by a young girl named Marin and her father Tarin. Just like Link, Marin dreams of leaving the island, but wonders if there is anything beyond its shores. It’s rumored that the only way to leave the island is by awakening the Wind Fish from its deep slumber inside its egg. Link is tasked with finding eight instruments hidden throughout the island and using them to stir the beast. Throughout his journey, you’ll discover the island isn’t all that it seems and the fate of the island’s inhabitants might lie in Link’s hands.
Link’s Awakening was the first game in the series that didn’t take place in the land of Hyrule and the original devs took advantage of this by making, arguably, the wildest and out their journey in the series history. Every NPC you encounter in this game is zany and brimming with personality, and their charm still holds up all these years later; from the kids who give you advice on your journey who don’t even understand what they themselves are saying, to the father asks you to look out for him and tells you early on that he’s going to be lost in the mountains later in the game. These NPCs were said to be inspired by the cult classic show Twin Peaks, which probably explains some of their eccentricities. Though the game is charming, it’s so bizarre you’d almost think it was a fan-made game instead of an actual Nintendo product.
While the game does touch on some heavier themes like what are the repercussions of waking the Wind Fish, it never dives too deeply into those darker themes. This was fine for the time of the original Game Boy, but with the remake, I wish that they had taken the time to explore those themes in greater depth. As the story goes on there’s a creeping sense of doubt that waking the Wind Fish may not be the best thing for the inhabitants of the island. This story thread is only explored on a surface level and I really wish there had been more time dedicated to exploring it. As it stands, the script is basically exactly as it was for the Game Boy release.
That's Like a Babies Toy
Since its unveiling, one of the more controversial topics of the remake has been the overall art design for the game. Instead of a more common art style used in previous titles like Breath of the Wild, Link’s Awakening opted for a more toy-like or cute aesthetic. All the characters have tiny bodies and large ovular black eyes and the trees have an almost plastic look about them. If you’re old enough to remember the uproar that followed Wind Waker’s unveiling, this has a similar feel, and in time the critics of Awakening will fade just like they did for Wind Waker. From the first the eye-catching animated intro to the final dungeon, you’ll be awestruck over how gorgeous this game looks. The colors pop off the screen, especially when you’re playing on a TV.
Despite the limited number of NPC’s, the island feels like it’s teeming with life. Unlike the original release which used a scrolling screen movement system, similar to the original Zelda on NES, the remake’s whole world is seamlessly connected, making the island come to life even more. Unfortunately, when moving into a new area the frame rate dips to about 30 frames per second, a noticeable drop from the silky smooth 60 fps the game normally runs at.
The Ballad of the Wind Fish
What’s a Zelda game without a beautiful score? The original Game Boy release had some of the best chip-tune tracks on the system. Hearing them remade into a full orchestral arrangement feels so right that you’ll find yourself humming the over-world tune at least a few times a day. The game’s heavy focus on dreams is bolstered by the soundtrack because the instrumentals complement the fantasy setting. The first several minutes start strong with some of my favorite tracks one after the next. You know you’re in for a once in a lifetime journey as soon as Link lands on Koholint beach and the orchestra begins to swell while the camera slowly starts to pan up through the clouds as the mountain of the Wind Fish comes into view, revealing the giant ominous egg.
Nintendo and Grezzo did a great job updating the score this release, it feels like these tracks were always meant to have real instrumentals. Even small touches- like Marin’s singing, or picking up one of the eight instruments at the end of each dungeon- sounds great, and never failed to put a smile on my face. If there’s one area where the game’s soundtrack falls a little short, it would be the dungeon themes. While none of them are bad, most are a bit forgettable, which is a shame considering some of the great dungeon themes from other games in the series.
The sound effects are your typical Zelda fare. The sound of your sword slash, bomb explosions, all feel par for the course. Unlike BotW, Link’s Awakening foregoes voice acting, with the usual text-based dialogue boxes, which I believe was the right call. The original game had a few too many pop up boxes, for example, every time you ran into a rock that you couldn’t lift a box would pop up, halting the game in its tracks, to tell you that you need an item to lift it. Thought this mechanic has been fixed, for the most part, the game still feels the need to use intrusive text boxes to tell you what to do whenever you pick up a Guardian Acorn or a Piece of Power. Once again this halts the gameplay and to be even more annoying it temporarily replaces the main theme with a longwinded looping track which goes on for too long.
Thankfully the devs give you the option to scroll through any dialogue quickly by mashing the B button and more dialogue can fit into a box now that they aren’t limited by the hardware. While I would’ve loved if some of those issues had been resolved completely- (I know what a Piece of Power does, I’ve already picked up like 50 of them!)- it’s nice that one of the biggest complaints from the original has been ironed out a bit.
Tools of the Trade
On the surface, players new to Link’s Awakening may see it as a run of the mill over-head Zelda game. Dive a little deeper and they’ll find one of the most unique experiences the series has to offer. One of the first items Link acquires in his adventure is the Roc’s Feather, which allows him to jump at will. This item is used many times throughout the journey, and the original devs took full advantage of it. At times the game shifts to a 2D side-scrolling view, reminiscent of Super Mario Bros, even throwing in enemies from the titular plumbers’ adventures, such as Piranha Plants, Thwomps, and Goombas. The Goombas can actually be jumped on to gain a heart drop.
Items can be combined in various ways to increase their effectiveness. Once Link acquires the Pegasus Boots to run he can use that combined with the feather to do a long jump, which is necessary to clear dungeons and collect various items later on. Equipping the bow and bombs at the same time gives Link bomb arrows, a combination that was thought for years to be a glitch.
Discovering different ways to use these items was always one of the best parts of the original, however, the Game Boy was limited to just two face buttons, meaning players had to constantly swap out items to clear various puzzles. Need to make a long jump over a large pit? Players were forced to unequip their weapons and assign the boots and the feather to both buttons, leaving them ill-prepared if they encountered an enemy on the other side. This constant swapping of items has always been a problem in the series. (It’s one of the major reasons the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time is so reviled). Despite how good the original was, there was no getting around how tedious the constant item swapping could get, especially in later dungeons.
Luckily we’re not limited to just two face buttons anymore and Grezzo took full advantage of almost every button on the Switch. Certain items are now permanently hot keyed. The sword, shield, and Pegasus Boots are all assigned to the B, R, and L buttons respectively, and the Power Bracelet is now an always active item, meaning you can always lift up objects with the A button instead of being forced to equip it every time you want to lift an object. This leaves the X and Y buttons available for any other equipable items you may want to use. I spent significantly less time in the menus because of these qualities of life upgrades, which led to way less frustration towards the end game. Especially since the dungeons here, unlike many games later in the series, will use almost every item at your disposal in order to clear them.
Several of the dungeons blend together, though a few stand out. One outstanding dungeon is “the tower,” where the player has to destroy several pillars in order to force the top floor to collapse so they can reach the boss. The fire dungeon is another one, with many pathways leading to multiple floors, and even outside the dungeon itself in order to find a way out. The map system is a necessity in some of the bigger dungeons and allows the use of pins in order to mark important areas. I used the pins frequently to mark where stairs would connect on the map since they often lead you to areas clear across the map in unexpected ways.
There were times where I became frustrated with some of the dungeon designs. It felt very easy to simply overlook something and spend several minutes going to every room trying to figure out what you’re missing. Keys are often hidden in rooms and their location isn’t indicated on the map. Instead, the compass item gives a jingle when you’re in one of these rooms, giving you a hint to look for a way to make the key appear. However, you may not have the correct item at the time, or maybe you’re not in the correct area of the room in order to retrieve it, and it’s very easy to forget which rooms you need to return to once you have the right equipment so you can gain the key necessary to move forward.
The bosses at the end of each labyrinth are all unique encounters, and many of them have updated AI to make them a little more difficult to fight. Some of my favorites include the Genie, who is impervious until his lamp is destroyed and the “Floor” boss who is a giant taunting face that mocks you until you can discover it’s weakness. Despite the updated boss behavior, some of them are still super easy, sometimes only needing the sword to defeat, and can be vanquished in literal seconds. For example, the first boss only requires two sword spins to kill. Despite this, most of the encounters are a joy to play and some of my favorite of any overhead Zelda title.
For the completionists out there, Koholint is full of secrets to discover and is almost deceptively big. In order to find everything, the game has to offer you’ll have to return to certain areas multiple times once you gain items later in the game. Again, the tag system on the map screen is useful to keep track of things like heart pieces that you’re not able to pick up at the time. There are also several optional items to discover if you look hard enough, such as the powerful boomerang that can only be collected by completing an extensive trade quest that spans most of the games run time. There are also 50 hidden seashells that can be gathered in order to collect some optional power-ups. My biggest issue with these is that they can be hidden almost anywhere, including underground, and require a shovel to discover. There isn’t an item that will alert you when one is nearby, so unless you want to search every nook and cranny of the island for them, you’ll probably want a walkthrough handy to discover them all.
With how much there is to explore and discover here, it’s a shame the final stage is as weak as it is. There’s no real final dungeon leading up to the final boss. Instead, it’s a simple maze whose solution can only be found outside of the dungeon itself, or with a reference guide. Though the ending itself is rather satisfying, it’s unfortunate that all the buildup beforehand leads to an anti-climactic final level.
The Perfect Remake?
Returning to the world of Link’s Awakening all these years later I’m not surprised it’s held up as well as it has. Very little needed to be changed in order to bring the title to modern audiences. A fresh coat of paint, updated soundtrack, and some quality of life changes aside, the level and world design is exactly how it was in the original title, a testament to the original design teams abilities to create such an ever-green game on hardware that should have been incapable of producing such a thing.
While the game still has minor flaws, its deepest ones have been ironed out, and there are so many great original ideas that make it stand out from other games in the series. If Majora’s Mask is your favorite title in the series, and you’ve never played this one, it’s going to be right up your alley. For fans of the original, there’s a hero mode if you want to challenge yourself. Enemies do more damage in this mode and no longer drop hearts, so your abilities will really be put to the test and is a fun way to add some more meat to the game.
It may not be the best Zelda game, but it might be the most memorable. Link’s Awakening is one dream I was happy to have again.
Thank you for reading feel free to comment below. Follow me on Twitter and we can talk about gaming. You can also read about #Project181 here and donate to help raise money for Gamers Outreach. Join us in helping kids in hospitals getting to game.
AKA “The Board Game Mole”
[Editors Note: The Board Game Mole is a content contributor for 181GAMING. If you would like to have your content published on 181GAMING, click here. We are always looking for content creators and community moderators.]