The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening Review

Remade, but Not Refined

As the budgets of games ballooned and the prospect of investing in a wholly original AAA production has become increasingly risky, we’ve seen a plethora of publishers dig into their back catalog for titles to remake. Whether it be a reimagining using modern technology and standards or a one-to-one recreation with prettier visuals and some quality of life changes. 

I personally love this trend as it allows for older games to be repackaged for future generations and allows developers to fix whatever shortcomings the original had. However, of all the titles poised for a remake, I definitely would not have considered Link’s Awakening. A 1993 GameBoy title that marked the first ‘real’ handheld foray for the Zelda series. Since then, the title became a fan favorite of sorts, as it featured a streamlined and incredibly digestible rendition of the 2D Zelda formula, and told a story that stuck with people due to its whimsical and dark undertones.

I actually wrote a review of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX (the 1998 remaster for GameBoy Color) back in 2016, nearly five years ago. In that review, I praised many things about the game, its design, its mythos, and its general presentation. However, I bemoaned the cumbersome inventory system, the clunky overworld navigation, and some of the more obnoxious elements of its chirping audio landscape. I did not explicitly say it, but I identified a few areas for the title to improve on for a remaster, or in this case, a full-on remake. Better sound design, better inventory management, more overworld shortcuts, and more exploration of its narrative nuances. It seems like a fairly modest list of things for any remake to offer… and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (2019) provides pretty much none of them.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (2019) Review
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Grezzo
Publisher: Nintendo

When remaking a title with new technology, one of the first areas developers need to assess is the look for the game. Every title is ultimately limited by the technology available to the developers, and while it is easy to see what developers were aiming for in most games, 8-bit 2D games and early 3D games both tend to be more abstract or limited with their designs. And the 1993 version of Link’s Awakening was no exception. 

It has a cutesy, innocuous, and largely simplistic art style created by people who knew how to make something striking within the limitations of current hardware, rather than aim for something more ambitious. It looked great for a GameBoy game, set a look that was emulated in the Oracle games, and has stood the test of time far better than many of its contemporaries. But when it came time to remake the title, Grezzo decided against emulating the original artwork and character designs seen in instruction manuals and promotional art, as they had previously done with their remasters of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask

Instead, they took the game in a completely different direction and reimagined the world of Koholint Island as one made entirely out of plastic and glossy clay. This gives the game a striking and toyetic feel that is not strictly unlike the art style of the original, as both have chibi-styled characters with goofy designs. And on its own, I absolutely love what the developers did here. The world looks vibrant and distinct, the characters, friendly or baddie, are all absolutely adorable, and the world as a whole feels like a $250,000 model set come to life. It is a testament to just how good computer graphics have gotten that they can emulate physical matter so well, and it turns just about every screen of this game into a work of art in and of itself.

However, I have two problems with it. One, some bozo thought it would be a good idea to muck up the top and bottom of the screen with a filter effect to make the world feel bigger than it is, which makes a lot of sense until you realize this actually makes it harder to appreciate the hard work the modelers put into crafting this world. And two… this just doesn’t fit in with Link’s Awakening.

The story of Link’s Awakening follows series protagonist Link, specifically the incarnation from A Link to the Past, as he travels across the ocean in a rinky-dink boat, gets mixed up in a nasty storm, and winds up stranded on the shore of Koholint Island. An isolated island with no ties to the outside world, yet its inhabitants are jovial, friendly, and welcoming to Link, particularly the village siren, Marin, who… plays more of a role than Zelda does in most games.

However, shortly after arriving on this island, Link is informed that something is amiss and he must travel across the land, find 8 magical instruments, and use them to awaken the Wind Fish, a deific entity in this world who is resting within an egg on top of a mountain. Being a literal born-hero with a cyclical destiny, Link pursues this quest, travels across the land, and becomes accustomed to this world by returning to and from the main town and interacting with the assorted and eccentric NPCs he finds in his quest. Crocodile artists, frog princes, lazy walruses, and children with a tenuous grasp on how something is amiss in this world who choose not to pursue it.

The twist, which is well-known enough to spoil, is that Koholint Island only exists in the dreams of the Wind Fish, and by waking him up, the entire world will vanish into nothingness, ending the days of the colorful cast has learned to know and care for, and the primary antagonists in the game as well. A legion of nightmares who don’t necessarily want domination, conquest, or control. They just want to continue existing.

This presents an interesting moral quandary that people only really came to grips with when they replayed the original as adults. It is one of the most endearing and creative aspects of the original game, as it turns a series about saving the world into one where they must internalize the morality of their actions. It is true that Link has responsibilities beyond this land, and he is directed along his journey by a wise owl who insists that this is the only way forward. But the game makes an effort to endear players to this world while they go about their dungeon runs. And while the ending is poised as a triumphant one in all renditions, there is an underlying sense of destruction that Link’s actions carry, as the world the player had grown intimate with ultimately vanishes into nothingness. Destined to exist as nothing more than a mere memory.

This is an excellent concept… but neither the 1993 nor the 2019 incarnations of this story treat it with the grandiose it deserves. The story is stated plainly and matter-of-factly, and much of the depth and impact of this narrative is spun within the player’s head as they interpret what the game is doing. I think this worked well in 1993, given the limitations and Nintendo’s squeaky clean image, but for a 2019 title, I feel like the story could have done more. There could have been more of a push towards Link and Marin’s relationship. The game could give players more of a reason to check in on the townsfolk. And there could have been more story-focused side quests that focus on the fatalistic undertones of Link’s journey, with characters talking about the future, and their plans for themselves and their families.

Instead, it is still fairly easy to ignore this side of the game, especially if you are not looking for it, and dismiss it as a goofy children’s game. A mentality that is only supported by the new art style. Now, a colorful, simplistic, or silly art direction does not mean that a game cannot have any narrative depth or darker subject matter. Just look at Kirby or Katamari for two mainstream examples. However, what the developers did here was make the game more adorable, cute, and child-friendly, while deliberately not focusing more on the darker side of the story. 

All of this perplexed me throughout my playthrough and left me routinely asking if the developers truly ‘got’ why the original Link’s Awakening earned its reputation as a classic. And this lack of understanding is all the more confusing, because the game was developed by Grezzo. A company that has dedicated itself to preserving the legacy of Zelda and enhancing what was originally there. But when it came time to redefine the visual direction for this title, they went with something that I consider to be wildly at odds with what the original was pushing.

The original’s visual direction was based on the graphics of A Link to the Past, because that was what Zelda looked like at the time. But the talking animals, corny or odd dialogue from NPCs, and a boatload of references were all meant to subvert Zelda fans’ expectations by placing regular hints that the game was a different beast, and they all play into the idea of this being a dream world. Hell, they even threw in King Wart from Super Mario USA or Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic as part of a mandatory side quest.

Yet by adopting such a different art style, that same effect is lost, and it makes Link’s Awakening (2019) feel like… well, not like a dream world, but like a wholesome and innocent child’s paradise, and one with no direct ties to any other Zelda game. It just comes across as curious… and not in a particularly interesting way.

Link’s Awakening (1993) was a special game that relished in the creative freedoms Nintendo of the early 90s offered its employees, back when they could use Mario enemies without any permission. And seeing it remade with these graphics, with this much attention to the original’s detail, there was something… ghoulish about it. Modern Nintendo would never allow any of its developers, especially not Grezzo, to make a game like Link’s Awakening (1993), and the only reason why this game has all of its wackadoo characters and casual Mario references is that the original did. 

I was constantly reminded of this as I played the game, and it took me weeks to figure out why I was so bothered by this. It’s not that the game feels soulless, as the world was crafted with the utmost care and I can feel a love of the original reverberating through every reconstructed room. But it feels… hollow. Like the game’s design written by people 25 years ago and was recreated with a marketable art style that the original developers would have never used, even if they had the technology at the time. Because that’s exactly what happened.

I could also say the same for the music, which trades in the sharp chirps of the original— sounds that were not easy on the ears, but the best you could hope for from a machine as cheap as the original GameBoy— for something… different. The score of Link’s Awakening (2019) can loosely be described as a lo-fi orchestral rendition of the original, featuring a lot more music than I expected, and renditions of each song performed using a plethora of wind and string instruments along with snippets of the original compositions. All of which adds to and builds upon these tracks while retaining the same simple and charming melodies. 

It is better, I can tell that the team responsible had a blast mixing and remixing these new tracks together… but something about it just feels overproduced to me. There is a lot going on in these compositions, but due to the pace and tempo of the game, which bombards the player with sound effects regularly, I found it difficult to take in the score as much as I should have. I would have tried to fix this personal problem by using this wonderful innovation known as a volume mixer, but I guess the developers of Link’s Awakening (2019) didn’t think it was necessary.

In fact, there are zero options for players in this game. No input-rebinding, no text speed, no ‘depth of field effect for photo junkies and other idiots’ toggle, nothing. What you see is what you get and what you get beyond the aesthetics is… a widescreen version of Link’s Awakening with screen scrolling, more buttons, a new mode, and… that’s about it.

The world map of Link’s Awakening is tightly woven and has little in the way of connective tissue. The game wants players to progress through the game world in a very specific way, and if you try to deviate from that, you are likely going to encounter a dead-end or a prolonged detour. While I’m sure this was originally done because of technical limitations, this makes backtracking a core component of Link’s Awakening, and it’s tedious in a way that other Zelda games are not. The best way to illustrate this point would be to look at the map of Link’s Awakening and compare it to A Link to the Past or any of the 3D titles. The other games are open, vast, and allow you to progress through the world organically, while Link’s Awakening’s world feels like a bureaucrat designed it for ‘optimal space density.’

However, I will say that the game world of Link’s Awakening (2019) is significantly easier to navigate than in the original. New fast travel points have been added, though there are still too few if you ask me. The in-game map is a 1:1 rendition of the environments, allowing players to better plan their routes through the game world by consulting their maps. And between a key dialogue log, collectible maps, and a hint system, the game does a lot to direct the player without giving them a clear objective marker.

Dungeons received a similar facelift, with maps being far more detailed than ever before, and each dungeon being this tight and deliberately constructed series of micro-challenges whose pacing, readability, and simplicity are all testaments of good level design. With the exceptions of level 7 and 8, both of which are a bit too roundabout for my liking, and involve a lot of circling around the same rooms if you do not go in with a working knowledge of their layouts.

Still, the dungeons are the purest and most digestible form 2D Zelda dungeons have ever been, so it’s not surprising that the developers decided to introduce a dungeon maker feature, where players can take select rooms from each dungeon in the game and arrange them as part of various challenges. They can be fun, but the player needs to create their own fun, assembling the dungeons themselves and the challenges they would face. 

It can be a time-consuming and often rudimentary process due to how the ultimate goal is to connect rooms around specific templates, and I personally found myself growing bored with the concept shortly after its introduction. Sure, you can do a decent amount of things with it, but players are encouraged to cheese the system and make the easiest dungeons possible, and the quantity of work you need to do to be rewarded is higher here than it is anywhere else in the game. 

I actually didn’t even bother with the final dungeon maker challenge to get a heart container because I wanted to finish the game before going to bed. I assumed this would be a straightforward process… but it actually kind of sucks. Instead of a final dungeon, the end of Link’s Awakening has Link go through a series of repeating rooms where he needs to go in the right 8-part sequence to reach the final boss. The answer to this is hidden away in an obscure library that players only need to visit to access the Color Dungeon, where they can double their boy’s defense or strength. Once the player writes this sequence down (it is different in every playthrough), they are met with a 6-part boss gauntlet that references A Link to the Past quite nicely, but is kind of ruined by three things. 

One, you can only damage each form of the boss using one weapon, which really defeats the purpose of building up an arsenal for the end of the game, and makes half of this fight trial and error, as it is not clear how to defeat each incarnation of the final boss. Two, the remake developers added a new phase from the fight, which goes against the succession of Link’s internal fears by putting in something above phase 4. Three, they removed the boomerang cheese strategy from the final phase. And playing this phase the legit way is neither fun nor challenging.

On the subject of weapons, now that the game is for Nintendo Switch, the developers had access to no shortage of buttons to use to enhance this game’s controls, and… they did some things right. The sword, shield, and pegasus boots are now always equipped and used via B, R, and L respectively, which makes sense. However, the Roc’s Feather item, which lets Link jump, is the most used item outside of the sword in this entire game, but it is not given a dedicated button. Because of this, I wound up keeping the feather equipped 90% of the time, because I constantly needed it to jump over obstacles. This would be a fine sacrifice if the game fully used the system’s controls, but ZR and ZL are not used at all, leaving only two face buttons for item use. Meaning that most of the time when I wanted to use a specific item not assigned a dedicated button, I needed to go into the menu and switch it out.

Every fast travel, every boomerang throw, every bomb, every one of the single-digit applications of the magic rod, all required me to pause and rearrange my items from the menu. Considering how the inventory is still fairly small even after some light expansion, I kept thinking there was a better way to manage things, to use the buttons of a modern controller better than this. And to give just one example, they could have used the D-pad to manage player inventory, because you can’t use it outside of menus. 

This also means that, despite being a 2D game at its core, you cannot play Link’s Awakening (2019) with a D-pad. You need to use the control stick. That alone is an odd decision, and what makes it even odder is how Link does not move in 360 degrees. His movement is limited to 8 directions, and it just looks… wrong to see an HD fully 3D game where the protagonist can only move in 45-degree angles. I thought this was dated and strange in Metroid: Other M, and nearly a decade later, Nintendo is still repping arbitrarily limited character movement in 3D games.

When divorced from the prospect of a remake, I think Link’s Awakening (2019) is a solid game. Not great, arbitrary in many regards, cumbersome in others, but a pretty, breezy, and digestible adventure that I would ultimately recommend. However, I was unable to divorce the game from the original as I played, and could not escape the fact that Link’s Awakening (2019) is a corporate-mandated and by-the-books reconstruction of a game made with virtually no corporate oversight.

Despite this level of control, oversight, and clear planning, the remake is in this wishy-washy state where some things are far better than the original, some things that should have changed are exactly the same, and other things are worse. It does not go far enough to feel like the truly definitive version of the game, takes too many artistic liberties, and does not take enough design liberties. 

To me, the purpose of a remake like this is to capture the vibe, flavor, and finer points of the original while removing most, if not all, of the commonly cited annoyances and shortcomings with the original release. And while Link’s Awakening (2019) does some of that, it is a frustrating half-step that left me longing for something more. The original rendition left me wanting for something more modern and streamlined. While this modern rendition left me pining for even more refinements and a different art style entirely. No matter which version you go with, you’re going to miss out on something good.

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