Rewind 26 years, and you’ll find me and my best friend bundled up in our jackets sitting on our school playground about an hour before the bell rings. Breath is fogging in front of our faces. We don’t notice. The tips of our fingers are cold. We don’t care. Our eyes are glued to the boxy grey devices in our hands. Through a tiny 4.5″ screen, we’ve been transported wholly to Koholint Island.
We’re playing The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening on the Gameboy. It’s an adventure I’ve never forgotten.
The Zelda series needs no introduction. From the original on NES to A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, and Breath of the Wild, Nintendo’s flagship franchise has again and again set the bar for adventure games. Ranking the series is an effort in line with trying to rank Da Vinci’s best work. No matter what order, you’re not wrong. (USgamer has a pretty good list here, though.)
For me, though, it’s always been about the little Gameboy game that could. I have fond memories of staying up all night playing A Link to the Past with my friends, but being able to bring a whole, feature rich, expansive, and unique Zelda game on the go was a heady experience for a nine year old. I played through it over and over again, pored through every area of the island, and obsessing over its secrets. Link’s Awakening became a new reality for me.
I’ve replayed it countless times over the years, and, despite some clunkiness that comes from being over 25 years old, never really felt like I needed a modernized version of the game. Until Nintendo announced a full remake from the Nintendo Switch. Because, oh boy, was I fully on board with that from the moment I saw the first video.
I dove into the remake with, shall we say… ribald enthusiasm. The original on Gameboy had a unique graphical style that still works brilliantly today. It’s clean and clear, full of personality, and looks like a Zelda game while still feeling unique within the series. For the remake, Nintendo and developers GREZZO landed on a gorgeous and highly stylized look, combining the original’s grid-based and block layout with a toy-like aesthetic, which immediately gives the game a feeling as though you’re playing within a diorama within a world that’s not quite real. (Which, of course, is sort of the point.) It’s a bold move, but a brilliant way of modernizing the look of the game without sacrificing its history.
The game itself remains true to its roots. Structurally, it’s an almost 1:1 remake of the original game, to the point that you could dig out an old Gamefaqs guide for the Gameboy version and use it to beat the game. Gamers without nostalgia for the original, or those too young to have ever experienced the Gameboy and its… clunky limitations, Link’s Awakening on the Switch might feel a little archaic, a little obtuse. This isn’t like the upcoming Final Fantasy VII remake, where they’ve taken the core concept of the original game and built a brand new modern experience around it. It’s a Gameboy game with a new coat of paint. Whether that works for you or not will be a matter of expectations, taste, and perspective.
But, man oh man, did it work for me.
Outside of noticeable and regrettable performance issues, this is a pitch perfect remake of an already classic game. It maintains all the quirkiness, mystery, and melancholy of the original, but injects the experience with a lot of useful and welcome quality of life additions. One of the biggest knocks against the Gameboy original was that you only had to item slots (A/B buttons) and that included your sword and shield, and movement-based items like the bracelet (which let you pick up rocks/pots/etc.) and the Pegasus Boots (which let you run fast). This meant you were constantly opening the sub-menu and tinkering with your equipped items as you moved through the dungeons and over world. Thanks to more buttons on the Switch and some smart button layout from GREZZO, this issue is largely resolved in the remake, making for a much smoother playing experience.
Unlike most Zelda games, Link’s Awakening doesn’t take place in Hyrule, and it’s not about defeating Ganon. Instead, after the events of A Link to the Past, Link is caught in a storm while out at sea and washes ashore on the mysterious island of Koholint. To get home he must befriend the island’s residents and defeat the eight Nightmares.
My favourite thing about Link’s Awakening has always been its weird story and odd setting. Many people look at Majora’s Mask as the “weird” Zelda, and it’s certainly that, but Link’s Awakening was the first time Nintendo really let loose and allowed Zelda to be something unexpected. This is a game with The Adventure of Link-style sidescrolling elements, but instead of traditional Zelda enemies, you’re stomping on goombas. It’s got a sleeping walrus that can only be woken with a song. Racoons who play tricks on you. A village full of animals. And nightmares with feelings. The whole game has a dreamlike feel. There’s also an air of melancholy over everything. The Switch version hews very closely to the Gameboy original for its script, which is doubly impressive when you consider how extensively most older games have to be rewritten to meet modern expectations and standards.
Actually, scratch that, my favourite thing about Link’s Awakening is the density of the world. On the Gameboy, the island was split up into dozens of distinct screens that players would scroll through as they explored. Capitalizing on this design, Nintendo crammed the world with details, secrets, puzzles, and landmarks. Every new screen provided something interesting. Contrast this with something like Ocarina of Time, where the world acted more like a hub, and you had a game where traversing the over world felt like part of the adventure itself. Every inch of Koholint was worth checking out, and more than almost any other Zelda game, you’d run into obstacles you couldn’t deal with until you returned later with the proper island. The Switch remake retains this same level of density. In fact, from what I can tell, the game world on Switch uses a 1:1 replica of the Gameboy version, with the only difference being that they’ve ditched the single screen traversal with a more modern scrolling style. Koholint has never been so fun to explore thanks to the gorgeous graphics, best-of-class level over world design, and oodles of personality.
As far as remakes go, Link’s Awakening is one of the best I’ve ever played. As far as games go, Link’s Awakening is also one of the best I’ve ever played. It masterfully captures the excitement and adventure I felt playing through the Gameboy original so many years ago. It transported me back to my cold school yard. To those erstwhile and dreamlike day of my childhood. The way it so closely hews to the original is an impressive testament its core design and experience. A tight, exciting, melancholic adventure, Link’s Awakening proves 2D Zelda is a live and well in a post-Breath of the Wild world. Whether you’re a longtime series fan, new to the series, or somewhere in between, you don’t want to miss Link’s Awakening.