Link’s Awakening: Zelda Returns to Form

After the massive success of Breath of the Wild in 2017, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening returns the series’ attention to a more focused and traditional gameplay experience. This is the second time Link’s Awakening has moved to a new system after its debut on the Game Boy in 1993. In 1998 it arrived as Link’s Awakening DX on the Game Boy Color and now more than twenty years later, the title premiers on the Nintendo Switch. Fans new and old hope that this version of the “best Game Boy game ever” withstands the test of time and proves that the Zelda franchise is timeless through and through.

Disclaimer: This review will contain no spoilers within its own body. Some external links may include details that spoil certain features or plot elements. Explore at your own risk.

New and Improved.

The presentation in this version of Link’s Awakening is the most charming in the franchise’s history. While the top-down angle of the original title remains in tact, the design of both characters and the world at large have been completely reworked. Now instead of looking at 8-bit models equipped with swords and shields, gamers are treated to bright and almost toy-like animation. Link is adorable and energetic; he’s the shiny new gift on Christmas morning.

Similarly the soundtrack represents a perfect blend of Zelda’s past and present. There are still a handful of digital tunes bringing this journey to life. This time however, they have been combined with a curation from the Zelda director himself, Eiji Aonuma. Link’s Awakening is equal parts adventure and spectacle. Developers at Nintendo and Grezzo were careful to give this title the revitalization it deserved.

Plot Pitfalls.

While the small map is filled to the brim with life and character, its navigation does not come without shortcomings. Dungeons and puzzles scattered throughout the island of Koholint are masterfully crafted and a joy to solve. Contrarily battles are dated and back-tracking through the map in parts of the late game feels tedious even with the addition of numerous fast travel points.

This is likely due not only to the original combat design but also to the A-to-B narrative progression and the game’s shallow storytelling. Directions are given to players from a wandering and seemingly omniscient owl after each dungeon is cleared and off they go from one zone to the next. Link’s first adventure outside of Hyrule should constantly feel like a big deal. Instead the scope of Link’s Awakening boils down to little more than a side quest.

Best Boss Fights.

Of course the development team has gone to great lengths to make sure that even the shallow parts of this experience are as enjoyable as possible. The dungeons in particular are Awakening’s true highlight. While battles occurring in the overworld are typically placed to slow Link’s progression as he navigates the map, those inside of the dungeons always serve a purpose. They’re capped by stellar boss fights that push players’ awareness and adaptability to the limit.

To make things somewhat easier on its audience, Link’s Awakening added several other gameplay features. There is now a dedicated shield button to block enemy attacks. There are two mappable face buttons for Link’s various tools and equipment. For those who need more of a challenge from the game’s combat system, there’s also a Hero Mode in which enemies do twice as much damage and health drops become few and far between. For the most part, all of Awakening’s additions are welcome changes to the critically acclaimed formula.

The new “dungeon maker” mode is the only exception to that rule. What originally excited fans as Zelda’s answer to Mario Maker proves to be a half-effort. Dungeons can only be built from a selection of pre-determined rooms. There’s very little reward for what ultimately becomes a trek through previously conquered encounters. There’s already enough backtracking in Link’s Awakening. The mode that was most likely to add variety and replayability fell short. If a Zelda: Dungeon Maker is in the stars, it needs to be far more thorough than this first outing.

Handheld Must-Have.

Some fans put Nintendo under fire for re-releasing a twenty-six year old game at full retail price. Nonetheless, this is a great game. Link’s Awakening is a concise adventure with exceptional puzzles and an irresistible presentation. In that way it is perhaps more appropriate as a handheld title than its predecessor Breath of the Wild.

This port can be enjoyed in short bursts, on the go, with days in between sessions without demanding much from the player. The world is small but therefore never overwhelming. The story is somewhat shall ow but that makes it easier to return to after time away. While this isn’t the best game on the Switch, there’s a reason it’s the #1 selling title in the UK. Awakening is a must-have for nostalgic Nintendo loyalists and for mobile gamers looking for their Zelda fix.