Link’s Awakening (2019)
Grezzo/Nintendo | Reviewed on Nintendo Switch
A dream with waking eyes
I was super excited for Link’s Awakening, as it’s one of the earliest Zelda titles I ever played – the first handheld one that I ever owned, in fact. As a kid, I was never able to beat it; back in the days before guides on the internet, once you got stuck, you were stuck. I would start a new game every time I was stumped, and play the game over again, sometimes getting further than before, and sometimes quitting in the exact same spot. Regardless, I loved this title a lot – it was my go-to Gameboy title on long road trips and rainy days. So, in all honesty, it was a bit of a surprise to me when I found myself not really enjoying the game. It felt like going through the motions, like the comfort of my childhood nostalgia wasn’t enough to make me love the game anymore. This is going to be a fairly short review, as I feel like I don’t have a whole lot to say about this title. Graphically, Link’s Awakening is gorgeous – the cute art style was a smart choice in re-vamping a handheld title. I enjoyed finally being able to complete the game, and see how the story plays out, since I had never experienced the ending. While Link’s Awakening is absolutely textbook – Fantastic Remakes 101, really – the game feels dated, in both its mechanics and design elements, and I found myself feeling somewhat apathetic about the title I’d been looking forward to all year.
Link’s Awakening (from what I can recall of the Gameboy version) is an extremely faithful adaptation of the original game. Link, shipwrecked out in a stormy sea, washes up on the shores of Koholint Island, where he is taken in by Marin and Tarin. After collecting his lost sword and shield, he learns that if he wishes to leave the island, he will have to wake the fabled Wind Fish. He will have to collect 8 instruments, scattered throughout the 8 temples on the isle, in order to do so. With the overarching goal of the game set, the rest of the adventure follows Link’s journey across the island, as a general sense of unease builds – is waking the Wind Fish the right thing to do? I genuinely enjoyed the narrative of this game – it feels like one of the more original stories that still centers around the premise of beating temples and collecting items. Since I had never gotten to the end of the game as a kid, it was gratifying to finally see the story (which I won’t spoil) wrap up. To be honest, this was one of the only things driving me forward in this game – I found a lot of the other elements to be more intolerable than I remember.
I’d forgotten how irritating the mechanic of “touch this thing/enemy and you take damage” was. A lot of sections within these dungeons, or even while traversing the overworld, felt like they were designed with the intent of forcing you to take damage – especially in the small, cramped rooms with the Sparks that follow the walls and curves. Sometimes there are three in one room, making it nearly impossible to traverse without touching one of them. A lot of the traps and hazards feel like they were implemented in the same manner, but since they’re designed to trip you up, it wasn’t as frustrating as the enemies. This is a fairly small nitpick, but I did find it frustrating in the initial hours, when your health is quite low, to feel like the game was arbitrarily forcing me to take damage at every turn. Maybe I just suck.
I always enjoyed the dungeons in this game, and I still do in this gorgeous remaster; I’ve always been a fan of the handheld dungeon design of the Zelda titles, as I feel like the limitations of the medium require some extra creativity and ingenuity when working on puzzle design. The updated graphics help to flesh out each of the dungeons more thematically, with improved lighting, more nuanced colours, and dynamic enemies. The bosses in particular look fantastic in this reboot, with my favourites being the Angler Fish and the Evil Eagle. While not exceptionally designed, even Slime Eye and face-in-the-floor, Facade, look excellent (not all the bosses will be gold). You can definitely feel how dated the dungeon design is, however – in all the extremely obtuse puzzle elements, hidden rooms, and sprawling maps. A lot of my time in Link’s Awakening was spent thinking about how far the Zelda franchise has come in terms of design. This isn’t a negative – obviously, the game is a product of its time – I just don’t believe it has necessarily aged well.
Koholint Island itself was enjoyable to explore, with its lush and varied landscapes, from the shaded Mysterious Woods, to the Yama Desert. The Tal Tal Mountain range, and Mount Tamaranch (where the mysterious egg that houses the Wind Fish sits) are impressive and fun to navigate. I particularly enjoyed Kanalet Castle with the updated graphics – though its a short narrative beat, it’s always been one of my favourite sections. The music is also phenomenal – Marin’s voice is an actual voice in this version, not a computer generated tune. It’s a pleasure to experience the soundtrack while traipsing through the fields and caves of the island. There are some technical hiccups in this title – most noticeably, the framerate drops when moving left or right, from screen to screen. This was only a mild annoyance in the grand scheme of exploration, however.
Though the island is usually fun to explore, there are countless examples of unintuitive puzzle design, especially when it comes to basic story progression and uncovering the secrets of Koholint. A lot of it makes zero sense, which makes the Owl NPC (a manifestation of the Wind Fish) a necessary addition, to guide you moving forward. Sometimes you’ll have to navigate an obstacle or two along the way – maybe by finding a new song or item. Again, none of this progression is explained narratively, or makes any sense at all. I’d like to give a quick shout out to the game’s hint system – old man Ulrira (available via the many phone huts scattered about the isle). Thank the gods old man Ulrira apparently has nothing better to do than be sat by the phone all day, because I think I called him about 900 times for a hint. The lead up to one particular dungeon, the Eagle’s Tower, sees you reviving an ancient, long-dead rooster in Mabe Village (with a song you’ll have to learn from the frog, Mamu, in yet another area) in order to cross a giant pit in a nondescript cave, to retrieve the tower’s key. You know, obviously. As you do. I was genuinely annoyed that I had to look up a walkthrough at a couple points during the game, because I was seriously stuck.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say this game was a chore to play, but it certainly wasn’t as entertaining as I thought it would be. It took me quite a while to get through this relatively short title; I found myself just generally uninterested in playing. The moments of irritation I had with the combat, and other elements (re: Trendy Game claw mechanics) made me realize that this game simply felt a lot more fun when I originally played it. Though Link’s Awakening has been improved in nearly every aspect, its dated design and puzzle elements make it an occasionally frustrating experience. For whatever reason, this remaster didn’t quite click with me the way I’d anticipated, but Nintendo has certainly done a great job with it. I think this would be a good entry title to the series for newcomers to the Zelda franchise. There are also a lot of positives to be found here for die-hard fans – excellent visuals, fun gameplay, and a compelling narrative make this title unique among the handheld crowd. As for me, I think I’ll stick to re-visiting Link’s Awakening in my childhood memories, or maybe even in a dream.