Can a classic game still make an impact nearly 30 years later?
Disclaimer: Spoilers present below
For as young as I am, the Legend of Zelda has always held a special place in my heart. The first game I ever owned as a kid was the Windwaker and I grew up playing the likes of A Link Between Worlds and Four Swords Adventure. Over the years, I’ve tried my best to return to some of the classics that came out before my time, but one title has stood out to me as being fairly obscure. The Legend of Zelda Link’s Awakening and the Oracle games, to me, were always grouped into being these weird handheld Zelda games that could never possibly live up to their console counterparts. I never really gave them much of a second thought and they were left, in my eyes, as dated pieces of Nintendo history that were best left in the past. Fast forward to February 2019 when Nintendo announced that they would be remaking Link’s Awakening from the ground up for the Switch. At first, I was really thrilled! The opening cutscene looked amazing and I was really excited when I saw that iconic Wind Fish egg on the mountain. Then they showed gameplay and I was immediately irked at the art style. The clay aesthetic reminded me of Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, a game which I already wasn’t a fan of, so I brushed the game off until E3 2019. For some reason, four months later, the art style finally clicked with me and I was sold!
Now that it’s been a week since the game came out, I finally understand why this game is so special. I walked into Link’s Awakening knowing nothing besides that Marin was a character and that the Wind Fish was a central part of the game. Really, about the only exposure I had to the game before launch was Marin’s inclusion as a playable character in Hyrule Warriors. So, for about 90% of this game, I was going in blind. No guide, no help, and certainly no prior expectations. I tried my best to emulate what playing this game would have been like over 20 years ago, and in my experience, that was the best way to do it. Link’s Awakening is a very weird game, and I think I had a hint of that when I started to see some Mario characters in the game. Besides Super Smash Bros and Mario Kart, I had never really expected the iconic plumber and green hero to ever cross paths. And although the two don’t actually meet in the game, their worlds certainly do. Having Link squashing Goombas and carrying around a Chain Chomp was incredibly strange. It kept reminding me of a weird fan crossover that Nintendo would never have approved of. And it didn’t stop there. Soon I was encountering Shy Guys, Pokeys, Boos, and even Kirby of all things! The game just kept getting weirder and weirder, yet it still felt like a Zelda game at its core.
Now one thing I did know going into Link’s Awakening was that the original Game Boy game got a DX version for the Game Boy Color, which added in new features and a brand new Color Dungeon. Going into Link’s Awakening on Switch, I was very confused when I came across the Color Dungeon as, growing up in an era where color in video games was a given, I wasn’t quite sure the purpose of having the dungeon here at all. Would it play any differently to other dungeons? If all other dungeons have color, what makes this one unique? After playing through it, I have to admit that the dungeon, while being enjoyable, definitely feels out of place in the adventure. It’s existence is pretty well hidden too and, if I wasn’t going for 100%, I probably would have missed it entirely. The dungeon is filled to the brim with basic color matching puzzles that, for the time, must have been really cool to see on a Gameboy, but in this day and age, it felt like baby’s first Zelda puzzle. Even the boss at the end seemed like a total after thought, just being a giant Hardhat Beetle, an enemy seen throughout the entire game. It’s inclusion in Link’s Awakening, to me, felt like a relic of the past, making it just another box to check off on my completion journey.
One of the primary aspects of Link’s Awakening’s remake on the Switch that excited me was the addition of Chamber Dungeons. This mode was being advertised as a Mario Maker-lite experience, and with Mario Maker being one of my favorite games of all time, I couldn’t have been more excited. But don’t be fooled here, Chamber Dungeons are certainly not a Zelda Maker. In fact, within a few minutes of playing around with Dampe’s challenges, I found myself placing easy tiles to get to the end as soon as I could. There was so much potential here, but not being able to share your dungeons online (only with amiibo) just makes this mode seem like it could have been so much more. Although the Link’s Awakening Link amiibo has become one of my favorites, I don’t expect to see people walking around with it in their pockets so I can play their creations on my console.
Probably my favorite thing about Link’s Awakening as a whole was it’s story. Normally, I’m not the biggest fan of story driven games, but occasionally, certain games change my mind. Games like Majora’s Mask, the Ace Attorney series, and Danganronpa are some of my favorite games of all time, largely due to their stories. When I went into Link’s Awakening, I was expecting a story on par with the original Legend of Zelda, however, I was proven very wrong. Besides Majora’s Mask, Link’s Awakening had the best Zelda story I have ever seen. There was no focus on Zelda, Ganon, or the Triforce, just an island in the middle of the ocean with a dark secret. As most did, I started picking up on the hints of Koholint Island’s secret around the fifth dungeon. It didn’t take long to piece together that the journey was all a dream, but it was the implications of it that made the game so special. My go-to comparison when it comes to games where the story is all a dream is Super Mario Bros. 2. Although that game was indeed just a dream, I never really cared about what that really meant for its inhabitants. And although Wart is present in Link’s Awakening (under a different pseudonym), I cared more for him in Koholint Island than I did at the end of Mario 2. Though never explicitly stated, it is strongly implied that the nightmares that guard each of the Instruments of the Sirens are doing so to protect the island and it’s existence. It made me question the morals behind what Link was really doing, in a way I never had before. Although I have seen some people complain about the story’s lack of development, I actually really like how much was left up to interpretation. As a whole, Link’s Awakening’s story might be the thing I enjoyed the most about the game. After hearing about a secret ending, I think I may go back and try to unlock it.
In terms of gameplay, Link’s Awakening felt very familiar. Being a fairly experienced Zelda fan, playing Link’s Awakening was like returning home. You have all your standard equipment: sword, shield, bombs, power bracelet, and the bow are all here and accounted for. Really, the only new items to me were the addition of the Roc’s Feather and the Deluxe Shovel. Although the latter didn’t really change the gameplay up much (besides seashell hunting), the Roc’s Feather changed the entire way I played the game. Having the ability to jump at any point in the game was mind blowing! As a kid, it took me the longest time to adjust to the Windwaker not having a jump button, yet here was a Zelda game that allowed you to do just that! I don’t think I unequipped the item once from when I got it until the end of the game. It has easily become one of my favorite items in the series, due to it’s sheer amount of uses for any scenario. As for the dungeons, they were pretty standard fare. Although simple, each one felt like a true Zelda dungeon and was an enjoyable romp through familiar tasks. Push a block, kill all the enemies, light a torch, everything was here. The standard “find item, kill boss” effect was also in full swing here, which was much appreciated after Breath of the Wild’s departure from the formula. The side scrolling sections were also a lot of fun, as they reminded me of what a Adventure of Link remake would look like. The only exception to the rule was the seventh dungeon, Eagle’s Tower. That dungeon was a slog to get through, being filled with on-off switches blocking your path, a ball you had to carry the entire time, and annoying enemies galore. Otherwise, as a Zelda fan, the dungeons felt like the most familiar aspect of Link’s Awakening.
While most of the focus of Link’s Awakening was on the dungeons, Koholint Island was a fun world to explore, if small at times. The island was extremely varied, with deserts being placed right next to a river and forests placed right next to a mountain range, only adding to the idea that the adventure is just a dream. While it’s small size was noticeable, the world felt more alive thanks to the lack of screen transitions in most areas. This is one thing I’m glad was taken from Breath of the Wild, as even returning to A Link Between World’s version of Hyrule feels disjointed in 2019. Its inhabitants, although nowhere near as iconic as other entries, were still a lot of fun to interact with. Talking with a shy, old man over the phone to get a hint, a rabbit in Animal Village, and Tarin whenever he’s up to trouble all made the world feel alive, even if it was a strange world to explore. At the top of the cake is Marin, the character I was most familiar with. In a lot of ways, Marin is just another character on Koholint Island you can interact with, but what kept me so engaged was what the game doesn’t tell you about her. Probably the most burning question I have is “why does she know the Ballad of the Windfish?” This opens up a whole host of questions that are never answered, but it left her as the one character I thought of when Koholint Island was being erased. For me, Marin has become one of my favorite characters in the series and I’d really like to see her reappear in another Zelda game one day.
After all is said and done, I can’t praise just how much I love Link’s Awakening enough. Sure, there are some minor issues with the game, but for what it does right, it has easily become one of my favorite Zelda games of all time. This game is certainly well-deserving of all the love it gets and I’m really hoping that those who are playing the game for the first time as well are feeling the same way I do. I really hope that, if the game does well, Nintendo considers making a sequel in the vain of A Link Between Worlds. The engine and graphics are already made, so I think a return to Koholint Island in a sequel could make for a very interesting game. At the very least, the Link’s Awakening remake has shown me just how special Koholint Island is, and its certainly one dream I’ll be reliving for a very long time.