It’s fantastic that we’re past that oppressively “grey and brown” era of gaming, and developers no longer need to be afraid of exploring the colour spectrum. Comparing the latest Gears of War title to the first demonstrates this point nicely. Where one boasts varied and —dare I say— lush environments, the only variation to be found in the other comes in which shade of brown is seeping into your eyeballs at any given moment. I bring this up because, despite the progress AAA gaming has made with facing its fear of colour, its “safety zone” still lies in muted, low-key colours. That’s why we still need titles like The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, titles that use colour unapologetically and without restraint. Link’s Awakening is cute, colourful and full of joy; it feels like opening your bedroom curtains on a bright, warm Sunday morning and letting the light burst into your room.
Once again Link’s Awakening sees players take control of gaming icon Link as he washes up, shipwrecked, on the mysterious and surreal island of Koholint. Discovered by Marin, a young girl living in a nearby village, our hero soon meets the villagers and is informed that his only hope for escaping the island is to awaken the wind fish from its giant egg atop a mountain. In order to do this, Link must gather eight musical instruments hidden within an equal number of perilous dungeons. And so, with a quest in his heart, a land to explore and eight MacGuffins that need collecting, Link sets off on what could be his strangest adventure of all time.
The gameplay, unlike much on offer here, is about as traditional as a Zelda game comes. Very much in the vein of A Link to the Past, players will complete tasks, thwack monsters, gather clues and acquire equipment in an overworld to gain access to one of the game’s several dungeons. These dungeons —essentially multi-floor puzzle gauntlets— always end in a boss fight and serve as a test of the player’s overall abilities. In general, the dungeons get more challenging as the game goes on, and the last couple provided some genuine head-scratching moments. I had a great time in the first 95% of each dungeon, the “puzzle-box” type gameplay they provide meshes fantastically with me as a player.
Annoyingly, that last 5% —the boss fight— tarnished the experience just a bit. Don’t get me wrong, the concepts behind the bosses aren’t inherently disappointing, but the fights are so pathetically easy that they come and go about as quickly as any random enemy encounter. Each boss has a pattern to learn and outsmart in order to defeat it, but most of the time these patterns can be ignored in favour of relentlessly smashing it with the sword and hoping that it dies before Link does. It’s sad that this mindless approach works in almost every case, in fact it makes me feel guilty as a player. No matter how much time a developer pumps into game mechanics, enemy design and the like, players —if they can get away with it— will always ignore the intricately designed solution in favour of the semi-cheating, shortcut method. Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked; let's return to the game, there’s a lot of positives to run through before we finish up here.
The overworld, Koholint Island, is an expertly crafted masterpiece of game design —even ignoring how unique and vibrant it looks on the Nintendo Switch. Every nook and cranny in this world serves a purpose; it’s not a large game world, but that only works in its favour. By the end of the game, the player will know the island like the back of their hand because of how Link’s quest has him weaving around every inch of it. Any location in the overworld can hold the key (literal or not) to progression, and returning to familiar locations never feels like tedious backtracking. If anything, it gives players a chance to uncover secrets or access previously out-of-reach areas with newly found equipment —which is always a superb feeling. I described the dungeons like puzzle boxes, and this overworld feels like one massive puzzle box of its own.
The various characters Link encounters on his travels add buckets of charm to the game, and what’s more, they do it with surprisingly little dialogue. I’m reviewing this game as a standalone Switch release, by virtue of its full price tag, but there’s no ignoring that it was originally conceived as a Game Boy game and therefore couldn’t get away with forcing paragraphs of dialogue down players’ throats. While I’m talking about the game’s personality, I’d be a fool to avoid mentioning the inclusion of non-Zelda Nintendo characters in the game. On his quest, Link encounters Chain-Chomps, Shy-Guys, Goombas, Kirby and Piranha Plants (and possibly others) in a franchise merging move that —to my knowledge— has never been repeated in any Zelda title. At least, not as blatantly. The sight of these Nintendo favourites doesn’t impact the game’s story or significantly affect how it plays, but it goes a long way to making the experience feel memorable and pleasantly surreal.
Despite technically being over 25 years old, I’m reviewing this remake as a new release, and as such will avoid spoilers. So when it comes to the plot, I will only commend Link’s Awakening for pulling at my heartstrings with a story that’s about as simple as they come with this franchise. It just goes to show what a few well-placed, meaningful lines; a sense of identity and humour; and a poignant ending can do to pull in a player emotionally.
Many have criticised the game’s performance hitches and unsteady frame rate. Indeed, I can confirm that Link’s Awakening’s performance is not perfect; if you’re accustomed to flawlessly smooth gameplay, it may bother you. For me, it was a non-issue. To be honest, if the stuttering hadn’t stirred up the online masses and caused a minor controversy, I probably wouldn’t have noticed anything at all.
Link’s Awakening emits a warmth that makes it utterly irresistible. Koholint island is so pleasant to exist in, so full of secrets and teeming with so many challenges that the unsatisfying combat encounters and performance issues are insignificant. Unfortunately, it’s hard to look past the price tag. Breath of the Wild —the franchise’s last entry— offered one of the grandest gaming experiences of all time, for the same price as this modest but oh-so charming remake. It pains me to compare the two, but by pricing them identically, Nintendo forces us to place them side-by-side. I very much recommend Link’s Awakening, but suggest that you temper your expectations in comparison to Breath of the Wild.
Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Reviewed on Nintendo Switch)
This game is good, with a few negatives.
Link's Awakening is a joyous adventure and a treat for the eyes, marred by some minor performance hiccups. It's truly a shame that this title is following up the most ambitious entry in the series' history and feels dissapointingly small in comparison.