One could reasonably argue that the Legend of Zelda series is the video game industry’s most prestigious game franchise. With every mainline title released, critics and fans alike adorn it with praise the likes rarely seen from any other series. Link and his adventures across Hyrule, Termina, and in this case Koholint Island, have given many the inspiration to continue forward even when all seems hopeless. It’s a treasure waiting to be experienced, and humanity can’t seem to ever get enough. Link’s Awakening is something old coated in something new—for me, the old was the defining factor of criticism.
My own experience with The Legend of Zelda is a long, yet recent expedition. Growing up from the ’90s to early ’00s, I barely touched the franchise at all. The first title I put anything more than an hour’s worth of playtime in was Wind Waker, released in late 2002. Past that, my familiarity with the series became scattered, missing most of the mainline titles up until Skyward Sword in 2011. Since then, I’ve made an effort to go back and refamiliarize myself with the iconic franchise, and can now say I’ve played through a decent portion of most (though completing them is another hitch). Playing Link’s Awakening was much like playing something one’s become adjusted to from everyday life. Whatever inflection of quality that may translate to depends entirely on the player’s tolerance.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is available on Nintendo Switch for your regional pricing.
Early on, some criticism of Link’s Awakening could be derived from a very hands-off storyline. Gone are the dialogue-heavy interactions with characters and the ancient-esque musings of looming darkness… at least initially. I was fairly taken aback by just how little talking I did within the first few hours. On one hand, it makes the game feel more akin to Metroid, where the environment speaks volumes. On the other, it leaves out valuable context as to one’s motivation to continue forward, aside from internal curiosity. With more time came more appreciation, however, as the more subtle hints of environmental dialogue became more convincing.
What I believe works best with the story is a foreboding nature similar to that of Majora’s Mask (only there it’s more upfront). Things occur within Koholint Island that even the townsfolk remark as incredulous. Nasty monsters and talking animals are only a couple things one can expect to witness when playing Link’s Awakening. What it all means and what it amounts to in the end is what makes the vague approach to the plot more engaging. Seeds of doubt, subversion of expectations, unreliable lead perspective; all things come into play. And when one comes to expect a lot of dialogue, even the fewest of words can evoke positive memories. Simple gestures of affection become more prominent, albeit with little build-up.
Such criticism with Link’s Awakening comes with recurring characters such as Tarin and Marin, though more notably the latter. Characters’ prominence here are mostly comprised of isolated incidents, connected subtly by higher workings. With Marin specifically, there’s a twinge of sympathy attached to a mysterious figure that seems light on the surface, but hides further knowledge of Link’s situation. The limited interactions with her add a dimension of motivation to one’s quest, if not the opposite. How this game dual-wields spirited progression and calculative hesitation is something of an odd package for a Zelda title. It makes for a more interesting adventure without adhering to one’s presumptions of what an “adventure” entails. Not everything consists of adrenaline-fueled thrills and daring escapades.
At last, we’ve come to what may be the most controversial part of the review. Link’s Awakening has a plethora of things to do and items to collect. Areas are confined to a single, large area that one can travel across when given specific means to do so. Subquests, secret collectibles, and many types of enemies give life to the area that awaits. It sounds good, yes? Indeed, it sounds quite good. Things to do, places to explore, and activities to keep one busy. It’s all dandy. And yet, it is these qualities that awaken my most stringent criticism of Link’s Awakening: “It’s pretty standard Zelda fare.”
On the surface, there’s little wrong with the above claim. If one adores Legend of Zelda and all that comes with it, they will have no problem playing through this game. To many, its formula is the standard that all adventures titles should follow, and adhering to it shouldn’t be an issue. For those of that mindset, don’t let the following criticisms dissuade you from purchasing something you’ll likely adore. For me, I expect innovation, especially for long-running franchises such as this. Many harp on series such as Call of Duty or Mega Man for essentially copy-pasting 90% of the core gameplay and adding a few extra details to present it as “new.” I don’t wish to do so with Zelda, but for Link’s Awakening, it somewhat applies. If you get nothing else from this review, know that Link’s Awakening is classic Zelda, with all which that entails.
You begin in a home, awoken by a friendly figure. You’re then thrust with a shield, followed by a sword. By that point, you know the path ahead. Visit the area, unlock the dungeon, enter the dungeon, get the new item, beat the boss, get the heart container, and repeat the process anew. Link’s Awakening—granted as a remake of a Gameboy title—does very little for the classic formula. As I have never played the parent title, I’m not sure how much different this remake is, but compared to other titles in the franchise, it feels almost like a subquest within its own bloodline. What grants Link’s Awakening its charm is in the distinct graphical presentation and the re-evoking of nostalgia towards simpler times. Should you expect anything more (as I unconsciously did), you may end up somewhat miffed.
One major distinction this has, however, is the introduction of a dungeon creator system. Series-regular Dampé, the ghostly graveyard keeper, is now in charge of allowing one to create and share dungeons built from pieces of dungeons one has played through in the game. To say this feature is a saving grace for the game would be far-fetched, though it is a fun addition to an otherwise formulaic adventure. Specific challenges are given dependent on how far one is in the game, some fairly basic and others more challenging. While it doesn’t change the major criticism of Link’s Awakening for me, it does add a little more creative flair. Almost like adding a chunk of Super Mario Maker to The Legend of Zelda.
On the topic of dungeons, many of them in Link’s Awakening are basic, yet effective fun. Some of the ones further on drag quite a bit and feature some annoying requirements, but sometimes those dragging bits only add to the fondness of memories of the adventure. And while each boss was far too easy (some mini-bosses trump the actual bosses in difficulty), each of eight total dungeons offered a variety of hurdles to go through, some of which I hardly expected. I’d even go so far as to say that the dungeons make Link’s Awakening as fun as it is gameplay-wise. Zelda games innovated the claustrophobic atmosphere of in-game dungeons, and that glitter hasn’t worn here. Whenever dungeons opened, I was ready and more than willing.
Link’s Awakening, as mentioned before, has oodles of things to do outside the main questline. The most Zelda-esque thing is the inclusion of “Secret Seashells,” which one can trade in for prizes at a mysterious hut. Locating these little treasures allows the player to check their environment more clearly, as well as provide an engaging way of using everything at one’s disposal. It’s always appreciated when a developer finds ways to keep the player engaged at all times, especially with so open a world as in Link’s Awakening. Aside from seashells, one can indulge in fetch quests, miscellaneous treasure-hunting, a crane game (with horrible physics), and a raft mini-game. These additions help the game feel more alive from an immersive standpoint and more engaging from a gameplay standpoint. A two-fold decision from a development team with good direction.
Seeing as this is a remake of a Gameboy game, there are (I assume) multiple quality of life changes that make things a tad easier. Auto-save features, fast-travel, a hint system, items that alert to hidden items in a room/area; players craving difficulty won’t find it here. That isn’t to say this is the easiest Zelda title I’ve played, but it’s definitely not tremendously taxing. Bosses are often very easy and the quality of life changes make for a much quicker and more convenient journey. Personally, I appreciate the optional nature of these things and that they aren’t just handed to the player like candy. At the same time, I used them like I haven’t before, aside from the hint system, via my pride. Link’s Awakening absolutely crushes the 2019-game-remade-from-a-’90s-handheld-game feeling, and all the criticism that comes with it.
Graphics & Audio
Browsing social media and skimming the reactions of the denizens of the internet, the stylistic choice of Link’s Awakening is predictably divisive. I was one on the side of “I don’t prefer this,” but eventually grew used to it. It adds more of a charm to its identity to go about a visual makeover unlike any other. The effectiveness of the presentation, however, is predictably within its environment and vividness of color. How the lens change going from grassy fields to a desolate desert, adding a blurry, orange-ish fog, is something that will never get old. Nintendo has years of experience in visual storytelling, and the environments here only add to the company’s impressive résumé. I still prefer the cartoonish representation of Wind Waker, but the general palette of color keeps Link’s Awakening afloat.
From an auditory standpoint, I can’t quite reward it with the same fondness, though its effort definitely shows. As with the overall criticism, Link’s Awakening‘s soundtrack is fairly typical for the franchise, complete with the main theme and other remixes. A few tracks stand out, particularly said main theme and the quiet bounciness of Mabe Village. I also enjoy Marin’s voice and her rendition of the Song of Awakening. Otherwise, it’s what you’d come to expect from Zelda: good, but familiar. Small pet peeves actually include Link’s voice in this rendition, which sounds a little too… aloof? It’s hard to say—particularly with when Link falls from a high place, his scream feels almost toned down or reserved. It doesn’t have that same gusto.