Release date: September 20th, 2019
Platform: Nintendo Switch
If you grew up as a gamer in the 1990s, and especially if you owned a handheld gaming device back then, then you most likely had the Nintendo Game Boy. The system dominated the handheld market in the 90s and has some of the most iconic handheld games released to this day, and easily one of the most iconic and popular of those games is Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.
The huge, sprawling overworld and depth of the game mechanics it contained were absolutely unprecedented for a handheld game of its time, and it became one of the highest-selling and most-loved Game Boy games of all time. It has always stood out as one of my favorite entries in the Legend of Zelda series overall, and one that I’ve revisited many times over the years since its release.
Earlier in 2019, Nintendo announced they would be remaking Link’s Awakening on the Nintendo Switch, featuring all new 3D graphics, new mechanics, a newly-arranged soundtrack, and much more. I was instantly interested, but also weary, as remakes of classic games can easily go extremely well or extremely badly, given a number of factors. Now that I’ve completed the game and experienced everything it has to offer, let’s take a look at how it fares for itself and whether it holds up to the original game in quality and style.
The original Link’s Awakening featured gameplay and progression very similar to the first Legend of Zelda game on the NES as well as the SNES entry, A Link to the Past, with an overworld to explore and many underground dungeons to traverse to unlock more of the overworld. The 2019 version keeps the original game’s format very close to the core of the experience, with the progression, map, and story mirrored 100% to the original game, block for block, word for word. Though this is the case, this is almost where the similarities stop, since the visual, audio, and gameplay experiences differ greatly in many ways.
First of all is the visual presentation, where this new version takes on a fully 3D visual style featuring very cutesy and shiny art style, almost making everyone and everything look like a little plastic toy version of what it normally looks like, or what it looked like in the original game (plus they also look like Nintendo’s Mii characters, or Charlie Brown characters..)
Though the traversal of the map has stayed the same, just about everything has been put through the wringer and made into a super cartoon-ish and toy-like version of what it used to be, including buildings, foliage, enemies, and other geographical locations. I felt constantly at odds with the visual presentation, struggling to find where the appeal is, and also wondering why it was changed so much, since the original art was not terribly cutesy overall.
I can’t say I’m a big fan of this new art style, as everything seems to have a strange sheen and artificial-ness to it that just doesn’t make for a terribly compelling presentation in my eyes. The game also does run in 16:9 widescreen mode, almost by necessity, which is an upgrade in many ways, since you can see more of the overworld at once as your traverse it, instead of having to transition between each screen while moving around, which also cuts down load times to a very minimal amount, but that also brings us to another big downer factor about the visuals.
On top of the art style being a little strange, there’s one gigantic negative side to the visuals, and that comes down to the performance on the Switch hardware. To say the performance is poorly optimized and lackluster is being very generous here. Link’s Awakening suffers from some of the most inconsistent and poor performance I’ve seen in any game in years. Not more than about 30 seconds of gameplay goes by without the game stuttering, changing resolution, and dropping the frame rate to about half of what it should be, and then randomly jumping back up again.
This makes for an extremely jarring and clunky experience that doesn’t have the smooth feel of the original, and this happens in both handheld and docked modes. While this can hopefully be resolved in a patch or update at a later time, the fact that the game launched in this extremely un-optimized state is not only very surprising for a first-party Nintendo game, but it’s a huge damper on the experience for me and was constantly taking me out of the immersion and fun I was having from time to time.
There’s also another very strange and pretty jarring choice related to visuals present here, and that is the presence of some kind of visual filter or technique that’s applied to the image output that creates a fogginess on the top and bottom of the screen. This is likely present in attempt to cut down on draw distance and improve the performance a bit, but it’s really an eyesore and as previously mentioned, and it doesn’t seem to help the performance very much when it still runs at such inconsistent framerates and resolutions. You’ll probably even notice this in the screenshots if you look closely, and it’s present throughout the entire overworld of the game.
The saddest part is that I can think of other visual styles that have already been done in other similar games that would have suited this remake much better. For example, something like the PlayStation 3 game called 3D Dot Game Heroes, which not only did a wonderful job of updating of the visual style of classic Zelda by making everything into 3D-rendered pixel objects, but also nailed the aspect of updating the classic Zelda gameplay formula with some modern additions and also a very self-referrential and self-aware take on the history of this type of game.
I also wish they could have included some kind of option to either play the original game here or to have a button to switch between the original graphics and the new ones, like many great remakes of 2D games are including nowadays, but sadly, neither is included here.
Audio: The audio in this new Link’s Awakening is a double-edged sword of sorts, with some of the newly-arranged songs on the soundtrack being quite nicely done, and on occasion, even better than the original arrangement. The new tracks feature a nice assortment of organic instruments, including flutes and recorders, ukulele and mandolin, and a nice suite of strings, adding a nice facelift and a modern spin on some of the tracks, without straying too far from the original composition and without losing the charm of some of those great songs.
However, there are a number of tracks that I feel fall very flat and end up being much lesser than the original Game Boy arrangement by adding too many modern synths and electronic elements to them, and some even stick out and can be a little bit annoying or bothersome because they sound so strange and experimental in a game experience that draws much of its original greatness and charm from a moderate level of simplicity.
One other major problem I have with the new audio is that Link now has a voice (along with a few other characters,) where he is constantly making sounds and expressions that feel very out of place and would remove me from the experience every time he spoke out or yelled something. Especially since the original was a handheld system that had such limited capabilities for sound, it made the original sound designers have to create sound effects that would cleverly attempt to mimic some sounds a human voice might make, but with this remake, they seemed to go the lazier route and just record some voices for him instead.
Most other sound effects in the game are actually the same as the original or a very slight upgrade that still retains the feel of the original game, and these definitely help to call back to the original game and remind you that you are in that early Zelda world, even if many factors are at odds with each other in this remake.
Gameplay: In the gameplay department, we have yet another double-edged sword. This new Link’s Awakening features some very useful and very welcome quality of life issues in how the game flows and plays, the biggest of which is the fact that the main items that you will be using the most (sword, shield, bracelet, and boots) are automatically mapped to certain buttons permanently, so you don’t need to switch between items in the menu screen constantly to solve puzzles or traverse dungeons.
Along with these great additions that streamline the gameplay drastically, we have a few major down sides here. The first being that, even though your most-used items are mapped to certain buttons automatically, for some reason, there are zero options for control customization. The only thing you can technically “remap” is the two item slots that aren’t already assigned to buttons.
There was one entirely new feature added to this version of Link’s Awakening, in the form of the create-your-own-dungeon mode found with a new NPC character in the overworld. This mode lets you piece together your own Zelda dungeons using various “tiles” that you collect by playing through the game and meeting certain objectives. You can share these with friends and try each other’s dungeons, which is a nice touch.
Unfortunately, this mode ends up not being very interesting overall, since any dungeon you will create ultimately only contain rooms that were already in one of the game’s other dungeons, you just get to put them in different order. This makes them feel more like “remixes” of the dungeons rather than actual meaningful user-created content.
And last but certainly not least, we have the biggest issue with the new gameplay, and that is the complete lack of ability to play with the D-pad instead of the analog stick. The game forces you to play with the analog stick, which not only feels extremely backwards and wrong when the original game could only be controlled with a D-pad, but the analog controls feel very springy, too sensitive, and very inaccurate. There were plenty of times I’d be trying to face Link in one direction, and the analog stick would frequently turn me in the complete opposite direction because the stick is too sensitive, and again, has no options for customization.
These new control nuances caused a lot of frustration and a lot of lost potential for fun that may have been present here, and these issues are even more compounded by the unstable frame rate, which can make every enemy encounter a guessing game of what framerate you’ll get while trying to dodge or attack them, plus having to guess whether the analog stick would point you in the right direction for the attack you were trying to do or not.
The new Link’s Awakening is a very polarizing experience for many reasons, and one that’s hard to recommend to anyone who loves the original as much as I do. You can feel that there’s some heart at the core of this remake and some great ideas here and there, but the overall presentation and gameplay/hardware problems that are so frequently manifested here make the experience far more clunky and troublesome than they have any reason being.
This re-imagining felt like it was constantly sucking out nearly all of the splendor and charm of the original game, much of which I’ve found came from its simplicity. In trying to over-complicate things in almost every department, this remake did not do the original game very much justice and is a far lesser experience in its current state.
One of the other biggest problems with this release, despite problems with the game itself is the price. Nintendo thought it appropriate to charge $60 USD for a remake of a nearly 30 year-old game, which is absolutely absurd in the current gaming industry where fantastic indie games with more quality and content than this are coming out on a weekly basis for between $10 and $30. While Link’s Awakening may have some positive things to enjoy here on some level, it’s certainly nowhere near a $60 value (or even more, if you want the collector’s edition..)
Newer fans who are unfamiliar with the original game may not notice most of the glaring flaws and downgrades present here, and may still have a much better experience than I did, but I’ve heard largely the same complaints from many others who I’ve read and talked to about their experience with the game.
Hopefully Nintendo will fix some of the major issues present here, but for anyone playing the game near launch time, I’ve tried my best to describe how the experience currently is and what kind of value is included here.