What’s old is new again.
Spoiler Warning: While I don’t get into anything specific, the implications here might be rendered obvious to anyone who still hasn’t hopped onto the latest Zelda remake. If you haven’t, then really, what are you waiting for?
As I took my first steps outside sleepy Mabe Village and traversed the hypnotic shores of Koholint Island — the surrealist setting of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, remade for Nintendo Switch — it was no surprise that a familiar surge of nostalgia enveloped my senses; after all, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX, the Game Boy Color remaster of the 1993 Game Boy iteration, was the very first Zelda game I ever owned. From Star Fox 64 3D to Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, Nintendo’s penchant for remakes over the past decade has been a humbling trip down memory lane, with us long-time fans hailing them as vindication in knowing Nintendo values their legacy. True, the cynic may point out they merely capitalize upon nostalgic brands — and really, they’re probably right, not the least in Mario & Luigi‘s over-saturation dooming AlphaDream — yet that they exist at all renders breeds excitement among us veterans not merely for the chance to relive familiar adventures, but in knowing others will experience this fabled magic for the very first time.
In the case of Link’s Awakening, this remake’s eye-catching diorama-esque presentation renders itself a palpable time capsule. Unlike some, I find the game’s miniature stylization a perfect complement to the Game Boy’s short, squat sprites — adorable and charming, the emphasis on tilt-shift photography forges a veritable interactive playset. When accompanied by relevant sound design — note the music’s soft, careful blend of woodwinds, strings and chiptunes, the latter echoing its 8-bit origins — such a direction would remind anyone of their halcyon action figure days, yet I can’t help but reflect on how that mirrors my initial experience with Link’s Awakening; indeed, the game’s puzzles obstructed a seven-year-old me from reaching even the first dungeon, but that didn’t deter me from forging my own adventures. I tirelessly practiced Mabe Village’s Crane Game and won a Yoshi doll. I hunted down monsters down the beach and within the deep, dark forest. I saved up enough Rupees to purchase a shovel and dug for buried treasure.
In other words, I already experienced Zelda at peak-escapism. Not that other Zeldas haven’t been cited as such — let’s not forget Miyamoto’s directive of designing the series as players’ “personal gardens” — but despite Link’s Awakening‘s care-free absurdity in highlighting Nintendo camoes (Can you say, The Frog for Whom The Bell Tolls?), there’s always been an gentle and inviting air about Link’s first Game Boy adventure — be it village girl Marin’s foreboding Ballad of the Wind Fish lullaby or the chipper inhabitants of Animal Village, we’re instantly drawn to their homely routines and eccentric personalities. All the more reason for its gut punch of a mid-game twist to stand in bittersweet contrast — the more we grow acquainted with Koholint, the sadder our inevitable departure shall be.
All this and more have been delicately recreated with this HD remake — the very same punchy swordplay’s left intact, operating on a familiar bird’s-eye perspective. The quirky, off-beat humor threads throughout our adventure and its many sidequests, be it taking a hungry Chain Chomp from Mario for a ravenous walk or pen pals engaging in ill-advised deception to stave off loneliness. The game’s opaque puzzle-solving hails back to classic Zelda experimentation, forcing us to search every nook and cranny of our new playground. What we have here is a remake more akin to Ocarina of Time‘s “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” 3DS than Majora’s Mask‘s renovation — our tabletop figures operate on the very same diorama, albeit spruced up with a fresh coat of paint.
Naturally, some handy new conveniences come included. That we’re offered Hero Mode — Zelda‘s Hard Mode — right from the beginning displays goodwill in Nintendo’s respecting fan preferences; after all, why lock what some may consider the definitive experience behind game completion? Much-needed QOL upgrades are abound, namely how item management — a known slog in the original release — is now handily streamlined, especially with certain equipment activating automatically. (Goodbye, equipping Power Bracelets just to lift boulders!) Alas, some care not for Nintendo’s one new attraction in Chamber Dungeons: Zelda’s DIY echoing of Super Mario Maker in crafting our own top-down dungeons, and I must admit I sympathize — with how it’s entirely restricted to recycled rooms, our creations operate only on what makes sense rather than any inspired ingenuity. (Putting it this way: the stairwells’ application of right of way is out of our hands; consequently, our framing around uneven rules makes for some frustrating construction work.) Regardless, I appreciate the effort — that Nintendo even bothered at all proves a mutual interest in a potential 2D Zelda maker, and I anticipate future endeavors learning from their mistakes here.
But even if we dismiss Chamber Dungeons as an inconsequential side-mode, does rust seep through the shiny varnish? Much as I consider Link’s Awakening a masterclass of design and immersion otherwise, I’ve always discerned an awkward mismatch in obtuse progression and patronizing dialogue. Much as we (rightfully!) rag on the Wii/DS era for obnoxious hand-holding, that truly originated here in a pick-up notifications (“You’ve got a Guardian Acorn! It will reduce the damage you take by half!”) or the mysterious owl who flaps in to inform you of every dungeon’s location. (In one case, he does this twice.) Granted, Link’s Awakening never dreams of enforcing molasses-paced progression and momentum-killing tutorials, mind, so it’s easier to forgive their intact replication here. (That, and now that I’m juggling day jobs, self-studying Japanese, and writing game analyses like the one you’re reading now, I can’t pretend I didn’t find the new dialogue log a helpful reminder.)
When confronted with a word-for-word Game Boy-lifted script, Link’s Awakening may come across as an antiquated relic, but we Zelda faithful know better — the Game Boy versions alone introduced unforgettable melancholy in nostalgic ghosts and Marin’s seagull dreams, but through the power of HD, merely observing the meticulous playsets that are Koholint’s cozy homes are mirrors into their personalities. Just observe the Chef Bear in Animal Village; before, we’re merely humbled by his dreams of a restaurant business venture, but now we’re arrested by the adorable mobile dangling over his bed — does he perhaps paw at it in his sleep?
In this beautiful blend of character tells and poignant story moments, these sweet-natured details — especially now framed within such a precious motif — further, turn the most dreaded twist in storytelling on its head and render what was, hitherto, a playfully surreal adventure into perhaps the most sobering tale in Nintendo’s library. The music — initially an appropriately-minimized complement to Link’s Awakening‘s origins and the new art style — shifts into a left-field orchestral synth for the ensuing dungeon, forcing us to wrestle with this inevitable truth. The harp-string swell of the post-boss victory tune — what we previously treasured as euphoric gold for the ears — is now betrayal. The lullaby of Ballad of the Windfish — now accompanied by Marin’s vocals — rings more haunting than ever.
Much like Undertale‘s appeal to humanity, this game’s meta-commentary on our role as players is a well-worn subject — from my perspective, the value of human memory doesn’t dilute Koholint, nor does the looming sequel to Breath of the Wild mean the classic style of Zelda‘s gone forever. Much as it is a parable on growing up and letting go, its concluding an era of remaking beloved Nintendo classics forges an enduring cycle, for there is still a place for Koholint as there is for this sort of Zelda; really, as evidenced by this composer’s delight in remaking a game from his childhood, what better evidence is there that dreams can come true?
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Switch; Publisher: Nintendo; Developer: Nintendo; Players: 1; Released: September 20th, 2019; ESRB: E1; MSRP: $59.99
This review was based on a retail copy of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.