“The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening” has always been a blind spot when it comes to the franchise. I’ve played all the Nintendo console games but this portable classic remained a mystery.
The reason for that lies with my mother, who sent my Game Boy to the Philippines because she thought I wasn’t using it. That left me without the handheld in 1993. I missed the original and remastered edition, but thanks to a Nintendo Switch remake, I had a chance to play “Link’s Awakening,” albeit with heavy changes. Developed by Grezzo, the update re-creates every pixel with polygons, giving the game a more modern look, and adapts the controls to accommodate the buttons of contemporary controllers.
Despite those changes, “Link’s Awakening” appears to retain the soul of the original. It shows up in the world and dungeon design and the top-down perspective that was the hallmark of the classic 8- and 16-bit titles.
“Link’s Awakening” is a departure from other “Zelda” games because it doesn’t involve the customary pieces. It has no Triforce, no princess and no Gannon. In its place, the adventure follows Link as he’s caught in a storm while sailing. Lightning strikes his boat, destroying it and he washes ashore on the mysterious Koholint Island.
The villagers Marin and Tarin help him recover and a mysterious owl tells him that the only way to return home is to awaken the Wind Fish. That takes players through at least eight dungeons, where they have to defeat bosses and acquire the instrument of the Sirens. When they’re played together, they can rouse the creature from its slumber inside an egg that rests atop a volcano. (Yeah, it’s an imaginative world.)
The campaign follows the structure of that era’s titles but it tacks on a variety of unusual additions that ended up being mainstays of the series. These include side activities such as fishing and a trading quest where players start with an innocuous doll and end up with a valuable item at the end. They encounter quests that need to be finished in order to enter a dungeon.
Many of the ideas in “Link’s Awakening” are ahead of their time, but simultaneously, they seem mish-mashed together. It’s a blessing and a curse. Without the need to follow the customary formula, the developers were given free rein to experiment, and the game has loads of original content that expands the “Zelda” universe. The downside to this is that the game doesn’t have its usual coherence.
That makes “Link’s Awakening” puzzling to navigate at times. Thankfully, the developers offered hints about where to go next after defeating a boss and they also included Old Man Ulrira, who is quiet face to face but willing to talk Link’s ear off when the hero calls the older gentleman on the phone. He and the owl provide essential directions on where players should go to advance the campaign.
As for the pacing, “Link’s Awakening” is easy at first. The six dungeons are a breeze as players tear through enemies and uncover new tools to help them in their quest. The items unlock areas to explore and players will revisit caves and other locales to unearth every single collectible.
Then players come across the last two dungeons and the difficulty jumps. The levels aren’t impossible, but they become more complex. It’s nowhere near as involved as the Water Temple in “Ocarina of Time,” but the levels are multilayered, require thorough exploration and feature obtuse puzzles. They can be tough but rewarding.
The major new addition to “Link’s Awakening” is the option for players to build their own dungeons. It’s done via tiles: Players connect different rooms to create one level. The tiles themselves come from dungeons that players have adventured through and special stones that they discover. It’s rudimentary and nowhere near the level of “Super Mario Maker” but it establishes the foundation for a great feature. The easy-to-make levels can be shared via amiibo, but other than that, it doesn’t have too much to offer.
“Link’s Awakening” isn’t a perfect game, but it offers a glimpse of a “Zelda” franchise in transition. It’s a time capsule that shows how the game became a font of new ideas that later became mainstays of the series.
Aside from that, the game also has a charming peculiarity about it. The story is darker than one would expect and it’s full of oddball characters. It’s one of the more unusual entries and that’s partly what makes it great. The best “Zelda” games are the ones that break the mold and have elements that come out of left field. “Link’s Awakening” has a lot of that and those ideas have aged well with time.
‘The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening’
3 1/2 stars out of far
Platform: Nintendo Switch
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