Link's Awakening review: An imperfect Zelda remake and a missed opportunity
It's a workmanlike remake that doesn't quite hold up in the cold light of 2019.
Mark SerrelsEditorial Director
Mark Serrels is an award-winning Senior Editorial Director focused on all things culture. He covers TV, movies, anime, video games and whatever weird things are happening on the internet. He especially likes to write about the hardships of being a parent in the age of memes, Minecraft and Fortnite. Definitely don't follow him on Twitter.
Maybe the most strangest thing about Link's Awakening, the original Link's Awakening, the game first released on the Nintendo Game Boy back in 1993, is that its world, its story and -- in particular -- its characters were influenced by Twin Peaks.
Twin Peaks was popular in Japan back then. Takashi Tezuka, the director of Link's Awakening, was a fan and had an idea: He wanted his Zelda game to exist in a strange world inhabited by "suspicious types." A world filled with idiosyncratic unease. A tone Twin Peaks would become notorious for.
And eventually the Zelda series too, as it happens.
A Link To The Past, released two years earlier in 1991, provided the structural template Zelda would follow for literally decades. But the tone, the weirdness that would go on to define Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, Wind Waker -- classic after classic -- was pure Link's Awakening. The Zelda series is legendary, but Link's Awakening might be the most influential of the bunch.
And it's for that reason that remaking a game like Link's Awakening is a challenge in and of itself. Link's Awakening is 26 years old and, like Twin Peaks, is absolutely a product of its time. Whereas David Lynch used his recent Twin Peaks revival to subvert expectations and create something new and striking, Link's Awakening on the
is a remake in the traditional sense of the word: straight, by the book, pedestrian.
Which is a good thing... for the most part. Video game remakes are in vogue. Over the past few years we've gone from straight HD remasters, with improved resolutions and frame rates, to from-the-ground-up remakes. First came Shadow of the Colossus -- which was solid and workmanlike. Then came
Resident Evil 2
, which was absolutely spectacular.
Link's Awakening is not spectacular. It's solid and workmanlike. It's a capable remake that does little to make its game fit in a brand-new world, in a brand-new time, on a new console. But it's not bad.
Link's Awakening has the advantage of being a remake of one of the finest
ever made, but the distinct disadvantage of being a remake of a video game designed for the Nintendo Game Boy -- a handheld console built using outdated technology when it was first released over 30 years ago.
Part of the reason Link's Awakening was so revered upon release is the Game Boy connection. It was the perfect example of constraints driving genius. Game Boy games were usually simple and basic, but Link's Awakening was neither. In 1993 it felt utterly insane to be playing a game of Link's Awakening's scale on a handheld like the Game Boy. ("The Game Boy can do this?) It was the best video game on the console and it's not even close to being close.
The cold light of 2019
Playing Link's Awakening today, on a console like the Nintendo Switch, is a different experience. In the cold light of 2019, the constraints that made Link's Awakening such a masterpiece now make the game seem cramped and small. Decades of Nintendo following the Link's Awakening/Link to the Past template in games from Ocarina of Time all the way through to Twilight Princess, makes it feel dated. You enter the dungeon, you find a new item, an item unlocks new areas and you defeat the dungeon boss. Rinse repeat. Rinse repeat. That structure felt intricate and sophisticated in 1993 but Nintendo completely reinvented that structure with Breath of the Wild in 2017. It feels weird to go back.
But for fans desperate to go back to that simpler time, Link's Awakening remains an incredibly well designed video game bursting with charm and character. Time can't put a dent in that. I was just hoping for something a little more.
A Link Between Worlds, for example, released on the
in 2013, did a miraculous job of creating a brand-new game set in the world of a Link To The Past. More than a direct remake, Link Between Worlds hit hard with a new story, new dungeons, new characters -- but all within the same universe. In that context Link's Awakening feels like a missed opportunity. Imagine a brand-new Zelda set in the Link's Awakening world: familiarity wrapped in a brand-new experience, augmented by a video game world you once fell in love with.
But right now the success of the Link's Awakening remake is dependent on nostalgia. Fans of the original might get foggy in their rose-tinted spectacles, but those new to the series would be forgiven for wondering what the fuss was about.
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Because in some ways there's a nostalgia for Link's Awakening that doesn't quite hold up. Fans of the original no doubt remember stratospheric high points like Eagle Tower, maybe one of the best designed "dungeons" in the Zelda series. But they might not recall moments like the tedious "trading quest" -- a weird sequence where players have to travel across the whole game world exchanging objects with characters in ways that regularly make zero sense. You give a hair-tie to a dog, then later give dog food to a crocodile in exchange for a banana. A very 1993 video game sequence of events.
In most Zelda titles a game-long fetch quest of this ilk would be an optional side quest. In Link's Awakening it's tied to the endgame in a fundamental way. You literally cannot complete the game without seeing the entire trading quest through to the end. In 2019 that feels unforgiving, weird and clumsy.
There are other minor issues. Link's Awakening's new art style is pretty, but generic. Some of the level design hasn't aged well and the game frequently suffers from frame rate issues.
But perhaps the biggest issue is the price. In 2019 Link's Awakening looks and feels like an indie game you'd expect to pay $20 or $30 for. Yet Nintendo is charging $60 -- full price -- for a workmanlike remake of a 26-year-old game. You could buy Breath of the Wild for that, or
Super Mario Odyssey
. It doesn't feel right.
Yet it's difficult to criticise too much. Playing Link's Awakening as a child I was always aware that it was wrestling with weird, big ideas. Returning to games like that as an adult usually exposes poor writing, or renders it juvenile. There's a bit of that with Link's Awakening, but for the most part it holds up well. Link's Awakening remains a unique, unsettling experience packed with surreal, unforgettable moments. It still feels like a remarkably cohesive fable.
It's rough around the edges, it's imperfect and overpriced but, on a fundamental level, Link's Awakening has lost little of its power. And it remains a game worth experiencing at least once.