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Nintendo's Zelda Game & Watch, reviewed: 8-bit Zelda to go

Nintendo's adorable retro stocking-stuffer is the latest way to play Zelda (again).

Nintendo loves to repackage its nostalgia. A few years ago, it was classic plug-and-play mini consoles like the NES Classic and SNES Classic. Then the Nintendo Switch's subscription service recently added N64 and Genesis games and controllers. Now, it's Game & Watches. The $50 Zelda Game & Watch is this holiday's little gaming gift, and after a day with it I'm already charmed. Much like last year's Super Mario Game & Watch, this is all about serving up a familiar set of games in a new package.

The Game & Watch was a series of black-and-white LCD single-game handhelds in the '80s. I played them as a kid, way before the Game Boy, so my personal nostalgia-meter is way in overdrive with these new little handhelds. These games and their characters have resurfaced in Game Boy compilations, and even in Super Smash Bros. The Zelda Game & Watch is, like last year's Mario edition, a perfectly made re-creation of the original Game & Watch design, but outfitted with a color LCD screen and a few 8-bit-era games. Actually, the Zelda package is a better deal than last year's Mario.

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Last year's Game & Watch, next to this year's Game & Watch. (How many will there be?)

Scott Stein/CNET

The Legend of Zelda, The Legend of Zelda II and Zelda: Link's Awakening are all included, which span the NES Zelda games plus the Game Boy Zelda that was remastered a few years ago for the Switch. All the games have perfectly mapped controls, and allow game saves. As a bonus, there's an actual Game & Watch game from the old days (Vermin, where you slide back and forth and whack moles). Link's been inserted as the mole-whacking character this time. Link's Awakening, the Game Boy game, plays in nostalgic black-and-green pixels, and it even has a toggle between the original square aspect ratio and a wider mode that fits the screen.

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The box packaging even folds into a stand for the handheld. Clever.

Scott Stein/CNET

True to the name, there is a watch on the Game & Watch, but it basically just ticks off the time along with Zelda dungeon animations. You could stay in this mode and move Link around and kill enemies, if you want; it's kind of a fidget-gaming mode. There's a timer, too, that also keeps count of how many enemies you kill in a Zelda II-themed animation that runs at the same time. I guess these are also bonus games, in a sense?

The display quality and audio are really good, better than you'd expect. Charging up the handheld via USB-C (cable included) gives it at least four hours of gaming, roughly. My kids have played the Mario one on car rides and never had a battery problem. Gameplay is saved even when the handheld is turned off, just in case you forgot to save.

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All the game modes and watch modes, if you're curious.

Scott Stein/CNET

These Zelda games are a lot more detailed and text-heavy than Super Mario, though, which brings up one downside to playing on a device this small: your eyesight better be pretty good. I found myself squinting a bunch of times, but my kids had no problem. (Ah, aging eyes.) Also, navigating in the games to bring up other game saves can sometimes get pretty confusing, if you're playing with a family and want to pass it around.

Final notes: The rear of the handheld lights up with a little Triforce (adorable). And the cardboard case folds back into a display stand. It's a well-crafted collectible package, and I can't think of a better gift for a Zelda super-fan. Yes, you've played these games before, probably. But you'll enjoy the feeling of playing them again in such a compact form. I did.