I need to share a bit of history before we start this one.
The first time I ever played a video game remake was Pokémon Leafgreen. This title modernized the Gameboy classic Pokémon Blue. Finally released from the crusty shackles of the Gameboy, Pokémon Leafgreen was a graphical, mechanical, and technical overhaul of the original title. The things that really stick in my memory, even now, were how I could manage my stored Pokémon more easily, the removal of the 20 item inventory limit, and how additional content was added to flesh out the late game. This blew my 11 year old brain to shit. It wasn’t just a paint job – it was the definitive way to experience the first generation of Pokémon.
Unfortunately, Pokémon Leafgreen is the exception, not the rule. Most remakes do not put forward this much effort. We’re lucky if we get a handful of bug fixes, and a graphical update. Woo. Thanks guys. You didn’t think it was worthwhile to address any of fundamental issues while taking a second stab at it, huh?
To be clear, I think it’s fine if a company wants to repackage their legacy content, and sell it to a new audience. There’s value in experiencing the history of video games first hand. Though you could just pirate the titles. I’m not your dad – you do you when it comes to experiencing older titles.
For my money though, you’ve entirely missed the point of a remake if you’re taking a second swing on new hardware, and don’t make sweeping changes to improve things.
That’s all a really long way of saying that I think the Switch release of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is kind of poo. No shade at the original – it was a landmark title for the series. The Switch remake however, feels like your grandparents using slang they don’t really understand.
Before you get out your pitchforks, and burn down my comments section, give me a chance to make my case. Link’s Awakening works as a sort of period piece, but feels completely out of place in today’s market, doubly so with it’s premium price tag.
For those not in the know, Link’s Awakening is a Gameboy game originally from 1993. It’s as old as I am, and holy Moses have video games changed a lot over the past 30 years. Link’s Awakening released when the industry was still establishing conventions, which really shows in the way it’s designed. A lot of its puzzles feel completely random, and some even require real-world logic like old point and click games. Things like this, make Link’s Awakening feel old. Really old. It’s a great history lesson, but isn’t suited for today’s market.
Despite the developer’s best efforts to hide it, Link’s Awakening still feels dated in an incredibly awkward way. It’s not so crusty that it feels like a re-release of a 30 year old Gameboy title, which it is, but it also doesn’t feel like something released in 2019. This is thanks to a number of half-hearted improvements that were applied to sand down some of its rougher edges. My favourite of these changes is how the sword, boots, and shield are permanently equipped now. The original release was constrained by only having 2 action buttons, so players could only equip 2 items at any time. This meant you’d spend as much time shuffling through your inventory as you would playing the game. That sucks, so this improvement is a huge win in my books.
Unfortunately, the amount of inventory management that players are still expected to do is incredibly tedious. For real – when’s the last time you paused a game to equip a tool that was required to overcome an obstacle? It was probably the last time you played a Zelda game. This kind of thing has been solved across the industry, and even newer Zelda titles like Skyward Sword, and Breath of the Wild make use of less intrusive interfaces for swapping between your tools. This makes Link’s Awakening feel incredibly clunky, and archaic by comparison.
I know that probably feels like an apples to oranges comparison given the age difference between those titles, but we’re not talking about Link’s Awakening from 1993. We’re talking about Link’s Awakening from 2019, which was released on the Switch. The same constraints that limited the original release aren’t present for the Switch. Plus, 4 of the console’s face buttons weren’t mapped to anything. I’m sure they could have been used to reduce the amount of time spent farting around with your inventory.
It’s not just the inventory management that makes Link’s Awakening feel dated: there’s absolutely no sign-posting. The original game was already littered with hint houses, and an owl that frequently tells the player where to go next because the actual design of the world does nothing to guide the player. Link’s Awakening feels alien. It exists in a world that predates almost 30 years of videogame design. There’s no good reason for it to exist in this state when remaking it provided the perfect opportunity to update it.
The best, or worst I guess, example of this is the boss fights. More times than I could count, I was locked in a room with a boss, and had to throw everything including the kitchen sink at them trying to figure out their weakness. You’re given almost nothing to go off, so it’s a complete crap shoot against some of them. The final boss really exemplifies this as it has several phases, all of which have a different weakness. I could only intuit how to beat 2 of them: one because I’d already seen it, and the other because it had a giant eyeball and I’ve played a Zelda game before.
I don’t have a good transition for this, but I also wanted to mention fairy bottles. These weren’t in the original, but are in the remake. This is great. Fairy bottles have been a staple of Zelda since before either I, or the original game existed. Unfortunately, they don’t work the same in Link’s Awakening as they do in literally every other Zelda game. You need to manually use them to heal yourself, whereas in other titles they’re automatically used when you die. What was the point of this? Why would you want to confuse players by bucking an established trend in a 35 year old franchise?
I really don’t know what to tell you. I can’t even comprehend how I’m complaining about this when the game was developed, and published by one of the most experienced members of the entire industry. It’s just so amateur. This shit would totally fly under the radar in some 20 dollar indie that deliberately calls back to older titles, but feels woefully out of place in a premium priced product by Nintendo.
It wouldn’t be a premium priced game without some pretty graphics though, and in that regard Link’s Awakening actually delivers. The game looks nice. I like the graphics a lot. The whole title has its own distinct sense of style that allows it to stand apart from other games in the franchise. There’s so much colour, and small details all over the world, and I love that. It almost feels like you’re playing with a bucket of legos.
However, for as much as I like the visuals, I don’t like them more than having a stable framerate. I have no idea why this game runs so poorly. It looks good for a Switch game, but like…what’s it doing? Why does the framerate constantly do the cha-cha slide? Did we skip the part of development where we optimize things for the hardware, or did no one working on the project care enough to be bothered?
Speaking of things that can’t be bothered, Link’s Awakening now features a dungeon builder. This was a huge selling point in the marketing, and…honestly it’s kind of shit. Players are able to create their own dungeon by throwing together the rooms from the dungeons they’ve already finished. But, why would anyone want to do that? You can’t re-solve puzzles, as knowing the solution ruins the puzzle. That’s probably why no one’s made a puzzle rogue-like. Puzzles by their very design aren’t replayable. So all you’re left with is a time sink that adds no value to the experience.
Before I close this out, I wanted to speak positively about the one feature of Link’s Awakening that wasn’t obliterated by the passage of time: the dungeons. A lot of the conventions that we know of from modern Zelda were actually established in Link’s Awakening. As a result of this, the dungeons across the game still feel good to explore, and complete. My absolute favourite was the Eagle Tower. It requires players to carry a massive iron ball around the second floor, which they use to destroy a group of pillars. This causes the inaccessible fourth floor of the dungeon to drop down to the third floor, which grants players access to it. That’s so cool! It also requires players to manage the location of the ball, as they can’t freely carry it around the dungeon. It’s an instant classic.
I’m sure it came across loud and clear already, but I’ll state the obvious anyway: I thought Link’s Awakening was an incredibly middling experience. I don’t hate it – I just don’t understand why it was re-released for modern audiences with so few adjustments. It was a landmark title 30 years ago, but it’s just so crusty by today’s standards with what few changes have been made here. I’ve honestly had a better time playing indie titles inspired by it then I did playing through Link’s Awakening on the Switch. It’s a neat bit of Zelda history, but it should have remained in the history books if Nintendo wasn’t willing to update it for a modern audience.