The Switch is getting its second Zelda game, but it perhaps wasn’t one that people were expecting. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening was the franchise’s first serious foray into the handheld arena (if you don’t include the 1989 Game & Watch release, that is) and remains a beloved entry in the franchise; it’s also a game that, thanks to the subsequent Game Boy Color re-release and its publication on the 3DS Virtual Console, is easy enough to experience in its ‘original’ form, even in 2019. So that’s exactly what I did; I took my trusty modded Game Boy DMG-001, slotted in my dusty Zelda cartridge (which, amazingly, still has a working battery after more than a quarter of a decade spent largely in storage) and decided to revisit Koholint Island one more time before the Switch remake arrives later this year.
Originally launched in 1993, Link’s Awakening followed in the footsteps of the SNES title Link to the Past, which was (and perhaps still is) considered to be the finest entry in the entire series. Link’s handheld quest apes the visual style of its 16-bit sibling superbly, considering the vast gulf in processing power between the Game Boy and the SNES, and this went a long way to building up hype for its original launch; you’ve played Zelda on your TV, now embark on a stylistically-similar adventure on the move. It was an easy sell, especially to the 14-year-old me; it’s not hyperbole to say that Link to the Past had been a life-changing experience, and I was hungry for an adventure of the same scope. The fact that it would come in portable form was a neat bonus, as it meant I didn’t have to neglect my quest when my family left the house to visit the ‘real world’, an environment which seemed dull in comparison to the lush beaches and dense woodland of Koholint. Oh, and like so many UK teens, I did whatever Rik Mayall told me.
Hopping back into Link’s Awakening now after playing titles like Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword and of course Breath of the Wild is a surprisingly jarring experience. I’d forgotten how goofy and irreverent the game is; back in 1993, after the relatively light-hearted and cartoon-like Link to the Past, it was less of a tonal shift, but even then I can remember thinking how silly Link’s Awakening was in comparison to the SNES game. This is a title that features cameos from the likes of Kirby, Yoshi and even Dr. Wright from the SNES version of SimCity, and showcases side-scrolling platforming sections where you leap on the heads of Goombas from the Super Mario Bros. series.
Elsewhere, dialogue with non-player characters is often amusing, but does much to shatter the illusion of immersion; who can forget the many kids in Mabe Village who happily explain gameplay tips – such as how to save your game and the ability to re-spawn at the last doorway you entered – but then confess to not actually knowing what this information pertains to? And what about Ulrira, a sage-like individual who doles out patchy advice to the player via an anachronistic network of telephones?
All of this was apparently intentional on Nintendo’s part. “We moved along at quite a good speed in a relatively freewheeling manner,” explains director Takashi Tezuka in an Iwata Asks interview. “Maybe that’s why we had so much fun making it. It was like we were making a parody of Zelda,” he adds, before saying that because it was on the Game Boy – a console which, even in those early days of the industry, skewed towards a younger audience – the team felt it could get away with this child-like silliness.
Link’s Awakening certainly feels like a pastiche at times, despite its obvious quality. Looking back in 2019, I think that could explain why, although I liked the game immensely at the time, it didn’t stir quite the same emotions as Link to the Past did. Humour has been employed to excellent effect in the franchise since then – Wind Waker and Spirit Tracks being two notable examples – but to me personally, Zelda is at its best when it’s offering up truly epic moments of drama; Link’s Awakening is curiously lacking in those, which is perhaps to be expected, given the humble nature of the hardware.
So what kind of response will the Switch remake receive when it launches this year? Despite the re-releases, there will be plenty of people who have never played Link’s Awakening before but have nonetheless tirelessly battled their way through Breath of the Wild, conquered the Divine Beasts and subdued Calamity Ganon to restore peace to Hyrule. What kind of experience will these franchise newcomers be anticipating when they load up Link’s Awakening? How will they respond to the game’s relatively slim play time, its quirky humour, leftfield cameos and fourth-wall-breaking cast of characters? The game’s visual style has already divided fans, and I can’t help but feel that the schism is down to the fact that many don’t want to see a return to the cute, toy-like aesthetic of the past, and instead would like to see Link remain firmly anchored to the semi-realistic world popularised by Breath of the Wild, which – lest we forget – is the best selling Zelda game ever. Ironically, we had almost the same situation when Nintendo showed ‘realistic Link’ running on the GameCube and then released the cel-shaded Wind Waker.
Without that vital nostalgic connection to the original 1993 release, Link’s Awakening could prove to be a hard sell for those weaned on the 2017 open-world epic. Playing the Game Boy version has reconfirmed to me that Link’s Awakening is most definitely a good time; it’s well-designed, addictive, bursting with detail and doesn’t take itself too seriously – all qualities that, in 1993, were perfect for a monochrome portable adventure on Nintendo’s child-friendly handheld. Whether or not that proves to be the case in 2019 – even with massively updated presentation – remains to be seen, but I personally cannot wait to hit Koholint’s beach one more time.