E3 Hands-On: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening

A legend reborn!

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 06/21/2019 10:53 Comment on this     ShareThis

Some games are special because they act as true watershed moments within the industry. Other games are special, however, for personal reasons beyond anything having to do with the nuts and bolts of what’s under their hoods. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is a little bit of both, for me. As a Game Boy (and eventually Game Boy Color) title, Link’s Awakening blew fans away for being an authentic Zelda experience in portable form, replete with an enormous (for the time) overworld, engaging narrative, and a wealth to see and explore. For me, it was all of those things, but it was also a game that pulled me into its world like so few have before or since.

I think part of the reason Link’s Awakening made the connection to me that it did is because of its nature as a portable title. Handheld games, especially when played at a young age, take on this different nature by virtue of the format itself. It’s all small, small, small, in the palm of the player’s hand, right in his face. Somehow, those games I played on my Game Boy sucked me in arguably more than the ones that I played on the TV did. Link’s Awakening is a title that is forever etched into my memories, so I had a lot of hope for it as I began my demo.

The opening anime intro sent a shiver of excitement down my spine as it played. I told the Nintendo attendant that I wanted to let it run before launching into the gameplay itself. The quality of the animation is stunning, but its impact is aided by the fact that this remains one of the most riveting intros to any Zelda game in the series. Link at sea, a calamitous storm swirling around him. Lightning strikes! The ship destroyed, Link drifts to a seemingly inevitable death… only to be found later, his unconscious form splayed across the shore of a mysterious island. There, high atop the peak of its tallest mountain, rests an enormous, mysterious egg. It’s an irresistible setup that’s as engrossing now as it was in 1993.

That all said, as anyone who reads Nintendojo might know, I don’t have much patience for people who like to nauseatingly question whether or not older games can “withstand” the test of time. I believe in good game design; sure, gameplay, mechanics, and the lot can all be innovated and improved upon, but when something is well made with but rare exception do I ever see a dip in enjoyment just because a newer, shiner title exists alongside it. With Link’s Awakening I do have one concern, but it’s centered around the length of the game, not the quality. The original isn’t terribly long, especially compared to console Zeldas, so how will Nintendo be taking that into account for this reimagining?

Answers, sadly, were not forthcoming. The attendant said that he didn’t know if Link’s Awakening on Switch will be any longer than it was on Game Boy. The Chamber Dungeon shown off in the E3 Nintendo Direct, where players can earn Chambers to arrange into custom dungeons, might be a way in which the game is expanded, but the feature wasn’t displayed on the show floor and no further details about it were given beyond what was revealed in that broadcast. If Link’s Awakening on Switch follows the Game Boy original beat for beat, it’s still going to be an exceptional experience, but it might be a letdown to fans hoping for a meatier Zelda title to sink their teeth into. Given that Nintendo is calling this a reimagining, however, I’d be surprised if there isn’t a noticeable increase in playtime here.

The demo starts off with Link awakening in Tarin and Marin’s little seaside cottage. I can’t verify if the dialogue is being recreated line for line (it’s been a small stretch since the last time I played the Game Boy version), but it certainly felt authentic. Link climbs out of bed, gets his shield back from Talon, and makes for the beach to check out where he washed ashore. Immediately, I took stock of how gloriously the designers at Nintendo have evolved Koholint Island. The setting of Link’s Awakening is one of the most iconic in the series, especially Mabe Village and its tropical surroundings. It’s the interiors of the buildings that are really fun to examine, though. Every home and shop has more personality than ever thanks to a bunch of new, small details that have been sprinkled about (check out the screenshot below for an example).

What’s even more impressive is how lovingly the visuals have been transformed for this new version. It’s not only like looking at a maquette, or a diorama, but it’s like one that has been fashioned from toys. There’s a fascinating plastic sheen to everything from the characters themselves to the trees jutting out of the sand. It’s certainly proven to be a divisive look among some chunks of Zelda fandom at large, but I find myself in the camp who really appreciates this new aesthetic. It’s evocative of the cel shaded style of The Wind Waker, yet manages to be its own thing while also better suiting the tone and feel of Link’s Awakening, overall.

Oddly, while the whole shebang is wondrously pretty and detailed, I couldn’t help but notice that the game would start chugging at times. The visuals would start to stutter and generally it felt like Link’s Awakening was proving to be too taxing for the Switch. Which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense given the simpler nature of its gameplay compared to something like Breath of the Wild. I mentioned the shakiness to my attendant but didn’t get a response, so for now I’m going to remain optimistic that it’s an issue that will be fully sorted by launch. I mean, come on; has Nintendo ever put out a Zelda installment with serious performance issues? It wouldn’t make sense to start doing so with a remake of a Game Boy game!

Once Link pulled his sword from the sand at Toronbo Shores, that same small fanfare from the original game fired up and I could feel myself getting excited all over again. The trek to the beach through the village was the same as on Game Boy. All of the houses and buildings were right where I remembered them, just more three-dimensional and shiny. The item fetch quest from the first Link’s Awakening is also present, although during my demo I could only get to the point where I exchanged Link’s can of dog food with Sale for a couple of bananas. Rediscovering everything from before was an immense thrill, and I imagine that those doing so for the first time will be just as enthralled as so many fans were all those years ago.

If there’s one parting concern worth sharing, it’s that there is the potential for some fans to be disappointed by Link’s Awakening being too familiar, or worried that Nintendo is playing this reimagining too safe. I wouldn’t fret over it, though. There’s still so much that’s unknown about the game. Nintendo hasn’t even revealed what the new Link Amiibo will enable or unlock, and the aforementioned Chamber Dungeon feature is sure to also add quite a bit to this classic title. Link’s Awakening might be 26 years old, but so far it’s shaping up to still be a fresh and relevant Zelda game. Keep it tuned to Nintendojo as we inch closer to Link’s Awakening’s September 20 launch date for more details!

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