It’s a familiar Zelda setup, but at first you’re left in the dark as to the nature of the Wind Fish and Link’s true motivations, which are revealed to you over the course of the game and make for an intriguing, astounding narrative set apart from anything else in the series.
The island itself also subverts Zelda norms somewhat, with a strange mix of familiar series enemies and warped versions of bad guys borrowed from Super Mario Bros. All of this comes across just as charming and just as uncanny as it did in the original.
Koholint Island is a small area compared to the worlds of many modern games, but it’s packed with secrets to uncover. In true retro Zelda style each dungeon gives you a new item or upgrade such as flippers for swimming or a bracelet that lets you lift heavy rocks, meaning even the very first area in the game is worth revisiting later to find everything you couldn’t access before.
And speaking of items, you’ll spend a lot less time managing them in this game versus the original. The game boy game treated every in your inventory as an item, and you could only have two equipped at a time. For example if you wanted to use both the Roc’s Feather for jumping and the bow for shooting, you couldn’t have your sword or shield equipped, which resulted in a lot of pausing and swapping. On Switch your sword, shield and certain items get their own dedicated buttons, which speeds things up significantly.
One area of concern is that, for new players, it can all be a bit obtuse can always visit a phone booth to get a subtle clue if you’re stuck, but this is very much a 1993 adventure game in design and that means you can easily get lost. On the plus side there are numerous strategy guides on the internet to give you the answers, but that would rob you of the wonderful “a-ha” moments when it all finally clicks.
For example one dungeon features an enemy that appears in multiple different rooms in a certain sequence, requiring you to go back and re-check rooms you’ve already cleared. There’s a pattern to it that you’ll eventually work out, but prior to that you could be wandering aimlessly for a long time. New features like a much more readible map that lets you pin important locations with markers does help this somewhat.
Similarly the entire progression of the adventure rests on a trading subplot that sees you providing the island’s strange inhabitants (from an alligator that collects tinned food to a writer who gets catfished into thinking he has a chance with Princess Peach) with the items they want. It requires you to run all over the map talking to everyone and remembering who said what, which is decidedly old-school.
But then being a bit arcane is all part of the Link’s Awakening‘s appeal. The one actual complaint I have is that the game doesn’t run as well as first-party Nintendo games typically do. The action typically zips along at a smooth 60 frames per second, but dips very noticeably (and quite often) when you’re transitioning from area to area, resulting in a distracting judder. Hopefully this is something that can be fixed with an update.
When you’re not adventuring there’s a good selection of side activities, including a crane machine, fishing and river rafting minigames, and hunting for hidden sea shells. A new activity has you building your own remixes of the game’s dungeons, while there’s also a few super secret collectibles to discover.
Nintendo’s reconstruction does exactly what it sets out to do; illuminating for modern audiences the wonderful game that’s always existed inside those old Game Boy cartridges. But the new Link’s Awakening is more than that too, as a loving tribute to an exceptional game that deserves much more than being lost to time.
Link’s Awakening is out now for Switch.
Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.