is an exercise in time travel. Ahead of the Switch remake, I replayed a 2011 version of a 1998 version of the 1993 original. I found the famously inscrutable handheld, top-down Zelda as pleasingly difficult to scrute as ever. Its hazy, Twin Peaks-inspired story and compact, twisting overworld were undimmed by time, but its dungeons were slightly lacking by comparison with what came after, built frustratingly often around just finding hidden areas rather than truly rewarding puzzle solving. But just like a good time-travel yarn, the 2019 remake is out to correct mistakes and make more perfect what came before. I’m happy to say that, having finished this latest version of the story, all of my praise for Link’s Awakening remains intact, and my reservations have practically disappeared.This is a remake in the true sense. The story, and every event in it, is completely intact: it’s an offbeat tale told by turns charmingly and creepily, in which Link is lost at sea and lands on the shores of Koholint Island before an owl sends him to open a giant egg perched atop a mountain. If you haven’t played, this is an odd one. Koholint itself retains every feature from the original – including elements added for the 1998 Game Boy Color re-release – aside from the Camera Shop, which has been made obsolete because we sadly don’t have Game Boy Printers anymore. Even in that case, the Camera Shop area has been reopened as the new Chamber Dungeons location (see boxout below) in its place. Additions are minimal. If you want some guidance as to how minimal, “The crane game has a slightly different layout” was one of the most substantial of my notes about changes.
If you’re a seasoned fan, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you’re very old. But the upside is that you’ll instantly know how to navigate yourself from the beach Link washes up on, up through the rinky-dink houses of Mabe Village, through the mists of the Mysterious Forest and, eventually, scale Tal Tal Heights to reach the egg of the mysterious Wind Fish. It’s a remarkable work of imitation – the world remains the same, down to individual squares of grass, and music ranges from chiptune-infused covers to gorgeous orchestral reworks of Minako Hamano and Kozue Ishikawa’s original jaunty compositions. There’s a real pleasure in seeing what those old pixel sprites ‘really’ looked like, too: those crystals you thought you smashed were actually popped like balloons; that column-rolling globule of a mini-boss looks horribly… wet? At points, this feels as much like digital tourism as it does a return to an old adventure.
All Glown Up
The real development work, then, has gone into altering the fabric of what makes up those familiar landmarks, and the most immediately obvious change is the new graphical style. Famously, Awakening adds to its dreamlike storyline by pilfering from across the Nintendo Extended Universe – as Link, you stomp Goombas, get eaten by Kirby, and take a Chain Chomp for a walk. It’s fitting, then, that its new look feels drawn from other non-Zelda games, particularly Animal Crossing and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. The chunky 8-bit pixels of old have become a tilt-shifted toy-town, with swathes of blur painted onto the top and bottom of the screen to make Koholint’s dinky architecture and plasticky flora pop out from the screen.
Some might have worried that the stark charm of the original would be lost in the visual transplant, but it’s simply a new kind of charm now – a style that complements the story by feeling both incredibly cute and uncannily artificial. Even Link’s Awakening’s framing cutscenes have been reworked as miniature anime episodes, emphasising quite how big a shift that style is.
The overworld of Koholint Island has also been turned into a single, seamless space. That comes with both pros and one of the remake’s only true cons. On the plus side, it’s a wonderful way to make this place seem more like, well, a place. Where the original was forced by technical restraints into a web of scrolling single-screen areas – one of history’s most beautiful pages of graph paper – those have now been knitted together, making this a true miniature world (again, not unlike Animal Crossing’s tiny landmasses). This changes how the map works, now preferring to reveal whole regions at once rather than unlocking individual grid squares. This has the side effect of making the process of finding where to head next on your quest just a little easier than it used to be. It’s a lovely, modern touch for a game near-obsessed with impersonating the past.
The catch is that, in some places, it’s a little too lovely for the Switch to handle. In both handheld and docked mode, framerate regularly dips when there’s a glut of moving elements on screen. Too many waving blades of grass – not exactly uncommon features on the island – and you’ll see performance suffer for it. This was never enough to kill my enjoyment, but it does jar when it begins happening, and it’s rare to go too far in the overworld without experiencing it.
The seamlessness of the overworld – and its attendant performance problems – don’t extend to the dungeons, however. These remain knotty and often surprisingly tough sets of single-screen challenges, tying together classic Zelda item-gating with what occasionally amounts to hidden object puzzles. Essentially, you’re as often searching for how to get into a room as you are trying to get through it. They’re also the area of most improvement in the 2019 version.
The graphical upgrade turns formerly obtuse, dull bits of non-puzzling (such as trying to find a cracked wall or realising a moving platform can be controlled directly) into far more straightforward affairs, all while naturally making the dungeons’ traps, enemies, and tricks more appealingly spectacular. Less obviously, there’s some major quality-of-life work hidden underneath all of this: you can now stamp icons on maps to remind you where to return; locked doors don’t need to be opened again every time you pass through them, and the compass chime used to signal unfound secrets is now far more evident when it goes off. These still aren’t my favourite 2D Zelda dungeons – looking for multiple hidden keys just isn’t as fun as using my specialised equipment to think around an obstacle – but they are absolutely better than they used to be, and it’s entirely down to Nintendo (and regular collaborator Grezzo) working around the original framework of Link’s Awakening.
That attention to extraneous detail is found throughout. Most gratifyingly, the Game Boy’s two buttons have been swapped for the Switch’s full set, meaning you no longer need to drop your sword and shield to access other items or equip a gauntlet just pick up a pot. Link does still have to hold a feather to remember how to jump but, given how many games he can’t jump in at all, I’ll let him off for this one. The net result of all this work is that this take on Link’s Awakening can, by comparison, be considered easier than the original – but considering the pitfalls of the original it’s an ease borne out of fairness rather than straight dumbing down, more like evening the odds than rigging them.
Check out how similar yet different the Game Boy Color and Switch versions of the game look in the video below:Additions to the original follow a similar rule: the series’ familiar fairy bottles have been added to offer an extra source of health while out in the wilds. There are several more warp points, making fast travel a little more effective than it used to be. There are far more secret seashells – Link’s Awakening’s hidden extra currency – but there’s also a seashell sensor now to make finding where they are a little less of a chore, but without losing the light puzzle aspect of working out how to unearth them when you get there.
If all of this sounds small-scale, that’s because it is. From all appearances, overriding interest in every development decision is to preserve the original, and the secondary interest is to make the original even more appealing. You lose nothing, and gain more. This, to me, is a masterclass in how to remake a game.