When the last Legend of Zelda wound up shaking up the whole series – and all open-world games, for that matter – that’s a hard act to follow.
While we’ve since learned that a Breath of the Wild sequel on the way, Nintendo has decided for the interim to return to a more traditional top-down Zelda – with all the dungeons and items we’ve known and loved in the series’ three decades.
But when I say traditional, the Game Boy classic Link’s Awakening is still regarded as one of the weirdest entries, far away from Hyrule in a land where the presence of familiar Nintendo characters like Chain Chomps, Goombas and Yoshi felt positively alien. But if that weirdness now feels relatively safe compared to the still left-field bout of Majora’s Mask, it’s nonetheless a handsome update for the Switch.
An island toybox
Link’s Awakening on Switch comes a long way from the 8-bit original, but reimagines it with an art style that - while maybe not as radical as when Link became a living breathing cartoon in Wind Waker - is just adorable to look at. Essentially, Koholint Island resembles a huge toy playset.
While some of Nintendo’s art design has been a bit too conservative and plasticky, including New Super Mario Bros U and A Link Between Worlds, that plastic feel makes wonderful sense here. The brilliant tilt-shift effect only helps to make it feel like you’re looking down at a diorama.
It also sounds incredible too, from all the familiar music brought to life with a new orchestral arrangement to the pitter-patter of Link’s footsteps, especially when he’s dashing with the Pegasus Boots.
Even with these new visuals and audio, the important thing is that the island’s layout and story beats remain faithfully intact. It's what you might call a frame-by-frame remake, even though the outdoors is now a seamless open world instead of the original’s tile-based layout. For longtime fans, that means all of the narrative elements and puzzles, including that trading sequence, play out just as you remember.
More buttons to map and icons for maps
Perhaps the best part of being able to play Link’s Awakening on Switch is that there are immediately more buttons to take advantage of than just the A and B buttons on the Game Boy. That means organising your equipment is much more convenient than before, meaning you can spend less time in the menu screen.
While you still only get to freely map two items to X and Y, a lot of your key equipment is actually mapped to specific buttons once you’ve acquired them. Basically, you’ll always slash your sword with B, the right shoulder buttons put your shield up, while holding the left shoulder buttons charges up your Pegasus Boots dash. And you don’t need to manually equip the power bracelet to pick up objects.
Just as convenient are some very modern features such as auto-saving, as well as an improvement to the fast travel system, including a few additional warp points. Taking a leaf from Breath of the Wild, you can even add pins to the map, including in dungeons – so that you can keep track of clues or secrets you discovered but need to come back to later with the right equipment. Of course, if all those conveniences sound too easy for you, you can always play on Hero mode for a proper challenge.
Dungeon master quest
Apart from adding more heart pieces and seashells, this remake attempts to increase its longevity with Chamber dungeons, where you can assemble your own dungeons and even save to an Amiibo to play at a friend’s house.
But "Zelda Maker" this is sadly not. It’s more a dungeon remixer as you take tiles from the game’s existing dungeons. Ultimately, it feels too restrictive, while there’s something unsatisfyingly inconsistent about mashing together different dungeon parts together, undercutting their original craftsmanship.
There’s also a couple annoying niggles I encountered. Every time you leave an interior, loading up the whole open world island causes the framerate chug in the first second after the loading screen. It’s hardly game-breaking but still very noticeable, considering how often you go in and out of places. However, regardless whether it’s down to physics or RNG, those horse head statues can get in the bin.
The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening verdict
Compared to the endless hours of exploration in Breath of the Wild, Link’s Awakening is relatively short. That makes it rather pricey when the original is going for a few quid on the 3DS Virtual Console, or you could just as well play A Link to the Past via the Switch Online service.
Nonetheless, this lovingly crafted remake scratches the itch for Zelda fans who’ve missed good old-fashioned dungeons. And if you’ve never played Link’s Awakening, then you owe it to yourself to experience one of the finest of the 2D entries at its most weird and wonderful.