Nintendo has always referred to The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening for the Switch without 'remake' or 'remaster' in the title, The company just didn't fancy renaming the classic, even though other entries in the same series did indeed get a distinguishing tag line.
The game arriving now is a redone adaptation where Eiji Aonuma and Grezzo's respect to the 8-bit original very clear. That being said, it's willingly tweaking some aspects here and there to polish those rough edges which never bothered us 20 years ago, but could annoy us today. Yep, it sounds like a remake.
This Link's Awakening is a pure, classic adventure from the '90s - an old-school Zelda, with its top-down view, constant puzzles, and traditional dungeon design. It also has quite a peculiar touch though, introduced by a world and characters that leave a mark in your memory.
So it oozes classicism, but at the same time it presents one of the biggest turning points of the whole series. Link's Awakening is not about getting the Triforce, nor about rescuing a princess or beating Ganon; it's about figuring out how to leave the island Link is stuck on. Rumour has it no one can leave Koholint, and the truth behind that sort of curse is one that silently awaits to hit you like a sucker punch.
Its premise is quite simple as well, but hides way more than meets the eye thanks to its characters. Marin, Tarin, Madam MeowMeow, and even the shopkeeper have something to say, something important, and they all play a role in the course of the adventure, or at the very least they add to it (just try and steal something at the shop in Maebe, you'll then see).
This helps, almost inadvertently, to create a bond with them. Soon after a few dialogue lines and a couple of casual encounters - all while you keep searching for the eight instruments of the Sirens, which are hidden within their respective dungeons - you quickly grow fond of these well-defined personalities. The mission to wake up the Wind Fish underlines that it was Link's Awakening the Zelda that introduced music as a story/gameplay element too, so as to remind younger fans thatOcarina of Time didn't start it all.
The top-down view is a good way for Grezzo to show off the work done with this version, in visual and aesthetic terms mostly, and while we might be talking about an old classic, this definitely doesn't feel dated when you look at it.
The goal they pursued with the significant makeover is more than clear, as there are cartoony characters, with a chibi look that harkens back to old toy figurines, all of which are truly charming and expressive, despite the simplicity in their design. They also fit perfectly into this new recreation of Koholint, one that seems like a miniature model photographed with tilt lens effect, even getting its own version of cameos such as Goombas, Chain-Chomps, and Kirby.
We immediately fell in love with the new look. Nobody can resist this new Link running around in his Pegasus Boots, even though the hardware seems to struggle to keep up with him. It's quite surprising, as the visual finish has been carefully treated to include many tiny details for us to feel in front of a living diorama, but it's just unable to run smoothly all the time, despite the modest graphical load.
60 FPS is kept mostly, but this drops to 30-ish when you enter new parts of the map. That's because there are no transitions between the old "screens" that made up the original's map, as it's all naturally connected. It's a pity, as inconsistency keeps us from melting with such a beautiful and adorable look.
But that's one of the very few gripes we can point out about this remake. Well, that and the exasperating tricks some puzzles use to remind us how (obscurely) it was done in the old days in terms of puzzle design. It was another time, as fans of Monkey Island can attest to.
You see, the game had to deal with the proximity of the recently-released A Link to the Past, and as such it took a couple of licenses (such as the brief side-scrolling sections) that remain here, keeping all the toughness, but also the uniqueness. However, this version also introduces a few tweaks to improve the gameplay experience.
The main one is that, compared to the Game Boy entry, Link's Awakening now takes full advantage of the Nintendo Switch controllers, mapping a bunch of actions to specific buttons by default, such as B for sword-swinging, leaving X and Y free for item-assignment. Bombs, bows, and the popular Roc's Feather can therefore join sword, shield (R), and boots without the need of switching again and again in the menu, which was one of the most unpleasant aspects of the classic nowadays.
Although it might have stayed under many fans' radars, another new feature introduced here is the Chamber Dungeons, what we affectionately call Zelda Maker. Its editor lays within Dampé's hut, which has been added for the occasion, and it's based on a very easy system. You just keep unlocking rooms that replicate what you've visited in the in-game dungeons, and then it allows you to create your custom challenges and to obtain rewards when completed. It feels like a testing ground for Zelda Maker if you ask us...
So all in all this Zelda had before it a tricky double-challenge. It had to be compelling for new players, but at the same time strike a chord among those who already traveled to Koholint in the '90s, and the best part is that it manages to fulfill both via faithfulness. Its mechanics and design have been kept and followed to the T. Beyond the graphical overhaul there are slight tweaks here and there (for instance you can now beat Goombas by jumping on them Mario-style), but the core is the very same, and it makes us realise just how incredibly good it was.
As such, The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening is able today to do again what it did back then. You might find much more complex and deep narrative and mechanics, but this game doesn't need to dive those waters to stand out. Neither does it need to find new concepts, as its charm lies in how faithful it remains to the original, and how it keeps the essence of a video game legend.