It’s December, 1998. Christmas Day to be exact. I’m seven years old; and unbeknownst to me, my eager hands are about to unwrap a match made in heaven. I begin to open a rectangular box that’s surprisingly weighty in my hands. I tear back a corner to reveal a kiwi-green GameBoy Colour[1] in all of its neon glory.

In my excitement, I forget that I don’t have anything to play on it yet. Until my Father hands me one more present, an unassuming square box that does no justice to the treasure contained within. I revealed a shining black cartridge; Link’s Awakening DX, the first game I ever owned.

Times were simpler then. There was no stress from work, no polarising politics or financial responsibilities. In fact, my main concern was convincing my parents that AA batteries were the best way to spend their money.

The announcement of the Link’s Awakening Animal-Crossing-style visual mash-up, ultra fine recreation for Nintendo Switch offered me a return to those innocent times, innocent times in which DX remains unfinished. I took the opportunity to right this wrong without hesitation.

The joy of Link’s Awakening is that it lives up to the branding of ‘remake’. This is the exact game that I remember, and that, it what makes it special. Not only are the environment layouts indistinguishable from one another, but character behaviours and dialogs are reproduced frame by frame, and word by word.

A comparison of screenshots from the Original, GameBoy Colour and Nintendo Switch versions of Link’s Awakening

This is perhaps best illustrated in the early scenes of the game. The GameBoy version of Link’s Awakening featured distinct, for want of a better term “rooms” in the world map. You’d exit one side of a square and enter the corresponding side of the adjacent room, as a caveat of the GameBoy’s square display.

There’s a section where you’re required to douse a racoon in magic powder (obviously), which sends said racoon[2] dancing around your screen and bouncing off corners of what should be a square map. However, the Switch has a 16:9 widescreen display – the map scrolls in the over-world rather than tessellates – and yet, the racoon follows the identical path as in the original, bouncing with the same sound effect off of precisely the same trees.

It’s this attention to detail and nostalgic fan service that elevates Link’s Awakening to a contender for my game of the year. Everyone moment spent wandering Koholint was a pleasure, with slightly janky frame rate a small price to pay for my 15 hours of personal reminiscence.

Link’s Awakening is a classic Zelda adventure, in more ways than in inception. As impressive as the sprawl of Breath of the Wild was, in many ways it did not resonate as a typical Zelda title for me. The tried a tested formula of dungeon crawling for new equipment to help you progress to new areas in a metroidvania-esque style was abandoned, replaced in favour of limitless exploration from the get-go.

Here we revert to the franchise’s origins. And I loved it. Perhaps it was spending my childhood and teenage years playing the classic formula, but few experiences compare to the excitement of opening a large chest in a dungeon and pulling out a new weaponry.

Some may say that this formula facilitates easier puzzle solving, and once you’ve assembled the requisite pieces there’s not much puzzle left at all. However, the latter dungeons have a spike in complexity that will puzzle even the hardened player. This, combined with requiring the right equipment to fully explore the over-world of Koholint Island is enough to keep seasoned gamers and franchise newbies engaged to the end.

Despite the more guided nature (relative to other 2D Zelda titles), there are still aspects of Link’s Awakening that may leave you scratching your head. The two trading sequences make a full return, and the immunity of some bosses to standard sword attacks and yet their vulnerabilities being a charged spin attack is a little frustrating.

Link’s Awakening will see you trading plenty of inanimate objects for something ultimately useful..

However, I endeavoured to play Link’s Awakening like it was still the 90’s, where my solution isn’t just a few taps away on a smartphone but behind a hard-to-access dial-up connection that was often unavailable. Namely, I didn’t want to follow a guide, despite the temptation. I’m a big believer that this adds to the experience. You’re playing it as it was meant to be played, not the way an author is telling you to. It forces you to engage with NPCs and fully explore the lovingly recreated environments.

The two Legend of Zelda titles available on Nintendo Switch show just how far the franchise has come since it’s portable inception. Link’s adventures have been diversified. The fight against Ganon has moved from two dimensional scrollers, to three dimensional dungeon crawlers; through cell shaded touch screens and three dimensional three dimensions; to a vast and open world of near endless exploration. But here we are, after coming full circle, playing a 2.5D tilt-shift perspective beauty that your seven year old self could only dream of.

Link’s Awakening is a return to roots that will leave you swooning with nostalgia. For the younger generation, yet to be acquainted with early titles, well, they can sit wide eyed with wonder, without a care in the world of what the next 20 years of franchise evolution will bring.

[1] GameBoy Colour variants were totally wild, especially this 

[2] Surprisingly, the racoon remains the second most untrustworthy woodland creature of Koholint behind the owl narrator. I’ve never trusted him and never will…


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