Games

'Link’s Awakening' Is an Excellent Update of a 90s Video Game, Warts ‘n All

A new coat of paint and a lovely story, but it's also worth remembering this was designed in the early 90s for the Game Boy.

by Patrick Klepek
Sep 19 2019, 12:00pm

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening was technically released in 1993, but for those (like me) who missed the original Game Boy release, this week’s remake from Nintendo is, in essence, an entirely new 2D Zelda game. Remarkable! But an important difference between Link’s Awakening and the last time Nintendo pulled a similar stunt with the also-excellent A Link Between Worlds for 3DS is A Link Between Worlds actually was, top to bottom, a new (and modern) game. Link’s Awakening is a game from 1993 given a very slick coat of paint, some welcomed tweaks, and a few modern conveniences. Frustrating frame rate issues aside, it’s an excellent update of a game from 1993, but, well, it remains a game from 1993.

The question I had going into playing Link’s Awakening: Can you hold a 1993 game to 2019 standards? It was tough to know how to situate my critical observations. Is this something Nintendo could have fixed, or is it baked into the game’s DNA? If they’d changed this part I didn’t like, would purists have called foul? Ancient graphics have a way of setting certain expectations. In updating the game’s look and some but not all parts of the design, it leaves one in a bind over how to judge what’s a real gripe and what’s simply, I dunno, old school.

Bluntly, it’s made playing this strange. To me, it’s not an update, it’s a new game. Nintendo doesn’t issue patch notes at the start, and while you can still plainly tell they’ve dressed it up some, I cannot in good faith tell you, as someone not versed in the original, what exactly is new. I can’t tell you if the photographer has been removed or I missed him. It seems like there are a lot more sea shells to find to avoid the game getting imbalanced by the second sword? I’m sure there will be lists, as fans chronicle the differences between the various Link’s Awakening releases—the original, the 1998 update for Game Boy Color, and this one.

All I can tell you, however, is what it was like to play Link’s Awakening as a newcomer.

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Link’s Awakening, like some of the best Zelda adventures, takes place far beyond the reach of Hyrule. While sailing, Link gets caught in a storm and wakes up on the “mysterious” island of Koholint Island. I’ve put the “mysterious” part in quotes because the game immediately begins hammering home, and poking fun at, how strange this place is. The characters are not only eccentric and fourth-wall breaking, but talk about that. You wake up without a sword, and within moments, find a chain chomp from the Mario series. At one point, you’re able to walk around with a chain chomp who conveniently kills enemies. I’m pretty sure one of the later enemies was Kirby? He tried to suck Link into his belly. The game doesn’t blink, leaving the player to do the blinking, and wondering if there’s a coherent explanation for it all.

In an interview with former Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, Nintendo designer Takshi Tezuka, who co-directed the original Zelda alongside designer Shigeru Miyamoto, said Link’s Awakening was made “in a real peculiar frame of mind” and that it “was like we were making a parody of The Legend of Zelda.” It’s a game without Ganon, Zelda, and other franchise staples, which, like Majora’s Mask, is part of why it’s such a joy. Over the course of a long running franchise like Zelda, you’re used to seeing designers play with and reinvent series conventions over and over. But in Link’s Awakening, they’re totally tossed aside. The bow-and-arrow isn’t handed out by a dungeon here, it’s sold in a shop. You can conceivably beat the game without ever getting it.

Personally, the handheld Zelda games have been a blindspot. Outside of poking at a DS game or two and walking away, my time with Link happened on consoles. I know the dewy-eyed way people talk about like Capcom’s Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons, but the special reverence for Link’s Awakening is something else, a game burned into my head canon, unfairly or not, as “Zelda but Twin Peaks,” which I always took to mean “I guess it has weird characters.” But hasn’t Zelda always had that? And the ending! People always talk about the ending, declaring it one of the times the series, hardly a hallmark of nuanced storytelling, hits with a gut punch.

That part, I’m happy to report, holds up, even if what happens is signaled a mile in advance.

Link’s Awakening, perhaps because it’s unburdened by mythology and legacy, succeeds because it centers people who aren’t Link. ( Majora’s Mask, arguably the roughest Zelda tale, successfully built upon this idea years later.) More than the small but delightfully dense overworld and puzzle-centric dungeons, this is what makes Link’s Awakening stand out, all these years later. It’s how the people of Koholint Island are made important. Link is, of course, the savior with a sword who can defeat the monsters that plague them, but their burdens—the burden of Koholint Island itself—sits at the game’s emotional core. It’s not a game with much dialogue, either. This was a Game Boy game dealing with constraints on technology, constraints on budget. There’s a lot that’s implied, but the imagination dances.

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I can’t fully speak to the Twin Peaks connection because I’ve only seen the first season of David Lynch’s show and scattered parts of the second. But my original assessment— does this just mean the game is full of weird characters?—holds up. They’re all very distinctive, and importantly, have a role in the community. (Big mood shout outs to the old guy who runs the in-island hint system and only talks over the phone because of social anxiety). There are towns in other Zelda games, but few feel like places. The links between a tiny community are at the heart of Twin Peaks, and it’s the same here—without murder. Link’s Awakening finds you regularly interacting with the island's people, lending gravity to their plight, as Link begins to understand more of what’s going on. One of the most satisfying quests is trading items between characters with different needs, getting to know their interests and quirks.

(In the same interview I referenced, Ocarina of Time co-director Eija Aonuma, who has creatively guided the series ever since, said this about the Twin Peaks connection: “When I was reading Tanabe-san's comments in the strategy guide, I saw, "Tezuka-san suggested we make all the characters suspicious types like in the then-popular Twin Peaks." Adds up!)

Bouncing around the world itself will feel familiar to anyone who’s played a Zelda game in the mold of Link to the Past. You start out with a sword and shield, puzzling at the cracks in mountains and strange objects that, you assume, can be interacted with once you have the right gear. In this version of Link’s Awakening, it’s possible to pull up a map and mark spots of interest with a set of icons. (I wish I could have drawn on the map directly, instead of putting a circle on a bombable spot, then writing in my notes that circle = bomb to track my growing legend.) It’s a small world, all told, but again, it’s dense. Whenever you gain access to something new to play with, it means a trek across the landscape is likely to yield useful rewards. (Well, mostly heart pieces and money you’ll quickly run out of reasons to spend.)

"Can you hold a 1993 game to 2019 standards? It was tough to know how to situate my critical observations. Is this something Nintendo could have fixed, or is it baked into the game’s DNA? If they’d changed this part I didn’t like, would purists have called foul?"

While traversing that landscape, you’ll run into one of the game’s strangest problems: a dodgy and inconsistent frame rate. The game’s tilt shift aesthetic, complete with blurring along the screen’s edges, makes the world look and feel appropriately toy-like, as if you could just place your fingers onto the screen and pluck things out. It’s absolutely gorgeous. This isn’t a game where much happens on the screen simultaneously, but even when Link is doing nothing more than walking from one screen to the next, lacking enormous enemies or taxing explosions that might understandably cause the underpowered Switch to buckle, Link’s Awakening rarely achieves the smoothness its visuals demand. I played in handheld and docked mode on a launch Switch, and the issues were persistent in both modes of play.

This issue proved distracting in the first hour or so, but over time, I could look past it. Every once and awhile, I’d notice it, typically when the game occasionally hit a silky 60 frames-per-second and, for a brief moment, I wished the game stayed there. I am, generally speaking, not someone sensitive to frame rate issues, and what’s present in Link’s Awakening isn’t game breaking. But no doubt, it’s a real issue, and sensitivities to the ups and downs will vary. So far, there’s no indication a patch from Nintendo is coming, and it’s probably telling these problems were present (and worse) when the game was shown at E3, a time when Nintendo often puts its best foot forward, showing games with lots of polish.

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The place where these issues come up the least are in the game’s many dungeons. Breath of the Wild was a brilliant game, but the limited set of dungeons, featured on the backs of the game’s various beasts, felt like a tease. Link’s Awakening, on the other hand, is a game where you probably spend the majority of your time wandering dungeons and scratching your head at which room is hiding a secret. The formula here is familiar, and plays out along similar beats in just about every one of the game’s interlocked spaces. A lot of rooms with locked doors. A lot of rooms with enemies to be defeated or puzzles to be solved in order to drop a key that can then open those locked doors. A new piece of gear that lets you move past previously unreachable areas, which eventually leads to a dungeon key and a boss.

(Side note: I didn’t mess with the create-a-dungeon feature much. It’s not very good.)

The dungeons themselves are same-y. They look similar enough that now, having only beaten the game a few days ago, they blur. Conjure in your mind what an old school Zelda dungeon looks like and imagine that a bunch of times over. Which I was generally fine with, to a point. Treated as brain teasers increasing in scope over time, they proved satisfying. What more could I do here? What is the obvious mystery I’m not solving? My biggest problem was how the lategame dungeons seemed to achieve complexity due more in part to having too many rooms to keep track of, at which point the limitations of marking the in-game map became acute, alongside endless backtracking. Each dungeon has a single warp that opens up as you progress, but it’s not nearly enough towards the end, to the point that I sometimes was referencing an online walkthrough simply to keep my head on straight.

Some will see that as a positive; it’s been awhile since Zelda dungeons have meaningfully pushed back on players. My read, though, is a game from 1993 with a limited scope, doing what it could with limited resources. See: the constantly repeating enemies and layouts, and a distinct lack of interesting, dungeon-specific mechanics that could help them stand out.

Referencing a walkthrough was fascinating, though, because it revealed just how closely and lovingly this update has stuck to the groundwork that was laid more than 20 years ago.

But Link’s Awakening remains a Game Boy game from 1993, and the fancy visuals don’t touch the core design, born from a specific time and place and different expectations. It remains that game, for better and worse, which means it’s a success. Link’s Awakening was special then and with the right expectations, remains special. Now, all we can do is hope Nintendo decides to give the rest of Zelda’s handheld adventures the same loving treatment.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you want to convince him he should play 'Minish Cap' before it's remade, drop an email: patrick.klepek@vice.com. He's also available privately on Signal.