I never played “Link’s Awakening” when it originally came out. Back then, I was rather put off by the system’s monochrome palette which looked washed out in comparison to the PC games I was into with their sumptuous, 256-color VGA graphics. This was my loss. I imagine that if I’d spent time with it, I would have found in those drab visuals a compensatory vitality because “Link’s Awakening” strikes me as a wonderful companion piece to “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past,” probably my favorite game on the Super Nintendo. Both games ably create the illusion that one has fallen into a small, densely packed world like something out of a swaggering fairy tale.
At the start of the updated adventure Link appears on a boat in the middle of a dark, storm-tossed sea. As he frantically tries to maintain control of his vessel, it’s destroyed by lightning. Later, on a sunny day, a young girl discovers him washed up on a beach. After waking up in the home of a villager he learns that he is on Koholint Island. Though the homeowner tells him that he retrieved Link’s shield, the man neglected to pick up Link’s sword on account of the monsters that cropped up around it. After Link makes his way south to the beach and finds his sword, a large owl lands on a flower-decked promontory near him. Putting two and two together, the owl attributes the recent violent behavior of the monsters to Link’s appearance on the island. He informs Link that the only way for him to get off the Island is to awaken the Wind Fish nestled in a large egg that rests on top of the mountain which overlooks the island. To accomplish this, Link will have to thread his way through a number of dungeons in which there are instruments capable of stirring the Wind Fish.
Leaving aside for the moment the revamped visuals of the new Nintendo Switch version, “Link’s Awakening” is a testament to how well its developers have adapted, for gaming-on-the-go, the sprawling landscapes for which Zelda is known. Though I played a lot of “Link’s Awakening” on my TV, via the Switch’s docked mode, the game feels particularly suited to handheld play because of its snug environments.
The map, with its grass, forest, rock, desert and water regions, is geographically diverse, and these areas were obviously designed with a small screen in mind. From the trees to the houses, everything appears miniaturized and the screen is never overcrowded with enemies. Through the haze of memory, it seems to me that bosses in “Link’s Awakening” are, generally speaking, easier than those that originated on consoles. That said, a “Hero” difficulty level is available from the start that makes enemies deal double damage.
Still, the appeal of “Link’s Awakening” lies more in the joy of exploration than in whacking some enemy over the head or the game’s writing, for that matter, which is rudimentary. Any emotional attachment to the game stems more from the act of doing than in listening to something a character says. Sitting on a log on the beach or leading a lost, friendly ghost to its home are the types of sentimental moments that punctuate the story. What makes “Link’s Awakening” a classic is the old formula, pioneered by the Zelda series, of dropping players off in a world brimming with secrets and leaving them to puzzle out what is needed to get from one point to the next. It is as compelling today as it was more than a quarter of a century ago.
Unsurprisingly given the province of its hardware, the vibrant new visuals of “Link’s Awakening” boast more details than “A Link Between Worlds” — the 3DS spiritual successor to A “Link to the Past.” This is old-school Zelda the way you’d like to remember it.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.