Some of my earliest gaming memories are those with the GameBoy Color. I was around 7 or 8 when my family first purchased the GBC for me. My mom was about to get married out of state which meant a long car trip as well as busy days preparing for a ceremony in which my involvement was minimal. Providing me a fun way to get through those days without stressing out the adults too much was the key aim of getting me a GameBoy, and boy did it work. I lost myself in the world of Pokemon and while my memories of that time are limited, I certainly don’t remember having any issues during all the wedding hubbub.
Lots of games I loved as a kid were on the GameBoy Color. Pokemon Blue and Silver both took up a lot of my time, as well as the card-based RPG Dragon Ball Z: Legendary Super Warriors. Of course, I had an N64 as well, so for any series that appeared on both the handheld and the console I vastly preferred the console titles. This applied of course to the Zelda series, where Ocarina of Time’s rolling fields and 3D enemies caught my eye more easily than Link’s pixelated adventures on Koholint Island. I gave Link’s Awakening a try every now and again, but its outdated graphics were a turn-off for my young mind and since I didn’t have a guide for it like I did for Ocarina of Time, my inability to make much progress was the nail in the coffin.
Once I got older I started hearing more and more about how Link’s Awakening was a favorite for many other Zelda fans. Folks online praised the weird setting and compelling story – features that I personally admired about one of my all-time favorite Zeldas, Majora’s Mask. It became clear to me that I had missed a classic, but with my GameBoy Color long gone I didn’t have the tools to revisit the game in my adulthood. Luckily, Nintendo knew that guys like me needed an opportunity to revisit the wacky island of Koholint, so they provided us the opportunity to do so in the form of a Nintendo Switch remake.
Link’s Awakening opens with a well-animated cinematic of Link sailing upon a stormy sea before crashing onto the idyllic beach you see pictured above. His unconscious form is found by a sweet young maiden named Marin, who takes him to her home to recover. It turns out that Link has crashed onto an island called Koholint, and the only way for him to return home is to awaken something called the Wind Fish. It is the desire to return home that begins Link’s journey; he sets out to awaken the Wind Fish, which an owl explains to him requires the magic of eight special instruments.
Of course, Link learns none of this until the owl finds him reclaiming his sword on the beach. Before that you’ll spend your first moments in control of our adorable hero exploring the village of Mabe. Mabe is the home of Marin and her father (?) Tarin, as well as a couple of other small families. There’s a couple who have five kids all named some variation of something you would call a child (Lattie for laddie, Sunhey for sonny, etc.) as well as an elderly couple and a woman whose home is full of pet chain chomps.
Wait, chain chomps? That’s right, adventurers, this ain’t your ordinary Zelda. The critters in this world aren’t all things you might normally see in the Zelda franchise. Sure, there are moblins and octoroks, but you’ll also see goombas and chain chomps during your early hours with the game. These otherworldly visitors add to the quirky charm of the game and help Koholint feel like a place that’s a little isolated from the world of Zelda.
Of course, just because the world feels a bit different than the Zelda you know doesn’t mean that this isn’t a classic Zelda experience. While you only start out with a shield to defend yourself, you scoop up a sword somewhat quickly and then things will begin to feel pretty familiar. You block projectiles and enemy weapons with your shield and retaliate with swings of your sword. Although this is a remake of a game which only supported the four cardinal directions, diagonal motion and diagonal attacks are present and after my time with A Link to the Past, I’ve learned that goes a surprisingly long way in helping a game to feel a bit more modern. I’ve been enjoying the combat mechanics so far. You can move while holding your shield and use it to shove enemies around, and until you get the sword that’s your only method of dealing with baddies. You can press B while shielding with R or ZR to slash out of your shield position and then immediately put the shield back up, allowing you to take a defensive stance until the precise moment you want to strike.
One thing I remember hating in the original Link’s Awakening – something I was again reminded of when playing A Link to the Past – was how frustrating it was to only be able to equip a limited number of tools at once. In the GameBoy Color version your sword and shield counted as equipable items the same as any other tool, so to equip a shovel you’d have to take off your shield or sword, for example. In this game the shield is always mapped to R and the sword to B, and you have the X and Y buttons both available for tools. This makes controlling the game a lot smoother and it’s exactly the kind of quality-of-life improvement that I was hoping they would incorporate into this remake.
There are a few other nifty features here I want to touch on as well. The pause screen has a map function with some great modern features. You can replay important conversations as memories in order to remind you of what you’re meant to be doing at the moment. On the map itself, you can look at the island on the macro level or zoom in to specific areas in order to see them in more detail. Pins are available to place on the map so that you can remind yourself of specific destinations you want to return to at a later time, or again to help remind you of where you need to go when you’ve meandered off on a side quest.
Speaking of side quests, I can say that the early game is chock full of them. I’ve only beaten the first dungeon at this point so I’m not totally sure how much that will continue on, but much of my early time with the game was spent grinding the bushes in Mabe Village for rupees so I could participate in minigames to complete early quests. There are more than enough pieces of heart in the village to have a fourth heart by the first dungeon and three of those pieces come from minigame participation, plus you can grab your first bottle as well as tools like the shovel.
The two minigames early on are the Trendy Game and fishing. The Trendy Game is a claw machine which you control with the A button and the X button – one moves up and down and the other moves sideways. You get one try in each direction to line up the claw with an item you want to pick up, and trust me when I say that this stupid thing is as finicky as a real claw game. If you get just off track to grab an item, you’ll just knock it over and possibly make it harder to scoop up the next attempt. Some items are shaped such that they can fall out of the claw even when you grab them successfully, meaning you pretty much have to get the more than once and slowly pull them towards the prize belt in small increments. A word of advice – the rupees here are not worth it. You’re much better off farming the grass outside. But you certainly want to get the Yoshi doll and the heart piece if nothing else.
Fishing puts Link next to a long, deep pond with four to five fish of varying sizes. Hidden at the far end of the pond just visible behind some grass is a bottle. Hooking the bottle and reeling it all the way in adds it to your inventory but to do so will likely take you multiple attempts – hitting a fish causes the bottle to drop, and even if you pace your reeling such that you won’t hit one some of them go out of their way to chase it. There are different fish sizes and each size gets you a different amount of rupees, but certain catches also get you other items. There are two different heart pieces here, one for catching a medium-sized fish with a heart piece in its mouth as well as one for catching a huge fish. It can be helpful to get the better lure when trying to go for bigger catches, but what happened to me was that I already had the bottle and one heart piece done, and then I got the second heart piece at the same time as the lure, thus rendering it unneeded.
The time leading up to the first dungeon has a few simple challenges to overcome. There’s the forest of mystery which contains the key to the first dungeon but is blocked by a mischievous raccoon that prevents you from reaching the key. Navigating the forest isn’t too complicated but it gives you your first taste of combat against enemies like moblins and slimes. Moblins can have different weapon types – those that throw spears are a threat from a range, while those with shields must be blocked until you have an opening to slash them in return. Slimes break into smaller slimes when you slash them for the first time, so if you cut and then keep running forward you’ll find yourself splatted. You have to shake them off or they’ll keep doing damage. These enemies aren’t tough but they teach you core concepts like blocking with your shield and watching for attack patterns to see if you’ve truly finished the fight.
The first dungeon, Tail Cave, is classic Zelda fare complete with keys to find, a map and a compass, and of course a dungeon item and boss. Something I like about the compass in this game is that it gives you a little chime when you’re close to a key, so you know if you’re missing something in a room. The cave introduces new enemy types too – dangerous electrical spheres that can’t be destroyed with your current equipment force you to watch movement patterns and learn to dodge instead of relying solely on your shield for defense. There are also the skeletons which jump away from your sword slashes, forcing you to corner them in order to put them into positions where they cannot escape.
Overall, the early area is pretty simple but it teaches you the core mechanisms of the game effectively, and if you’re not playing carefully the enemies and traps can still give you a bit of trouble. I did get down to one heart at one point in the dungeon, but it happened to come just before a big recovery so I never ended up being in serious danger. However, for those who remember the game or are just that confident in your skills, the game has hard mode unlocked from the beginning so you can double the damage you take from enemies as well as removing heart drops from the game. The first area also features a couple of little points where you know you’ll need to come back with different gear – I’ve encountered multiple spots where I’ll need an item similar to the power gloves or silver gauntlets from other games in order to move heavy things, as well as a wall that could clearly be bombed. So there is still plenty left to explore even in the areas I’ve effectively finished up already.
I’ve spent a very short amount of time with Link’s Awakening so far, but that time has been quite enjoyable. The game seems to be a great blend of the classic Zelda formula and the story of the original game while also having some welcome quality-of-life improvements for those of us who prefer more modern titles. The game looks gorgeous, feels smooth, and has charming characters and dialogue. I’m excited to dive in more deeply, and I hope that those of you who have also purchased it are having a fun time with it too!