The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening review: Surreal Zelda is as good as ever

“Surrealism” isn’t generally the first thing to come to mind when I think of The Legend Zelda as a series, but it’s certainly been a defining element of Link’s Awakening ever since it’s original release for Game Boy in 1993. Where your typical Zelda game sees Link trying save Princess Zelda from some evil or another, Link’s Awakening sees him trying to wake the “Wind Fish” from its slumber within a giant egg resting atop a mountain.

This time around, the typical fantasy setting is dotted with anachronistic telephones tucked away inside trees, and bizarro renditions of enemies from other Nintendo games live amongst the usual Zelda fauna. It’s not far into Link’s Awakening that you find yourself taking “BowWow”—a domesticated Chain Chomp from Super Mario—for a walk, and it only gets stranger from there.

The technical limitations of the Game Boy only helped the surreal nature of the game. The designers took those constraints and used them to help sell the tone of a game world that’s somewhat divorced from its own reality. The 1998 Game Boy Color release took that a step further, with restrained and thoughtful injections of colour adding a new layer of dreamy haze to this already off-kilter twist on the Zelda formula.

Link’s Awakening was as much a fever-dream parody of The Legend of Zelda as it was a bona fide Zelda game, and it remains one of the most fascinating games in the series for that very reason. 

The thought, then, of a ground-up remake for Switch, complete with an entirely new, very different art style, left me feeling more than a little uneasy when it was announced. After playing through this remake, I’m still not convinced about the new look, but in every other respect, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening for Switch is as faithful to the original as I ever dared to hope.

On a functional level, Link’s Awakening works much like any other Zelda game: playing as Link, you journey across a variety of different interconnected landscapes and dungeons in search of some particular McGuffin (in this case, the eight “Instruments of the Sirens”). Initially, you’re not able to travel very far from the starting point due to obstacles in the way, but the various items and tools you find along the way allow you to move past those roadblocks and venture further afield. One early example is the Roc’s Feather; with this in hand, Link can jump over potholes that were impassable before.

Most of the items you find are standard Zelda fare, like the boomerang and hookshot, but in keeping with the oddball, surreal feeling of the rest of the game, a few take a weirder bent. As I said earlier, there’s a part part near the start of Link’s Awakening that sees you taking someone’s pet Chain Chomp for a walk; aside from Link being a helpful neighbour, walking BowWow means you can get through a swamp full of toxic flowers that Link’s sword can’t touch but that BowWow can gobble up in a single bite. As well as letting you teleport across the map, this iteration of the Ocarina can be used to raise the dead, thanks to a new song taught to Link by the frog king villain from Doki Doki Panic.

Link’s Awakening was also the first Zelda game to introduce a trading sequence, whereby you trade seemingly-useless item after seemingly-useless item with a variety of NPCs until you finally get something useful at the end. In this case, those trades include the likes of giving a can of dog food to an alligator who collects canned food in exchange for a bunch of bananas; delivering a letter containing a photo of Princess Peach from a goat-person to the person she secretly lusts after; and “trading” a stick for some honeycomb (“trading” here meaning “giving the stick to an off-brand Mario who uses it to knock a beehive out of a tree for no apparent reason, resulting in him getting chased away by angry bees and leaving a piece of honeycomb behind for you to claim as your own”).

Dungeons, too, follow a structurally similar pattern to most other Zelda games: you explore a series of interconnected rooms, most of which involve some puzzle or another that you need to solve, along the way finding keys to open doors to more rooms and, eventually, a key to the boss room and the treasure that awaits behind. But again, Link’s Awakening blends the familiar marks of the series with surreal additions, often from other Nintendo games; most dungeons include side-scrolling sections that resemble a Super Mario game more than anything else—not least of all because they tend to be full of goombas and piranha plants. In one dungeon, you’ll run into a discoloured, evil Kirby; in a couple of others, certain rooms see you getting attacked by tiles that jump off the floor and fly at you.

Basically, what I’m saying is that Link’s Awakening is classic Zelda laced with the absurd. This is never clearer than with the various oddball characters you run into over the course of your adventure, and the strange dialogue they bring with them. Your path through most of the game is guided by a mysterious owl who keeps telling you that the only way to escape the strange island you’ve washed up on is to awaken the “Wind Fish” by finding and playing the Instruments of the Sirens. This owl seems to have a vested interest in helping you wake the Wind Fish, so they mostly just give you advice on where to go next, but this is often interspersed with cryptic little side comments like “I have to admit, at first I did not believe you were real…”. The owl’s every appearance also comes with a few bars of one of the most eerie pieces of music you’ll hear in a video game—this handful of notes manages to do as much heavy lifting as the whole rest of the game when it comes to setting the the dreamlike tone.

Other folk you run into include the likes of a red-nosed old man who’ll talk your ear off if you contact him through one the many tree-set phone booths he has all over the place, but is impossibly shy if you speak to him in person. There are kids in the starting village who’ll give you advice on how to save the game and open the map, and then break the fourth wall by saying they have no idea what what they’re telling you actually means. The owner of BowWow, our favourite Chain Chomp, is a woman called “Madam MeowMeow” who is, apparently, so proud of [BowWow’s] fine fur coat!”—keeping in mind that BowWow, like every other Chain Chomp, is a metal ball on a chain with a line of sharp teeth. He’s certainly not furry. 

In a somewhat surprising, but very welcome, move, the Switch remake of Link’s Awakening keeps all the brilliantly odd dialogue entirely intact. There are some very small, superficial changes here and there, but nothing of consequence. I was worried that the remake might try to update and modernise the script and sacrifice all the quirks that made the original one so compelling in the first place. I’m glad to be proven wrong on that front.

However, this brings us to the elephant in the room: the new art style. For this latest remake, Nintendo’s gone with a toybox aesthetic that, frankly, is completely at odds with the mood and surreal nature of the rest of the game. The characters all look like Pop Funkos, and the environments are full of colour and detail, with a glossy finish to give them the look of a playroom diorama.

Contrast that with the original Link’s Awakening for Game Boy and Link’s Awakening DX for Game Boy Color. Both those iterations took the technical limitations of their hardware and used it to underscore the surreal tone; their art styles were abstracted out of necessity, coupled with relatively limited use of colour in DX (and none at all in the original) to create a game that looked like something out of a dream. That’s almost entirely lost in Link’s Awakening for Switch, and it’s a real shame.

On the other hand, this version comes with handful of welcome new features and quality-of-life improvements to how the game plays—mostly thanks to it finally being on a console with more than two buttons. In both the Game Boy versions, you could only ever have two items equipped at once, and this included basic things like your sword and shield; the result was a lot of time spent opening up the menu to swap items in and out. On Switch, all the most common functions—sword, shield, interact, and dash—are bound to their own buttons, with two others reserved for your choice of the remaining items. You still have to do a bit of swapping between items in the menu when you need to change between some of the remaining tools, but at least you no longer have to choose between having your sword and shield handy and pulling out whatever tool you need to solve the puzzle in front of you.

Just as welcome is the ability to revisit all progression-relevant dialogue at any time, thanks to a new “Memories” tab on the map screen. It used to be that if you forgot one of the wise owl’s helpful tips for what to do next, you were out of luck until you either figured it out or sought help elsewhere; now, you can just refresh your memory of what was said at any time.

One of the more interesting new features added to this remake, at least on paper, is the ability to create your own dungeons using rooms taken from other parts of the game. While it’s an interesting idea on paper, it doesn’t offer enough depth to create the intricate dungeons that Zelda games are known for. Instead, it’s really just about sticking a bunch of isolated, self-contained rooms together and then playing through them by working through a bunch of puzzles that you’ve already solved previously. This isn’t quite the Zelda Maker people have been clamoring for, but it at least shows that Nintendo is thinking about how something like that could work.

That’s just a very optional side mode, though; the real appeal of Link’s Awakening—both in its original form and in this remake—is the wonderfully odd, surreal, dreamlike journey it takes you on. It’s a Zelda game through and through, but it’s also lovingly-crafted absurdist parody of a Zelda game. I’m not convinced that the new art style does justice to that tone, but in every other respect, the Switch remake is as faithful a remake as you could hope for.

Recommended


The publisher provided a copy of the game to Shindig for reviewing purposes.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.