Game preview: Zelda: Link's Awakening is an old school legend

Nintendo has announced a new Zelda sequel for Switch, but before that they also have a remake of one of the most beloved previous entries.

The older the game that’s been remade is the less it tends to resemble its original form. Shadow Of The Colossus is more or less exactly the same game but with better graphics, but games like Resident Evil 2 and Final Fantasy VII have had to be radically changed in order to get across the same qualities as the original. You’d therefore think that remaking a 26-year-old Game Boy game would involve altering it out of all recognition. But in welcome proof that good design never ages, that’s not the case at all.

Originally released in 1993, Link’s Awakening was only the fourth Zelda game ever made and the first after A Link To The Past established the top down formula abandoned by Zelda II. In other words, the series was still new and while the basic template for what makes a Zelda game had been laid down it was nowhere near as well established as it is now – and Link’s Awakening was more than happy to mix things up in terms of both gameplay and storytelling.

The plot of the game is especially unusual, as it revolves around Link being caught up in a sailing accident and washing up on Koholint Island. The story has nothing to do with Hyrule Kingdom or Princess Zelda and instead revolves around a quest to wake the ‘Wind Fish’, who speeds most of the game encased in an egg on top of a volcano.

The game’s almost surreal tone and the deeper meaning behind the story and characters has been the subject of intense interpretation over the years, but despite its existential aspirations it also exhibits a much more playful nature than most modern entries. From fourth wall breaks to cameos from a number of other Nintendo franchise characters, Link’s Awakening never takes itself entirely seriously and is one of the most light-hearted in the franchise.

It’s the Game Boy’s technical limitations that seem to be the biggest roadblock to creating a successful remake, since everything used to take place in tiny flick screen areas – even though the game had a fairly large overworld. But the Switch remake is a surprisingly exacting revamp, maintaining the same basic layout, enemies, and structure. Or at least as far as we could tell in the E3 demo.

The demo started right at the beginning of the game, with Link being discovered by islander Marin and finding himself bereft of all his equipment bar his shield. The overworld now scrolls properly in every direction but the layout of the map seems to be almost exactly the same as before (we admit it’s been a while since we’ve played the original).

Combat is extremely simple, with just a single button each for your sword and shield, but it still manages to be quite tactical as you block attacks just long enough to get in a counter or trick one enemy into destroying another. There are also special power-ups that weren’t in the original, which can increase your attack power, your defence, and perhaps other attributes.

When you enter a dungeon, or other interior locations, the game reverts to flick screen presentation, which is the only way that would’ve made sense given the design. And for those upset at Breath Of The Wild’s approach to the concept these are proper old school dungeons, with a puzzle per room and plenty of variety in boss, and mini-boss, design.

Nintendo are being coy as to how much they’ve actually changed the game, but while it takes in the extra content and dungeon of the DX version (released for the Game Boy Color) the impression given is that what additions there are will be on that scale, rather than doubling the size of the game or anything similarly extreme.

That does raise important questions about value for money but until we know exactly what the changes entail it’s impossible to make a judgement call about that, although every indication from America is that it’s a full price game. What was mentioned in the new trailer though, was a new mode where you can create you own dungeons by completing pre-made ones and collecting individual rooms that can then be placed together to form a new dungeon of your own making.

How much fun that’s actually going to be remains to be seen, as it wasn’t in the E3 demo, but it does show that Nintendo is trying to do address the content concerns without changing the original game out of all recognition.

Even the art design tries to stick as close to the original as possible, interpreting the simplistic 2D sprites in a style that makes them look like physical models from some unmade children’s television show. Remaking a Game Boy game sounds like madness but with the Breath Of The Wild games changing the Zelda formula almost beyond recognition it’s fun to see how things used to work – and to know they’re just as much fun as ever.

Formats: Nintendo Switch
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Grezzo and Nintendo EPD
Release Date: 20 September 2019

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