There are remakes and there are remakes. And, increasingly, there are remakes. The form is becoming a new genre, or rather a new sort of videogame self-homage.
It’s becoming less and less eyebrow-raising to announce a new version of a beloved older game. The pressing questions are just whether it will be a graphical update, a new platform, or indeed a total reimagining. 2019’s Link’s Awakening falls somewhere between these options.
It is in many ways totally faithful to the original GameBoy game, keeping its structure, progression and map identical 25 years later. It does bring quality of life improvements, though, from autosaving to a more fluid camera and smoother controls.
Link suffers a shipwreck in the game’s intro, washing up on Koholint Island, where he finds a populace strangely not in need of salvation. The island is crowned by a volcano-riding giant egg, apparently home to a mystical being called the Wind Fish, and Link sets out to wake it up by collecting a small band of musical instruments.
The narrative imperative to right the world’s evil is strangely missing here, or at least significantly subdued. Instead, uncovering the charmingly designed world is the main motivation, along with an old-school acceptance that games are for playing, regardless of adequately explained story justification.
Over time an enigmatic story of dreams and phantoms unfolds, simply and somewhat sadly. There is little to compare to the restrained elegies of Breath of the Wild, though. Instead, a trifling trading sequence takes the place of most character development. It’s a metric of how far the series has come in some regards.
The game is played from a top-down perspective, with a cherubic Link toddling around the cartoonish overworld and through complex, segmented dungeons. The structure is as classic as its age suggests, with a clear path through the game unlocked by items gathered over time, in a set order.
You’ll engage in simple and unchallenging combat, with only one or two late bosses presenting real hurdles. The main stumbling blocks you’ll encounter, in fact, are hangovers from the game’s ancient design. Puzzles in those large dungeons, and indeed the exact objective players should be tackling at many given moments, can be obscure to the point of absurdity.
Without the aid of walkthrough, certain puzzles become exercises in abject frustration and backtracking, searching for arbitrarily hidden doors or switches. At times these feel like cynical time-sinks that have simply stayed put since 1993, when a game’s length could be forgivably padded out with such delays. That’s no longer palatable.
The game is still a relatively short jaunt if you’re happy to search out solutions to the more annoying conundrums, and not much less if you’re intuitive enough not to need help. That time is spent with the backing of a perfect soundtrack, with some of the most famous videogame music ever composed trilling away.
Link’s Awakening is enjoyable enough when it’s helping players adequately, with guidance toward the next puzzle or encounter, and its toy-ish visual design and cute graphics are endearing in the extreme.
However, it only manages this balance for the first half of its span, before the puzzles get frustrating, and the processes tiresome. If remakes are now an accepted feature of the industry, slightly more judicious edits to old material might be encouraged in the future.