Hands on: Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening review

A gorgeous, delightful revival at E3 2019

What is a hands on review?
Legend of Zelda Link's Awakening
Nintendo

Early Verdict

Link's Awakening is a delightful reimagining of a classic game with a bright, evocative style that matches the breathless fun of the original. It's hard to find fault with it.

For

  • Wonderful visual style
  • Preserves feel of original
  • Joy to play

Against

  • Original was on the short side, this might be too
  • Price is unknown
WHAT IS A HANDS ON REVIEW?

"Hands on reviews" are a journalist's first impressions of a game based on spending some time with it ahead of our full review. In this case, we played 15 minutes of play at the Nintendo booth. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to enjoy, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee

Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening was a seminal title on the original Game Boy, featuring a shipwrecked Link exploring the mysteries of Koholint Island. At E3 2019 we checked out the upcoming remake for the Nintendo Switch in a short demo, and from what little we saw, the new version preserves the original’s breezy adventure with an instantly-iconic new art style.

The cutesy style makes or breaks this game for you, plain and simple: if you think it’s too adorable or twee, you might want to pass. Aside from the core gameplay preserved from the original, the remake’s look is the biggest part of its charm. For us, it worked wonderfully.

Link’s Awakening is a fun, slightly-shrunken adventure that’s a lot brighter and breezier than other Zelda games of the era, like Link to the Past. The remake’s visuals fit this more delightful world with expressive creatures and a vibrant palette. Link is cartoonish, with beady eyes in the style of Calvin and Hobbes or Tintin, and his comical expressions are worth the price of admission.

This cute, claymation-like look distinguishes Link’s Awakening from the cel-shaded Wind Waker or the painterly style of Breath of the Wild. This is Nintendo at its most NIntendo: refining a game’s look and feel until it becomes a distinctive experience.

 Image credit: Nintendo 

 Image credit: Nintendo 

(Image: © Nintendo)

 A whole new old experience 

Which is funny to say about a remake - because, from what we saw, the layout and the plot replicate those in the original. So much so that we were able to speed-run through a good chunk of the early game - opening the first dungeon and defeating its miniboss - before our 15-minute demo timed out. That should be comforting to fans: Nintendo didn’t mess with success.

The game starts out just like the original: Link, shipwrecked, wakes up on an island in the home of a kindly father and daughter. He finds himself in a quiet village with a mysterious statue in the square venerating the Wind Fish, makes his way down to the beach to pluck his trusty sword from the waves, gets lectured by a stern owl, and hikes to the mist-filled forest north of town. Veterans know the way from here.

The experience is very familiar, but the game has been adapted to the Switch’s wide rectangular screen (the Game Boy was a nearly-square 160 x 144 pixels). Familiar areas have been spread out horizontally, and there’s some depth at play: the game inventively blurs the outer edge, foreground and background,  for a tilt-shifted effect. 

Other reporters describe the game as “a diorama,” and that fits. The vignette style gives it an intimate feel, focusing attention on a small space until it achieves that handheld feel.

Image credit: Nintendo

Image credit: Nintendo

(Image: © Nintendo)

 Switch additions to the old formula 

Of course, there’s new stuff, too. The remake adds a new dungeon-creating mode, like Mario Maker for the 2D-ish Zelda’s distinctive style. You'll have to collect each "Chamber" (room-type) through the game, and then you can string them along to craft your own devious delve. Make delightful adventures and share with your friends...or just create the most punishing levels and unleash them on the world.  

Not to mention the quality-of-life upgrades... like additional buttons to use items. Back in my day (sigh), the Game Boy’s two buttons meant you had to swap out your trusty sword and shield for necessary items pretty often; the Switch version has dedicated buttons for those, while players assign various items to Y and X.

Image credit: Nintendo

Image credit: Nintendo

(Image: © Nintendo)

Early verdict

Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening for the Switch is refreshingly what you think: a remade version of a classic that thoughtfully applies a fresh, fun look to an 8-bit game that's near and dear to gamers' hearts. It evokes joy in the classic Nintendo sense, and reassures us that the company is taking great pains when it brings back old content in new ways.

Purists may not take to the cutesy style, but the Link’s Awakening remake is lush, vibrant and lovely. Assuming it follows the original game beyond our 15-minute demo, it could be the must-own Zelda that tides us over until we get another remake in a year or two, sating our hunger while the Breath of the Wild sequel takes form...

What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.