As I was playing The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening for Nintendo Switch, a remake of a 26-year-old Nintendo Game Boy classic, my wife, watching on the couch, told me a story about her boyfriend circa 1993. Apparently, he ditched university classes and didn’t sleep for two days as he tried to finish the original, and spent heaven knows how much money calling Nintendo’s tip hotline to get help working through some of the harder areas.
This story is relevant for a couple of reasons.
First, my wife ended up choosing me over him, even though he went on to be a neurosurgeon or some such and I’m just a lowly game reporter. Chalk up a win for the nerds.
The second thing, perhaps more importantly, is the detail that he used Nintendo’s tip hotline. The notion of a tip hotline may be archaic in the age of the Internet, which offers an endless array of free tips and information about almost any game, but I encountered a few particularly challenging areas while playing the remake that made me wish it still existed.
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Of course, the real problem was that I was playing pre-launch, which meant there weren’t yet any free fan-made walkthroughs or strategy guides available online. I ended up going to some of the guides people have written for the original game. I figured they’d probably be useless for the remake, but I was desperate for some help. And you know what? The tips I found for the original game — specifically, how to beat three different bosses — applied perfectly to the remake.
What makes this fascinating to me is that it’s proof the original game held up so well that the designers felt little need to mess with its core play. They trusted that the sort of things players got up to in the original 26 years ago would be just as entertaining to a modern audience. And they were right.
The retro overhead perspective remains intact, beautifully updated with modern graphics and a diorama effect that makes the world and characters look like cute miniatures. Dungeon chambers are still little worlds unto themselves, filling a single screen, each with its own puzzles, secrets, and enemies. Link’s abilities remain largely unchanged, as do the contextual obstacles he has to overcome. And, as already mentioned, even the bosses and their weaknesses are essentially the same. And somehow it all holds up wonderfully in 2019.
Of course, there are also plenty of innovations and additions. Thanks to the Switch’s bounty of inputs compared to that of the Game Boy, controls are much improved and the need to re-map key items to action buttons is reduced. And we can now place pins on the game’s map to mark key items/puzzles/characters for later reference.
Plus, you’ll eventually run across a character named Dampé who will help you build your own dungeons. Think of it as Zelda Maker — similar in design and concept to the Super Mario Maker games, but even simpler. You’ll collect a variety of chambers during your quest that you can arrange like tiles in order to fill Dampé’s requests and earn rewards. Exploring these dungeons grows a bit monotonous, since you’ve already worked through most of the available chambers in the game’s official dungeons, but it provides a nice glimpse into how Nintendo’s designers go about making classic Zelda dungeons. It also gives you something new to do with any Zelda-themed Amiibo figurines you may have collected, which can be used to unlock exclusive chamber tiles.
But these additions are just gravy. The real treat is the core game. From the moment Link wakes up on mysterious Koholint Island, determined to find a way off, all the way to the closing credits, it’s fun, challenging, and addictive. Each time Link acquires a new item — bombs, bows and arrows, Pegasus boots — it comes with a little thrill as you think about all the new areas it will help you access and the puzzles it will solve. The classic tinkling jingle that accompanies Link’s discovery of a secret passage or treasure overloads my mind with nostalgia each time it plays. And working out how to defeat a tricky boss (don’t cheat like I did if you can help it!) is never anything less than satisfying. It’s a deft mix of old and new made for all generations to enjoy.
I often worry that games date themselves so quickly via their constantly updated graphics, interfaces, and modes of play that the best titles of today are doomed to be forgotten by future generations. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening remake may serve as a kind of solution. It preserves everything that made the original so special, opting only to alter the cosmetic presentation and add a handful of quality-of-life features. It’s a loving and deeply respectful tribute to the original, made beautiful and playable for modern audiences.
It might be the perfect remake.