Review: The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX (3DS eShop / GBC)

A Game Boy classic

You wake up on an island; your boat shattered, your sword swept away by the storm that caused the crash. And at first, it almost doesn't seem like a bad thing. The islanders are kind enough (one girl in particular has caught your eye) and Mabe Village is one of the cozier little towns you've visited.

The cozy feeling doesn't last long. The villagers, while generally good-natured, seem to be completely oblivious to life outside of their little island, and when you start asking questions, you realise that none of them can remember how and when they ever got to this island in the first place. A mysterious talking owl appears to be watching you at all times, and he tells you that the only way to escape this twisted place is by awakening an equally mysterious creature known as The Wind Fish. The world isn't in danger, no princess needs to be saved, no force of unspeakable evil needs to be dispelled. The only thing driving you forward is a question: what exactly is Koholint Island?

It's a decidedly different approach to the typical Zelda “unassuming boy from a small town becomes a noble hero and saves the world” story, and even though it's still structurally very similar to other titles in the series — you still tackle dungeons, acquire new items and engage in a variety of sidequests — The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX's combination of enigma and charm still make it stand out as one of the best Zelda titles to date.

Now, if that description of the story up there sounded dark and heavy-handed, don't worry: Link's Awakening never gets bogged down in its mystery or symbolism (even if there is an awful lot of the latter). In fact it stands out as one of the most light-hearted and whimsical Zeldas in the series, thanks in no small part to its timelessly charming presentation.

The Game Boy didn't have the most impressive horsepower, even at the time, but apparently nobody told Nintendo, because it still stands out as one of the best-looking games the company has ever made from an artistic standpoint. The game's spritework is still charming enough to bring a smile to your face, and the level of detail and expression in these little characters is only outdone by the surprising size of the overworld.

It may be called Koholint Island, but don't think that means that it's the size of one of Wind Waker's or Phantom Hourglass's little patches of land — this is a big game, whose overworld rivals the size of A Link to the Past and almost surpasses it in terms of density. Not a single screen of Koholint Island has been underutilised, meaning it's absolutely packed with enemies, secret passageways, characters to interact with and new upgrades to find. You could blast through the main adventure in six or seven hours if you're a Zelda vet, but if you take time to explore the island and find all the Secret Seashells (collect them all and “something good is bound to happen!”) it's not a stretch to say you've got over 20 hours worth of content, here. Not too shabby for a $6 downloadable game that came out almost two decades ago.

At this year's E3, Miyamoto said that he felt that Link's Awakening was the Zelda title that found the development team at the most unbridled in their creativity, and that definitely shows in the game's fiendishly clever dungeons — note that we said fiendishly clever, not fiendishly difficult. The puzzles found here can be absolutely mind-bending, and in terms of pacing and difficulty curve, this is among the best games in the series. Not only does the game jump right into the action, but there's a perfectly steady increase in complexity (unlike Link to the Past, where the difficulty can take huge leaps either up or down from dungeon to dungeon) making it a great entry point for newcomers looking to see what the series is all about. The balance between combat and puzzles in these dungeons is just about as perfect as you can get, and there's also a number of platforming-based sidescrolling sections — a nice nod to The Adventure of Link.

And although the game certainly didn't need any tweaking, it actually ends up playing even better on the 3DS. The Circle Pad makes controlling Link much more fluid, for one thing, and the game benefits greatly from Restore Points, which allow you to pick up and play directly from where you left off (although if your system is still experiencing frequent black-screen error messages, you might want to stick with regular saves as these crashes can corrupt your data). If you see a part of the map that you can't access yet but you want to remember later, you can tap the Home button and make a quick note of it using the 3DS' “Game Notes” option on the system's top menu; and if you get really stuck, you can hop on the Internet browser and look up a strategy guide without ever losing your progress, although just know that if you do use a guide, you're a cheater and we'll think less of you.

Conclusion

Link's Awakening is a game of contrasts: sadness and joy, bleakness and whimsy, dream and reality, confusion and comfort. Its success lies in its ability to balance these contradictory elements with tight, compelling gameplay and a timeless presentation. If you own a 3DS, this is a game you simply need to try, because downloadable 2D Game Boy title or not, this is among the best games available on the system.

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