The best thing about The Legend of Zelda is branding. The word carries a corporate creak, but it bears an intimate thrill. Consider, in The Wind Waker, the prompt that pops up during conversations: a green, snail-shell whorl, fashioned after the GameCube’s gloriously outsized A button. Compare the solemn, dusk-grey version that broods over the chatter in Twilight Princess, on the Wii. The entire essence of both games is bound up in a single symbol. The rewards of being a Zelda fan are in seeing the familiar icons – undergirded by the same large-looming myth – remoulded. What will this version of the saga’s hero, Link, look like? This Zelda? This Ganon? This Triforce? These delights may seem like trivialities, but each is done with the devotion of a rite. It’s only in the endless retelling, after all, that stories are smelt and lofted into legend.
Thus my eyes were peeled while playing The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, the Switch remake of a Game Boy game from 1993. The first thing to notice is the tilt-shift technique, which smudges the edges of the screen into a soft blur, as if you were gazing down at a diorama. Then there are the trees, shining like board game pieces, freshly plugged into the ground. And look at Link, with his beady black eyes and his stubby sword. Note the way that his boots, his shield, and his golden helmet of hair are all lacquered with the same gloss. The original game’s director, Takashi Tezuka, set out to make a Zelda game ‘with a feel that was somewhat like Twin Peaks.’ For me, despite the washing up of Link’s body on a beach, the ringing telephones, and the fishy locals, it never felt like Twin Peaks. But I will say this of the remake: it certainly looks wrapped in plastic.
The developer is Grezzo, the small Japanese studio trusted to tailor a number of Nintendo’s games to the 3DS – among them Ocarina of Time 3D, Majora’s Mask 3D, and Luigi’s Mansion. This marks, by my count, the first time that Grezzo has been given the freedom to forge an art style all its own for a Zelda game. It strikes me as an inspired choice; the series, with its ripe colours and cluttering of playful gadgets, is inherently toylike – especially when its wonders are encased in a handheld console. Not that the game is without its share of darkness. The story sees Link marooned on a melancholy isle called Koholint, where he meets a local girl, Marin, who dreams of escape but seems resigned to the idea that Link will leave without her. At one point, before she sings a sombre ballad, she says, ‘Please, don’t ever forget this song… Or me…’
Yikes! PEGI has granted the game a 7 certificate, citing its ‘non-realistic violence in a child-friendly setting.’ Fair enough. But when most adult games seem to arrive ready-smeared with cynicism, the unjaded yearning in such a sentiment cuts deep. The series’ history has its share of gloomy corners. Think of Majora’s Mask, with its endlessly looping day and its moon, hanging low with a ghoulish grin on its face. It seemed to craze the dream of Zelda into a nightmare. Twilight Princess was a willowy concoction of beauty that howled with sorrow. Neither of these games are truly wicked, but their shadows grow richer for the brightness that backgrounds them. Link’s Awakening doesn’t quite join their company, either; its stream of sadness babbles beneath too much joy, and it’s broken up by an adventure of distinct busyness.
Threaded throughout the main quest – which sees Link scraping together eight musical instruments, in order to wake a being called the Wind Fish – is a string of trades. One character, nestled in a faraway nook, will express an acute desire for pineapple; in exchange, they will hand over a hibiscus flower, which will be coveted by another character, and so forth. There is a particular playground satisfaction in the swapping of goods that carry little value but that which is vested by sentiment – conjuring warm memories of collectible cards, pogs, yo-yos, and other bric-a-brac. (It must be the only game I have played in which the acquisition of a stick was an occasion of great elation.) Owing to the age of its design, Link’s Awakening is the sort of experience that rewards, and crucially requires, a rampant curiosity – in which the idiom ‘to leave no stone unturned’ is newly layered with literal meaning.
More than once, the answer of where to wander next is guarded by an inconspicuous sprig of shrubbery, to be hacked away, or a discreet crack in the side of a cliff, waiting to be blown open with a bomb. If you’re impatient to press through the adventure, you may find yourself bumping against the unsanded edges of a bygone approach. But here’s the thing: don’t be impatient. The series’ creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, once described Hyrule as ‘a miniature garden that you can put into a drawer and revisit anytime you like.’ It’s a musing that betrays the unhurried spirit with which any Zelda game should be played; worlds of this richness are not to be rushed, and many of their pleasures are passive, there to be tended and basked in. (No small part of my enjoyment of Link’s Awakening, for instance, was in hearing the names of places: Gaponga and Toronbo, Tal Tal and Tamaranch, Yarna, Ukuku, and Kanalet. Hark to the cadences of Hyrule!)
Besides, the moments of abstruse design are the only real difficulty on offer. The combat – which consists of the usual sword slashes, full-circle swings, and shield-based blocks – will bother no one. And it’s much more fun to observe your foes than fell them: witness the plodding, spear-wielding pigs; the lunging centipedes with their jutting mandibles; and the rock-spitting octopuses. I would recommend clearing them out when they crowd the dungeons, however. There are eight of these in total, and, while dotted with amusing moments, none belong in the company of the great Zelda dungeons. Their puzzles yield more readily to conventional logic than those outside, and the solving of them yields a steady, rhythmic enjoyment, rather than the burst of glee you get from a hard-earned breakthrough.
And steady, rhythmic enjoyment is exactly what the small, carefully calibrated map is tooled for, and what the plucky strings on the soundtrack drive home. Link’s Awakening isn’t a game of innovation. It lacks the spark that powered A Link Between Worlds; that game brushed new life onto an old classic, flitting between a flat, 2D plane and plush 3D. It seemed in concert with the past, riffling its pages and turning them into something new. Link’s Awakening, on the other hand, is happy to be history, and it defies you not to be, as well. What Grezzo has done is no less than the duty of any Zelda developer: it has retold the tale in splendid style. And, over the last few days, I have relished putting it not into a drawer, as Miyamoto suggests, but into a bag, to be revisited in quiet, stolen moments – each bearing the pang described by Marin, in the opening moments: ‘When I discovered you, Link, my heart skipped a beat!’
Available on: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: September 20, 2019
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