Let’s talk about that Link’s Awakening remake art design

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening - Nintendo Switch

In the final moments of the most recent Nintendo Direct, when animated waves began to crash against each other, seeing Link aboard the boat weathering the storm instantly threw me into hysterics. But it wasn’t until the egg holding the Wind Fish appeared on screen that I finally realized what was happening: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening was back, and with a uniquely beautiful new visual style.

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening for Nintendo Switch

Link’s Awakening for the original Game Boy was a thrilling journey, ranking highly within the Zelda pantheon for fans of the series. But the real story here is the design choices Nintendo made in order to polish this gem for 2019 standards. While having another Switch Zelda release this year has fueled excitement, I’ve seen some fairly mixed reactions to the game’s aesthetic on the grand ol’ world wide web. In the age of Breath of the Wild and titles in the last decade like the remasters of Wind Waker HD and Twilight Princess HD, many have come to expect the standard third-person free-moving camera for their open-world adventures. Obviously, the Link’s Awakening remake simply does not have that. Instead, we’ve been treated to a polished iteration of the top-down camera of the classic Zelda titles, including the original Link’s Awakening.

Toon Link, sort of…

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening for Nintendo Switch

To fuel the confusion of some even further, the game presents itself with a bubbly design and the typical Nintendo brand of cartoony flair we expect from other Nintendo originals like games starring Mario or Kirby. This, of course, comes in the place of the more adult-oriented take in modern Zelda games or even a simple in-game adaptation of that intro animation we saw in the trailer. At first glance, the style struck me as something likened to a toy play set. Link and his enemies appear as little toy figures or like the miniatures one might find within a tabletop board game. The blurring effect on the outer edges gives it an enhanced depth of field effect from its central focal point, Link, that makes the setting almost feel tangible.

While some might compare this to the Toon Link of Wind Waker, it’s much more. Even though the styling is different from a game such as LittleBigPlanet on the PS3, the sensation it delivers is similar — a tiny hero in stature taking on the hazards of a wilder, larger world. It’s an impression that the cel-shading style of Wind Waker doesn’t inherently possess.

Can it have substance?

Personally, I am thrilled for the game, design choices and all. But if you asked me the same question just a few years ago, it might have been the opposite. So, what changed?

I previously talked at length about my discovery of Wind Waker in 2018. In brief, I was completely put off by Wind Waker upon its reveal for the GameCube several years ago. Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask rekindled my early childhood fandom for The Legend of Zelda series just a few years prior. But they also gave me the sense that the series was growing up with me. Thematically, darker story beats and an art design that took itself a bit more seriously had me locked in as a kid ready to enter high school.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Wind Waker, on the surface, seemed like a step back from that. I gave the game a few moments of my time with one rental and then wrote it off entirely — until last year. I think my change of heart partly coincided with my change in maturity. But through my gaming experiences over the years, I’ve also come to realize that the visual character or art direction of a game rarely ever defines its core. I played Wind Waker last year and loved every minute. Embracing the design and understanding how it effectively worked with the narrative even furthered the experience. By the time I was done, I wanted a Toon Link amiibo to add to my collection.

Embracing the vision

The heart of Link’s Awakening is about the hero trying to find his way home again. It’s a simple, yet imaginative tale that deserves the touch of a passionate and artistic team. This unique redesign, in my mind, declares self-confidence from the team behind the game’s development. It’s easy to do what has been successful in recent history to ensure a commercial win. However, I get the sense that the story of this game will pair nicely with the tone set by its appearance.

Taking the route of a top-down view preserves the memory of the original game and encapsulates some of its magic. Meanwhile, the remake creates and contributes some new magic with its modern art style. Check out some of these magnificent side-by-side comparisons shared by Tiny Cartridge.

A Link Between Worlds

Sure, some might think that these top-down views are for an older generation. If you’re against the idea entirely, it’s likely that you have never played The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds for the Nintendo 3DS. This game was a direct sequel to A Link to the Past. The map was similar to the SNES classic with all the same locales, but it came with twists: a version of Hyrule from an alternate reality that brought its own set of problems, a new villainous character, and a new mechanic of walking inside walls. The top-down structure held up brilliantly. The game didn’t feel archaic in any way but still retained the charm of the addicting dungeon crawlers of old in the series. If the camera view of the Link’s Awakening remake even slightly concerns you, I implore you to give A Link Between Worlds a shot.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
Screen captures provided by Polygon

To each their own

In the end, the turn of phrase “different strokes for different folks” always rings true. Some may never like the design choices that are being made for the remake — and that’s perfectly okay. But if there’s a chance that you may have shut out some of the series’s best games that made similar choices as I did with Wind Waker, go back and give those games a try. I’m almost positive there isn’t a single stinker in the entire Zelda catalog — with the possible exception of Tri Force Heroes. And as for the Link’s Awakening remake, the art style should not hamper the experience, but will likely compliment it.

Chris Hinton
Accountant by day, video games enthusiast by night.  Somewhere in between all of that, I'm a husband, dad, and generally a giant man-child, too.  If a game is all about action, there's a safe bet I'm playing it.  I started laying waste to virtual worlds as a youngin' on the ol' Atari and haven't stopped since.