Link's Nightmare

I have an odd experience with the Legend of Zelda series. I appreciate the odd numbered ones more so than the even numbered ones when taken in release order. Amusingly, the opposite is true of Star Trek movies; I prefer the even numbered ones.

The first game I ever played was the Legend of Zelda on the NES. Its successor, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, took the series in a different direction I didn’t appreciate, with RPG-lite elements and side scrolling as opposed to a top-down view. While some important ideas from the game made their way into later iterations and I commend Nintendo for experimenting, I think something more fundamental was missing from Zelda II that returned in later iterations. A Link to the Past, another of my favorites, I can play nearly entirely from memory, much like the first game.

Its follow-up of sorts, Link’s Awakening, shrunk down the top-down experiences from the first and third games to the Game Boy. An enhanced version came later, Link’s Awakening: DX, for the Game Boy Color. While it certainly was one of the best games for either handheld, much like Zelda II it experimented within the bounds of the format, but in ways that did not age as well as its siblings.

Since the release of Link’s Awakening, we’ve seen great entries like Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Breath of the Wild. Many of the other entries have experimented as well, which I think has made them have more impact if be less broadly accessible, like Majora’s Mask, Skyward Sword, and the portable entries like Minish Cap and Phantom Hourglass. Fewer still are less memorable but decent, like the Capcom-developed Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons. Scattered between these releases for various platforms lie the remakes, ports, and reimaginings: HD remasters of Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, ports of The Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past for the Game Boy Advance, and the 3DS’ pseudo-sequel to A Link to the Past, A Link Between Worlds.

The latest iteration of Link’s Awakening updates the game graphically for the Nintendo Switch and adds a handful of new features like a dungeon creator and a hard mode called “Hero Mode.” In faithfully recreating the gameplay from the original game, however, the experience caused dissonance that led to disappointment as I played.

Part of this comes from “Hero Mode,” which is implemented similarly to the one featured in Breath of the Wild. Enemies are more difficult to defeat, they are more powerful, and the player no longer receives random health drops when an enemy is defeated. The player’s only options are to heal at rare fairy locations, carry a fairy in a bottle which they must find, or purchase a salve that revives the player once if they lose all their hearts. This functionality robs the game of much of its fun; it forces the player to play very cautiously but not defensively. Partly this comes from the less defined edges in the art style; with a pixel art style, it usually becomes easier to determine when an enemy has attacked the player. But in the new design, this is harder to determine, which makes accidental contact much more frequent for me. This yields an annoying experience where I’m backtracking to the nearest fairy on a regular basis, especially early in the game. Much like the weapon durability changes in Breath of the Wild’s Hero mode, it makes the game more tedious than difficult, while the normal mode doesn’t hold enough challenge for experienced players.

In addition to poor balancing in Hero mode, the game retains all the design decisions from the original, including the odd choice of a long sequence of trading items with island residents before you can proceed. Telephone booths scattered around the island function as part of a hint system make it somewhat easier to figure out your next steps, but the arbitrary series of items and the characters that hold them, once again, makes the game tedious rather than fun. This existed in the original game as well, but it reflects the design at the time that attempted to extend gameplay hours through these types of design decisions. Compared to games in the modern era, it feels disrespectful of the player’s time. Naturally, one can simply look up the solution online, but I gave up on doing that a long time ago as it saps any value out of the game.

The final boss highlights poor design decisions as well. It shifts through several forms throughout the battle, some of which that can only be defeated with a consumable item that is not provided in the room. Once, I had loaded up on hearts and a revival salve, only to discover I’d forgotten to replenish my Magic Powder before the fight. My only option other than reloading an old save was to kill myself once, be revived, then kill myself again so that I may go shopping. What an utter waste of time.

But the most damning element of the game and a great embarrassment to Nintendo’s history of rock-solid design is the game’s graphical performance. The game uses a system by which the frame rate drops to a locked 30 frames-per-second (fps) when the system is working hard, after which it jumps to 60 fps when it can deliver that level of performance. When it’s in 30 fps mode, however, it routinely drops below that level, closer to 20 fps. Moving between areas as new areas are loaded triggers this effect. The problem compounds when playing in docked mode from a cartridge; the demand of running the game at high resolution, the low transfer speed of the cartridge relative to an external memory card or internal memory, and the CPU cost of decompressing assets may put too much load on the system. This yo-yo effect between the various frame rates makes the experience of playing the game deeply annoying, and it’s an embarrassment to Nintendo that they released the game in this state and that it has yet to be patched almost a year after release.

There are so many options to fix this issue. For starters, the game could offer a locked 30 fps mode so the frame rate swings are less prevalent, offering a significantly more enjoyable experience. The game could rely on switching to a lower resolution seamlessly when the system is under load, as many other Switch games do. An analysis from Digital Foundry using a hacked Switch revealed the game performs somewhat better when the resolution is set lower and the CPU and GPU speeds are increased. Their analysis does seem to point to possibility of a loading or processing issue on the GPU side of things.

Other options include a credit that could be issued to users who would be able to send in their cartridge version (the worst performer due to the lower transfer speed) in exchange for a digital code. A new CPU mode Nintendo recently introduced called Boost Mode could be used for this first-party title to ease some of the issues during loading. The best way to play the game currently, which reflects some of the audience’s lack of complaints in this area, is to buy the digital version and play in handheld mode only.

I found myself deeply disappointed in this game. It lacks any real value over the original and the quality of the final product does not reflect Nintendo’s customary release quality. I set myself to finish it to justify the full price I paid for it as a preorder, and it was a poor use of my time and money. It’s made me deeply wary of all games Nintendo may release in the future that are developed by third parties. Worse, the people that review games all seem to have played the digital version and didn’t have the same experience as me or other owners of the physical version, minimizing the issue in the press. If only for future PR, they should make an effort to address the performance issue and make clear they stand behind the quality of their products.