Marketing artwork for Link's Awakening, dramatically composed to depict Link's drive and determination in this adorable new 3d world.

Okay, okay, I know. This isn’t an indie title at all. But bear with me, I’m trying something new.

The Legend of Zelda: Links Awakening for Nintendo Switch is a remake of a classic 90’s era Gameboy title. The remake clings onto the classic gameplay of the original but adopts a retro-modern 2.5D tilt-shift aesthetic.

There’s really a lot to say about how good this game is. There have been ample positive reviews, in both the 90s and 2019. But, that’s to be expected—Nintendo wouldn’t have remade this game for the Switch in 2019 if it wasn’t a good game to start with.

A screenshot showing Link attacking an enemy with a sword in the overworld.

Mechanical Language and Accessibility

Link’s Awakening is an exciting modern case study for how game design has changed over time, particularly in terms of game mechanics and accessibility. Yeah, I know I overuse the word “mechanics” on this site—and some jokes have been made at my expense for it—but this post is a deep dive on mechanics.

Even with the ground-up redesign and new style, the actual gameplay of Link’s Awakening is relentlessly classic. In the 26 years since this game was first released, game design has vastly evolved. For example, there’s more understanding around the quality of life and player experience, and how exactly that applies to games these days. Every designer knows fetch quests are busywork, and tasks that require blind trial and error are recipes for player frustration—but, that knowledge only comes with time.

Link attacking a dungeon miniboss with a sword.

Minimal player hinting

For what it’s worth, Link’s Awakening has an immaculate, linear story, and it’s hard to get lost in the narrative. The plot is primarily driven by the owl character. And if you do get lost, you have the telephone booths where you can speak with Old Man Ulrira.

But the primary challenge is the how—the game isn’t shy about telling you your goal at all, but occasionally extremely teasy about showing you how to get there. In one Old Man Ulrira call I got hung up on (about the Yarna Desert), he gives you a tip and ends the call, saying “Hmmm... How much more obvious do I have to be,”—but figuring out how to get to the desert was one of the hardest tasks in the game for me. The game teasingly expects you to try everything until you eventually figure it out.

In today’s games, there’s usually hints to give you a sense that you’re on the right track. Like brighter lighting when you’re on the right path, or scratches and wear pattern textures around frequently used doors. But, in Link’s Awakening, I found myself trekking across the map several times, fully knowing my ultimate destination but not the slightest clue of how to get there.

And, in that sort of way, the game has a relentless difficulty ramp. It’s far too easy at times, which leads to Polygon’s “perfect Zelda for younger fans” review, but also quite tricky when you’re spinning your wheels searching for more solutions.

Inscrutable Boss Difficulty

The dungeon bosses are also a quality example of how player accessibility has changed. While most bosses in the game are rather quite tame, a few have a Dark Souls’y level of difficulty, with just one way to elicit their weakness and deal damage to them.

I’m usually okay with battles give me a specific window of time to get in a hit, or that force me to switch to an appropriate weapon. It’s rewarding to figure things like that out. However, this game offers no hinting to indicate to you that you’re close to figuring them out.

The game doesn’t discriminate between failure here. If your strategy, weapon, or timing is wrong, you’ll get precisely the same block animation in every case. There are no alternate animations to give you an idea that you’re making any progress—even something like a subtly different deflection, or additional shield noise. There’s also nothing like “anticipation” animations in this game—sorts of subliminal hint that indicate certain times are good to get in an attack.

This made me write off too many strategies that were initially correct because I wasn’t getting the sort of reactive feedback I expected—something to hint that I was close but subtly wrong. This only made my returns to these initially correct strategies frustrating and unsatisfying—I knew I was right, but my execution was just slightly wrong.

Oh, and the difficulty curve varies wildly on you: sometimes the boss in the very next dungeon can be a total breeze, like something wide open that can be taken down with three or four arrows with and a complete disregard for precise timing.

Link avoiding a water spider boss

It’s too easy to spoil yourself

This game was built in an era of Nintendo Power magazine subscriptions, Prima strategy guides, and the Nintendo tips hotline sticker on the back of your GameBoy. Now that the internet has superseded these, the nature of information accessibility has changed.

Whenever I hit a brick wall as a kid, I’d usually scour a strategy guide to get an idea of what to do next. And it wasn’t cheating to use these—things like the Prima Strategy guides and Nintendo Power often offered critical worldbuilding and flavor while guiding you on your journey through the game.

Today’s answer, however, is searching the internet. In this world of hashtagcontent and profit engineering, a walkthrough is no longer flipping through a nicely editorialized worldbuilding book for subtle hints on what to do before giving you the right answer. Instead, anything you get is a dry, ordered list that cooly gives you your next immediate action. (This also puts you at risk of spoiling yourself to the next ten or so things you have to do if you scroll too far down the page).

Link happily fising, holding a fishing rod and a recently caught fish.

It’s still a good game

The collective knowledge of how to build games has evolved for the better. This means that more carefully considered gaming experiences do exist these days. (Even though there’s still repressed undercurrents of discussion about the accessibility of difficulty in games.)

A dive into Link’s Awakening shows that games designed these days are far better in handling their difficulty ramp, and giving players enough of a framework of what to do when they’re blocked. That means, we can have games like the Dark Souls series, which are far more difficult than a game like this, because we’ve learned how to teach players how to observe, struggle, and grow through things, like gameplay hinting.

That being said, I massively enjoyed playing this game, and I’m super glad this remake exists. It’s a good dive into nostalgic gaming, and it was interesting examining this game through a bit of a modern lens.

Ocarina of Time remake next, Nintendo?

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The player, at the entrance to a dungeon, in Atma.

Atma is an adventure game made by teamatma. You play as Shaya, a guardian who keeps a balance between the spirits and the material world. Your lover and fellow guardian, Atma, tries to create an urja—or go through the process to become an elder—prematurely. This creates a rift, allowing spirits to wreak havoc in the material world. Your goal is to seek Atma’s key of memories.

Your primary way of interacting with the world is by a sort of spell casting, called mantras. With your mantras, you can do things like draw a line to assemble a bridge, or attack enemies by connecting a line between to hit them with lightning.

As you venture into a vibrant eastern-style forest city, you meet an ornithologist, who gives you a quest to unlock a new mantra. This quest grants you the power of wind, to solve unique puzzles and dungeons, as you continue on your goals.

One of the intro panels in Atma

Atma is a shining example of high-quality content put out on itch daily. It’s incredibly polished, with vibrant art, good gameplay focus, and a great journey and experience. It totally succeeds in its goal of making you feel like a real guardian of the material world.

Atma is great for players seeking a vibrant eastern atmosphere with a story that matters. It’s available for free on itch.io, and an average playthrough will take about a half-hour.

The red-robed desert wanderer in Journey.

This is a game you need to experience once. Not only that, it’s a game you need to experience again. Journey is a game about piecing together a past, enduring the present, finding unexpected companionship, and, well, the journey you take along the way.

Journey is an adventure game by thatgamecompany. It was initially released on PS3 in 2012 and released on PS4 in 2019. It’s out for PC now—and I got to experience it for the first time.

Journey is beautiful, mysterious, unexpected, gripping, and jaw-dropping. It’s so beautiful, it looks like you’re playing a painting. You start in a vast desert—the sand shimmers and cloth flows with a staggering level of realism. The soundtrack is killer, and tightly fits the mood and tempo of your game.

Honestly, I think this is a game best experienced in the dark, so if skimming these screenshots convince you, stop reading now and jump in if you’re at all interested. Go in with as little detail as possible. You won’t be disappointed. (I have tried to avoid as many spoilers as possible in this article, but I share more than I knew about the game when I first experienced it.)

The red-robed traveller, during a cutscene in Journey.

The figure in red

You take control of a nameless, faceless, red-robed figure in the desert. There’s no dialogue, checkpoint, or visual clue to tell you what to do—other than a tall dune with fluttering cloth off in the distance. So, you do that game thing™—move forward and walk.1

After cresting the hill, the game cinematically guides you to experience new story beats. You first find a glowing symbol that you pick up from a strange rock, which gives you a scarf. Then, you encounter torn cloth fragments—you can’t speak, so chirping at them energizes your scarf.

The ancient glyphs round it all out in this starting area—you don’t know who you are, and you don’t know your past. There are so many questions, but you just advance onward and make it up as you go. You’ll find more glowing symbols to grow your scarf, and you’ll find more glyphs which tell you about your story.

The red-robed traveller, with a second companion, after completing a puzzle with them, in the second stage of Journey.

The second figure in red

In the second area, as you’re still discovering your role in the world as this red-robed desert wanderer, a new figure appears. It’s you, but not. It’s acting with agency, seemingly doing its own thing until it takes notice of you. It runs over, and chirps—you chirp back. This is new.

To be honest, I was taken aback when I first found the other desert wanderer—I am averse to multiplayer games, and I was worried that I would ruin this person’s experience because this was my first time playing Journey, or that they would somehow be a nuisance in my gameplay. It turns out, no—they’re there to advance the story with you. The only way you can communicate is by chirping and helping. You can refill their scarf by chirping loudly, and they can refill yours. Touching each other also refills both of your scarves. It’s endearing.

The two travellers meditating.

What we owe to each other

You don’t know anything about the other wanderers that join you in in your adventure. But a sort of social contract exists—you’re on this journey together, and that means helping your fellow wanderer through whatever it takes. I probably was all too slow for one of the first wanderers I encountered—I wanted to explore the vast desert. Another wanderer chirped insistently at me to help me find something I missed. I took that, and helped another companion later in the game find something they missed.

I kept wondering about who I was playing with—what are they thinking about, why are they here, how much did they know about the game. And then I’m also reminded about how much that doesn’t matter, because right now I’m experiencing the story with this red robed, anonymous figure.

All this without chat, without language, and without knowing who you’re with. It’s not about you, your politics, your language, or your country.

It’s about the journey along the way.

A screenshot of the third stage in journey, with mechanical parts embedded in the sand.

Journey is out now for PC on the Epic Games store and is also available for PS3 and PS4. I played through journey twice2—each time taking about 2 hours— and had the soundtrack on repeat for days afterward. Go play it. Seriously.


  1. Sarcastic use of ™, of course. Walking comes with the medium. I mean the game’s named Journey. Quiet, now. 

  2. There’s probably still things I’ve missed. I need to play it again.