sensitive to dust and powder: some thoughts on the Link's Awakening DX HD hack
A rumination on an impressive fan project and its place in history, examined through one pivotal scene.
Imagine you’re playing a classic video game for the first time. You’ve taken control of the hero, sword and shield in hand. Your first objective is to venture into an enigmatic forest and find the key that will grant you entry to the first dungeon. Having bested a mob of enemies, you reach a grassy alcove surrounded by trees. A rotund raccoon stands in the brush, beating on its belly like a taiko drum. You speak to it. It gives a vague response about its nose being sensitive to dust. Keenly aware that the game has given you a hint, you absorb the information and proceed. You try to exit the overgrown canopy from the north and the creature bellows at you. “You're goin’ ta be lost, thanks to me! Heh heh!” You’re swiftly warped to a different location. However, the moment has been cheapened. You’re looking down upon your hero with a bird’s eye view, and the adjacent areas are clearly visible. The Mysterious Forest isn’t that big. As it turns out, you’re really not lost at all. The developers have clearly failed at making an impactful moment here, haven’t they?
Well, not exactly. What I’ve just described is an early moment that illustrates one of the key problems with The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX HD, a fan remaster of the renowned Game Boy title from 1993 that’s been generating a lot of buzz. By all rights, it’s an incredible hack with a load of modern updates that re-frame the game in ways never before imagined. It fills the entire screen, shocking you with the impressive scale of its locale. It’s a beautiful way to tour the Koholint Island you’ve come to love over years of exploring its distant corners, but it’s not a great way to experience it for the first time. Link’s Awakening, like any other video game, was developed around the limitations of the hardware it was made for. The Game Boy’s screen was only 160 by 144 pixels, with a paltry 8 kilobytes of RAM available to play with. Naturally, this meant your window into the world of your adventure was small, and the game couldn’t “remember” much of what was happening beyond the bounds of that frame. Demolishing these load-bearing walls creates unintended problems.
The Link’s Awakening team took advantage of their hardware constraints by building the game as a series of dioramas. Each screen was carefully arranged to convey specific information to you. As you head south from your starting point of Mabe Village, the cliffs and pathways leading to the shores below cleverly communicate that you can continue going south. To the right, there’s a large expanse blocked off by rocks, but it’s careful not to give too much away; all you need to know is there’s something to see once you can clear the path. Some screens are self-contained objectives, while others are built to point you in the direction of those objectives. The encounter with the raccoon is one of those key instructive moments, fundamentally changed by DX HD.
The lesson you learn is that some screens have conditions that must be satisfied. You’ve got to find some powder to make the little guy sneeze. That much is evident. When you’re whisked away from the direction you tried to go, you’re receiving another subtle bit of guidance: there are alternate pathways to take. You can’t go there yet, but there’s something else you missed! Your mental map updates, and you make a note to come back once you’ve found what you’re meant to find. The Mysterious Forest is a dry run for the first dungeon, Tail Cave. By the time you’ve reached the first true test of your mettle, you should already be somewhat familiar with how the game expects you to engage with it.
The raccoon room also functions as an evocative set piece—a startling moment that undercuts the grounded puzzling and spelunking with a bit of fantastical dream logic. Stepping beyond the boundary of each scene is a leap of faith that shows you new areas or challenges to face. Beyond the practical reason for its inclusion, it also makes you feel something. You want to get the little rascal back, but you’re also wondering how he pulled that trick on you. What else is he capable of? What other frustrations lie in wait for you?
There’s a version of the Lost Woods in nearly every Zelda, dating back to the original from 1986. This section of the Mysterious Forest is a miniaturization of it, distilling the disorienting theme into a single moment that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Imagine if, upon your first encounter with its iconic iteration in Ocarina of Time, you could see right through the dark shrouds that obscure each path and it’s immediately clear which ones take you back to the entrance. You would be robbed of the realization that you needed to pay closer attention. By seeing beyond the bounds of the raccoon room, the moment loses tension. It’s obvious that you can simply go around. You don’t have to remember where you’ve been when the entire screen serves as a constant proximal clue. Proper dungeons suffer from this high definition treatment even more; the illusion of each area as a gauntlet of challenges is shattered, and it nearly trivializes the fact that you don’t have immediate access to a map.
No matter how you look at it, remasters are revisions of history. Something is lost when you bring a period piece in line with the standards of the modern era. You might lose the physical experience of holding the hardware in your hands, the unique visuals of an obsolete display, or the limitations that informed the game’s very design philosophy. In the case of Link's Awakening DX HD, you lose all of the above—but that’s not to say you don’t gain anything for your trouble. Koholint in widescreen is vibrant and bustling, feeling like an immersive world as parts of it spill off into your peripheral vision. The fact that the entire overworld is active is interesting. Enemies from different “screens” can interact with you and chase you down, and you can no longer reset the state of certain rooms without backtracking further or exiting an area entirely. This changes some core functions and upends decades-old design, but makes the world feel much more connected.
My recommendation to anyone that hasn’t played Link’s Awakening would be to try the original or the colorized DX version on the Game Boy Color. I don’t mean to imply that the DX HD fan project doesn’t have its place, but I don’t think it’s a replacement—nor do I believe it intends to be. It’s a lovely way to breathe new life into a world you know like the back of your hand, but you’ve got to know it to begin with. It’s fun for a replay and I’m glad it exists, but it’s best appreciated as a feat of technical prowess and an expression of devoted love for a timeless classic. To understand how history has changed, you should make an effort to live through it first. ✿
Thank you for reading this eighth installment of once bitten, twice shy. Link’s Awakening is my favorite game, so I had a lot of feelings about this project. I hope it doesn’t seem like I don’t want you to play it! I’ve just played this game more than any other video game, and my mind went wild considering what a first timer’s experience with this game might be. The more I thought about it, I realized I could illustrate a lot of my ideas by focusing on one specific scene. I had an epiphany that the raccoon room is an extremely important early moment in the game, which I may never have considered had I not played this thing. That alone made it worth the experience!
Nintendo has already acted swiftly to take this thing down, but it shouldn’t be hard to find if you’re curious about playing it. Just look around. Or ask me, if you must. I don’t mind helping!
Of course, this wasn’t the post I had in mind when I promised you one for today. I just wanted to get this out while it was timely. I’ll probably save that other one for next year. I don’t want to inundate your inbox. See you again at the end of the month, yeah?
Thank you for reading once bitten, twice shy! Don’t get lost on your way out. :->