Last week, Nintendo revealed its extremely cute remake of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and announced that it will be out later this year.
The game was originally released on Game Boy back in 1993 and has since been widely regarded as one of the best 2D games of the franchise. Needless to say, the announcement has ignited the excitement of Nintendo fans, sparked discussions about its claymation-esque art style, and preemptively started a controversy around the game’s yet-to-be-announced price tag.
The excitement for the Zelda: Link’s Awakening remake is real for the writers here at CGMagazine, but there is no hard release date currently set for the game. Fortunately, there are plenty of Zelda-like action-adventure games available on Nintendo Switch to play until the remake launches later this year. Here are eight excellent games to help scratch that itch until you get to revisit Koholint Island.
Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King
While most games on this list offer diverse experiences with fundamental derivations on the Zelda series, Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King stands out as the most unapologetic 2D-Zelda clone of the bunch. A hero from a small village, a coup launched by an evil wizard, swords, bombs, temples, bows and arrows—developer Castle Pixel, LLC hits every beat of the Link to the Past paradigm, in both narrative and mechanical respects. In fact, Blossom Tales mimics its model with such accuracy that it gets away with the act as a joke. After being bombarded with Zelda tropes, nods, and subversions, it was with an absolute lack of surprise that I opened my first large treasure chest to find a large bag of bombs; it was so unsurprising, I actually laughed. It’s an undemanding and sometimes bland experience when compared to Nintendo’s masterpieces, but Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King scratches the Zelda itch with caloric gusto.
Minit has an immediately compelling concept: get as far as you can with one minute to live. Though your character dies after sixty seconds of holding the cursed sword it wields, you do make progress by completing micro-tasks and unlocking checkpoints. After you die to the clock, you spawn again at your house and continue taking steps towards discovering Minit’s small, yet enormous-feeling world. But I suspect progression wouldn’t be possible if I hadn’t been conditioned by The Legend of Zelda. With only one-minute rounds to explore, I felt myself constantly tapping into my elf-boy instincts throughout this oddly exhilarating game. Minit is an excellent game in its own right, but I most enjoy the way it streamlines the excitement of discovery and task completion with such a minimalist approach.
The villages of Hyrule, Termina, and other Zelda districts were always a strong, yet unfulfilled fascination of mine. While I was out getting into far too much trouble for one elf boy—shouldering the responsibility of preventing anything as catastrophic as world domination, mind—these quaint and diverse towns were always carrying on with their bespoke hardships. I often envied that sense of community; always the chosen one, never the villager.
Moonlighter provided a catharsis for this mundanity craving, while still functioning as a Zelda-like 2D action game. Though you plunder dungeons, slay monsters and wield a sword, it is all in service of maintaining your local shop. By night, you enter the Fourth Gate to kill baddies and salvage goods, which you can later sell in your shop to the village locals. Both the market systems and combat are fun and well designed, creating an interesting subversion to the story of the adventurer from the little village.
Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas
Originally released on the iOS store, Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas unabashedly mimics every staple of Nintendo’s revered action-RPG franchise—most especially The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. From an isometric perspective, you play as a nameless, sword-wielding, tunic-donning, blond-haired hero as he travels from island to island in search of treasures and mediocre plot MacGuffins. The melee combat is serviceable at best, and the puzzles only become a challenge well into the latter half of the game.
What sells Oceanhorn, besides its cheap likeness to the Zelda series, is its hands-off approach to world progression. Instead of guiding the player with quest markers and a straightforward world map, Oceanhorn requires you to speak with island residents in order to deduce where your next objective is located. You then set out on your sailboat, stave off the dangers of the sea, and are soon rewarded with the discovery of the next island… filled with more uninteresting enemies and rudimentary push-the-block puzzles. There’s a noticeable disparity in quality compared to Oceanhorn’s model, but it certainly scratched my Wind Waker itch.
Hyper Light Drifter
Though I’ve tried to compile a list of games that each manage to offer diverse experiences while still falling under the umbrella of Zelda-like, most are similar in that they generally seek to empower players with exciting abilities and combat. Hyper Light Drifter technically unfolds in a similar fashion, but the tone is always far more dire, set from its ambiguous introduction straight through to the end. I cannot feign to know exactly what the game is about, but between watching the protagonist slowly die of some unexplained illness, and being constantly engulfed in a world of unintelligible language and mystery, the themes and tone of Hyper Light Drifter alienated me enough to dig for understanding.
It’s a brutal yet enjoyable dig. In Hyper Light Drifter, your health is always low and your shots are precious. The game utilizes both melee and twin-stick shooter combat conflated with a short-range teleporting ability, all of which use up recharging resources. Maintaining this charge while defeating and evading enemies starts as a brutal challenge, but eventually becomes a dance of combative prowess the likes I’ve never had to employ in any Zelda game.
My first experience recognizing a game format was with Okami for the PS2. Its themes and aesthetics were unlike any other game I’d ever played, pulling from traditional Japanese folklore to build its painterly world. But at some point, I saw the game from a bird’s-eye view—its lock-on combat, its environmental puzzles, the comic relief of my spritely companion Issun—and I realized, “Oh, this is Zelda: Ocarina of Time.”
Reductive comparisons aside, Okami stands out for its unique “celestial brush” systems. Scribbles of circles, slashed, and other simple inputs of this gamepad-controlled paintbrush allows the player to conjure ink bullets, repair bridges, slash enemies, and breathe new life into cherry blossom trees.
The form will scratch your Zelda 3D itch, but its beautifully remastered graphics and experimental painting mechanics alone make Okami HD well worth your time.
Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+
I spend a lot of this list pontificating on the core sense of wonder and discovery in the Zelda oeuvre, but the real spectacles of fun in those games are usually the dungeons. After aimlessly venturing from screen to screen, trekking mountains and plains to find new villages and threatening enemies, it’s a nice dynamic shift to find a focus point of puzzles, challenges, and the promise of cool new items to unpack.
Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+ pulls the screen-by-screen dungeon format straight out of the original The Legend of Zelda to create an arcade-like action experience filled with interesting enemy designs and hundreds of randomized power-ups to discover. Each run of this scatological roguelike is different from the last; you always start with the same twin-stick shooting mechanics, but by the time you’re four levels down this gauntlet of basement excavation, Isaac will be stomping boulders, shooting lasers, spawning attack-boosting flies, or some Frankensteinian combination of the three. Though there are no puzzles to solve or biomes to explore, the thrill of Zelda-like combat and dungeon dwelling is strong here.
Though a side-scrolling 2D platformer, Hollow Knight hits on those elements most crucial to any Zelda-like: simple, yet compelling, melee combat; an evolving set of tools and abilities; and an overwhelming sense of awe-inspiring adventure. First released on PC in 2017, Team Cherry’s premiere title gained widespread acclaim last year for its richly detailed world of memorable locales, its challenging enemy and level designs, and it’s overall complexity. While most have likened the game to Dark Souls (for attaching currency penalties to death) and Metroid (for its level design and overall sense of isolation), what I remember most about Hollow Knight are the moments of wonder. Every enemy is more interesting than it first appears. Each NPC has some mysterious detail to add to the world of Hollow Nest. With each newly discovered area, dozens of secrets and hidden challenges await. For every moment I am wowed by this game’s unexpected depth, I am driven by that sense of adventure I first felt so many years ago through the escapades of a little elf boy.