As we all know, The Legend of Zelda celebrated a milestone birthday this year, as 35 years have passed since the first Zelda game released way back when on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Many Zelda fans had hoped, based on expectations set by last year’s Super Mario Bros. 35th anniversary celebration, that Link and company would be in for a big year full of announcements, games, and other celebratory merchandise. While it’s debatable whether or not the year lived up to the (rather admittedly lofty) expectations fans set, we were nonetheless blessed with some big Zelda content this year.
Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity just received its last round of DLC, Skyward Sword HD was released earlier this summer to critical acclaim, Nintendo has partnered with BlackMilk Clothing to produce some Zelda-themed clothes, and we finally got a new look at the upcoming sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And to cap off 2021 and the 35th anniversary celebration, Nintendo has released a new Zelda-themed Game & Watch system, officially titled Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda.
The system contains Link’s first two adventures — The Legend of Zelda and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, both originally for the NES — as well as the Game Boy version of Link’s Awakening. Additionally, a classic Game & Watch title called Vermin is included, now starring our favorite Hylian instead of the usual Mr. Game & Watch.
Is this retro system, priced at $49.99 USD, worth the cost of admission? Does it push 2021 from being a year Zelda fans may look at as a missed opportunity to the big party everyone was hoping for? Let’s dive in and take a look!
One thing I was immediately impressed with was the presentation and look of the system. In my view, I was interested in this Game & Watch for its value as a collectable more so than as a vehicle to play some classic Zelda games. It seems that Nintendo was aware that many people might share that mindset, as the system came with a cardboard placeholder, emblazoned with the Triforce logo, for the Game & Watch to sit in. The holder tilts up, making the Game & Watch into a nice display that would look right at home on any collector’s shelf. The box that the system is sold in for that matter also looks really nice and could easily sit on a shelf right beside it; so careful while opening!
The system itself is gorgeous too and looks incredibly classy. It is gold, like we’ve seen so often from classic Zelda box art in the past, with a really sharp green trim that runs around the edges. The green and gold feel really appropriate for a Zelda-themed console, but the sleek buttons invoke a different kind of nostalgia. With bold red, black, and grey buttons, it immediately gives off the feel of a classic NES controller. This amalgamation of the NES and Zelda colors gives this system a really nice feel and look to it.
I have to admit that, when I first saw the system, I was a little worried about how it might feel in my hands. I’ve always skipped the Game & Watch systems Nintendo has put out in the past, so this was really the first time that I’d held one; and to my relief, it feels really nice. In my head, I had been comparing it to holding a Game Boy or a 3DS, as there are some games, particularly on the DS and 3DS, where you need to hold the system with one hand and use a stylus with the other. I typically don’t enjoy that since my hands get tired really quickly, but luckily, this Game & Watch weighs a staggering 131 grams, so that never became an issue. Everyone reading this that’s ever had to hold a 3DS with just one hand will also be familiar with the awkward 45 degree angle you need to hold it at so the 3DS doesn’t kill your wrists; again, a benefit of the Game & Watch is that the thing is so tiny (it’s official dimensions are 4.5″ x 2.5″), such that you can easily hold it up with one hand or just palm it.
The display and sound quality are likewise great. The screen is bright, and the world of Hyrule looks absolutely vibrant. The sound is likewise nice and crisp, and both sound and brightness are easily adjustable. The screen is only about 2″ by 1.5″, but it really pops when you’re playing. Another thing I was impressed with was the battery life; after 4 hours of actively trying to kill the battery by having it on max-brightness performing clock duty just to test out its battery life, Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda was still going strong. One word of warning though: there is no charging cable packaged with the system. Fortunately, it takes just a standard USB-C to charge, so chances are you already have one laying around. (CORRECTION: There is actually a charging cable included in the box, just hidden away in the Triforce stand! Be warned though, it’s so small and hidden so well, you might not realize it’s there either!)
Three Zelda Games in One
Of course, the real meat and potatoes of this system is in the three mainline Zelda games that it offers up. I think by now we all know what to expect of The Legend of Zelda, Adventure of Link, and Link’s Awakening, so I won’t spend too much time breaking down the games themselves versus how those games play and feel on a Game & Watch system.
Going back and playing retro games can always be a little tough since almost every game of that ilk, no matter how great, has a couple things that haven’t necessarily stood the test of time. These games are, of course, no different; but unfortunately for them, there are a few issues exacerbating how out-of-date they truly feel. I’m going to make a leap and assume that almost everyone who will purchase this system also owns a Nintendo Switch. Taking that a step further, I think it’s safe to say that many have at least the baseline Nintendo Switch Online plan, which gives you access to online play, SNES games, and, more importantly, NES games. Zelda I and II are both staples of the Nintendo Switch Online package, a package that includes many quality-of-life improvements such as save states, a rewind feature, screenshot ability, and more. Those obviously are missing from these Game & Watch ports.
Link’s Awakening fares a little better; but truth be told, I had a hard time going back to black and green after many years of playing Link’s Awakening DX for the Game Boy Color. Add in the 2019 remake of Link’s Awakening, and it becomes obvious pretty quickly that there are better ways to play these games in 2021. But hey, at least there’s no ugly black border around the screen like there is on NSO, so take that as a small victory.
Arguably, it’s The Legend of Zelda, Link’s maiden outing, that holds up the best. The visuals really pop and it sounds great, so anyone looking for that classic Zelda experience will be right at home. It’s a short enough game too that you can easily polish it off in one setting before the battery dies if you are so inclined. That being said, despite my grievances with the lack of color, for my money, Link’s Awakening is pretty easily the best game of the bunch to just sit down and play. Faring worse off is Adventure of Link. Long considered the black sheep of the series, Zelda II really received a new lease on life on Nintendo Switch Online, with save states and rewind features being a literal game-changer. As mentioned, none of that is here, so prepare to die a lot, to be frustrated constantly, and to restart your game at the beginning over and over.
Though lacking in save states, Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda does offer a pretty generous suspend point feature. At any time, you can press the Game button, and you’ll be taken to the game selection screen, with whatever game you were playing creating a suspend point right then and there. Once you resume the game, your suspend point is gone though. So be warned: this won’t be an adequate replacement for save states. Speaking of the game selection screen, it’s worth noting that every game is available in at least their English and Japanese versions, with Link’s Awakening also offering up French and Dutch translations. Additionally, from what I’ve seen so far, every glitch or speedrunning exploit in the original games is present in these emulations as well. Not only that, but there are a few things that you can do with your save file to make the games a bit easier.
Performance wise, these games are probably what you expect given their age and the quality of Nintendo’s emulations. There are a few hiccups here and there when Link is surrounded by Moblins and other critters, but it certainly won’t be anything that will detract from the overall experience.
And Now For Something New
One of the extra features included is a short but fun Game & Watch title called Vermin, with Link taking the place of Mr. Game & Watch. Link actually looks really great in this “Game & Watch-ified” form. His head resembles the design from the Link’s Awakening Switch remake, while still keeping the classic Game & Watch body, complete with Inspector Gadget arms. Vermin is essentially whack-a-mole, with the objective being to move either left or right to position yourself to give those pesky moles a thump on the head with your mallets. However, instead of moles, you’re thwacking Octoroks . It starts off pretty easy, but the speed and intensity of the Octoroks pick up the more you hit, so it does make for a challenging game. One nice thing is that the Octorok difficulty comes in waves, so after you clear a particularly hard set of Octoroks, you’ll have a couple seconds to breath and regain your composure (personally, I was averaging a little over 100 hits before I made too many mistakes and the annoying water creatures overwhelmed me). There are two different game modes, but both are pretty much the same game.
Additionally, there’s a gauntlet mode, simply called the Timer, where you can set a timer and face a horde of enemies, battling until time expires. This mode is set in the world of Adventure of Link, so you will be playing as our hero in 2D fighting off all the many Darknuts, Moblins, and other creatures that difficult game throws at you. This feature didn’t really work for me for a couple different reasons. One, no matter how many times you die, the countdown will keep going and you continue to respawn; two, The Adventure of Link is probably the most frustrating of these three games when it comes to combat, particularly when you don’t have any spells or abilities; and three, there’s really no point to do it. You’re rewarded with nothing and gain nothing from doing so, so unless you want to challenge yourself or if you just legit need a countdown timer and decided Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda was the best system for the job, there’s really no reason to ever do this.
Exacerbating this problem to me is that in Vermin and the clock and timer features, if you stop moving as Link for a couple seconds, Link will just start to automatically move and fight for himself. It feels kind of weird, but again it lends itself to the idea that the true purpose of this function is to tell the time and be a stopwatch.
What Time Is It?
Of course, we can’t talk about a Game & Watch without talking about the “watch” part. (random, but to anyone like me who had never heard of a Game & Watch before meeting Mr. Game & Watch in Super Smash Bros. Melee, did anyone else think the “watch” part meant, like, watching someone else’s game? Only me?). If you select the clock feature, you’re treated to a pretty cool screen set in the original Legend of Zelda world where Link will be battling enemies and navigating rooms where (you guessed it) the time is displayed prominently. It’s a pretty fun gimmick, albeit one that doesn’t really offer any purpose or challenge other than literally telling you the time. Actually, the first time I saw the minutes change, I got ready and braced myself for something to happen on screen (don’t worry, nothing bad did except the literal changing of the time). As I mentioned before, if you leave Link idle for a bit, he’ll start to move around and fight enemies himself, but here, it seems like it’s more purposeful than in the stopwatch mode since at least the clock is performing a function.
This actually is pretty cool if you leave it on the stand and let it function like an actual clock. I wouldn’t obviously recommend using this as your primary source of telling time — the microwave is still probably your go-to — but it is a cool visual to look at and will show off your love for Zelda in a cool way, especially when the hour changes. (I won’t ruin the surprise, and it’s only a small thing, but it made me smile when I watched the clock strike 9). Rounding out the clock feature, you can also set a time for the system to automatically shut off.
So with all this being said, let’s circle back to the original question: is this Game & Watch system worth your money? Well, after playing, I believe that there will be two frames of mind that exist, and my answer will depend on which frame of mind you find yourself in. If you are buying this system to play The Legend of Zelda, Adventure of Link, Link’s Awakening, and Vermin, well, frankly, probably not. As I have detailed, there are much better ways to play the three mainline Zelda games; and while Vermin is fun, it’s a Game & Watch game. Perhaps if you don’t own a Switch and want to experience these games again, then this would be a perfect solution. But to the many that do own the hybrid console, Nintendo Switch Online is the better experience for the NES games, while Link’s Awakening has a few different options for you as well.
That’s one frame of mind. But the other frame of mind, and this is a category I fall into, is to look at this system as a collectable first that happens to play Zelda games. In much the same way that the NES Mini or amiibo can be looked at as collectables with added-in bonus features, I categorized this system in the same vein, knowing the first time that I saw the Zelda-themed Game & Watch unveiled, it would be a must-have for my collection. In that regard, this is a much more attractive package and one I would encourage any Zelda fan to pick up.
It’s fitting that, to end the 35th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo produced a system that harkens back to its own roots while at the same time making available the adventure that started it all, The Legend of Zelda.
Andy Spiteri is the Editor-in-Chief of Zelda Dungeon. He frequently referees wrestling matches between his dog Link and his cat Zora. Check him out on Twitter and Zelda Dungeon’s weekly podcast, The Champions’ Cast.
Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda system provided for review by Nintendo of Canada.