My biggest takeaway from last year’s Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros. was that Nintendo could have, and should have, included more games. It was a complaint the company has more or less addressed with the new Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda, resulting in a better handheld for casual play. It’s arguably a must-have for Zelda fans diving back into the series’ origins.
It was assumed that the Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros. was a one-off creation timed to coincide with the NES game’s 35th anniversary, but when the new Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda was announced back in June, it was clear that Nintendo had other plans. More Game & Watch handhelds are probably en route for other popular Nintendo franchises like Metroid and (dare we dream?) Pokémon, and I’m now OK with that. I still think Nintendo could be doing more with these devices (as it did with the NES and SNES Classic Edition consoles), but the Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda delivers a more satisfying experience than its predecessor—assuming you’re in love with The Legend of Zelda franchise.
Although every Nintendo console from the NES on includes some form of Select and Start buttons on the controller or gamepad, those were omitted on the Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros., both to better match the original design of the retro handhelds, but also because the included games didn’t need them. With the Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo added a set of Select and Start buttons because they’re actually crucial to gameplay for inventory management and navigation, not just pausing the game.
But aside from a couple more buttons on the front and a green plastic housing instead of red, Nintendo hasn’t changed much between its Game & Watch revivals. The new handheld still includes a lovely 2.36-inch full color LCD screen with adjustable brightness levels, controls that are slightly smaller than what the Game Boy included but still very playable, and a power button on the side next to a USB-C port for charging.
Nintendo also added a fun Easter Egg to the Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda handheld: a subtle glowing Triforce on the back. I’m not saying you should run out and drop $50 on the handheld because of this fun accent, but I’m not not saying that either.
The games lineup on the Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros. handheld wasn’t exactly great. Yes, Super Mario Bros. is a classic and iconic title in the history of gaming, but the Japanese sequel, Super Mario Bros. 2, can be impossibly hard and frustrating at times, and the juggling Ball throwback game was just a reminder of how bad handheld gaming devices once were.
For the Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo has included three full games instead, as well as another basic G&W throwback title called Vermin now starring Link as the vermin-bashing hero. There’s the original NES The Legend of Zelda that started it all back in 1986 and spawned the “it’s dangerous to go alone” meme, the 1988 sequel Zelda II: The Adventure of Link that curiously added a lot of side-scrolling elements to the game, and the 1993 The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, which is the first Game Boy game to arrive on the new Game & Watch devices.
The NES games are legitimately fun throwbacks, and while the graphics on each now feel horribly dated, both are actually solid pick-up-and-play titles as you slowly chip away at the larger quests you’re on. There’s also the added bonus that the Game & Watch saves your progress exactly where you left off, so if you can’t finish a dungeon in time, you won’t find yourself reset back to the entrance the next time you hop back in. All of the included Zelda games actually play better on the Game & Watch.
This time around Nintendo has also made the Game & Watch clock mode playable. On the Super Mario Bros. version all you could do was watch Mario autonomously run and jump across each level, but on the Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda, you can take control of Link at any point and fight baddies in one of the many self-contained levels that randomly appear with the time display integrated into its design. There’s no score keeping, and you don’t advance anywhere if you slay all the baddies—they all just respawn—but it makes for a nice fidget toy if you’re not in the mood to hop back into any of the full games.
Please feel free to tear me apart in the comments, but I was introduced to The Legend of Zelda series through Link’s Awakening on the Game Boy, and it was just about the closest thing I’ve ever had to a gaming epiphany. I played through the game during a two-week family road trip (I skipped souvenirs for an endless supply of AAs), and it’s one of the few games I’m still willing to go back and play through again and again. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an amazing game, and Ocarina of Time showed us that Zelda in 3D could be great, but the charm and simplicity of Link’s Awakening is still just a fantastic experience.
It’s also the best Game Boy game of all time as far as I’m concerned, with depth and graphics that made the handheld system feel more capable than I thought was even possible. There’s a good reason Nintendo gave Link’s Awakening a massive facelift and re-released it on the Switch—it’s still a great game.
For retro gaming purists, Nintendo has included the option to change the screen size of Link’s Awakening so it matches the more boxy aspect ratio of the original Game Boy, but when stretched out to fill the new Game & Watch’s screen it still looks great, and plays just as good as the original. However, I’m not entirely sure why Nintendo didn’t include The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX—the Game Boy Color version of the game—instead to take advantage of the new G&W’s full color screen.
If you’re a die-hard Zelda fan, there’s a good chance you pre-ordered the Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda as soon as it was announced, and for $50 it’s a solid way to not only explore the series’ origins, but also play through one of the best Zelda games again. It’s not the cheapest stocking stuffer, but it’s hard to imagine any Nintendo fan feeling disappointed about being gifted one during the holidays.
At the same time, it’s also proof that Nintendo could be doing so much more with these Game & Watch revivals. Thanks to some clever hackers we know these devices rely on emulators that simply load locally stored ROM files, and while we already knew the handheld could handle Game Boy titles, we now have official proof of that. With the Switch being able to play SNES and N64 games, we also know Nintendo has emulators for those consoles too. A Game & Watch: Metroid would be great, but there’s really no reason Nintendo couldn’t pack one of these with a roster of games that rivals its Classic Edition consoles.