Nintendo’s celebration of The Legend of Zelda’s 35th anniversary so far hasn’t been as spectacular as we had hoped, with an (admittedly very good) HD remaster of the divisive Wii U game, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, back in the summer, being the only significant release we’ve had. Certainly, the Japanese giant was wearing a much bigger party hat when Mario hit the same landmark in 2020.
But while we’re definitely not getting the Breath of the Wild sequel, a Wind Waker HD Switch port or a Zelda Lego set of any kind before the year is out, Nintendo has got one more Link-related goodie to tempt Zelda fans. Resurrecting the iconic Game & Watch for Mario’s 35th just as people were starting to look around for stocking fodder last year was a smart move from Ninty, so it’s no surprise that it’s trying its luck again with a Zelda handheld this Christmas, cramming three of the series’ most famous titles into a device not much larger than the crackers you’ll no doubt be smearing cheese onto in a few weeks time.
The Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda is going to appeal most to those who have been adventuring in Hyrule since the beginning, but it’s also a fine way for gamers who only discovered the series in the 21st century to see where it all began. Plus, you know, it tells the time.
Design: A green break
If you managed to nab one of last year’s Super Mario Bros. Game & Watch handhelds then this will be very familiar, because apart from being green (for obvious reasons) the Zelda Game & Watch is almost identical to the plumber-themed variant that came before it.
Almost identical. Nintendo has added start and select buttons to this model which weren’t there before, which are used for things like inventory management and bringing up the map. You know, important Zelda stuff. While obviously a necessary addition, it means the A and B buttons are even lower down than they were before, which is far from comfortable and actually quite awkward if you’re playing for more than five minutes at a time.
If you flip the new Game & Watch around you’ll see a Triforce engraved into the plastic which glows when the device is powered on. A nice touch.
Other than all of the above, though, the two are exactly the same. You have a pleasingly spongy D-Pad for controlling Link in the three included games, and there are three buttons located towards the top right of the device that you prod to change the game, switch to timer mode and fiddle with the brightness and volume settings. You can also use the pause/set button to reset a game, as by default each will (mercifully) save your progress each time you quit so you can pick up where you left off upon your return.
Nintendo has once again gone with a small-but-sharp 2.36in colour LCD display, a single but surprisingly loud built-in speaker and USB-C charging, managing to make the little toy feel modern while very much retaining its retro charm. If you owned a Game & Watch in the ‘80s then the 2020s reboot will hit all the right nostalgia notes. Sadly, though, unlike the originals there’s no built-in stand of any kind, so if you want to have the thing on display all the time (and why wouldn’t you?) you’re a bit stuck. There are fold-out cardboard legs on the back of the box the Game & Watch comes in that turns it into a stand, but we wish Nintendo had fixed something to the hardware.
Games: Them’s the Hyrules
We argued that Nintendo could have been a bit more generous with the Super Mario Game & Watch, but this is undoubtedly a meatier offering. You get three games: the 8-bit original, The Legend of Zelda, from 1986, its sequel Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and the 1993 Game Boy classic, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, which was superbly remade for Switch a few years ago. Note that the version included here is the original monochrome title, not the colourised Game Boy Colour update which arrived further down the line. Each of the games can be played in English or Japanese.
Of the three, Link’s Awakening is the most enjoyable to play now. It’s always been one of the more peculiar Zelda games, with its non-Hyrule location and unexplained Mushroom Kingdom character crossovers, and while the HD remake is the prettiest way to play the game, the Game Boy sprites still have a certain charm. In a nice touch, you can either play fullscreen or in the Game Boy’s original nearly-square aspect ratio.
As for the other two games, The Legend of Zelda is a stone cold classic and at the very least a must-try for anyone who wants to get a better idea of how the series has evolved. In many ways, the most recent entry, Breath of the Wild, is more like the first game than any that came after it, taking its freeform, non-linear exploration to its ultimate conclusion. The Legend of Zelda is a mercilessly difficult game, though, so you’re going to have to be patient if you want to see it all.
Zelda II, while still an important part of the series’ history, is definitely the least fun of the trio. Rather than building on what it started with The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo went completely off-piste with The Adventure of Link, merging a top-down overworld with side-scrolling sections and RPG levelling. It’s a bit of a slog to get through, and would be abandoned almost entirely for a more traditional Zelda experience in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past a couple of years later, but it’s there for would-be Zelda completionists.
If we’re being greedy, it would have been nice if Nintendo had included the aforementioned A Link to the Past here too, as it’s still among the very best games ever made and would have looked great on the Game & Watch’s tiny, vibrant display.
If you own a Nintendo Switch, both of the NES games are playable via the Nintendo Switch Online service, and that is still probably the optimal way to play them now. But we like picking up and playing the Game & Watch in short five-minute bursts throughout the day, and every title selected for the system feels well-suited to that approach.
The final game in the lineup is a special version of the classic Game & Watch game, Vermin, starring Link as the playable character. It’s a very rudimentary whack-a-mole joint, which is fun for a few minutes but probably not something you’re going to be chasing high scores on for months to come.
Watch: Time to kill
As for the ‘Watch’ side of things, you get an interactive clock and a timer. The clock is based on the first game in the series, and when active you watch a computer-controlled Link slicing his way through remixed dungeons of various baddies which change throughout the day.
At any point you’re free to take control of the little green hero yourself, but there’s no progression if you clear a room or down a boss. Think of this mode as a fun little work avoidance toy rather than a proper game.
The timer is Zelda II-themed. You set a time from 1 to 10 minutes (no more, for some reason) and as 2D Link kill as many enemies as you can before it counts down to 0. As long as you’re happy to put up with the game’s unforgiving and now rather clunky combat this is actually quite moreish. And if you get bored of dying the computer will happily take over.
Nintendo Game & Watch: The Legend of Zelda verdict
If you’re gift-hunting for a Zelda fan this Christmas then we can think of no better stocking filler than the latest Game & Watch. It’s a lovingly designed and wonderfully nostalgic little gadget, and a great (if not the best) way to go back to where it all began for one of the most important series’ in the history in video gaming.
It’s not a cheap time machine, though, and while it’s great to have these games in your back pocket whenever you want them, there are more ergonomically appealing and just as accessible ways to revisit Zelda’s roots, so whether you’re buying for yourself or someone else, think of it as a collector’s item first, gaming handheld second.
Overall, though, we’re really enjoying this unexpected new era of the Game & Watch. Metroid next, Nintendo?
A love letter to old-school Zelda and just about a must-have collector’s item for long-time fans of the series
Three of the most famous games ever made in one compact package
Great design and display
Looks great on a shelf when you’re done playing
Saves your progress
Awkward button placement
No rewind feature
A Link to the Past would have been the icing on the cake