Skip to main content

This retro Game Boy throwback is the modern-day Link’s Awakening

A character stands before a God in Isles of Sea and Sky.
Cicada Games

If you’ve every played The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening on Game Boy, you know how special it is. While it initially looks like your average top-down Zelda game, it quickly gets delightfully weird. Shopkeepers will blast you with lightning if you try to shoplift, Goombas from Mario wander around, and the entire story revolves around a giant fish sleeping on a mountain. It’s a fish-out-of-water story for Link, one that makes for the most mysterious but inviting Zelda game ever made.

Now, a new indie game is recapturing that magic. Isles of Sea and Sky just launched this week on Steam and it’s a pixel-perfect homage to Link’s Awakening. The adventure puzzle game captures the oddball spirit of that adventure, while doing its own thing entirely. And it does all that while playing with the limitations of a Game Boy art style. It’s one retro game you don’t want to miss this year.

The Zelda inspiration in Isles of Sea and Sky is clear from its first moment. It begins with a character washing ashore on an island, a scene that’s framed almost identically to the classic intro of Link’s Awakening. From there, players are set loose in a sunny, pixel-art island full of odd structures that they’ll learn about over time. There’s a main quest that involves unlocking a big door, but it’s an open-ended adventure.

A character pushes boxes through lava in Isles of Sea and Sky.
Cicada Games

But while it looks like a top-down Zelda game, that’s not actually how it plays. Isles of Sea and Sky is actually a minimalist open-world puzzle game (not unlike this year’s solid Islands of Insight). More specifically, it’s a “Sokoban” game. That’s a specific strain of puzzle game where players need to solve elaborate box-pushing puzzles. There are no enemies or combat. Instead, players gradually solve puzzles across a series of islands to open them up, collect stars to unlock new areas, and get a few power-ups along the way.

I fear that I may have lost some of you, but hang on.

Sure, box-pushing puzzles are an acquired taste. That task tends to be a bit maddening in classic games, leading to a lot of trial and error. Isles of Sea and Sky can be too as it requires some serious brainpower to solve complex order-of-operations puzzles. Despite being totally open-ended and full of puzzles to bounce between, I did find myself a little railroaded halfway through as I struggled to solve one obtuse environmental puzzle that held a key item. Thankfully, it solves for that problem with some great control considerations. I can undo my last move quickly with a button tap or reset the whole room just as quickly with another. Islands are dotted with unlockable shortcuts too, which remain open even if I undo a move. That takes a lot of the trial-and-error annoyance out of the genre.

It’s great that it does too, because Isles of Sea and Sky is far more engrossing than your typical Sokoban game. Each screen is filled with cleverly designed puzzles that beg to be solved. The world is rich with secrets too, which makes those puzzles worth solving. On one island, I discovered an odd environmental puzzle that had me pushing four boxes in each corner of the island onto specific platforms. I solved that after finding a clue hidden on a golden door underground. Once I unlocked that door, I discovered a secret item: a glove that would allow me to dig through boulders and change their position. That opened up several new secrets that had me obsessively digging through previous screens with fresh eyes.

A character pushes a box near a gold door in Isles of Sea and Sky.
Cicada Games

All of it brings me back to playing Link’s Awakening as a kid — and not just for the aesthetic. That game has always stuck with me as I spent so much time simply wandering around soaking everything in. I don’t even know that I realized it had a straightforward story progression as a kid. It felt entirely open-ended, begging to be explored. Every time I’d discover a new item, it felt like I was learning the foreign language hidden in an unfamiliar world. Isles of Sea and Sky nails that same feeling. I start off scratching my head as I look at confusing objects I don’t know how to correctly interact with. By the end, I’m fluent.

Come to Isles of Sea and Sky for its nostalgic tone, but I promise that you won’t need to find a reason to stay. The current will pull you in.

Isles of Sea and Sky is available now on PC.

Editors' Recommendations

Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
3 Xbox Game Pass games to play over Memorial Day weekend (May 24-27)
Senua carries a torch in Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2.

This was a big week for Xbox as it received its first console-exclusive first-party game of the year in Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2. We're also approaching a holiday weekend where you'll have a lot more time to play video games if you so choose. As such, there's one really easy recommendation I can make to people looking for what to play this weekend. Hellblade 2 is a very dark and mature game that depicts what it's like to have psychosis, though, so my other recommendations are a little more lighthearted.

The first is an indie game that launched in Xbox Game Pass earlier this month, where players control a cat exploring a city. The other is a collection of classic Pac-Man games that is leaving Xbox Game Pass very soon. Those two are worth checking out if you want some more relaxing, gameplay-focused fun this weekend after the intense experience Xbox Game Studios' latest offers.
Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2

Read more
Drag-themed fighting game is released for free on PC despite being unfinished
Two drag queens go head to head on an 80s-styled pink and blue poster with the title "Drag Her" in the middle.

What do you do when you have to stop development on your video game? You release it anyway.

Drag Her! Beta Trailer

Read more
3 free video games you should play this weekend (May 10-12)
A titan wielding a grenade launcher in Destiny 2..

Whenever we recommend games at Digital Trends, we tend to go heavy on titles available on subscription services like Xbox Game Pass. Rather than telling our readers to buy new games, we always try to find ones that might be on services they're already paying for. Still, that doesn't cover every player. There are plenty of more casual gaming fans who aren't subscribed to any service that offers extra games. We don't want to leave them out, do we?

If you're in that category, or you're simply strapped for cash, we've got some recommendations for some free games you can try this weekend. I don't mean "free with a subscription" either. I'm talking about games that will cost you nothing to start, even if you decide you want to spend money on them later. From a mobile game I can't get enough of to a a popular MMO that just made all of its DLC free, these are three free games you can dive into this weekend.
Destiny 2

Read more