action, adventure, Game Boy, Kaepora Gaebora, Koholint Island, Link, Link's Awakening, Marin, Nintendo, Tarin, The Legend of Zelda, The Legend of Zelda - Link's Awakening, The Legend of Zelda - Link's Awakening DX, Wind Fish, Zelda
THIS POST CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS
I usually try to avoid spoilers but it is impossible for me to review Link’s Awakening without talking about the ending. It was my first Zelda game and one of my first Nintendo games and was instrumental in my becoming a lifelong Nintendo fan. To this day I consider it one of my five favourite games of all time and, with the possible exception of Ocarina of Time 3D, it is the best game I have ever reviewed for this blog and so much of what makes it a classic is in the ending.
So let’s begin at the end. Link’s Awakening makes use of a dramatic twist that is usually the most laughable kind of cop-out, one mostly employed by primary school children who have written themselves into a corner whilst creating stories. Koholint Island, the setting for the game on which Link has been shipwrecked, exists within the dream of the Wind Fish. But Link’s Awakening does far more with the ‘it was all a dream’ concept. For one thing it’s not like the truth is saved as a shocking revelation for beating the final boss, in fact you are told in no uncertain terms that Koholint is a dream two thirds of the way through the game in a haunting moment at the Southern Face Shrine. But it’s what the game does with its subtly drawn conceit that makes is so worthwhile and memorable.
Most pertinently there is the emotional angle. Only hard-hearted gamers would fail to fall in love with Koholint and its inhabitants. There is an adorable simplicity and innocence about the haven-like Mabe Village where the game begins, something that extends to the super-cute character sprites and even the dialogue. The island world is beautifully designed, the various themed areas arranged in just the right way to make it a convincing setting. In short, Koholint is an appealing place to spend time despite the monsters. Your most powerful relationship is with Marin, the island girl who finds Link on the beach at the beginning of the game and is a dead-ringer for Princess Zelda. She and Link share an unspoken, tentative romance that illuminates several moments of the story. The two even share a date in a beguiling cut-scene on the beach before one of the game’s standout moments in which Marin accompanies you for a while. Few sequences in video games develop the relationship between the player character and an NPC in such a charming way – you can discover all kinds of delightful little scripted events and Easter Eggs together. Then there is the moment late in the game when you rescue Marin from the mountains and she appears on the verge of expressing her feelings before being interrupted. The story never develops their relationship beyond the attraction phase but that just makes it all the more appealing. By the end of the game everything about Koholint Island and it’s amusing inhabitants should have you completely transported. And at the end it all disappears.
The disappearance of Koholint Island is one of the most heart-breaking sequences in video games. You’ve just beaten the game, it’s taken you a long time, in my case about four years, to fight through the labyrinthine dungeons and take down the final series of bosses and you’ve triumphed. You ought to feel completely elated but the game has other ideas. With the hugely poignant Ballad of the Wind Fish playing you watch as one by one locations and characters you have come to know and love fade away. It’s completely bittersweet and one of the most powerfully emotional endings the industry has ever produced. Some might argue that a downer ending is a bad thing but as any storyteller knows anything that provokes a reaction from its audience has succeeded.
But there are other intriguing thoughts regarding the way the story plays out. Consider this; in The Legend of Zelda – Link’s Awakening you are the bad guy. It sounds absurd but think about it. In other Zelda games your mission is to save the world from Ganon or whatever antagonist the game presents. In Link’s Awakening your ultimate goal is simply to leave the island so you can return home. Early on you learn that the only way to do this is to wake the Wind Fish which requires you to play the eight Instruments of the Sirens in front of the giant egg on Mount Tamaranch. Put simply you must awaken the Wind Fish to awaken yourself and a side-effect of escaping Koholint is the total destruction of the island and the people who live there.
Citing Link as the villain of the piece is a pretty extreme way of reading it but it’s a provocative interpretation. The most compelling angle of this argument is how the Nightmares – the game’s intended villains and dungeon bosses – react to Link’s presence. Each of them has something cryptic to say that hints at the dream world twist but more interesting is their motives for trying to kill him. The Nightmares know not only that Koholint exists in the Wind Fish’s dream, they also know that if he is woken their world will disappear. Link’s quest is to wake the Wind Fish so they are desperate to stop him, not because they are monsters and their job is to kill heroes but because they want to go on living. To the Nightmares, if no-one else, Link is the bad guy.
Of course all of this is simply inference gleaned from a fairly minimal script but this interpretation nonetheless highlights some fascinating shades of grey in the dichotomy of good and evil in the game in a way few games even attempt. Nothing is explicit, every little intricacy and subtlety of the game’s story is as blurry and half-formed as the realities of actual dreams. The game features various other mysterious little moments that quietly maintain a dreamy atmosphere. Consider Mabe’s Dream Shrine in which Link falls asleep and dreams within a dream to discover the Ocarina, waking to find he still has it. After beating each dungeon a short, enigmatic text hints at your next destination. Then there are the owl statues that dot the landscape and give you truly enigmatic messages, some of which are clues, others are more poetic and open to interpretation: ‘Sea bears foam. Sleep Bears dreams. Both end in the same way. CRASH!’
This review is already over a thousand words long and I haven’t even mentioned the gameplay yet. That is how sublime the story of Link’s Awakening is. It isn’t a complex plot but there is depth and mystery. The game offers so much to think about and contemplate it’s unprecedented. Most amazingly of all it manages these things despite the fact it was made for the orginal Game Boy, a handheld console with a tiny monochromatic dot matrix screen. It’s one of the most beautifully presented and satisfying games I have ever had the pleasure to play, a title that seems to achieve the impossible.
So how does it stand up as a video game? Rather well as it happens. The game was originally conceived as something of an experiment to see if the Zelda gameplay could work on a handheld screen. As such everything plays out in very similar fashion to A Link to the Past. You explore Koholint from a top down perspective and build up an arsenal of weapons which can be assigned to either the A or B buttons, neither of which needs to be your sword. The flawless gameplay of the SNES classic works perfectly on the tiny screen and your inventory comes complete with most of the series staples, Bombs, Bow, Hookshot, even the Boomerang is hidden away in there. There are two completely new additions such as the Magic Powder which can be sprinkled on a wide range of enemies and objects for different effects and is fun to experiment with but more important is the Roc’s Feather which lets you jump and is absolutely indispensable for both exploration and evasive manoeuvres during combat.
Like most Zelda games the world is designed to inhibit your progress until you’ve gained particular weapons. The designers also do a fantastic job of tempting you with chests and other titbits that are beyond your reach at the first time of discovery. Likewise the game is packed with secrets, such as the aptly named and cunningly hidden Secret Seashells which can be used to upgrade your sword. This was also the first game in the series to involve a complex and necessary-for-completion trading sequence.
As mentioned before Koholint Island is a remarkably captivating world to explore and one that feels deceptively bigger than it actually is. The map is a perfect square divided into a 16×16 grid with each square representing a single screen. The dungeons are absolutely absorbing and many are tricky with puzzles that force you to think outside the box on a few occasions. Eagle’s Tower is a taxing test of spatial awareness that sees you collapsing pillars with a giant metal ball, Key Cavern has you tracking down cleverly hidden keys to unlock numerous doors and Turtle Rock is a huge, deceptive labyrinth. The dungeons are all excellent and increase in difficulty very clearly and steadily.
One of the key successes of the game’s design is the graphics which maintain the strong identity of the Zelda series without succumbing to the limitations of the hardware. The sprites are tiny but packed with character, Link himself is incredibly cute while the various enemies look and move much as they do in previous games. Everything from Moblins to Gibdos look great. The designers have handled the monochrome display with real skill, managing to make every location and object look right. It’s easily one of the best-looking games on the Game Boy.
And it is the absolute best sounding. Link’s Awakening is proof positive that great composition and mastery of mixing tools transcends all limitations, presenting a soundtrack that stands with the best in the series. From the several melancholy variations of Ballad of the Wind Fish to the stirringly epic Tal Tal Heights theme (which is essentially a remix of the Zelda theme only ten times better), the playlist is peppered by the kind of genius compositions that can define childhoods. The sound effects fare just as well. Simple sword swings provide a meaty chop and enemies explode tangibly and seagulls have never sounded cuter.
Someone who knows their way around Koholint can comfortably see the credits after eight hours but unless you can solve every puzzle and mystery instantly those new to the game should be kept occupied for much longer. The island is a maze and familiarising yourself with the layout takes time plus objectives are not signposted as liberally as later games in the series. As usual there is extra satisfaction to be gained by tracking down the heart pieces and replay value is stratospheric.
I admit I have the nostalgia cap on and players who pick up the game for the first time now might not have a comparable experience but I still regard the game higher than the likes of Super Metroid, Super Mario World, Chrono Trigger and Yoshi’s Island, all classic games from the same era and the bottom line is that if a game is capable of planting seeds of joy in childhood that germinate into profound fondness in adulthood the developers have got something very very right.
It’s notable that on this occasion I wasn’t actually playing the original version of the game but the 1998 enhanced port for the Game Boy Colour, Link’s Awakening DX by way of the 3DS eShop. Playing DX had been on my video game to-do list for years and it was worth the wait. As someone who knows the monochrome Koholint backwards exploring it again in colour was a great novelty. The cleverly hidden and optional Colour Dungeon is a brief but thoughtful slice of extra content and the game offers more clues within dungeons. There’s also a number of photo opportunities you can track down that tied in with the original cartridge’s compatibility with the Game Boy Printer which doesn’t translate to 3DS but finding the pics is still fun.
Presentation – 10
A simple enough story hides astonishing subtleties, delivered in an innocent, whimsical and polished way. Nothing is out of place and nothing is missed.
Design – 10
One of the most compelling game worlds ever.
Gameplay – 10
The matchless Zelda standard is in full voice. Perfect controls and a quick pace plus thoughtfully integrated weapons make for a great game.
Graphics – 9
The sprite work transcends the low pixel count to create a lovable cast. Every area of the map and dungeons look like what they’re meant to be from just smart use of shading.
Sound – 10
An all-time classic selection of tunes and phenomenal sound effects.
Difficulty – 9
Most of the challenge is in the puzzles but there are plenty of enemies to test your finger gymnastics too.
Longevity – 9
Not super long in theory but tough enough to keep completion at bay for a good time and you’ll want to relive it again and again.
Link’s Awakening offers so much with such humble tools that it should be regarded as one of the most staggering achievements in video game history. A beautiful, emotional and hugely enjoyable adventure condensed into bare minimum handheld form. There has never been and is unlikely ever to be another handheld game as bewitching.