When the Game Boy first came out in 1989, it was home to many short, pick-up-and-play games. While games like Tetris, Super Mario Land, and Kirby’s Adventure could be replayed on higher difficulties, completing them didn’t take very long at all. As such, the Game Boy needed a game that was expansive. A game that was robust. A game that could finally occupy that long car trip. Of course, what the Game Boy needed was its own Legend of Zelda game. And Nintendo had it all planned out. Two years after A Link to the Past, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening was released. As the first Zelda game on a handheld, it had a lot to live up to. Could it recreate the magic of the console games? We’ll find out after the break.
A Whale of a Tale
The story of Link’s Awakening is fairly simple on the surface. The opening cutscene- which was stunning for the time- shows Link sailing on a raft, when the sea gets stormy and causes him to crash. We find out that he becomes stranded on Koholint Island, and now must find his way back to Hyrule. However, as our hero journeys through this mysterious new world, he learns more about it and the greater reason that he’s there.
Link’s destiny on Koholint is to awaken the dormant Wind Fish. In order to do so, he must battle through eight dungeons to collect magical instruments that, when played in unison, create a sound so mystical that it has the ability to make the fish arise.
The Wind Fish himself is one of the game’s most captivating aspects. While Link doesn’t meet him until the tail end of the game, he is constantly reminded of the fish’s presence through the island and its culture. The start screen shows the giant pink egg the Wind Fish sleeps in, the locals have a song dedicated to him, and the island is littered with statues that tell of his legends. The game does give a reason for this, but it’s a startling revelation that I wouldn’t want to spoil. That is something that the series hadn’t really had up to this point.
Learning From the Past
As for the gameplay, it held nothing particularly innovative. It took the core gameplay from the original Zelda, and incorporated some of the refinements that A Link to the Past brought. The overworld and dungeons had essentially the same structure as those two titles. Even most of the items were from previous games.
One of the items that really made the game its own, though, was the Roc’s Feather. This allowed Link to jump high in the air. While this was primarily used in the overworld to cross chasms, it was integral in the side-view segments found in some of the dungeons. Without the Feather, these play exactly like the segments in the first Legend of Zelda. But with it, they become a sweet mixture of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. It even featured offensive and defensive power-ups that were reminiscent of Mario. But don’t think this gameplay homage to Nintendo’s other great series was subtle.
Cameos, Cameos, Cameos
Mario characters popped up left and right along Link’s journey. Goombas, Pokeys, and Piranha Plants were all enemies, and Wart and Chain Chomp showed up as NPCs. Even SimCity’s Dr. Wright made an appearance. Link’s Awakening’s engine was based off of the director’s previous Game Boy game For the Frog the Bell Tolls, so they even decided to throw in one of the main characters from that game: Prince Richard.
Writing a Legend
In terms of localization, Link’s Awakening was easily the best Zelda yet. It has a level of wit that is rarely seen in Zelda games. In most Zelda titles, when you acquire a dungeon item, the only message you’ll get is that famous jingle accompanied by “You got a map!” Link’s Awakening, however, throws in a quip with these congratulatory texts. For example, it says “At last, you got a map!” When you find a chest of rupees, it says: “You got 20 rupees! JOY!”
But humor isn’t the only way the writing in Link’s Awakening succeeded. There’s also the matter of the relationship between Link and Marin, a local girl who came to his aid when he was washed ashore. A good romance is very difficult to find in games, and it primarily verges on good writing. As a subject that Nintendo games rarely approach, the relationship between Link and Marin stands out as one of the game’s best moments.
The beach scene is one of my all-time favorite moments in a Zelda game. Marin shares her innermost feelings with Link as they stare out into the blue, seagulls taking wing towards the beyond. “When I discovered you, Link, my heart skipped a beat! I thought, this person has come to give us a message…” At the end, Link must choose between leaving the island forever and facing the reality of Hyrule, or staying there with Marin. This presents a love story just as magical as the series itself.
Sea Shore Sounds
Link’s Awakening isn’t as well known for its music as other games in the series. Heck, even Zelda II is arguably more recognized for its music than LA. However, there are a few very solid tracks in the game. The Overworld theme-a remix of the series’ main theme-is a rousing piece that empowers you to journey across Koholint. The Ballad of the Wind Fish is one of the most beautiful pieces in Zelda history, truly encapsulating the majesty and mystery the island and the Wind Fish both hold.
Speaking of music, Link’s Awakening introduced the Ocarina to the series. Before its integral roles in Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, it was an obtainable item here. Like with the N64 games, Link learned a number of songs on the ocarina that he needed to play in order to accomplish certain tasks. While it may have been just ends to a mean, it paved the way for what would later become an iconic part of the franchise.
The Portable Precursor
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening didn’t really do anything groundbreaking. Rather than trying to make changes to the formula, LA stuck to its guns and brought the console experience to the palm of your hand. In this way, it could be compared to Super Mario Land 2, which avoided the route of its oddball predecessor.
But there’s no doubt that it had some importance. None of the portable Zelda games could have existed without the headway given by Link’s Awakening. While in and of itself it was a modest title, it showed that the series could be successful on and off the TV. It sold over 3 million copies, and helped the Game Boy significantly. So you could say it had something of an impact on Nintendo’s handhelds entirely. In fact, it’s become popular again today through its place on the 3DS eShop.
Through a deep story, smart writing, and top-notch gameplay, Link’s Awakening was a must-have for the Game Boy. It’s aged well, and definitely makes that long car ride worthwhile.