A few years after the Game Boy’s release in 1989, a programmer from Nintendo by the name of Kazuaki Morita began working on an unsanctioned side project. Using one of the console’s first development kits, the game he created bore many similarities to The Legend of Zelda. His endeavors caught the attention of his peers, who were members of the Nintendo Entertainment Analysis & Development staff, and they joined him after hours, forming what they themselves described as something akin to an afterschool club. They saw potential in the experiments, and the 1991 release of the series’ third installment, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, prompted its director, Takashi Tezuka, to ask the executives for permission to develop a new entry for the handheld console. It was originally intended to be a port of A Link to the Past, but before too long, it evolved into an original game.
The game used the engine of The Frog for Whom the Bell Tolls, a 1992 title co-developed by Nintendo and Intelligent Systems, and a majority of the staff who worked on A Link to the Past returned for this installment. Entitled The Legend of Zelda: Dreaming Island, it took one and a half years to develop, debuting in June of 1993. The downgrade in visuals and hardware wound up not hampering the game’s reception in any way, as it received positive reviews from critics across the board, and millions of copies were sold. It saw its Western release later in the year under the name The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. The dual success of this game both domestically and overseas were such that it bolstered Game Boy sales by nearly thirteen percent. It also notably remained on bestseller lists for more than ninety months after its release – a feat very few games in the medium’s history have accomplished. From this, it could be extrapolated that Link’s Awakening had an enduring legacy which made people want to play it for themselves years after its debut. To this day, it’s considered one of the greatest games ever made, with some people citing it as a superior effort to even the beloved A Link to the Past. Working with far more restrictive hardware limitations, was Mr. Tezuka and his team truly translate a then-peerless experience to the Game Boy?
Playing the Game
After having saved the land from an ancient evil, the hero Link departed, journeying across the seas in search of adventure. One night, his ship was beset by a violent storm. After lightning struck the vessel, he was cast into the sea.
He washed ashore the uncharted, tropical island of Koholint. One of its inhabitants, a young woman named Marin, took him to her house so he could recover. After he awoke, Marin’s father, Tarin, returned his shield to him. Marin told Link where she found him, warning him that monsters have appeared since his arrival. He decides to return to the beach to find any of his other lost possessions. Once there, an owl informs him that to escape the island, he must awaken the Wind Fish. It is a guardian deity currently in a deep sleep within a giant egg on the island’s highest mountain. Link must battle Nightmares, creatures seeking to rule the island, and seize the eight Instruments of the Sirens they guard in order to awaken the Wind Fish.
Link’s Awakening is an action-adventure game that follows in the footsteps of its direct predecessor. The interface is similar; you can equip any two items at a time. Depending on how you personally assign them, you press the “B” and “A” buttons to use them. This marks the first game in the series to lack a dedicated sword button. Indeed, there will be several situations in which you will need to equip a combination of items without the sword to proceed. To switch items, you press the “START” button. On the inventory menu, you highlight the item you want to equip and press either the “B” or “A” button. Which one you press will assign the item’s use to that button.
As the Game Boy is popularly considered a portable, monochrome NES, its aesthetic and technical qualities would feel right at home on Nintendo’s first home console. Link’s Awakening retains the top-down perspective that defined the original and third installments in the Zelda franchise. It departs from A Link to the Past in that rooms are only as large as the screen. Whether you’re exploring the overworld or a dungeon, it does not matter – all rooms are of a uniform size, and the screen doesn’t scroll until you reach the edge.
Seconds into the game, players who have been following the series up until this point will realize it retains many of the improvements A Link to the Past brought. This becomes apparent when trekking to the beach, and you can jump off of ledges to reach it faster. In other words, this installment brings back the multilayered rooms introduced in that game; they’re not all flat surfaces as they were in the original. On that note, Link is still permitted to move diagonally, and when using his sword, he slashes parallel to the ground rather than stabbing straight in front of him.
Of the many hazards Link will have to face are bottomless pits. As was the case in A Link to the Past, you can tell whether or not a pit is safe to fall down if you can see the floor below. With two exceptions, the dungeons have returned to being but a single story high, so astute readers who never played Link’s Awakening might be wondering where they and the occasional staircase could possibly lead.
The answer to this inquiry is that side-scrolling areas similar to those of The Legend of Zelda have been brought back. However, they’re not quite as you know them. Whereas corresponding areas in the original had little purpose other than housing important items or serving as secret passages, in Link’s Awakening, they’re far more akin to the central gameplay portions of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. In the first dungeon, you will obtain an item known as the Roc’s Feather. This artifact allows you to jump over bottomless pits or evade enemy attacks in the top-down sections. In side-scrolling portions, you use it to navigate platforms, adding another dimension of gameplay to the proceedings.
Pressing the “SELECT” button will bring up the world map. Points of interest will appear as a graphic when its spot on the map is highlighted. Tiles on the map are blank until you visit the associated screen, though there is a detailed atlas of the island in the village where the game begins. The owl will often appear to give you advice, and you have the option to replay it. To do this, you must scroll back to where it exposited the information, and press the “A” button.
Considering the various developments one would discover playing this game, I like to think of Link’s Awakening as a fusion of all of the installments in the series that preceded it. On that front, it’s quite impressive, for Mr. Tezuka’s team was successfully able to carry over the series’ strengths to a platform with only slightly better technical capabilities than those of the NES. Moreover, with the Roc’s Feather granting Link the ability to jump for the first time in the series since the primarily side-scrolling Zelda II, Link’s Awakening continues the trend of its predecessors by building on their foundation, allowing the franchise as a whole to go in a new, innovative direction.
Although this feat is impressive in of itself given the circumstances, I have to note there are some aspects that didn’t successfully make the leap between platforms. To begin with, the A Link to the Past was a game whose console boasted an eight-button controller. Though the shoulder buttons weren’t used, the controller allotted the developers plenty of possibilities when it came to deciding on a scheme for their game. The Game Boy, on the other hand, only has four buttons – much like the NES. This meant having to simplify the control scheme to accommodate the fewer available buttons. Though excising the dedicated sword button was the only pragmatic choice, it makes switching between inventory items a hassle. To demonstrate this, there is an item that returns from A Link to the Past known as the Pegasus Shoes. In that game, you only needed to press the contextual action button to use them, but in Link’s Awakening, you need to equip them like you would any other item. The same thing applies to lifting a heavy object with the Power Bracelet; you need to equip it and press the assigned button. It’s also slightly more irritating to use because you need to press the direction on the control pad opposite of the where the object lies to hoist it upwards. In A Link to the Past, only pressing the action button was necessary to accomplish this.
I also have to comment that exploring the overworld is more tedious than it was in A Link to the Past or even in the original. Some of this stems from the fact that Link’s Awakening is far more linear than either of those two games. There is, for the most part, no leeway when it comes to when you wish to explore the dungeons. To enforce this, the island is riddled with obstacles meant to be cleared using the items you locate in dungeons. Furthermore, you can’t simply retrieve a dungeon’s featured item and move onto the next in an attempt to break the intended sequence. Story events required to advance will not trigger until you’ve defeated the boss and obtained the instrument it was guarding. Though you do eventually gain access to a portal that makes traveling a bit faster, you still have to frequently switch inventory items whenever you wish to explore the island. It also doesn’t help the first time playing when you’re unfamiliar with the layout and make significant progress in one cave system only to learn you need another item to see what lies beyond.
Another irritation in this game is that text boxes appear every time you get an item. While receiving an explanation of the newest artifact you procured is understandable, I’m confident most players wouldn’t need to be reminded what a key does or that the compass now makes a sound whenever you’re in a room with a hidden key. The designers thought otherwise because not only do these messages appear every single time you discover one, you can’t speed up the text in any way. They also have a habit of appearing should you touch an obstacle you can’t yet circumvent. Most players can determine for themselves whether or not they have the right tools for the job whether it’s by remembering none of their inventory items were intended for the purpose of clearing them or through trail-and-error. I recall at least one instance when I mistimed a jump and landed in a group of ice blocks, whereupon the game informed me that they were cold. I then activated the message several more times trying to get out of them. They don’t stop appearing once you have the appropriate item either – at least not right away. The designers didn’t do this in A Link to the Past wherein you collected keys with no message accompanying the action and obstacles merely existed, leaving you to figure out on your own what item was required.
One final problem I had with the game is that the maps can be somewhat difficult to read. They’re merely represented as squares on a grid with no further details than indicating where treasures lie after obtaining the compass. This means there is often a disparity between how the doorways are depicted on the map and your options when it comes to traveling through them. For example, if there’s a wall restricting entry in a room, yet there are exits in all four cardinal directions, only the latter detail will reflect on the dungeon map. From this, one would get the false impression they could freely travel in all directions from that room when it isn’t the case. It also doesn’t depict entrances to underground passageways. If there’s a seemingly out of reach room, you would have to scour every inch of the dungeon to find the path that leads there.
I admit none of these grievances make for a terrible experience by any means, but I do feel that compared to A Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening doesn’t quite have the same amount of polish. Considering many of the same people who worked on A Link to the Past returned for this installment, I’m left wondering why they would make these mistakes.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: This section will contain unmarked spoilers. If you have not played this game, skip to the conclusion.
The greatest appeal of The Legend of Zelda, and part of what made it such a memorable experience in 1986 was its non-linear design. Though pioneering computer RPGs encouraged exploration, console game designs were still heavily influenced by the arcade scene. Games were made difficult so the developers could amass as large of a profit as possible, yet when the experiences moved from public places to one’s home, many of the sensibilities from that era remained – even if by then, it served no practical purpose outside of granting the work a degree of longevity. The Legend of Zelda openly challenged this, being one of the first console games to allow one to save and pick up where they last left off. Though Zelda II featured a more linear design and the first third of A Link to the Past appeared to continue the trend, the remainder of the latter successfully harked back to the original game in how it gave players a certain amount of freedom when it came time to complete the later dungeons.
Keeping all of this in mind, one question some people out there might be asking is why the developers made Link’s Awakening so linear. The answer is simple: Link’s Awakening has a noticeably more ambitious plot than those of any of its predecessors. By once again looking over the progression the series took, it becomes clear that though the gameplay evolved, the same couldn’t exactly be said of the storytelling. The Legend of Zelda had a nominal “save the princess” plot typical for a game of its time. Zelda II put an admittedly interesting spin on the concept by having Link venture forth and save a different Princess Zelda. It also showcased how all of the kingdom’s problems didn’t magically fix themselves just because the threat plaguing the land was dealt with, but barely any of these great ideas reflected in the game proper, being primarily delegated to the instruction manual. Finally, the overarching plot of A Link to the Past went back to the standby of saving the princess, though there were many more steps involved.
All three games had a common thread – Link being chosen by destiny to save the Kingdom of Hyrule. Marin being quick to point out she has never heard of Princess Zelda when Link mentions her name serves to underscore that his status as the chosen one means nothing in this land. As if to accommodate this drastic change, the fate of the world isn’t dependent on Link’s success; his only goal to escape the island.
Exploring Koholint reveals many aspects that seem wildly out of place in a Zelda game. A mere one screen away from where the game begins, there is a chain chomp, an enemy from the Super Mario Bros. franchise, roaming a denizen’s backyard as a pet. Things get even stranger as the game progresses. Goombas are found in certain side-scrolling portions, and while you can defeat them with the sword, you can also opt to take a page out of Mario’s book by jumping on their head. One of the enemies in a later dungeon resembles Kirby, the title character of HAL Laboratory’s famous series.
It’s not just these cameo appearances that lend a strange atmosphere to the island. Just through examining their sprites, it becomes apparent the general populace has a strange, otherworldly look to them. They also frequently break the fourth wall, informing Link of game mechanics. Though not unprecedented in this series, what sets them apart is how they resign that they have no idea what any of the advice means or why they even gave it in the first place. The oddities don’t stop there; one character promises he will get lost in the mountains later while another takes note of someone’s misfortune, but admits she can only sweep in response to it. Mr. Tezuka stated in an interview that he was inspired by Twin Peaks, an American mystery drama television program directed by esteemed filmmaker David Lynch. To this end, he created a world that features a small town inhabited by characters with an air of suspicion to them.
One member of this game’s staff was Yoshiaki Koizumi, who had a hand in the development of A Link to the Past. Though his role was limited to outlining the art and overall layout of the instruction manual, back then, those who wrote the manual had control over a game’s entire backstory. For Link’s Awakening, he followed Mr. Tezuka’s lead, providing one of the series’ most well-known plot twists. As the director was heavily inspired by Twin Peaks, a series in which dreams are an important, reoccurring element, it seems fitting that they would play a pivotal role Link’s Awakening as well.
Shortly after getting the key to the sixth dungeon, it’s revealed that Koholint Island is only a dream – specifically the Wind Fish’s. Should somebody awaken the deity, the island and its inhabitants will cease to be. However, it remains Link’s only way of leaving, for he shares the dream. What I particularly like about this twist is how it casts the Nightmares’ actions in a new light. They’re arguably motived more by a sense of self-preservation than pure malice, and their desperate dialogue upon defeat often reflects this. It is through this twist that fans admire Link’s Awakening, and it’s plain to see why.
Now that the real reason this game continues to have a strong following decades after its release has been revealed, one question remains: how well does it hold up? Though many pioneering titles from the eighties had their fair share of plot twists on this scale, they were still exceptionally rare in 1993 when gameplay invariably took priority over story. Because of their rarity, nobody could have expected such a powerful one from a handheld title in a time when they were expected to be a passing fad. Unfortunately, despite how much the twist is lauded by fans of the series, I don’t think it quite works.
The main issue I have is that the twist effectively paints what the player was led to be a black-and-white affair in shades of grey. While this is not problem by itself, one of Link’s defining traits is that, with the odd exception, he never utters a word. This presents a problem because I feel the story of Link’s Awakening begs its protagonist to have an existential crisis shortly after the big reveal. As it stands, Link doesn’t have any reaction whatsoever to the plot twist, effective though it may have been in how it managed to turn the entire setting on its head. Without any hesitation, he collects the instruments knowing that seeing this journey to its conclusion will result in the island’s erasure. Granted, this isn’t because he is just that apathetic; this is merely what is required to complete the game. Nonetheless, it creates a disconnect between the gameplay and the narrative surrounding it. It’s not to the point where it irreparably damages the experience, but it’s still decidedly jarring.
To make matters worse, the endgame was poorly handled. In addition to the questionable act of bringing about the end of a world, the final dungeon itself is underwhelming. After getting all of the instruments, you are allowed access to the Wind Fish’s egg. You will soon find yourself in a blank room with four identical paths. To know which way to go, you must go to the village library and read a certain book with a magnifying lens. Once you do, the path you must take will be made known. You don’t have to go through too many screens to reach your destination, but requiring the player to write something down is annoying – more so back in 1993 when one seldom had access to paper or a writing utensil while traveling. Other than the final boss, the dungeon is completely empty, making it boring to navigate on top of everything else.
After waking the Wind Fish, Link finds himself floating on a piece of driftwood. Some fans have interpreted the events of the game as his dying dream or that he is stranded in the middle of the ocean. It’s not a particularly sound theory, for there are seagulls flying on the horizon, indicating that land is nearby. Even if it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, it showcases how much growth the series underwent in the span of four installments. The series initially had standard fantasy plots with little room for speculation while this entry still has fans formulating their own takes on what transpired.
Drawing a Conclusion
If Nintendo had been given the chance to make a direct sequel to The Legend of Zelda on the NES while retaining its top-down perspective, the result would likely be very similar to Link’s Awakening. It’s consequently serviceable as a sequel to the original game, but not quite as a successor to A Link to the Past. A lot of it is understandable given the Game Boy’s technical limitations, yet it still comes across as something of a step back. Despite these issues, I still believe it to be a decent game overall. I could easily recommend it to fans of the series, and it wouldn’t be a bad installment for newcomers to start with.
If nothing else, I have to give Mr. Tezuka and his team credit for successfully resisting the urge to create a token sequel to A Link to the Past. They knew a handheld Zelda title would help the Game Boy’s sales figures regardless of how well it turned out. Instead, they elected to push the boundaries of the medium through their storytelling. Because of this, one could argue that Link’s Awakening is the single most important installment in the series’ long history. Not only did it help prove to the world that handheld games didn’t need to settle for being lesser, watered-down versions of console efforts, it blazed the trail the series would take in the coming decades. Eiji Aonuma, who would later become one of the most important figures behind the series’ continued success, cited this installment as the first to have a proper plot, crediting Mr. Koizumi’s romanticism. However, by the same token, it’s clear in hindsight that there were a few growing pains involved. Though the premise is indeed unique, and remains so to this day, it’s not quite one that melds with the series’ conventions. A lot of people love it for that reason, but I personally believe that while the artists behind this game’s creation were genuinely talented, they would need a bit more experience under their belt before they could fully realize their potential.
Adjusted Score: 5/10