June 17, 2017
Beyond being my first Zelda game, Link’s Awakening released in 1993 as the first one on a mobile platform, and in 1998 it became the series’ first remake with the release of Link’s Awakening DX for Gameboy Color. I have very little time with the original version, and the differences were few, so I will consider them one and the same for the purpose of review. My experience with this game is part of the reason why I became the person I did, so I am incredibly excited to revisit this title when the opportunity arises. Putting it under the Lens of Truth will be an outstanding opportunity to reconvene with one of my oldest friends.
Link’s Awakening was presented the daunting task of somehow carrying the enormity of The Legend of Zelda over to the handheld platform for the first time. This required updating sprites to match the new art style, as well as introduce new ones to the mix to bring a colorful cast of characters to life without actually using any color. Even after replaying the game as many times as I have, I can transition seamlessly between Gameboy and Gameboy Color without missing much because the shading of the black and white game was rendered remarkably. The DX version’s addition of color was not without merit, however. The way the team handled it felt like an update where many games at the time were treating it like a gimmick. This simple improvement invigorated the already wondrous world.
The art direction differed in this game compared to past titles, though that should be expected since video game art at the time was mostly outsourced to other companies. It has always sat with me very well, since it reminds me of American cartoons of the generation. The only thing I was not always a fan of was boss design, as they were often strange, nonsensical sprites, but I forgive that since it somewhat serves the story and adds to the fact that you are in a dream. My dreams have seldom made more sense than the boss design in this game, so even though some bosses look downright ridiculous, they never feel out of place. Perfect ten.
While I still stand by Koji Kondo being my favorite game composer, Minako Hamano and Kozue Ishikawa do hold their own with the most memorable soundtrack from any original Gameboy game. The only other title I would agree stands a competitive chance for that honor would be Pokémon Red and Blue. This game featured a phenomenal overworld score which varied very wildly from the quiet, quaint and peaceful theme in Mabe Village to the complex and compelling adventure theme of Tal Tal Heights. These were set side by side with an upbeat, remixed version of the original overworld and title themes, and even a secret mambo version of the title theme if players entered “Zelda” as their name. Featuring nostalgia as a key factor for players of the original, mixing in its own elements was what I cornily call a choice composition choice.
Alongside such, Link’s Awakening introduced the first musical instrument to series upon which Link could play several songs. The ocarina granted the ability to play three songs for solving puzzles and teleporting to access various parts of the world easier. This led the way for Ocarina of Time to do the same to a much greater extent some years later. That is basically to say that the most iconic game of all time stole its signature mechanic from a Gameboy game preceding it by half a decade. You’re welcome. Perfect ten.
The best thing about this title is that it did something that has recently been copied by the Switch. It took a home console experience on the go. The Switch’s 720p screen as compared to the standard of 1080p home televisions is paralleled by the Gameboy’s 8-bit screen as compared to the standard being 16-bit gaming at the time. In fact, the Gameboy actually debuted before the SNES brought this standard along, so for a short time, home games and mobile games were exactly alike graphically. In short, Link’s Awakening was almost as technically complex as any game at the time, as Breath of the Wild is compared to its competition, but somehow very few still recognize that.
Used in every game since, the mechanic of equipping items to multiple buttons was designed first for Link’s Awakening. The go-to set was still sword and shield, but if you needed two other items more often during a particular boss fight or puzzle, you could equip any two items to “A” and “B” respectively. This also made for the first time two items could be combined, as using the bombs and bow and arrow simultaneously would cause a bomb arrow to fly across the screen to destroy your enemies. Bomb arrows did not return until Twilight Princess, and made an invaluable asset in Breath of the Wild, so there is another massive mechanic that originates from this game.
The combat was not changed much from the original. It was not broken, so I do not believe they had a reason to fix it. Other than the ability to equip a second item instead of your sword, the two featured identical interfaces. Many enemies were simply copies of past foes, but with enough original monsters added to balance it, these came across as a fun throwback to the game of their origin. Despite these same foes having been defeated hundreds of times in games of yore and by the end of the game you would have defeated hundreds more, the fights never felt stale nor repetitive. A sinister sundry of antagonists was sprawled out across the island, and rarely two screens were alike in monster content. Even on the few squares that did not adhere to this generalization, the terrain made for a new challenge against the same creatures.
In the end, Link’s Awakening created three mechanics used in Zelda to this day, those being bomb arrows, playable musical instruments, and having several customizable buttons for usable items, and it did not feel boring for a second. Perfect ten.
This part will contain spoilers, but you are reading a review of a twenty-four year old game, so you ought to have expected that. Even so, consider yourself warned.
I scoff at fans telling me Majora’s Mask has the darkest story in the series. They clearly have either not played Link’s Awakening to the end, or simply did not put any thought into the implications behind certain plot elements nor the repercussions of Link’s actions. The first half of the game (give or take) seems on the outside like a fun, happy-go-lucky adventure charater has walked into a town that needs to be saved from mysterious Nightmares. That idea is so cuddly that it could even fit into a Kirby game! Look further, though, and you will find that the story has a massive plot twist that reveals the true nature of Koholint Island.
This is a world within the dream of a deity called the Wind Fish, whom the island dwellers revere. Link, however, is not of this world and must return to reality to once again fight for Hyrule. Okay, now we have an interesting thing going, but how exactly does he escape? Simple, awaken the slumbering Wind Fish, and the dream world will disappear, so Link can go home without any complications.
…Except one. A dream is fleeting. Once out of a dream, one cannot re-enter it. By awakening the Wind Fish, Link is destroying Koholint Island and murdering every person who dwells there. I have yet to see if Hick and Red will fire me for swearing, but I only have one way to describe this. Holy. Shit. This is possibly the most screwed up ending to any video game ever. You have to decide: is it worth it to go off and save Hyrule again at the cost of an entire island with multiple villages and hundreds of indigenous life forms?
Majora’s Mask’s darkness dominantly derives from witnessing a key character pass on, and deals with the bittersweet idea of allowing their spirit to find peace. In Link’s Awakening, there is no sweet, save that which is stomped underfoot as you discover the terrible secret of the Wind Fish. You have to face the harsh decision that is left on your shoulders, and the first time I beat the game I almost turned it off just to save the inhabitants of Koholint.
Aside from a deep, dark, and meaningful story, this entry was also what I consider to be the first video game to deliver such to a handheld device. Most home console games today do not strike me as hard as this did. Games at the time were blown out of the water, home or handheld. Another perfect ten.
Link’s Awakening was far and away the best title for the original Gameboy, as it proved to the world that it had what it takes to compete with home games in story, graphics, and gameplay elements. Without this game as a starting point, I personally do not believe that mobile games would have developed the way they did, and to that end we may not have been given the breathtaking handheld consoles we have today such as New Nintendo 3DS and of course, Nintendo Switch. Perhaps something akin to them would have come along eventually, but without Nintendo proving that mobile games can be just as well developed as home games, as they have done with Breath of the Wild, the market would be filled with nothing but two-bit jewel-smashing puzzle games, and that harkens back to my first Zelda game.
Well, what do you think? Was this game a pile of crap? Am I full of myself and only like it for nostalgic reasons? Am I the most clever and good-looking writer who should be given a raise? Since I write as a volunteer, that latter part is unlikely to happen, but go ahead and shout out in the comments below, or tweet comments to @2guysplayzelda or @spamomanospam. As always, I would love to keep the conversation alive.