Remembering…The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
In the piles of games I’ve owned and played, I can scarcely think of one that brings back more pleasant memories than The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. This might seem an odd choice compared to Link’s bigger adventures on more advanced hardware, and while I don’t believe there’s been a bad Zelda game per se (sorry, but we’re not counting the CD-i games) some are more memorable than others–and none was more memorable to me than this GameBoy masterpiece.
The game begins with Link sailing the ocean and getting caught in the middle of a violent storm. His boat destroyed, he washes on the shores of Koholint Island: an idyllic, tropical paradise currently plagued by monsters. Link is taken in by Tarin and his daughter Marin. Once nursed back to health, Link finds that the only way to escape the island is to venture through eight dungeons and obtain the mythical instruments within. Once done, he has to play them all to awaken the Wind Fish who is currently imprisoned in a giant egg atop the highest mountain on the island.
The game takes on the familiar isometric perspective of its predecessors and hits many of the same notes. Dungeons are filled with monsters that need slaying and puzzles that need solving with a boss at the end. In the dungeons Link will come across equip-able items that help further his goal and in the process unlock a previously inaccessible part of the island.
Beyond questing, Link can engage in optional activities such as fishing or finding secret seashells that unlock a powered-up sword. Later on, Link engages in an epic trading minigame where he starts with something innocuous and ends up with an object of immense value. The asides between dungeons are engaging as well. They’re little mini-adventures that show Link directly helping the people of Koholint Island such as rescuing a family pet (a chomper from the Mario games), putting a Poe to eternal rest, and finding Marin after she runs away.
This scenario leads to a surprisingly touching scene where Marin pours her heart out to Link while sitting on the beach and overlooking the vastness of the ocean. Although Link remains mute (as he always does) you can tell the big lug is having a very special moment. It’s not every day you play a game where a character confides all their hopes and dreams to the player. Turns out Marin has wanderlust bad and desperately wants to see what the rest of the world is like. This prompts her to make a move to the Animal Village (populated by talking animals) where she spends time serenading them with her singing.
Link can even engage in a bit of antisocial behavior as he can still assault chickens only to receive mass-retaliation by a mob of angry fowls and steal an item from the local shopkeeper. Once the shopkeeper has been misdirected, Link can haul his butt out of there with one item free of charge. Smart players waited until the ultra-expensive bow was put on sale (priced at a whopping nine-hundred rupees) and used their five-finger discount on that item. If Link decides to venture back into the store after stealing, he’s confronted by the owner and killed with a bolt of lightening (why a lowly shopkeep has that kind of power goes tactfully unanswered) and Link’s name is permanently changed to THIEF for the rest of the game.
There’s a colorful cast of quirky characters to interact with as well as an old man who doesn’t speak unless over the phone. NPCs regularly broke the fourth wall such as kids giving the player instructions (without knowing what any of it meant) and a man asking the player to watch out for him at a later point since he’ll be stuck at Tal Tal Heights. There were also references to other Nintendo franchises like an incriminating photo of a certain princess and Yoshi doll. Link’s Awakening benefits from the injection of humor and sly references, making Koholint Island all the more endearing as Link uncovers more about its inhabitants and explores the diverse landmass.
Very few titles on the original GameBoy managed to come close to the level of scope and polished presentation of Link’s Awakening. More importantly, its success showed that it was possible to translate the experience of Zelda onto a handheld with no quality lost in the process. I don’t employ the word “classic” lightly and with that, Link’s Awakening is a true gaming classic. It stands tall as not only a fantastic handheld game, but takes its places as one of the best Zelda games of all time.