The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening

Developer: Nintendo EAD
U.S. Manufacturer: Nintendo
U.S. Release: December 1998
Format: Cartridge

Based on: A gifted editor hacking away at an epic poem until all that remains is the world's most beautiful haiku.

Games | Game Boy | The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX

Article by Nicola Nomali | August 2, 2009

When the Game Boy was first released, it earned its success through Nintendo's prescient dedication to convenience and accessibility in hardware. But it owed just as much (if not more) of its initial success to its association with the NES, whose popularity was so ubiquitous that Nintendo might well have released a handheld with all the bulk and gristle of the Atari Lynx and still dominated the market. A system is defined by its games as much as by its branding; here, the former defined the latter. The favorite franchises of the day were either developed or licensed by Nintendo, and the audience would go wherever they could get their Marios, their Mega Men.

But this ride came at a price: despite the unique advantages of a portable platform, such as connectivity between machines and accommodating short bursts of play anywhere, no Nintendo handheld stood on its own merits until the DS came along 15 years later. Its twin screens and touch interface demanded titles built from the ground up for the system, and both its diminutive nature and lack of an analog stick made it unsuitable for porting 3D games from home consoles of comparable technology—not that Nintendo themselves didn't give it a try at first. But DS's immediate predecessor, the Game Boy Advance, was largely reliant on a library of scaled-down conversions of 16-bit games. And the original Game Boy didn't even have the luxury of mining a catalogue two generations old; instead, it had to strive after some resemblance to the current home experience—on vastly inferior technology.

A two-button control scheme means you frequently need to swap in items just to perform tasks like lifting and dashing. On the other hand, the ability to bind any item to either button invented the possibility of bomb arrows—the fantasy equivalent of a rocket launcher. I'm going to call it even.

The first generation of Game Boy titles was expected to satisfy demand for portable NES games. It was an arduous demand, and the few that pulled it off are rightly revered as classics. But with the '90s came the Super NES, Nintendo's new pride and joy. The gulf between NES and its successor was so unequivocally vast that now, in this age of diminishing returns, it's commonly remembered one of the only generational transitions that ever felt truly, immediately justified. But a revelation for home systems meant the Game Boy had to struggle that much more to maintain relevance. An unfair double standard, to be sure, but the handheld's lull in popularity in the middle of the decade might be attributed to a widespread failure to keep up with the Super NES, while atrocities like Donkey Kong Land only emphasized its drawbacks.

Thankfully, there were some exceptions, such as Kirby's Dream Land 2. Despite borrowing the copy ability from Kirby's Adventure on NES, it was very much a separate, original evolution of its portable predecessor, bolstered with breadth and complexity not far from what the Super NES could offer—so much so, in fact, that in a rare platform shift, Kirby's Dream Land 3 was a Super NES title. And then there was Zelda.

While Nintendo's EAD division had previously entrusted Mario to R&D1 for his Game Boy excursions, in 1993 they took the challenge of crafting a portable interpretation of The Legend of Zelda themselves. Had the project begun just a few years earlier, when there was only the original NES game to provide comparison, Zelda for Game Boy might not have been so intimidating an idea. But 1992's A Link to the Past completely redefined the limits of what a Zelda game could be, boasting an expansive overworld spread across two universes and daunting, multi-floor labyrinths. A sequel bound to that doddering gray brick couldn't possibly offer more.

And indeed, superficially, Link's Awakening offered less. But in deciding precisely what would be drawn back and how, Nintendo demonstrated a fundamental understanding of Zelda's appeal, in many ways emphasizing and extrapolating certain features of the original game that A Link to the Past had omitted in its pursuit of sheer girth.

Subversion: The boomerang is traditionally a minor staple of Link's inventory, found near the beginning of his quest. In Link's Awakening, it's the final reward for a game-long side-quest and the ultimate weapon.

On the NES, for example, each area of the overworld, as well as each room within a dungeon, was delineated by the borders of the screen itself, forming a matrix of rectangles from which emerged sprawling landscapes and twisting underworld mazes. A Link to the Past uses an arbitrary approach, taking as much space as is needed to lay out any given area, and on its face, it's a clear improvement. Why should screen transitions fracture the majesty of structures like Hyrule Castle, much less limit the complexity of a dungeon's environmental puzzles? In fairness, the Super NES game made ample use of its scope, but it also lost something important; the compartmentalization of its predecessor allowed the player to make an accurate and immediate analysis of the extent of any given surroundings. And in a game focusing on exploration as much as Zelda, scrolling the screen with no contextual "horizon" in search of another key or dungeon often feels less epic than simply bloated. Link's Awakening returns to the original approach, and even as a result of technical restraints, it benefits the pace of the adventure while furnishing its design with a philosophy of economy and elegance.

Restrictive though its wide open spaces may be, Koholint is just as dense with detail as Hyrule. The play field on the Game Boy is about half the size of the NES game's, but the overworld is composed of twice as many screens, evening out to a map as large as one that occupied the gamers of '86 for months on end. Yet, while the first game composed itself of little else but forest mazes and rock walls, Link's Awakening retains all the additional diversity of A Link to the Past, with an overgrown swamp, a rolling prairie, castle grounds, a village, a bay, and a desert, as well as interconnected tunnels and hidden alcoves that reach far deeper than dark rooms inhabited by unhelpful old men.

While later entries in the series would bear out that its definitive elements were essentially codified in the Super NES game, Link's Awakening openly diverged from the nascent norm while solidifying something equally crucial to the franchise's appeal: its sense of humor and creative whimsy. The dungeons are mostly limited to one "real" floor, but their basement levels are side-scrolling affairs, building on the original game's item rooms. Instead of relying on ladders to move vertically, though, these are navigated by the Roc's Feather, an item whose ability to let Link jump was so boldly original that A Link to the Past's progeny couldn't abandon it quickly enough. On the fanciful side, these interludes are populated by monsters straight from Mario's stable. (Kirby cameos as an enemy, too, well before he'd attained star status.)

You can take out Goombas with just about anything, but stomping them guarantees health-restoring hearts, encouraging you to honor the Mario connection.

Beyond mere Easter eggs, the two foremost supporting characters are thinly-veiled pastiches of Mario and Princess Peach—the former transmogrifying into a tanuki at one point, and while searching for mushrooms at that. The eccentric Madam Meow-Meow keeps Chain Chomps as housepets (taking their Japanese name, "Bow-Wow," literally), and a certain dungeon can only be accessed by enlisting one such mongrel to gobble up monsters on sight. The game's somnolent theme is even given credence by an appearance from Wart (or "Mamu," as it might be).

The drollery doesn't end at importing Nintendo characters, though. In his very first greeting, a townsperson named Papahl is bizarrely forthcoming with the fact that you'll need to rescue him later in the game. The shopkeeper will do his best to catch you from hustling his merchandise outside without paying, but, if you manage it, not only will everyone address you as "THIEF" for the rest of the game, but should you ever return to the store, the merchant will kill you. Old Man Ulrira will gladly dispense advice over the telephones stationed throughout the island, but if you try speaking with him in person, he's too shy to get a word out. (There's an Internet joke in there somewhere, years ahead of its time.)

And there's another.

Mabe Village's sister city is a community of talking animals who adore Marin's singing, and the sequence where Link escorts her to coax a dozing walrus out of his path is riddled with opportunities to exploit her presence: she'll scold you for smashing pots, searching other people's drawers, and bullying Cuccos, but she comes bodily crashing down on Link if he leaps into a well (she's only following you, after all) and displays horrifyingly preternatural skill at the local crane game.

The island setting of Koholint tranposes Link from deep entrenchment in medieval Europe to an exotic and unfamiliar tropical atmosphere—in every sense of the phrase, in uncharted waters. Coconuts sprout in the sand, ensconced in the song of the pendulous tide. A catchy teleportation tune is related by a mambo-inclined sunfish, complete with back-up dancers. One "dungeon" takes place in the belly of an enormous catfish, in the same inlet where a timid mermaid has lost her necklace (or her top, as cheekier regions avail). The girls wear flowers in their hair, and apes trade labor for bananas. At the zenith of the land sits a gargantuan pink-spotted egg, although it's said that the "Wind Fish" within lies not unborn, but only sleeping.

The mystery of the Wind Fish is a refreshing and unprecedented departure from the usual business concerning Ganon, Zelda, and the Triforce; but it's also fascinating in its own right, a remarkably understated nexus to the overall narrative. As Link forges ahead, more questions are raised -- why waking the Wind Fish should be his goal, why the Nightmares wish it to continue dreaming, and what it all has to do with Koholint itself—but their answers are left ambiguous until the very end. And as the sense gradually substantiates that this peaceful island is beset by some terrible truth, it casts an indelible shadow over the game's jovial façade. The children playing in town, who at first coyly break the fourth wall to tell you how to access the map and save your game, eventually admit that they're not even sure about things they should know, such as how long they've been living on the island, or that anything might exist beyond its shores.

This apprehension is best embodied in Marin, who, despite her pratfalls, wistfully confides in Link that she wishes she could just become a seagull, that she might finally be able to see what lies across the ocean. At the end of the game, it's the player who finally brings the looming tragedy to fruition, as Marin's song, "The Ballad of the Wind Fish," plays bittersweetly over the montage of what's irrevocably been wrought: the emancipation of two minds, at the price of... well, what more—or less—than a dream? To this day, it remains the most subtly sentimental story in nearly any Zelda game, outdone only by Majora's Mask.

Whether Nintendo fully appreciated the magnitude of their feats or were simply influenced by the recently-released Ocarina of Time, Link's Awakening was rereleased in 1998 as a flagship title for the Game Boy Color. True to the name of the hardware, this "deluxe" version was enhanced with a much livelier spectrum than four shades of gray. More than just a facelift, it includes an optional dungeon whose puzzles and enemies revolve around color as a mechanic. It ends in a scene where Link can be outfitted in red or blue, permanently imbuing him with the offensive or protective mettle of the game's temporary stat-boosting items. There's even a character who will drop in to photograph some of the game's memorable moments, slapstick and otherwise, which can then be published using the Game Boy Printer.

Most importantly, though, Link's Awakening DX is a case of a unique product from unlikely circumstances finally being treated with due ceremony—backed by the hype of a new platform, presented anew before a fresh audience. For those who were yet unsold on the viability of portable gaming, it stood definitively, just as it had five years earlier, an exemplary proof of concept.

The Sensuality of Link's Awakening

Yes, she won't come out of the water because she lost some jewelry. And when Celes threw herself off a cliff, it was a "leap of faith."

The stealthier edit—nudity hiding in plain sight—had me wondering for years what Hippo Lady's problem was. Now I know the truth: Link just likes'em thick.

GameSpite Quarterly #1 | Previous: Game Boy Camera | Next: Neo Geo Pocket