The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening
Developer: Nintendo (EAD)
Article by Andrew Bentley | November 1, 2009
Less isn't necessarily more, and Linkís Awakening is proof perfect. The first-ever portable Legend of Zelda title managed to cram a lot of content into a relatively small space, even by contemporary standards, but it was still tiny compared to its direct inspiration, A Link to the Past. Confined by the limitations of the Game Boy's miniature carts, its world is an island, an intimate setting similar in size to the world of the series' NES debut, but far more diverse. Koholint Island demonstrates a greater sense of interconnectivity between its various locations and dungeons than any other Zelda game -- a sense of cohesion that's integral to the experience. It's what keeps me coming back to the game, years after its release.
The compact nature of the island made the world resistant to artificial choke points that block the world into separate chunks, something so common in later entries of the series. Instead, Koholint is divided by the player's access to three core tools: The Power Bracelet, the Rocís Feather, and Zoraís Flippers. Rather than throwing in items and making use of them once or twice like so many tools in more recent Zeldas, the developers created more and more intricate combinations of tool points for use in navigating the island. Itís the same sort of philosophy behind Super Metroidís environments, where the world is designed as a massive puzzle and tools to unravel it become an essential part of your repertoire rather than a throwaway extra.
So rather than feature one area focused around the use of the Power Bracelet, for instance, Koholint instead contains countless spots scattered across the map that use the item in many different and challenging ways, often in conjunction with other tools. It's a rare design feat, and it's what largely sets Link's Awakening apart from its peers. And yet, all of this came to pass on a piece of aging hardware which, in modern parlance, would probably be called two-thirds of an NES duct-taped to an old Apple II monitor.
The more I think about what makes Link's Awakening so good, the more I keep coming back to its reuse and recombination of resources. Because the dev team at Nintendo EAD didnít have the technical options that would have been available on a console, they had little choice but to use what little they had over and over again, trying to combine the game's limited elements in new (and hopefully entertaining) ways.
Granted, they didn't always succeed, and that game doesnít always push the limits of the Game Boy hardware, either. Where it does succeed is in creating a sense of epic grandeur in an intimate setting, since there are so many things to do and find all crammed within a cramped game space. Rarely is a secret hidden in an obscure corner of the map; rather, they're usually placed behind environmental challenges and puzzles that require the use of items unavailable to the player when they're first encountered. That lends a sense of freshness to the large amount of backtracking the player is likely to undertake throughout the course of the game: Every time you trek across a piece of familiar territory, you'll have in your possession a new item that unlocks things previously hidden. More importantly, it lends value to experimentation and exploration without dragging it out across a huge map.
Link's Awakening is also a fairly chatty game, what with the Owl and Tarin and Marin and the other inhabitants of Koholint Village offering hints and advice on where to go next. More than just dropping hints, though, they also interact with the player in ways that were then new to the series. Yes, this modest Game Boy adventure went farther than A Link to the Past in crafting characters who interacted with the player for more than dumping cryptic hints. Where the NPCs in A Link to the Past became largely irrelevant after the initial portions of the game, the villagers in Link's Awakening are constantly staying involved as the game progresses, always eager to drag the player into their messes and lives. It offered a new kind of depth to these minor charactersósomething that, outside of Majora's Mask, still tends to show up rather rarely in the more recent games. In fact, while I enjoy most Zelda games, the only one that even remotely comes close to matching the Link's Awakening experience is Majoraís Mask, itself another oddball, innovative take on the seriesí conventions. Itís a shame that EAD hasn't capitalized more on Link's Awakening's greatest strength: the unification of the gameís disparate parts. The series' modern, 3D entries are fine and revolutionary, no doubt, but compared to the humble warmth of Link's Awakening they often feel empty.
But that's modern gaming for you. And thatís why Iíll hold my Link's Awakening cart close to my chest... and if I can't keep it in an original brick-style Game Boy, Iíll at least keep it in something that bears the Game Boy name.