The Legend of Zelda-Link´s Awakening (1): The stuff cult classics are made of

I am very much in the mood for retro gaming these days; and since I needed something really excellent to replenish my gaming mojo after the somewhat mixed experience provided by Sword of Mana, I chose to pick up one of my favourite retro gem ever, namely The Legend of Zelda: Link´s Awakening—and to create that brand new "Oldies Goldies" category in which I plan to unashamedly praise my favourite games of yesteryear, starting with this one.

The Legend of Zelda: Link´s Awakening is the fourth entry of the venerable Legend of Zelda series and was developed and published by Nintendo in 1993 for the original Gameboy. It is widely recognized as the best game ever released on the system and was also the only Zelda installment to ever grace it; incidentally, it´s also the only Zelda game I ever played. (I´m planning to change that in the near future: I have a handful of handheld Zelda games lined up and patiently waiting to be tried.) And play it I did, indeed: I cleared it countless times over the years without ever getting bored of it. When I first discovered it in 1993, my infatuation was so strong that I would routinely finish a playthrough and start another one immediately after. Link's Awakening was rereleased on the Gameboy Color in 1998(jp/na) and 1999(eu); this version featured a brand-new dungeon and a few cosmetic changes—mostly involving colours, as you may guess. Apart from these fairly superficial alterations, the game was left untouched, which was the best thing to do since the original was nothing short of perfect. I had never played that version until now, but for the sake of this post and curiosity, I decided to give it a try at last. 

Let’s start with some clarification: there is a long-lasting debate about whether the Zelda games should be classified as Action-RPGs or as Action-Adventure games. Both sides have valid arguments and a definitive answer on the matter has never been reached. The Zelda games could either be seen as Action-Adventure games with RPG elements or as Action-RPGs in their simplest form, no-frill takes on the genre that remove all unnecessary obstructions for the sake of gameplay’s fluidity and smoothness. My stance is that the Zelda series is a perfect hybrid of the two aforementioned genres—and I will therefore use both tags in this article’s description. 

It’s been a couple of years since I last played Link’s Awakening, which led to some interesting results during this playthrough. Nostalgia was still present, of course, but I could also see the game through the filter of experience, and this gave me a better understanding of how excellent this game actually is. I was hard-pressed to find any relevant flaw in it, even with my best critical eye wide opened; the very minor flaws I saw in it actually date all the way back to 1993 when I first played it, and I’ll address them later for the sake of trivia. But for now, let’s dive head first into the very first handheld Zelda entry and expose it in all its 8-bit glory.  

A marvel of design

If there is one department in which this game shines in an outstanding way, it is definitely the level-design. It’s tight, precise and crystal-clear, and boasts a near-perfection that many games could take lessons from, including recent offerings. To put it simply, if Ockam’s Razor could be applied to game design, the result would be Link’s Awakening. Every single area in the game serves a purpose in the grand scheme of things and the way they are arranged is simply brilliant. Everything flows naturally and the next step in your progression always falls smoothly into place; and yet, the game manages to avoid evincing any linearity by constantly giving you various tasks to complete and sending you all around the world map, all the while giving you a certain amount of leeway regarding the order in which you have to complete these tasks. On top of that, Link’s Awakening does a really good job at taunting you with unreachable places that progressively open up as you progress. I remember standing next to some then unmovable rocks the very first time I played the game and wondering what could linger beyond: the curiosity was almost unbearable, and the satisfaction of finally reaching those fantasized areas latter in the game was priceless. To offer a parsimonious, purposeful and efficient level design while maintaining a strong focus on exploration and discovery is not an easy task, and this game is one of the glorious few that nail it perfectly. 

Another thing that struck me deeply is how user-friendly Link’s Awakening is. I didn’t really pay attention to this point back in the days: I was simply enjoying it and not thinking twice about it. But with hindsight and the weight of my experience as an RPG veteran, I can now see that this game is decidedly devoted to making the player’s life easier. This is especially obvious in dungeons and presents itself as such: if you ever need a specific item to clear your way and go forward in a dungeon, it will be available somewhere in this very dungeon. I’m not talking about the specific treasure that you find in every single dungeon and that will lead you further in the game world—like the Hook, the Flippers and so on—but rather about the more menial items that you use on a regular basis for all purposes, namely bombs, arrows and the magic powder. If you need any of these three to go forward in a dungeon, you will find it in that very dungeon, hidden under a pot or hovering in the air and waiting to be picked. Link’s Awakening will never force you to exit the dungeon and go all the way back to town to refurbish; should you run out of the very item you need, it will be at hand, waiting patiently for you. This is a wonderful quality of that game and one that is rare enough to be praised and enjoyed to the fullest. 

Better not equate this user-friendly quality with easiness, though; for Link’s Awakening may be accommodating, but it’s by no means pampering. This is a demanding game that challenges you relentlessly from beginning to end by submitting you to this oh so classic staple of the Zelda series: the Dungeon Puzzles, ladies and gentlemen. They come in all shapes and sizes and involve all sorts of objects and thought processes, from pushing blocks to open doors to bombing walls to uncover secret rooms and many more. The difficulty curve rises slowly but steadily, leading you from gentle and clue-laden riddles to vicious, mind-bending puzzles that will test your wits and patience. (The difficulty of the last two dungeons in that regard is legendary.) However, despite their growing difficulty and overall complexity, these puzzles always remain fair and logical. There is always a way to figure out what must be done:  whether it be a written clue somewhere in the dungeon, a specific marking on the ground or a special item right at hand, something will always be there to orientate your thinking and action in the right direction. On top of that, the logics at work remain the same throughout the whole game, which allows you to reuse successfully what you’ve learnt, and any new puzzle is always accompanied by a helpful clue to help you figure out which logic is at work behind it. Nothing is far-fetched or illogical and the game pushes you to make clever use of your items; every single one of them will come in handy at one point or another, which is not only the mark of an excellent overall design, but is also deeply satisfying and rewarding. 

Owner of a lonely heart

Link’s Awakening is not only a game so polished you can see your reflection in it; it is also a very unique and original offering in the Zelda series. This is the first Zelda entry that features none of the familiar characters and settings of the series: there is no Hyrule to roam, no Princess Zelda to save, no Triforce to recover and no Ganon to crush. Instead, you’re introduced to a brand new land, the Koholint Island, along with a puzzling objective: to wake up a creature called the Wind Fish that currently sleeps deeply nested in an egg on top of the island’s highest peak. There is no definite main enemy to defeat, the game referring instead episodically to the mounting power of the resident monsters and the devastating influence they could have on Koholint if they were left unchecked. You then find yourself embroiled in a quest that is a puzzling mix between trying to escape from the island and trying to save it from the monsters, two objectives that can be achieved only by waking up the aforementioned Wind Fish. This is a radical departure from the series’ template, and one that works fairly well. It seems that Miyamoto and his team wanted to stray from the established path and offer something new, using the Gameboy’s special status as a handheld to experiment something truly different. Interestingly, Link’s Awakening was initially supposed to be a simple port of A Link to the Past, the famous installment released in 1991 on the SNES, before the gaming muse wriggled its way into the development process and decided otherwise; and as good as A Link to the Past may be (I still have to discover that), a brand-new game is undoubtedly a much better deal, especially one as original as Link’s Awakening

Link’s Awakening is also quite unique in the wider Action-RPG/Action-Adventure landscape. This uniqueness boils down to its main overtone, which is one you don’t encounter so often in RPGs: Loneliness. Not the thrilling, inspiring loneliness of the lone ranger adventuring bravely on uncharted and perilous roads to save the world, but rather the forlorn loneliness of the outcast, stranded in a land they don’t belong to. The game calls you ‘Casteway’ at some point, and that pretty much sums up the situation and encompasses the undercurrent of loneliness and isolation that runs throughout the whole game. You interact with the locals on a regular basis, but there is always a very obvious distance between you and them that never gets bridged during the game. The fact that Koholint is an island and that your very goal is to leave it for good creates that distance in the first place, and the locals’ attitude towards you reinforces it: they never truly treat you as a part of their world and don’t really seem to care about your presence at all. Even Marine, who is seemingly fond of you, takes for granted that you will soon be history and speaks accordingly. The absence of any inn or house where you can fall back and rest further increases your status as a foreign entity: you have literally no place in that world, and the only thing you can do is roam it without respite until your quest is over. I remember feeling that loneliness very deeply when I played the game in 1993, without being able to pinpoint the exact reason for it; I am now able to do so, and I marvel all the more at how masterfully the game manages to distil that sense of loneliness and isolation and instil it slowly but surely into the player’s mind. 

Then, there is of course that legendary Plot Twist. I won’t spoil anything there for the sake of those who haven’t played the game, but suffice it to say that it is quite unique and is definitely an event of huge magnitude in your adventure. This is also a point of no-return: there is a before and an after, and things will never be the same after you cross that Rubicon. This plot twist leaves you more isolated and alienated than ever, and paves the way to an ending that is truly bittersweet. Once again, this is a huge departure from the Zelda template, given that the first three games were more upbeat and ended up on a very positive note. It was quite a bold move to change the mood so radically for this episode and it must be praised and appreciated as such.  

Past and present

All in all, I’ve been playing Link’s Awakening for more than two decades now, and that creates a very interesting standpoint: nostalgia and experience blend to give birth to a view that is fuelled by a deep knowledge of the source material and an undying love for it along with the keen eye and sharp analysis skills of the veteran. And from that standpoint, I can affirm that Link’s Awakening is a game that stands the test of time amazingly well. The clear-cut graphics, with their roundedness and smoothness, have a timeless quality, and the mechanics are so well honed that they simply cannot rust, no matter how many years pass. Not only is Link’s Awakening still perfectly worth playing today, but it could give lessons in brilliancy to many current games on a handful of matters, from clever level design to top-notch physics. 

All this praise doesn’t mean that I turn a blind eye to the game’s flaws; I wrote earlier that I would address them, and I’m going do so now. Even back in the days, some points rubbed me the wrong way, the most blatant one being the inordinate amount of time you have to spend in your inventory juggling between items. This was of course dictated by the very limited number of buttons available on the Gameboy, and Miyamoto and his team really made a good job of making this process as fast and simple as possible; however, you still have to put up with it, and it can grow tiresome at times. I always thought that the level design on the world map was slightly uneven: some marginally useful areas are allotted a huge amount of space, while key areas are restricted to very narrow spaces that nearly make you feel claustrophobic. For instance, I always resented that the completely optional Rapid Ride occupied such a huge portion of the map while the story-relevant Yarna Desert was confined to a tiny corner of it. The pacing also is uneven: the very last arc of the adventure, containing the last two of the eight regular dungeons as well as the final one where the Wind Fish sleeps, feels strangely rushed and shallow compared to everything that unfolded before. It certainly doesn’t help that these three dungeons are located on a very narrow area of the map that gives you the feeling that you’re both constrained and teetering on edges and drastically shrinks your horizons, both visually and mentally. The final dungeon in particular is shockingly short and follows immediately after the eighth regular dungeon, which is disappointing: I would have liked a more complex take on that final challenge, as well as an extra bit of adventuring before heading there. In relation to that, I’ve always been deeply frustrated by the fact that you get the Magic Rod extremely late in the game, namely in the eighth regular dungeon, and thus cannot enjoy it as much as you’d like to. However, none of these flaws are deal-breakers. They are present and can be frustrating at times, but they can’t spoil the brilliancy of that sparkling gem that is Link’s Awakening.    

I will conclude that post with a ‘Favourites’ section entirely fuelled by the power of nostalgia. I’d love to hear about your personal ‘Favourites’ in Link’s Awakening, so feel free to expand on them in the comments!

—Favourite Music: the whole soundtrack of that game is a feast to the ears, but the Face Shrine theme is my absolute favourite.  Reminding strongly of a Bach prelude, it is a thoughtful, reflective piece of music evoking sadness, resignation and resolution all at once. It also has the rare quality of being one of the only themes in Link’s Awakening that perfectly echoes your feelings at that precise point in the game, which makes it all the more striking and memorable. It’s followed closely by the Tal Tal Heights theme, the bouncy, adventurous piece that plays in the eponymous area and that every Link’s Awakening player wish they could hear much more often throughout the game. 

—Favourite Dungeon(s): once again, all the Dungeons are enjoyable in their own way; but the Sixth dungeon, the Face Shrine, is my favourite, thanks to its combination of inspired level design and beautiful music. I also have a strong liking for the third one, the Key Cavern, for its clear-cut and flowing level design, and for the eighth, Turtle Rock, for its thrilling boss run that lets you fight a number of bosses from previous dungeons. 

—Favourite weapon(s): I love the Hook and the Ultimate Sword, as well as the Bow&Arrows; yet, like many Link’s Awakening aficionados, my ultimate favourite is without a doubt the Magic Rod and its unstoppable fireballs. Too bad it comes so late in the game, hardly leaving you the time and opportunity to enjoy its power. 

—Favourite Moment: the South Shrine visit. This is an intensely sad and heart-breaking moment, but this is also by far the most memorable, which is why I love it so much. I still get shivers down my spine when I read that bas-relief—which I do in every single playthrough, despite knowing fully well what’s engraved on it. 

So, here ends my praise of Link’s Awakening.  If you’ve not played that game yet, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so, for it is truly a cult classic. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!

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