At times, Link’s Awakening may come off as The Legend of Zelda by the numbers; it is, however, expertly designed, very engaging, and a huge technological feat
Two years after birthing the timeless adventure classic that is The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, a game that defined and brought maturity to many of the franchise’s main traits following two NES installments that struggled to thrive thoroughly, Nintendo was faced with yet another challenge. That test involved finding a way to bring what was arguably the biggest of its properties to the smallest of its systems, the Game Boy. From a modern perspective, and contemplating the considerable success The Legend of Zelda has achieved on the company’s handheld systems, it is easy to take such a task for granted and look at Link’s Awakening, the saga’s first portable effort, as a natural and inevitable consequence of the nearly inherent greatness contained within the series’ formula. Furthermore, given A Link to the Past excelled on pretty much all fronts, the translation of its structure and qualities to a simpler hardware may be seen as an easy endeavor. However, history indicates the undertaking was not that simple.
And that is because other established Nintendo franchises that tried, both before and after Link’s Awakening, to make their first leap from home consoles to handhelds were not exactly fortunate. Rather than coming off as respectable reproductions of the original material, titles such as Super Mario Land, Donkey Kong Land, and Metroid II – all of which were released on the Game Boy – felt like uninspired, blatantly inferior, and somewhat limited takes on the gameplay of their console counterparts, failing to flourish either because they were unable to handle the humbler technology properly or because they lost sight of what made those series so great in the first place. Link’s Awakening is an exception to that rule. It goes without saying that, in terms of scope, it is certainly – though not as visibly as one would expect – far more straightforward than A Link to the Past. Yet, even when compared to what many consider to be one of the best games of all time, it leaves absolutely nothing to be desired in terms of general enjoyment and content.
Perhaps understanding that an adventure that is smaller by nature needs a simpler and more self-contained setting, Link’s Awakening marks the first time the hero garbed in green moves out of Hyrule. After having defeated Ganon in A Link to the Past, the character chooses to travel with the goal of training to better defend the kingdom from future threats. Unfortunately, while sailing through the open sea on his boat, a vicious storm strikes and, unable to fight against the elements, Link’s vessel is destroyed and he ends up washing ashore on Koholint Island, where he is rescued by a young girl named Tarin. He quickly learns, from a mysterious talking owl, that the only way to leave the island is by waking up the Wind Fish, a mythical creature that sleeps atop a mountain inside an egg. And, as it turns out, that ritual of awakening can only be performed by gathering the eight Instruments of the Sirens, which are – as expected – locked inside the place’s dungeons protected by mean bosses that are dubbed Nightmares.
Koholint Island carries many of the nice characteristics of A Link to the Past’s reproduction of Hyrule. The overworld is pleasantly big without being overwhelming; it does not take too long to travel between its edges, but its 256 squares – each having the exact size of the Game Boy’s screen – open the way for nice scenario variety. Moreover, inside those confines Nintendo is able to come up with a whole lot of value, as the terrain is densely populated with caves, secrets, and interesting islanders to talk to. To top it all off, the map system itself is marvelous, as it presents in impressive detail all pieces of the land Link has visited, even allowing players to get extra intel on what each square contains by selecting it. As far as navigation is concerned, the only point where Link’s Awakening could have done better is in its warp system, which is much less effective than that of A Link to the Past. Instead of allowing one to, from anywhere on the map, teleport to specific points, fast-traveling can only be done by actually going to one of the few warp holes and entering it. Even if Koholint Island is not that big, the walking and backtracking can get a bit tiring after a while.
The biggest gift that a simpler setting gives to Link’s Awakening is certainly its looser tone. Being away from Hyrule means that the grand, yet a bit repetitive, battle of good versus evil is left behind and replaced with a lighter objective. And that feature has a number of intriguing ramifications. Firstly, and also stemming from the constraints of the hardware as well as from its lean plot, Link’s Awakening is obviously less cinematic than A Link to the Past, completely directing the spotlight towards its gameplay. Secondly, dialogues with most sidecharacters will usually take delightful humorous turns. Naturally, those quirks mean that this Game Boy effort does not carry the epic value and grandeur of its Super Nintendo predecessor. However, not only is Link’s Awakening pretty comfortable inside those shoes, as it seems to understand those design traits make it alluringly different instead of mathematically inferior, but it also knows how to conjure some mystery. And that happens thanks to how both the bosses of the dungeons and Link’s guiding owl constantly give the hero cryptic messages signaling there is more to the Wind Fish and Koholint Island than it seems, as the waking of the former may have implications on the existence of the latter and all its inhabitants.
The impacts of Link’s Awakening lighter atmosphere can also be felt in other areas. Throughout Koholint Island, for example, players will come across amusing cameos of characters taken straight from other popular franchises, such as Goombas and a Kirby-like being showing up as enemies, a Chain Chomp that is the star of one of the game’s most notable sequences, a wacky man who looks a whole lot like Luigi, statues that resemble bowser, and more. In relation to the gameplay, meanwhile, as Link encounters very early on an item that lets him, for the first time ever, jump, Nintendo takes advantage of that asset by weaving small and relatively simple sidescrolling segments into the overworld and, especially, into the dungeons. Although their design is, for the most part, pretty standard, they are fun and add unique flavor to the quest, showing Link’s Awakening trying to build its character by moving out of the framework put in place during A Link to the Past.
As to the its overall progression, save – obviously – for the absence of an alternate dimension, Link’s Awakening does not attempt to get too far away from what the Super Nintendo game did. And that ends up being a very sensible choice, because it all works quite well. Given the dungeons need to be tackled in a predetermined order, and since all of them have to be unlocked in some way (usually via the collection of its respective key), Link will always be told by his owl companion the general direction in which he needs to go. The instructions are specific enough not to leave any doubts regarding the intended destination, but – at the same time – they are not exaggeratedly obvious in relation of what exactly needs to be done to find the unlocking mechanism and the maze’s building itself. As such, Link’s Awakening – like a A Link to the Past – strikes a perfect balance between offering guidance, and forcing players to explore the world and figure it all out for themselves.
It is worth noting, however, that such compliment does not apply to the journey’s entirety, as there are moments that visibly work as exceptions to that rule. Truth be told, Link’s Awakening does implement a pretty cool hint system that has Link entering one of many houses set up with a telephone line inside in order to call the village’s wise old man to get some intel on his next task, a feature that will be received as a blessing to those who want to streamline exploration and go straight to exactly where they need to be. Still, even armed with that extra layer of information, there are points in the game when what has to be done will not be sufficiently clear, forcing some to look for the aid of a guide.
The dungeons of Link’s Awakening, unsurprisingly, borrow a lot of ideas from those of A Link to the Past, which means that – individually – their rooms are somewhat simple, offering puzzles that involve the pressing of switches, the killing of all enemies, or the execution of an action that is not too hard to figure out. The brilliancy of their design, which is overall quite good, lies – instead – in their structure, as they will often present quite a challenge when it comes to finding a way to advance. Although nearly all of the mazes abandon the multi-floored configuration that the palaces of A Link to the Past brought to the table, most of them are still satisfyingly complex and will certainly have gamers backtracking through their rooms multiple times as players look at their map and analyze the places that should be visited.
Given all the borrowing that they do, sometimes even going as far as copying bosses and puzzles, it is to be expected that the dungeons of Link’s Awakening also share some of the shortcomings displayed by those of A Link to the Past. Namely, the backtracking can get annoying due to how the enemies of many rooms respawn as soon as the hero leaves them; as such, since at times the doors only open when all bad guys are eliminated, gamers struggling to advance will have to deal with some foes over and over again. Additionally, other minor frustrating moments, such as a couple of ridiculous riddles that involve bombing walls that are not visibly cracked or design choices that force players to backtrack through multiple rooms if they make a wrong turn also reappear. On the other hand, and as proof the team behind the game learned some lessons, two welcome improvements do show up: as a nice helping hand, the compass now makes a noise whenever Link enters a room where a key can be acquired; and after the dungeon’s mini-boss is defeated, a warp point is created linking the place’s entrance to the room where bad guy was killed, effectively making trips through the maze faster and reducing the need to backtrack. Sadly, though, as it happened in A Link to the Past, there is no warp point that leads directly to the main boss’ room; and since being killed means being sent back to the dungeon’s start, walking all the way back to the big bad guys, even with the shortcut to the mini-boss’ room, can get annoying.
With eight dungeons, a great overworld, an amusing tone that fits its simplicity like a glove, a plot that can be mysterious and touching, a couple of sidequests (including a mandatory trade sequence), and collectibles (such as the traditional heart pieces as well as equipment upgrades), Link’s Awakening is unquestionably a worthy portable reproduction – one that cannot be missed – of The Legend of Zelda experience found on consoles. And it achieves such while sporting visuals and music that, easily ranking among the system’s best, are worthy of the franchise, especially if one goes through the title’s DX version released for the Game Boy Color, which other than offering colorful graphics also boasts an optional dungeon. In fact, Link’s Awakening is so impressive in its handling of the constraints of the system that the hardware limitations of the Game Boy are hardly felt at all. They only surface in how there are only two buttons to assign equipment to, including the shield and the sword, which makes switching between items a constant action that disrupts the game’s flow.
However, despite the resounding and undeniable conquest of marking the first time ever a Nintendo franchise was effectively and greatly translated to a handheld, Link’s Awakening fails to reach the same stature of the saga’s most remarkable installments for the simple reason that it lacks a truly defining trait. Sure, here and there, such as it does in its tone, straightforward storyline, sidescrolling segments, and cameos, it shows lovable sprinkles of character, but none of those feels significant enough. The array of equipment acquired by Link, for instance, is – with the exception of Roc’s Feather, which allows him to jump – pretty much the same as the one from A Link to the Past. And, differently from what would happen in future portable The Legend of Zelda games, Link’s Awakening lacks a gameplay-changing item that plays a major role in the way Link progresses through the quest and interacts with the world around him. Therefore, more than any other entry in the series, Link’s Awakening could be seen as The Legend of Zelda by the numbers; it is, though, expertly designed, very engaging, and a huge technological feat.