Despite its original monochrome form, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening contains one of the most colorful, vividly realized worlds and ultimately is one of the best experiences in all of Zelda history. Left with the daunting task of following up A Link to the Past, the SNES’s golden game, Link’s Awakening remained the “quintessential isometric Zelda game” according to series producer Eiji Aonuma, while also steadily evolving the series- all of this on Nintendo’s first portable console, the Game Boy. Not only does Link’s Awakening perfectly match the tone and structure of all Zelda games, but it remains one of the most unique and creative entries to date.
From the opening cinematic, it’s clear that the tides have turned with the fourth Zelda entry. Link is seen at sea caught in a storm, when suddenly the mast of his ship is struck by lightning. Shipwrecked, an unconscious Link washes ashore Koholint Island to be found by one of the many islanders, whose zany personalities match the fittingly dreamlike and outlandish nature of Koholint. Link’s rescuer, Marin, is far from abnormal, but instead is a charming young girl who wishes for nothing more than to escape the island. Link soon discovers that to escape the island himself, he must wake the guardian of Koholint, the Wind Fish, who rests in an enormous egg at the pinnacle of the island and can only be roused by the eight Instruments of the Sirens. Link’s quest pits him against countless monsters, many familiar, and sees him vanquishing eight shadowy nightmares to acquire each instrument. Notably absent from the plot are Hyrule Kingdom, its princess, Zelda, and its rival, Ganon. Instead, Link’s Awakening is one of few Zelda titles to operate outside of Hyrule, further establishing it as a unique entry.
Amidst the many monsters Link comes across throughout Link’s Awakening are a couple of familiar faces. Anti-Kirby’s look an awful lot like everybody’s favorite pink, round vacuum, Kirby, but when he’s in Link’s dream world and not his own, he’s quite mean. Goombas, the bipedal mushrooms from the Mario series also make an appearance. There’s even a Chomp that snaps at Link in the center of Koholint. While a couple of other cameos are made, one of the friendlier appearances is that of Yoshi in a claw arm game. Between the cameos and some of Koholint’s quirky characters breaking the fourth wall, such as the little kids who teach the player how to play, before stating that they don’t really know what they’re talking about, the game carries a hint of parody, but remains a true Zelda title at its core.
Similar to most of its predecessors, Link’s Awakening plays primarily as a top-down action-adventure, featuring similar combat and progression as the original Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past, complete with items that grant new abilities, heart pieces to increase life count, and primary combat surrounding a sword. By collecting twenty hidden seashells, the player can forge a sword that fires beams when the player’s health is full, similar to the one from the original game. For the first time, however, different items can be equipped to both the A and B button, resulting in more diverse puzzles and combat. Link’s Awakening also introduced trading sequence puzzles to the franchise, now a mainstay featured in almost every game. It was also the first overhead game to feature an item that allows Link to jump, and even includes minor side-scrolling, platforming segments that call back to Zelda II or even the Mario franchise, including jumping on Goombas to kill them. While these side-scrolling sequences aren’t exclusive to Link’s Awakening, it was another unique quality to the game that simultaneously celebrated the franchise’s history.
Perhaps the reason the game has so many distinct characteristics is its unusual development. It all began with programmer Kazuaki Morita testing the capabilities of the Game Boy development kit through developing an unsanctioned game in the same vein as Zelda. Other programmers took notice and interest in the project, and began working on it after hours. It quickly evolved into a planned port of the enormously successful A Link to the Past for Game Boy before it fully evolved into the unplanned Link’s Awakening. The result was a far less restrained Zelda game, complete with unauthorized cameos, moments of side-scrolling, and the omission of familiar elements such as Hyrule and Zelda. Director Takashi Tezuka perceived the game as a spin-off, and very intentionally avoided recognizable Zelda trademarks, such as the Triforce, and filled the void with the dreamscape of Koholint, a fantastically fitting fantasy setting for the franchise and the game in particular, and a narrative that sought to make Link a hero internally as opposed to externally. In consequence, producer Aonuma once described Link’s Awakening as the first game in the franchise with a proper plot.
The plot is far from the only memorable aspect of Link’s Awakening, however. The game includes some truly exciting items, including Roc’s Feather, which allows Link to jump, and the Magic Rod, with which Link can incinerate enemies, cuccoos, and even a neighbor’s dog! It’s the only game, to my knowledge, in which players can steal items from the shop, which results in the player’s name being turned to THIEF and the shop keeper killing them the next time they enter. It also features one of the best soundtracks in franchise history, including my favorite Zelda melody, “The Ballad of the Wind Fish”, heard when the player attempts to wake the Wind Fish after collecting all eight Instruments of the Sirens. Not surprisingly, in 1998, five years after the game’s initial release, Link’s Awakening was re-released on the Game Boy Color as The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX. The remake boasted full color and a new dungeon, complete with new enemies and color-based puzzles, which grants the player access to an additional tunic in blue or red once it’s completed.
Link’s Awakening will always remain an essential piece of my history as a gamer. It is the first game that I remember playing, and its deeply imaginative world, unforgettable cast of characters, brilliantly designed gameplay, humor, and immense sense of adventure put me on a quest of my own, a quest to find the next best video game, ensuring my future as a gamer for the next two decades and onwards. To this day, Link’s Awakening remains a powerful experience apart from nostalgia, and an essential piece of Zelda‘s history that made way for Ocarina of Time and countless other timeless sequels. It opened the door for portable consoles, demonstrating how great a portable game can be. It’s a game that has to be experienced by all Legend of Zelda fans, the quintessential action/adventure escapade, and a worthy undertaking for anyone who considers themselves a gamer. In short, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is a must-play. There’s been an awakening. Have you felt it?