“For this game, I really tried to create characters with personality, so that’s what I’d like you to see.”
– Kensuke Tanabe, Script Writer & Right-Hander
It cannot be stressed enough just how important A Link to the Past was in codifying The Legend of Zelda. From the introduction of the dual world mechanic to a greater emphasis on dungeon complexity, and a blending of the action & adventure that made the NES Zelda titles so palatable, the series had stumbled onto structural perfection a mere three games in. A Link to the Past is arguably the closest thing the medium has to a “perfect video game,” but it’s hardly the be-all and end-all of gaming, let alone its own franchise. For as well refined as ALttP is, the proverbial classic’s main cast has a noticeable lack of character.
The main players that ordain A Link to the Past’s stage are more archetypes than they are proper characters in their own right. Link’s Uncle is little more than the classic literary mentor, Princess Zelda is ultimately a damsel in distress, and Ganon is a power-hungry tyrant. The story does ensure the cast isn’t one-note– players are given an opportunity to actually care about Zelda, for one, and Ganon gains a voice through Aghanim– but there’s no real character development. The closest thing A Link to the Past has to an arc is Link’s hero’s journey and that’s mostly thematic. It wouldn’t be until Link’s Awakening where The Legend of Zelda would finally be given the character it sorely lacked.
Link’s Awakening is brimming with character from the moment the game boots up. Eschewing the series’ established title crawl, LA’s opening cutscene places focus on a ship struggling to stay afloat amidst a thunderstorm. There’s no exposition, no lore to establish, and no motivations to identify. All that matters is the drama happening on-screen: Link holding on for dear life as Lightning strikes around him before striking his ship directly. The scene cuts to a young woman stumbling onto Link while strolling the beach and the camera pans up into the title screen. It’s an opening that’s as classy as it is captivating.
It’s significant that Link’s Awakening doesn’t open with scrolling text establishing the game’s backstory. Beyond showing the audience LA’s central premise rather than simply telling it, the opening places a direct spotlight on the story’s two central characters: Link and Marin. It’s easy to take for granted nearly three decades after the fact, but this was the first close look at Link’s face in-game. More importantly, it was the first time any character expressed visible emotion on-screen. And it’s a humble moment to boot. Link’s confidence in the face of danger is as palpable as it is visible, but even the Legendary Hero can’t help but cry out when his ship is capsized.
Watching Marin stumble upon Link is just the cherry on top. Her mere presence builds intrigue. Who is this woman and where are we? Even as the scene shifts from pixel art to 8-bit sprites, Marin picking up her pace when she spots Link is a nice tell that Link’s Awakening’s storytelling can & will be just as expressive outside of cutscenes. As if playing off her mystique, Link outright mistakes Marin for Zelda when the game begins in earnest– symbolically slotting Marin into the role typically reserved for the franchise’s eponymous princess. But Marin isn’t analogous to the Zeldas of the first three games and the furthest thing from a damsel in need of saving. Marin only superficially resembles Princess Zelda.
Marin doesn’t get kidnapped, her life isn’t endangered, and she doesn’t send Link on some treacherous quest. She’s just Marin, one of Koholint’s many islanders. Marin starts going about her life in Mabe Village as soon as Link gets his sword. She teases Link, is desperate to learn more about him, and actively wanders in-between major set pieces. Players can even immediately go to Koholint Square after finding their sword in order to listen to Marin sing. In mere minutes, Marin has more personality than Princess Zelda had across three full length games. The Legend of Zelda, The Adventure of Link, and A Link to the Past treat Zelda like a plot device. Link’s Awakening treats Marin like a character.
“I want you to play this game until the end.”
– Yoshiaki Koizumi, Script Writer
In reference to his work with Nintendo, Yoshiaki Koizumi– one of Link’s Awakening’s Script Writers– said,
“My ambition had always been to make drama. That was my goal: Having a character, in a certain kind of world, having him go through a series of actions to accomplish something, and creating a dramatic tension throughout that. And games seemed like a really good opportunity to create a kind of drama that you don’t find in films.”
True to Koizumi’s word, there’s an interactivity within the gaming medium that other forms of art can’t naturally capitalize upon. The mere act of controlling the action, of giving audiences narrative agency, is enough to bolster any story. What makes Marin’s characterization so notable is more than just her depth as written, it’s the fact so much of her character has to be sought out by the player. NPCs reveal passing details about Marin and taking the time to seek her out allows Marin to reveal her nuances at natural opportunities.
Expanding on his time with Nintendo, Koizumi told Wired that he “always liked the idea of you coming upon another character and hearing little bits of conversation that slowly begin to reveal different parts of the story.” Although said quote is in direct reference to his work on Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, Koizumi’s approach to characterization can be seen in full force throughout Link’s Awakening. Link’s Awakening’s story is everywhere, and if you don’t actively speak to Marin on your own accord, you’ll miss it.
Link’s optional interludes with Marin help in fleshing out the finer details of her character. Marin yearns for freedom and wants more than what island life can give her. She’s infectiously curious about life outside Koholint, playfully interrogating Link about his life virtually every time they speak– if only to get a taste of everything Link has experienced. She wants to know his favorite songs, what he does for fun, where he’s been; quite literally anything & everything about A Link to the Past’s storied hero.
Marin doesn’t just exist in Link’s orbit, however. NPCs reference her daily goings, the residents of Animal Village are utterly smitten with her, and she lives with a man, Tarin. Marin’s relationship with Tarin is particularly interesting as it’s often interpreted as a father/daughter dynamic despite the fact that Marin consistently refers to Tarin by his first name. Character work was an important aspect of Link’s Awakening’s development and it shows, so this likely isn’t a scripting error. In fact, an interview with the staff featured in the Shogakukan Link’s Awakening Guide puts into perspective the impact Marin was having on all branches of the team:
In a portion of the interview where LA’s staff were given free rein to express anything they wanted, Yasuhisa Yamamura (Link’s Awakening’s Dungeon Designer) wrote, “Do you think Tarin and Marin are father and daughter? It never says that in the game. Most importantly, Marin calls Tarin by name. Could she actually be a little gold digger…?” While clearly just a cheeky joke on Yamamura’s part, his quote shows that Marin’s character was a known presence for the whole staff, one they were reflecting on. Considering how the first three games kept most of the story tucked away in the manuals, this was a big step for the franchise in retrospect.
The mere fact Tarin is given any narrative focus beyond his introduction is monumental. He’s not as important as Link or Marin, but the story understands the benefits of a supporting cast. Tarin believes there’s nothing beyond the island, while Marin is certain there is with Link as her proof. More than just an NPC she lives with, Tarin is Marin’s ideological foil and all it took was a single line & a few recurring appearances on his part. More importantly, Tarin simply complicates matters. He makes trouble for himself, he interrupts important moments between Link & Marin, and he highlights Koholint’s absurd mundanity Marin wants to leave behind.
Tarin’s passion for Koholint contrasts Marin’s passion for freedom, which in itself is a reflection of Link’s passion for adventure & discovery. The reality of the situation is that the island is a mix of the Wind Fish– a mysterious deity– and Link’s dream where both their psyches influence the “world.” Koholint began as the Wind Fish’s dream, but Link’s presence has a profound effect as seen by all the allusions to A Link to the Past (Turtle Rock, the Mirror Shield, Agahnim & Ganon’s appearances during the final boss.) The dramatic irony of all this is that Marin isn’t real and her only tether to existence is Koholint. Long before the credits roll, players are made aware that there is nothing waiting for Marin off the island.
Marin is Link’s mental representation of Princess Zelda. Almost an idealistic version of her. She isn’t in any danger, wants to explore the world, and is clearly head over heels in love with the Legendary Hero. She’s the perfect love interest. But she’s not beholden to Link narratively or thematically and while her arc is intimately tied to his character, Marin’s fascination with Link comes not from who he is but how he represents freedom. Marin may be a figment of Link’s imagination, but she’s more real than Zelda ever was.
“Please don’t rush to finish the beach date with Marin.”
– Minako Hamano, BGM Composition
Because the full scope of Marin’s personality is hidden behind ancillary dialogue, she and Link go on a mandatory date before the fourth dungeon. Marin is given an opportunity to take center stage in the story properly, ensuring that players don’t miss out on the core of her character. Although there’s immense value in allowing audiences to get to know Marin both organically & at their leisure, it’s extremely important that she still serves an important narrative role. While Link’s date is a lighthearted event that amounts to little more than escorting Marin halfway across Koholint, the two share a tender seaside exchange.
Marin opens up about how she knows there’s more outside Koholint; how her heart skipped a beat the moment she discovered Link; and how he never actually responds to her lengthy monologues. It’s a charming exchange that dilutes their entire relationship into one of the game’s most memorable scenes. Someone can play through all of Link’s Awakening while ignoring Marin and they’ll still likely find her character compelling if only for this one scene. Marin displays an unprecedented amount of vulnerability for the series, fostering intimacy between player and game.
You’re free to immediately escort Marin to Animal Village once her seaside speech wraps up, but you’d be remiss not to take full advantage of having Marin by Link’s side. Beyond unique dialogue from the residents of Mabe and Animal Village, there are around half a dozen secret scenes players can trigger with Marin. Play the crane game and Marin will defy the laws of physics by grabbing the shopkeep. Thwack too many Cuccos and she’ll encourage players to keep stabbing until the chickens fight back. Marin’s dynamic and almost a little bit predictable. She’ll even chastise Link for his lackluster rendition of the ‘Ballad of the Wind Fish’ if he plays it on the Ocarina.
Link’s Awakening’s DX– the game’s 1998 Game Boy Color re-release– took things one step further by adding the Photography side quest. In a previously empty plot south of Tal Tal Heights, players can enter a Camera Shop and trigger a new quest where a photographer chronicles Link’s time in Koholint with his camera. Several photos are permanently missable, but that just adds to their value– especially since they’re all tied to new scenes. The photographer will capture Marin crushing Link if they fall into Mabe Village’s sole cave and even Tarin interrupting a soon to be a sweet moment in front of the Flying Rooster’s weathercock.
Keep west after picking up Marin at Toronbo Shores and be treated to one of the most intimate scenes in the game. Overlooking the sea yet again, Marin tells Link that this will be their secret spot. It’s humorously undercut by the photographer snapping a shot from afar, but Link & Marin’s wide smiles show they’re compatible without the need for actual dialogue. Secrets in The Legend of Zelda, The Adventure of Link, and A Link to the Past benefit the gameplay more than anything, but Link’s Awakening sees the genuine benefits in secretive storytelling. The real reward for finding Link and Marin’s secret spot isn’t getting the photograph, it’s watching The Legend of Zelda flesh out its first romantic arc in-game.
Marin’s arc is one of expression– searching for, finding, and answering your true calling in life. Any threats to Marin are existential bordering on incomprehensible. The closest Marin comes to any danger is before Turtle Rock, the final dungeon, where the island’s monsters kidnap her & leave her stranded on Tal Tal Mountain. This is all a ruse to remind Link (the player) of the connection he’s formed with Marin before obliterating Koholint Island from existence.
By having Marin block the final dungeon’s path, you’re forced to consider the consequences of beating the game. Link’s end goal isn’t saving a Princess, it’s erasing the only tie his love interest has to her life. The fact the story stresses how this must be done adds a layer of tragedy to the narrative while conveying that Link’s Awakening can’t have a clean-cut happy ending. It even seems Marin is about to confess her love for Link here before she’s cut off by Tarin, twisting the knife just a little bit deeper.
Interestingly, the Owl guiding Link through Koholint makes clear that Marin hasn’t just been sitting on her thumbs. Presumably while players are making their way through Eagle’s Tower, Marin takes matters into her own hands as literally as possible and sings the ‘Ballad of the Wind Fish’ in front of Tal Tal Heights’ egg. A song of awakening, only the ‘Ballad of the Wind Fish’ can break the dream of Koholint Island. Marin doesn’t know this, of course, but she still shows a level of agency typically reserved for Link. Marin’s not going out on grand adventures, but she’s also not waiting for some hero to save her.
“One day I made a wish to the Wind Fish. . . What was the wish? It was. . . No, it’s secret!”
– Marin, Main Character
Seagulls come to personify Marin’s spirit of adventure throughout the game, but particularly in cutscenes that feature her prominently. Seagulls circle Link as she finds him beached, they’re present when they reunite for their date, and Marin even expresses her desire to fly just as free; “If I was a seagull, I would fly as far as I could! I would fly to faraway places and sing for many people!” Unfortunately, the Wind Fish can’t make Marin’s dreams come true. But Link can.
Marin has desires that can only be met through sheer effort. Her happy ending is only triggered upon beating the game without dying, and Link’s Awakening isn’t a particularly difficult game, it does have its fair share of challenges. More importantly, no other Zelda punishes players for dying by withholding a better ending. It’s bold and perhaps even frustrating if you don’t know this going into the game, but it makes freeing Marin all the more fulfilling.
Somehow, ending the dream does not end Marin’s life. Either through sheer force of will, her connection to Link, or just divine mercy by way of the Wind Fish, Marin transforms into a seagull. And while Marin & Link can’t be together, they’re at least both free. It’s a bittersweet ending, but Link’s toothy grin signals that audiences should take comfort in the memory of Marin in spite of this star-crossed separation.
Marin was the first stepping stone in The Legend of Zelda realizing the richness of its cast. Where A Link to the Past refined the franchise’s lore, Link’s Awakening embraced dramatic in-game storytelling by recognizing that Link doesn’t need to be the only character with narrative agency. Koholint Island is Link & the Wind Fish’s dream, but Link’s Awakening is ultimately Marin’s story. Making her a character who doesn’t need saving while placing freedom squarely in the hands of the player allows Marin to fill Zelda’s functional role without her lack of characterization. From the moment Marin finds Link washed ashore to when he watches her fly free, Link’s Awakening puts character first.