I was a meager seven years of age when I was innocently and abruptly cast adrift on a turbulent alien ocean, bestraddling the deck of my modest vessel and bracing for inevitable calamity. As an almighty flash of fork lightning struck the mast, everything faded into white.
This inauspicious beginning was without doubt a pivotal moment in my young life. Virgin to the Zelda franchise, or any adventure game of tangible depth at this point, I found myself suddenly and completely invested in the fate of our marooned protagonist. In reality, the cinematics of these scenes were somewhat primitive, particularly by modern standards, but even with the classic Game Boy’s monochromatic green and blacks, it was no less than completely effective in kindling my imagination and budding sense of adventure.
Nintendo themselves have come over a bit misty-eyed with their treatment of The Legend of Zelda franchise lately. Most recently, the 3DS title A Link Between Worlds paid reverential homage to one of the series’ most enduring releases (A Link To The
Past) whilst simultaneously launching a fantastic new adventure in that same luxuriant world. However, I’m looking back to a time just after this Past, when the quirky after-hours experiment of some LTTP’s developers flourished into a uniquely left-field and conventionally defiant adventure in its own right.
Returning to this game some 20 years on, via its 1998 Game Boy Color re-release; Link’s Awakening DX, makes for a delightful exercise in nostalgia, all the more interesting with a further two decades’ worth of Zelda lore in mind and even an official timeline to contextualise its perpendicular position in the series’ chronology. Many of the elements that had been previously laid out in LTTP return, some, such as the graphics and audio, are tastefully stripped back in view of technical limitations, while others such as narrative, plot and its characters are tweaked and even enhanced.
The setting made for revolutionary fare. Wave goodbye to Hyrule Field, here we have the peculiar Koholint Island, speckled from coast to coast with enjoyably eccentric inhabitants. Gone too is the emblematic Tri Force and eponymous Princess Zelda, but in her place we meet small-town doppelganger Marin, who fortuitously discovers Link’s comatose form washed up on the beach. She bundles him home to her father, Tarin, who presents another highly familiar face, a dead ringer for a certain mustachioed hero. As the player progresses, they encounter yet more of these suspiciously reminiscent characters: the Goombas, Shy Guys, and Yoshis of the various Mario worlds, Sim City’s Mr Wright (disguised as letter enthusiast ‘Mr. Write’) and later even a nightmarish incarnation of Ganon. While their presence could be put down to a technical-limitations-versus-readily-available-sprites scenario, their inclusion in Link’s Awakening evokes that universal feeling of encountering a well-known place or person in a dream, their appearance familiar yet fundamentally altered, as with Alice’s fateful tumble down the rabbit-hole, to discover a familiar, but radically distorted reality.
And as our hero plumbs the catacombs of his own Wonderland, it soon becomes clear that this truly is a dream world, though not of his own creation. Koholint Island and everything in it exist within the hibernating psyche of an aquatic being known as the Wind Fish and, in order to escape, Link is going to have to wake it up. As you might have guessed this isn’t going be as straightforward as strolling up to the aforementioned giant egg where the slumbering deity resides, and rapping sharply on the shell. No, in true Zelda style, link must collect eight magical ‘Siren Instruments’ to play in symphony, each of these guarded by a ‘Nightmare’ creature at the end of their respective dungeons.
Beguiling details about the Wind Fish, the Island and the role Link has to play are delivered in tantalising snatches by the timely appearances of a mysterious owl. Whether this character bears any relation to The Ocarina of Time’s own feathered oracle, Kaepora Gaepora, is unclear – but it is a note for speculation to be sure.
As Link progresses, he loots an eventual arsenal of tools and weaponry, allowing the player to reach farther flung areas of the island, previously teased but just out of reach. Much of the usual gear including the Hookshot, bow, bombs and Pegasus boots return, in addition to some completely original innovations for the franchise, such as Roc’s feather; allowing Link to jump for the first time and thus opening up a range of gameplay possibilities.
Perhaps by virtue of its smaller world, Koholint Island is undoubtedly richer per square inch in quirky characters and off-the-beaten-path micro-games. One that kept me frustrated yet fixated for countless hours was the fishing game, another first for the series and a humble start for what would later become a Zelda mainstay. This simple game involved a cross-section view of a fishing pond, with Link casting his line out and reeling in his chosen quarry by furiously hammering the button. The ‘big lunker’ yielded the grand prize of a piece of heart.
The tongue-in-cheek tone of the game’s dialogue is another stellar attribute that sets it apart from its predecessors. A couple of kids poke fun at the game itself, almost breaking the fourth wall by telling Link, “When you want to save just push all the buttons at once.” Clarifying the strangeness of this advice with “Uh… What does that mean? Don’t ask me I’m just a kid!”. In Mabe Village, an enamoured pet-owner fondly declares “Oh my Bow-Wow is so proud of his fine fur coat” referring to the hairless metallic monstrosity that is (chain) chomping at the bit just outside. Animal village is a trove of such characters, watch out for a bear that is also a chef, a hippopotamus posing as an artist’s muse and a goat called Christine that claims to be the spitting image of Princess Peach in her correspondence with Mr Write.
As it was with LTTP, Link’s Awakening is a top-down affair for most of the game, with the notable exception of some side-scrolling underground segments. These areas opened up a whole new mechanic for the platform, not at all like the tribulations of the NES title The Adventure of Link, but more like a Mario/Zelda go-between, complete with squashable Goombas and Piranha plants. Though the Zora Slippers had featured before in LTTP, this side-scrolling perspective allowed the player to see, and so more thoroughly explore, the underwater world.
The difficulty level for this game is perfectly pitched. Slightly more forgiving than LTTP was; particularly in its Dark World areas, the puzzles and bosses of Link’s Awakening track a smoothly sloping curve, easing you in at the beginning but posing a real risk to Link’s survival in the latter stages, especially bothersome when trying to achieve a pure (no-deaths) completion.
Improvements from the original release to the DX version are worth mentioning. The newer edition enjoys a lavish full-colour world, bringing it closer in stylistic beauty to it’s SNES forerunner, something I once strove to achieve in the bygone days of the Super Game Boy console expansion. The best update however, comes in the form of an entirely fresh dungeon, replete with new enemies, colour-based conundrums and three new bosses. While not particularly difficult to complete, even at a relatively early stage of the game, it is a nice touch, adding fresh terrain to this classic title and the rewards, the powered-up Red or Blue Clothes, are very worthwhile.
It is difficult for me to find major fault with this game, but it has its fair share of minor gripes. Like the 4 or 5 words-per-page of slow scrolling, unskippable text, which might sound like a pernickety complaint but around the point of collecting your seventh or eighth compass, the incredibly long-winded description of how it essentially “shows you where chests and keys are” certainly begins to grate.
Perhaps the greatest thing about Link’s Awakening was how its narrative stepped boldly outside the box and flung itself bodily into a dream-world; a place existentially contingent on the sustained sleep of the very creature you are trying to wake. What will actually happen to Marin, Tarin and all of Koholint if I succeed? As a youth, this floated an unprecedented philosophical issue to me, challenging my ideas about the nature of thought, dream and reality. But equally, I had a bloody good romp slaying funny monsters and swinging a sword around the foliage to find bombs, arrows and untold wealth. Just as Super Mario Bros 2 was to Super Mario Bros 1 and later Majora’s Mask was to The Ocarina of Time, so too Link’s Awakening bucked the series’ trends and left the world we knew to invent something quietly groundbreaking and entirely wonderful.