Link’s Awakening – The Zelda Game Without Zelda

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is one of the few Zelda games that I’ve managed to play and beat multiple times: it’s original Gameboy incarnation, the DX Gameboy Color remake, and the Virtual Console version of the DX remake for the 3DS. It’s also the most memorable of the Zelda games for me – I managed to find every single secret of the game when I recently played it despite it being more than a decade since my last playthrough. Why is Link’s Awakening still stuck on memory despite all the other, more superior Zelda games that came after it? Let me talk about one of my all-time favorite Zelda games in detail.

title-screens

Title screens for the original version of Link’s Awakening (left) and the color DX version (right).

The first thing that comes to mind when it comes to Link’s Awakening is how well it recreates the Zelda experience on an 8-bit handheld device. In terms of gameplay, everything that you’ve come to love about Zelda games is present here: a big overworked to explore that’s filled with secrets, dungeons full of puzzles, amazing boss battles, and Link’s signature equipment and character progression system are all here.

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Koholint Island offers a lot of ground for exploration.

You’d think that the limits hardware would result in a downgraded product, but the presentation is so good that you barely notice it. Starting with the overworld, you might think that Link’s Awakening would feature a much smaller map but it’s certainly big enough – a massive 16×16 world with each area consisting of 8×10 tiles.

overworld

Despite each area being limited to a single screen, the world of Link’s Awakening offers a lot of detail and content.

Link’s Awakening features a chiptune soundtrack – a step down from what we got in the 16-bit A Link to the Past in terms of tech but not quality – some of my favorite Zelda tracks came from Link’s Awakening, like this awesome remix of the Legend of Zelda theme that was used in the Tal Tal Heights areas of the game.

In terms of gameplay, Link’s Awakening also has the full Zelda trademark game mechanics on display. Despite being limited to just two face buttons, Link’s Awakening features all of Link’s standard tools: bombs, bow and arrows, boomerang, power bracelet, flippers, and even his hookshot are all in the game. If there’s an aspect of Link’s Awakening that feels downgraded, it’s the number of dungeons in the game: this only features nine dungeons waiting to be explored (ten if you’re playing the color version), fewer than what you can expect from Zelda games.

All that establishes that Link’s Awakening is a solid Zelda game, but what makes it memorable? First of all, Link’s Awakening introduced several concepts into the Legend of Zelda franchise that has since been present in the games to follow such as the item trading subquest, the shield becoming an active item/ability (prior games had a passive shield that activated whenever the D-Pad is on neutral/not being pressed), the ability to use more than one item at a time, the use of multiple songs with different abilities in instruments, and the introduction of fishing mini games. Also, Link’s Awakening featured the first appearance of the Owl, which is the game’s way of providing hints and story exposition to the player (the Owl would make another notable appearance in Ocarina of Time).

The Owl serves as your guide in both Link’s Awakening and Ocarina of Time.

Another memorable aspect of Link’s Awakening was the amount of Mario references in the game. You’ll see several Mario characters appear throughout your playthrough – a Chain Chomp prominently features in the game’s plot, for one. A Yoshi doll is available in the game and is part of the item trading subquest, and an NPC suspiciously looks a lot like Mario. Most prominently, Link’s Awakening features side-scrolling platforming sequences that sometimes involve Goombas – and these Goombas can be killed by stomping on them, much like their Mario counterparts.

The Adventures of Link isn’t the only Zelda game with side scrolling elements – Link’s Awakening has several of these in the game.

What really makes Link’s Awakening memorable to me though is it’s storyline. Unlike the games that preceded it, Link’s Awakening did not involve the legend of the Triforce at all and had nothing to do with Zelda or Ganon. The plot of Link’s Awakening revolves around Link being shipwrecked on Koholint island. Upon retrieving his sword at the beach where he was found by the island’s residents, Link is approached by a mysterious talking owl, informing him that he needs to “wake the Wind Fish” in order to leave the island.

It’s a simple plot, but as you slowly unravel the mystery surrounding the island and the Wind Fish, the game becomes more compelling. Link’s Awakening also has a lot of character moments that make its supporting cast, especially Marin (the game’s female lead/Zelda stand-in) who gets a lot of these moments. I also like how Link’s Awakening has no clear main antagonist, unlike most Zelda games. Instead, you fight against Nightmares – a group of evil entities who wish to keep the Wind Fish in eternal slumber so they can rule Koholint forever. What is the Wind Fish? How is it tied to Koholint Island and its residents? You’ll have to play the game to find out.

With all that said, Link’s Awakening stands out amongst all the different Zelda games that came before and after it. It’s Nintendo’s first ever attempt at telling a Link story that has nothing to do with the legend of Zelda/the Triforce, as well as their first full length Zelda handheld game. Link’s Awakening is a must play for Zelda fans and it is definitely one of the most memorable Zelda games to have been released – I love the game so much, I bought two copies of it’s Virtual Console release (one each for my two 3DS consoles)!

Next week, I’ll talk about the Zelda game that is not only the best Zelda games to come out, but also the best video games to have ever been released: Ocarina of Time!

Have you heard of/played Link’s Awakening before? If you have, what did you think about it? Share your thoughts with us by leaving a comment or two below!

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