“We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and out little life is rounded with a sleep.”
–William Shakespeare (The Tempest)
The fourth installment in Nintendo’s adventure franchise, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is an unusual entry in the series, though not quite the black sheep of the collection like Majora’s Mask. It’s a little less bizarre and a little charm goes a long way. But it is for the Game Boy, first of all, and it’s one of the few Zelda games to take place somewhere other than Hyrule and it does not feature Princess Zelda, Ganon, or the Triforce. However, it’s influence on the direction of the Zelda franchise is indelible.
Whereas the Super Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past can be remembered for founding gameplay elements such as traveling between two different worlds in order to advance and solve puzzles, something which would be echoed later down the line in Minish Cap and Twilight Princess, it is Link’s Awakening which must be credited for introducing more mystical/philosophical outlines to the series, as well as adding in a layer of music and artistry to the world that Link inhabits. Gameplay foundations were laid with A Link to the Past but Link’s Awakening brought in culture and mystique. The contributions of both games really culminate in Ocarina of Time, which is often touted as one of the best in the series and a real fan-favorite. However, I hope it’ll become clear through this review that a lot of what made Ocarina of Time so great really began with Link’s Awakening.
Released in 1993, the was highly successful in terms of sales and critics, and it was lauded for its depth, creativity and gameplay. It was later remade for the Game Boy Color as The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX. This review will focus on the original game. Link’s Awakening not only departs from Hyrule, but it also adds a new final boss, a new jump feature (the first bird’s-eye-view Zelda game to do so), fishing and seashell hunting sidequests, and the ability to learn songs on an Ocarina. We all know how that idea took off. So rather than relying on the games that had preceded it, Link’s Awakening bravely treaded into unknown waters, just like its protagonist.
*Here’s a simple spoiler warning. True, the game has been out for over twenty years, but its narrative highly relies on a specific plot twist. I’ll still throw up minimal spoilers to highlight, but if you haven’t played Link’s Awakening, you really should. If you don’t want the plot possibly spoiled, go play it right now and then come back and finish reading! Or you could just read another review, say, for another Zelda game…
Link’s Awakening takes place chronologically after Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons. Having defeated Ganon and his forces of darkness, the hero Link brought peace to the kingdom of Hyrule. However, the harmony and quiet was too much for the one who had fought bravely to achieve it and Link became restless. Not wanting his sword arm to grow weak, he traveled across the sea in a sailboat to seek out training and enlightenment. Unfortunately, he’s caught in a storm and a bolt of lightning struck his ship and he blacked out.
Link is later discovered by a young girl named Marin, washed up on the shore of an unknown island. Marin takes the unconscious hero to her house and helps him recover. Link hears a girl’s voice and thinks it is the princess Zelda, but he wakes to find a stranger hovering over him. He learns from Marin that he was shipwrecked on Koholint Island, far from Hyrule. Marin wistfully wishes that she could be a seagull and leave the island herself.
The first thing he must do before returning home is to locate his lost equipment. Tarin, Marin’s father, gives Link back his shield. Link regains his sword after searching for it along the coast where his sailboat crashed. However, a mysterious owl swoops down and begins to explain Link’s plight to him.
The hero will be unable to leave the island for some mystical reason. High atop Koholint’s mountain sits a giant egg and inside it sleeps a mysterious entity known only as the Wind Fish. The Owl (first introduced to the series here) tells Link that the Wind Fish must be woken before Link can leave the island and journey back home.
The only way to wake the Wind Fish is to locate the hidden Eight Instruments of the Sirens: the Full Moon Cello, Conch Horn, Sea Lily’s Bell, Surf Harp, Wind Marimba, Coral Triangle, Organ of Evening Calm, and Thunder Drum. The manual reads: “These musical instruments were once used by the band of Sirens as they sang to lure sailors to their doom. Now it is rumored that they lie in the depths of the dungeons, guarded by powerful monsters. If you obtain all of these instruments you will be able to solve the riddle of the Wind Fish.” So they’re stashed inconveniently in the island’s dungeons, of course.
Along with the Eight Instruments, another musical item is obtained by Link: a pre-iconic Ocarina. It’s later integral to waking the Wind Fish and it can be used to play a few songs taught to Link by the Koholint people.
Well on his way to completing his quest, Link suddenly learns a shocking truth about the island. A wall mural in a shrine reads:
(spoiler: highlight to reveal) “TO THE FINDER… THE ISLE OF KOHOLINT, IS BUT AN ILLUSION… HUMAN, MONSTER, SEA, SKY… A SCENE ON THE LID OF A SLEEPER’S EYE… AWAKE THE DREAMER, AND KOHOLINT WILL VANISH MUCH LIKE A BUBBLE ON A NEEDLE… CAST-AWAY, YOU SHOULD KNOW THE TRUTH!” Link now doubts whether he should awaken the Wind Fish or not, if doing so will annihilate the “lives” of everyone on the island. The Owl mutters cryptically that no one knows if the words are true or not.
When Link finally gathers the Eight Instruments and plays the Ballad of the Wind Fish before the great egg, it cracks open and he looks inside to discover a shapeshifting Nightmare that turned the Wind Fish’s paradise island into a realm of monsters and chaos. Defeating the Nightmare, Link encounters the Owl one last time. The Owl explains that he is a part of the Wind Fish’s spirit and the guardian of this dream world, that everything was peaceful until nightmares began to invade.
Now that the nightmares are gone, the Wind Fish can awake. The Owl vanishes. The Wind Fish appears. It tells Link that all dreams must eventually fade away, (spoiler: highlight to reveal) that Link had been dreaming together with the Wind Fish, and that they will both awake together. Perhaps the hero will remember Koholint in the waking world.
Link awakens under a bright blue sky (or a gray one, if you’re on the original Game Boy). Seagulls cry overhead. The hero is floating on a wooden board out at sea. (spoiler: highlight to reveal) Koholint Island is gone. A shadow passes over him. Link looks up to see the Wind Fish flying by, off on its new journey. Link is headed toward his, too, paddling through the sea.
If you completed the game without dying, Marin can be seen flying across the water after the credits, now with a set of new wings.
The 8-Bit Review
It’s monochrome but so were all the titles for the original Game Boy. Maybe that’ll come as a shock to our younger readers. Yes, there was a time when video games were in black and white. Link’s Awakening was easily one of the best looking games on the Game Boy with its cinematic opening sequence, detailed imagery and highly defined character sprites and bosses. Its use of soft and hard shadows made it pop off the Game Boy’s tiny screen. The game may not take place in Hyrule but Koholint Isle was adorable and crafted with a kind of charm that helped to define the look of the series.
Most of the game revolves around music and classic instruments, so we can expect the game to revolve around a kind of musical quality. This ends up being a correct assumption, even despite the limitations of the Game Boy’s sound quality. Restricted to buzzing and beeping even worse than the NES, the soundtrack for Link’s Awakening is surprisingly broad, including over 75 distinct tracks. Sure, most of them loop after only a few seconds, but that’s still some feat considering how tiny those old GB cartridges were! It’s an OST that includes a balance of dissonance and melody, emphasizing thematically the war between sleep and waking, dream and nightmare. Long time fans of the series will be especially delighted to hear the various renditions of the classic Zelda themes redone in different styles, as well as the little songs that Link can learn to play on his Ocarina.
A survey of the audio wouldn’t be complete without the Ballad of the Wind Fish played on Link’s Ocarina!
Gameplay involves both overhead-perspective and side-view-perspective areas, reminiscent of both The Legend of Zelda and Link’s Adventure. Introducing new elements can be a hit or miss with new entries in an established franchise. Link’s Awakening successfully wove in new features like jumping and learning songs, much more numerous sidequests, even taking the Chomp Chain for a walk. Handhelds are usually considered skimpy in terms of the actual bread and butter, the meat and potatoes of the game, but Link’s Awakening has polished enough gameplay, following the dungeon crawling format of its predecessors, to stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest. It’s one of the best top-down action-adventures I’ve come across.
Link’s Awakening is a poignant soliloquy. “To die, to sleep, to sleep, perchance to Dream.” Did the Owl lie when he said nobody knew if it was true that Koholint would vanish should the Wind Fish awake? In other words, who was the real dreamer, and did the dream truly end when the game did? Interesting that the next game in the series, Ocarina of Time, opens with Link asleep. Link’s Awakening has some philosophical undertones, really a first for the series beyond the antiquated themes of good versus evil. Koholint is beautiful but there’s a bitter-sweetness to it, as well the whole game, actually. It could easily just be a footnote in the series, a “non-canonical episode”, if you like. But it doesn’t leave Link the same hero that he was at the beginning of the tale.
With several new gameplay elements, Link’s Awakening takes its time to teach you what’s up. It even invented a handy Owl friend and Granpa Ulrira to lend some aid and tips along the way. Dungeon design, as per the series norm, is geared toward teaching the player how to handle new equipment and items without being overbearing with tutorials. It’s a tried and true method characteristic of the golden age of gaming for levels to teach you intuitively how the mechanics of your abilities and limits work. Plus there were only two buttons for attacking and items (A and B) on the Game Boy. Can’t get much simpler than that. It’s a vast world on Koholint Isle with a huge overworld map. You’ll get lost but the game itself has ways to help you get back on track.
This is no Link’s Adventure. Link’s Awakening is a slow drifting back to consciousness on a lazy Saturday morning in your late twenties. It’s hard to get out of bed, but not that hard. You’re still young and you might have a few things to get done. When you get around to it. Link’s Awakening isn’t exactly a walk in the park and there are a few challenges, like finding all those frickin’ seashells with your stupid shovel! That aside, there are a handful of puzzles that can still baffle. Not the hardest game in the series. Not the easiest either.
It should already be clear how unique Link’s Awakening is with all of the distinctive features it brought into the franchise, such as music playing an integral part to the plot, for example. Truly it laid the foundation stone for Ocarina of Time, though it’s not a title that enjoyed nearly as much popularity as OoT. Second only to Majora’s Mask, Link’s Awakening may be the most unusual game in the franchise.
My Personal Score: 10/10
What began as an unsanctioned, after-hours hobby project for some of the staff at Nintendo tinkering around with the Game Boy’s capabilities eventually turned into one of the best titles for the original handheld. I don’t know if any of you know this, but Link’s Awakening is actually my favorite title in the entire Zelda library. It’s enchanting, with its focus on collecting mystical, musical artifacts and waking what is essentially a supernatural solipsist, the enigmatic and magical Wind Fish. Taking us out of Hyrule allowed players to experience a Zelda game that wasn’t trapped by “canon” and all of the features that came before it. Link’s Awakening was originally intended to be a handheld port of the SNES A Link to the Past but it’s “unrestrained” development evolved into something far more creative and unique. Director Takashi Tezuka said the game’s development made it seem like a parody of the Legend of Zelda series. He undersold it. Link’s Awakening began as an experiment. It became a true legend in the Legend of Zelda.
Aggregated Score: 8.5