Link’s Awakening was my first Zelda game. It sits, immutable, in my memory; screenshots and moments from it are always there, just below the surface of my thoughts, reading and waiting to be recalled whenever a rush of nostalgia takes me. It’s something about the Game Boy. Nintendo’s big, grey, allegedly-portable brick was the console of my childhood, and it was my introduction to many of Nintendo’s finest franchises. Like a lot of the system’s games I grew up with, I’ve returned to Link’s Awakening multiple times, so let’s give it yet another spin and sink into the strange fever dream world of Koholint Island.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (3DS, GB, GBC [reviewed])
Released Jun 1993 | Developed / Published: Nintendo
Wait, Koholint? What happened to Hyrule? It’s no doubt the burning question poor Link must have as he shipwrecks and washes up on the unfamiliar shores of a strange island. No-one around seems to have heard of the princess Zelda or the land of Hyrule; instead, the island is concerned with the mystical Wind Fish, which lies in an enchanted slumber on the island’s highest mountain. Of course, Link is a career hero so it takes him barely 5 minutes after waking up to grab a sword and start questing through dungeons in order to gather a collection of magical instruments in order to play the legendary Ballad of the Wind Fish and wake the eponymous beastie.
If you’re reminded of Zelda adventures, it might be Majora’s Mask. That too brought Link to a strange world that defied your usual expectations for the franchise. However, while that game opted to suffuse the normal Zelda experience with an aura of terror and suspense, Link’s Awakening feels more like a traditional adventure; instead it’s just… weird? I don’t know how else I’d describe a Zelda game in which Link can find himself jumping on goombas, swinging his sword against cheep-cheeps, or following a mouse around to take photos. Still, that’s not to say Link’s Awakening utterly breaks the mould; Link’s 4th outing is, outside of these relatively surface-level differences, still recognizably a Zelda game and ought not to be that alienating for fans.
What do I mean by that? Well, for a start, Link’s Awakening retains the top-down perspective of the first game and A Link to the Past, so it immediately looks familiar. In fact, beginning with this game, the Zelda franchise enters a pattern with its releases, as portable titles opt for that traditional perspective while the home console releases take their cues from Ocarina of Time and give us 3D worlds. The gameplay is also recognisable, both to fans of the series looking back and those who’ve been following the series through from the start, as Link’s Awakening largely plays like the first Zelda. In fairness, the choice to release it on the Game Boy more or less dictated that it had to; Nintendo’s handheld after all on has 2 action buttons, much like the NES, and in turn that restricts what the player can do during the moment-to-moment gameplay. What this means for us is that as Link expands his collection of items, weapons, and magical doodads, he can only have 2 equipped at any one time. In practice this results in a gameplay loop in which you need to constantly bring up the pause menu to change your equipment to deal with whatever situation you’re dealing with, which breaks the flow of the game somewhat. Hazards crop up pretty rapidly and from screen to screen, especially in later dungeons; as a result some of the later dungeons can feel laborious to trek through as you battle with not just puzzles and bosses, but also your own inventory screen.
While many items are your typical Zelda fare – a bow, bombs, the pegasus boots all return, among others – at least one is game-changing in a very exciting way: the roc’s feather. This innocuous looking item allows Link to jump. It’s surprising just how much this adds, and indeed, comes to define, the Link’s Awakening experience. It means that more interesting platforming challenges are added to both dungeons and the overworld, and it also enables the game to bring back the side-scrolling stages used to get around dungeons from the first Zelda. It’s not a monumental addition, I’ll grant you, but it is a fun one. Link’s Awakening is also the origin point for a bunch of things we’d probably consider franchise staples today; it’s the first game in the series to feature a fishing minigame (albeit a very simple one), it has a lengthy trading sidequest which follows you across the entire campaign, and, funnily enough, it also features an ocarina with learnable songs although it would of course take until the N64 games for Nintendo to fully realise what could be done with that mechanic.
It’s also quite a pretty game – well, if you’re playing the Link’s Awakening DX re-release which originally came out on the Game Boy Colour. I’m sure we can all appreciate that the black and green display of the original Game Boy was perhaps not the optimal viewing experience for Link’s Awakening, but the full-colour re-release is a marvel. The sprites are, naturally, not as intricate as its immediate predecessor A Link to the Past, but they do carry a chunky charm of their own. The addition of colour does a lot of work in making Link’s Awakening look lovely as the palette is one of the Game Boy’s most vibrant, but, in a neat twist, it also became an excuse for Nintendo to add in a brand-new dungeon exclusive to the DX version. No really, Link’s Awakening features a bonus dungeon only in the full colour re-release because it both specifically requires a colour display to navigate, and it rewards you for completing it with a colour-based prize! The actual puzzles themselves are relatively simple, such as making colour-changing blocks match, or hitting specifically-coloured enemies into holes which match them, but it’s a nice addition to the game and if you’re after more content then it’s worth picking up this edition.
Link’s Awakening’s legacy appears to be a convoluted one. For me it will always remain a comfort game because of its association with childhood nostalgia, regardless of the flaws it might have. It’s at times a mildly inelegant game, especially when compared to its amazing predecessor, but much of that comes down to its status as a handheld release, and, in my opinion, a lot of that can therefore be excused. While it was well-reviewed on its release, I can remember it being a relatively underappreciated Zelda title when talking about it online; it seemed to have been relegated to a kind of “meh” pile as far as public consciousness of Zelda games were concerned, sandwiched as it was between the titans of A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time. However, the recent ground-up remake on the Switch (which I must stress I have neglected to include in this review deliberately) has ignited a bit of energy for Link’s slightly zany Game Boy adventure, and I’m glad it did. Even if you’re not playing the shiny new remake, Link’s Awakening categorically still holds up; that’s the advantage of the old-fashioned top-down Zelda games – because they recall the 80s and 90s glory days, they retain a sense of timelessness that makes them fun adventures regardless of when you might try them.
6/7 – EXCELLENT.
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.