Anyone who told you childhood was easy probably never got lost looking for the mid-boss of the Face Shrine in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. And don’t even get me started on Eagle’s Tower! Still, we’re talking about things I struggled with years after buying the game for the first time. Few relics from my childhood have survived as long as that Game Boy cartridge, still sitting snugly in my MadCatz bag with its original save data intact. The same save whose Link couldn’t figure out how to move the spiked enemy that resembled a Gordo from Kirby’s Dream Land until he happened to hold B and move it slightly. The same save whose Link is called THIEF by all who interact with him because of an unfortunate, ne’er to be spoken of again shoplifting “accident”.
Link’s Awakening is the Zelda game that taught me how to play Zelda games. From my first step into the Tail Cave in late 1993 at six years old to beating Level 7 with a single small key and no map when I played through it on Nintendo 3DS last year...it’s clear I’ve grown up with this game, and that it’s taught me a thing or two. But I honestly had no idea what I was getting into as a child. I didn’t recognize its handfuls of Nintendo references. Its charm completely eluded me. I had no idea that side-scrolling portions were atypical in a Zelda game, and that Link’s Awakening was the very first game that allowed Link to jump...as well as do many other things. There are so many reasons I’m sitting down to write this today...but the main one is me trying to express this: Have you ever had a moment in your life where you sat back, thought, and then realized...this is the greatest game ever made, to me?
I can’t pinpoint when it was, exactly. But I can tell you why.
The story of Link’s Awakening is a simple one, especially when you consider how complex and emotionally-driven various games in The Legend of Zelda series have gotten since. As Link, you’re on a boat...and then you’re not, after a lightning strike leaves you stranded on an island you’ve never been to before. You’re woken up by a girl named Marin, who resembles Princess Zelda. Her and her father, Tarin, convince you to grab your old shield and head to the beach where she found you. There, you discover your old sword and an owl who tells you that this island, Koholint Island, is one you can never leave.
Unless--you wake up the Wind Fish. There’s so much more to the story than that! The game is almost as old as I am, so many are probably aware of its twists and turns...but I’m honestly surprised by how many people haven’t yet gotten around to experiencing this game! I’m keeping this spoiler-free, in terms of narrative, because it’s one of my favorite parts. Contemplating what the Wind Fish looked like, or what its purpose was in sleeping and keeping all the citizens of Koholint trapped there, fascinated me growing up. Making that discovery for the first time will hopefully leave latecomers with the warm and fuzzies, just like me.
Keeping with the script and ambiance: there’s so much Link’s Awakening did that hasn’t yet been repeated in other Zelda games. Beyond the Gordo enemy I already mentioned, there’s even an enemy that’s just like Kirby in the game, in terms of appearance and ability. You’ll find Goombas, a chain chomp (aptly named Bow Wow), a Yoshi Doll, and many more characters and references that don’t quite belong, but whose inclusion certainly makes Koholint unlike any other Zelda locale. I don’t think many Nintendo franchises, much less games themselves, have been as brave with the cross-overs and cameos since...with Hyrule Warriors, perhaps, being a notable exception. The script is well-written to match these experimental characters and scenes, too. Even if you’re spending time in the game’s villages or overworld instead of advancing the narrative itself, you’re sure to be entertained.
Like I briefly alluded to before, the gameplay gets pretty experimental at points as well! Link’s Awakening plays very much like A Link to the Past (since it came right after it, and it was supposed to be a Game Boy port of that game) most of the time, but every once and a while (usually in dungeons), the game kind of throws a curveball at you. Did you ever think you’d be able to jump on a goomba with Link like you would in a Mario game? That’s almost commonplace in Link’s Awakening. Many of the weapons you receive in dungeons offer ways to solve unique side-scrolling puzzles, in addition to the typical top-down Zelda fare.
Besides the narrative, the highest point in Link’s Awakening to me is its presentation. Whether you’re sticking to the black and white original, or playing Link’s Awakening DX on your Game Boy Color or 3DS, the visuals are impressive. Enemies feel unique, characters are rarely, if ever, simply recycled at points like you’d find in many hand-held games from the time, and environments are diverse. Koholint Island is filled with many places to explore both inside and outside dungeons, and I think each new environment is a step up from the last, visually.
But man--that game’s music. There’s a point very early in the game where you can get to a single spot on the map that plays the music from one of the endgame areas, Tal Tal Heights. The area itself is blocked off to you, but you can see surroundings from the end of the game, and hear the music. I sat there and just listened to Tal Tal Heights music in my headphones until my Game Boy battery wore out as a kid. Link’s Awakening is the reason I’m as into video game music as I am today.
The experience I had as a kid, and the experiences I will continue to have with this game...it’s not something I can adequetely summarize in a thousand words. To me, Link’s Awakening shouldn’t just be celebrated as a great game! Because of how long it’s been in my life, because of the different things about it that appeal to me each time I’ve played through it over the years, and because I’m still finding secrets and things I didn’t yet know about it….well...it’s going to be celebrated as the greatest game I’ve ever played.