Alex Phillimore: (alex.phillimore-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2013-09-13 16:55:11
A look into The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening
Certain games have a timeless appeal. You can play them in our age of high-definition graphics and they can still prove to be as enjoyable today as the day that you first played them. The Legend of Zelda series is full of titles that are worth revisiting, and yet one of its lesser-known games, Link's Awakening (GB/GBC), is perhaps the most interesting example of all. It's something of the black sheep of the Zelda series, insofar as events that transpire during the game can effectively be described as non-canon to the overall franchise, and yet this is precisely why it's a fascinating game to play through today.
Some of the more bizarre, and thus compelling, aspects of the game are the numerous references to Nintendo throughout. Although the game is clearly a Zelda title, other Nintendo characters make appearances: you can acquire a Yoshi toy as part of a comprehensive trading game; you can meet Dr. Write from Sim City, who conveniently has a postcard from Princess Peach; Bow-Wows and Goombas appear from Mario; and there are enemies in one dungeon that distinctly remind a player of Kirby due to their ability to suck Link up. Throughout Link's journey across Koholint Island, there are so many shout-outs to Nintendo that it becomes something of a spot-the-reference game.
This lack of seriousness is due largely to the fact that Link's Awakening is based on a Japanese game called Kaeru no Tame ni Kane wa Naru, which translates roughly to 'For the Frog the Bell Tolls'. In light of this, frogs appear throughout Link's Awakening, including in a building with a character called Richard inside - the star of the Japanese title - which remains in the game as a tribute to the title's origin. As a result of these elements, it's not hard to view Link's Awakening as something of a parody of all things Nintendo; it's an amalgamation of all sorts of different games combined into one, and while mirroring A Link to the Past in its structure, it's definitely a unique beast whose engine was eventually used by Capcom in the brilliant Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons titles for the Game Boy Color.
Link's Awakening shouldn't be underestimated for the influence that it had on the Zelda universe. Throughout Link's adventure across the mysterious island of Koholint, various concepts are introduced that the series later uses repeatedly. For example, it's the first Zelda title where numerous songs can be learned to be used via a musical instrument, which later became hugely important in games such as Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker. In addition, it's the first Zelda game to feature fishing, which has been a quintessential mini-game in Zelda games since, such as Twilight Princess. The unusual owl who visits Link and offers him advice throughout the quest is a predecessor to helpful sidekicks such as Navi, Midna and Fi, and secret seashells to seek out serve as the series' first foray into collectable item gathering to be exchanged for prizes.
Naturally, all of these concepts are fairly basic by today's standards, but it's not difficult to see them as blueprints for ideas used in subsequent Zelda games and improved upon. Add to this the bright colours that the Game Boy Color remake, Link's Awakening DX, added to the title, and the diverse gameplay on offer, and the game proves to be engaging even today. There's a lot of things to get side-tracked with outside of dungeons, including having your photo taken in a variety of ways and locating secrets dotted about the map. It's also the only Zelda game where Link can become a convicted criminal by stealing from the village store; his name will change to 'THIEF' and, upon re-entering the store, the shop-keeper will kill the player without fail, which is a really odd and alarming turn of events.
Clearly, Link's Awakening isn't like other Zelda games. While dungeons are relatively similar in structure to those seen in A Link to the Past, they occasionally drift into side-scrolling areas complete with piranha plants from the Mario series. While many of the items available are used in later Zelda games, especially the Oracles series, others, such as the mushroom that allows for one of the main supporting cast to transform into a tanooki, are unique to this title. Zelda doesn't even appear in the game, barely mentioned at all within the script, and instead the entire game takes place outside of Hyrule. In addition, the quest to wake the Wind Fish is a rather saddening one, ending on a bitter-sweet and morose note that few other Zelda games achieve.
Obviously, Link's Awakening should be played by all fans of Zelda games. It plays just as well as the Oracles games, even if it's not quite as ambitious, and it is structurally similar to A Link to the Past. However, it is far more than just another Zelda title. It's so extraneous to other titles in the series that it can't help but fascinate, and yet simultaneously it practically invented the concept of mini-bosses within Zelda dungeons and introduced ideas that have been used ever since. It can be a weird experience to play Link's Awakening, but it's the sort of title that should be played by gamers just so that they can see all of the odd cameos, the unusual gameplay elements (you literally have to take a Bow-Wow for a walk at one point), and, perhaps more importantly, it sheds light into an area of the franchise that people may not have considered all that much.
Link's Awakening may have never been intended to be a Zelda game in its original inception, as certain aspects of the title suggest, and yet it's so influential to the series as a whole that it can't help but come across as some sort of noble experiment. Despite all of the weirdness, and the fact that the entire game is little more than a dream - attempting to place it into the narrative canon of the series is nearly an impossible task, even with the Hyrule Historia, because of this - it serves as a fascinating look into the Zelda series in its earlier days. Perhaps it's not regarded as a 'proper' Zelda game because the developers were trying so many new things, and so did not wish to claim it as part of the canon series in case something went drastically wrong. After playing the finished product, however, it's not at all hard to see Link's Awakening as one of the most influential and progressive titles in the series, and one that has been emulated by many of the series' best games since.