I consider myself a serious gamer – gaming is my first, second, and fourth hobby. Like with any medium of expression, there are essentials that are both critically-acclaimed and that garner massive fan-bases. The Legend of Zelda, first released on the NES in 1987, is the first in a gaming staple that has spanned multiple decades, consoles, and garnered more 10/10 scores than the entire catalog of many game publishers not named Nintendo. Zelda games are the quintessential action-adventure. In a previous post, I discussed how Link’s Awakening is the first Zelda game I have ever completed, despite the series acclaim and many, many attempts at both the original Zelda and later entries. How well does the fourth game in the Zelda series and first handheld release fair?
Link’s Awakening is the first Zelda game set outside of the series’ standard setting of Hyrule. Instead, young Link washes ashore on Koholint Island, and is taken in by local residents. As you go to the beach in pursuit of your sword, a strange talking owl approaches you and gives you the rub about your heroic destiny on Koholint. There is a creature named the Wind Fish and you are destined to awaken it. To do so, you must collect eight instruments from eight different temples hidden on the island. As you explore the island, you come to realize that the entire world is the product of a dream, one that the Wind Fish is dreaming, and that waking him up will cause the dream to end. Opposed to your goal, the various Nightmare creatures that make up the game’s bosses want you to fail your quest, so that they can rule the Wind Fish’s dreamworld.
It’s a very different plot from most games in the series, and from most games at the time. Imagine this plot in a time before blockbusters like the Matrix and Inception. As a setting, it gave Link’s Awakening a lot of license to be weird too, which is a plus. Instead of triforces and princesses, you get a wide array of Mario monsters, weird 2D side-scrolling parts, and a lot of humor. If you didn’t realize the game was only a dream when you first arrived on the island, meeting its residents might make you wonder. Some break the fourth wall; another is always waiting for you to call him on the phone if you need help. Others are animals (whole village of those) or female versions of Super Mario Chain Chomps. Many of the island’s inhabitants are in need of something, which means a lot of strange trading goes on.
It’s a cool setting, but outside of the 2D side-scrolling parts, it doesn’t drastically change or alter the Zelda experience. It is played primarily from a top-down perspective, you use your sword and shield and a variety of other found items to vanquish enemies, and you roam around solving puzzles to progress. It is everything you’d expect in any sequel to the original Zelda, but without some of the really cryptic puzzle solutions.
In fact, the game is a far more streamlined, straight-forward, and better designed adventure than the original. One of the biggest factors for why I am so prone not to finish Zelda games, I really dislike feeling lost in a game, especially when I am attempting forward progress to the best of my ability. There are moments of frustration when you aren’t sure who might want the broom you got in a trade or how to progress further in a dungeon, but the game does a fairly decent job of providing direction. The Owl often tells you exactly where you must go next, and the old man on the telephone can often fill in bits of the ‘what to do next’. I did have to ‘cheat’ with a guide on a couple of occasions where I wasn’t putting two and two together to make orange like the game had suggested might be possible, but I never had any ‘facepalm moments’ where I felt like I had been cheated by the puzzle design.
It may seem like a strange game to pick as my first full Zelda title. Zelda isn’t in it; Ganon isn’t in it; the Triforce isn’t in it. Given the setting and characters, Link’s Awakening feels like a Zelda title meant for children. The talking animals, the humor, and the multiple guides to aid your progression all seem to suggest it. The jokes do everything they can to undercut any seriousness that Link’s quest on the island may or may not have. I may be a stick-in-the-mud, but I just didn’t get the comedy of the game. While some of these kid-targeted design choices were off-putting, I think it helped me embrace Zelda’s most standard elements by providing an easy to understand introduction to how the series plays. For every joke I didn’t laugh at, I was conditioned more and more by the game to want to open a new chest, explore that next dungeon, and to ultimately unravel the mysterious world of Koholint Island.
That’s largely what Zelda seems to be about: the addiction of forward progress. The story, setting, and characters all take a backseat to the sheer drive to see more, do more, and find more. New items often provide new abilities, which give you better access to many secrets you’ve probably already noticed, but were unable to obtain. Every chest in a dungeon is a chance at finding one of these new items or at least the chance of getting something that will make that dungeon’s item easier to reach. It is a compelling formula, one that has clearly propelled the series to its own unique place at the top of the holy gaming canon. Link’s Awakening does such a spectacular job utilizing a perfected Zelda formula that you quickly forget its a formula, and instead lose yourself in the exploration and puzzle solving.
Which is great until you step back and think critically about the experience. In a lot of ways, Link’s Awakening is a perfect game. There is a set goal and a variety of trials to prove you are worth obtaining that goal. From the simplistic but fun combat, to the puzzle solving, to just way you sometimes have to manipulate your items to fully explore the game’s world: Link’s Awakening is pure fun. However, pure fun is rarely what I am looking to obtain in a game, especially now that I am older. While I appreciate the sort of game that Link’s Awakening is, I cannot call it a perfect game. In many ways, that would be like calling a crossword or a word search a perfect game. Each is its formula perfected, one that feels rewarding to complete and leaves you feeling accomplished, despite never imparting any added meaning or value into your life.
That will sound harsh and incredibly negative to some of you, though I don’t intend for it to. Link’s Awakening really is a great game – the sort of game that I think any gamer should play. My opinion is also not an indictment of the entire series nor is it an excuse for me to quit playing Zelda games forever. There is so much right about this game and so much love for the series as a whole that I cannot help but be excited about exploring its better examples. But for Link’s Awakening specifically, I walked away from the game more happy about having finished a Zelda title than having finished Link’s Awakening specifically. A week removed from the fact and the experience of the game has quickly faded. There is no well-written narrative to recall, no characters worth mentioning, or puzzle solution that radically altered my view of puzzles in games.
I want to walk away from a completed game excited and amazed. I want to have experiences I feel are worth sharing and moments I feel are worth discussing. Walking away from Link’s Awakening, all I felt was a momentary distraction, that kept me entertained for a few days in November. It was a damn good distraction, but that’s it.
TL;DR: Link’s Awakening is a fantastic game and a worthy first entry for my first real attempt at getting into Zelda games.