Friday, February 3, 2017

The Legend of Zelda - Link's Awakening (1993)

Box art shamelessly stolen from MobyGames.
It doesn't get much more iconic than seeing The Legend of Zelda
in that stylized font, with the Triforce shield and Master Sword.

I was never a "Zelda kid" at all.  I played a lot of NES games, because most of my friends had a NES console in their house, and as an introverted, geeky, chubby guy in the early 90's, gaming was the common escape I could share with my friends after school and on weekends.  But since we played games together, we usually opted for games that either included 2-player cooperative modes, 2-player competitive modes, or some form of 2-player mode where you would take turns, such as Double Dragon or Super Mario Bros. 3.  I occasionally dabbled in other genres when my friends fell asleep at 2 AM during a sleepover, but I usually just stuck with platformers, shooters, and action or puzzle games, because they were the kind of "pick up and play" games that I gravitated toward.  For me, the very idea of The Legend of Zelda seemed foreign to me, because my idea of an adventure game was King's Quest, which I played obsessively on my family's home computer.

The couple times I did get to play the classic action/adventure title, it didn't click with me.  I didn't really have enough time to sink my teeth into it, really understand the exploration aspects of it, or have the wherewithal to draw maps of the areas in the game I explored, because I knew I was only just messing around with it, and not playing seriously.  But for some reason, I just didn't "get" the game.  I recognized, at some basic level, what it was, and was trying to accomplish, I didn't think it was for me.  Despite that, it was universally praised as a great game.  Years later, when I picked up a Game Boy Color, one of the first titles I got was The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX, because I was hoping that my broadened gaming horizons would mean that I would finally understand the appeal of the series.  Sadly, it was not to be.  I put a few hours into the game, had no idea what I was doing, got frustrated quickly, and put it away, relegating it to the "pile of shame" of games that I just never finished.

Fast-forward 3 years, and I got a chance to play The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on my brother-in-law's N64.  I still didn't quite have the love for the series yet, but I was beginning to understand the appeal, and I quite liked the game, though I didn't put much time into it.  I acquired Marjora's Mask a few years later when I bought a used N64, but again, I played it a little and didn't know what I was doing, so I quickly abandoned it for games I could more easily pick up and play.  It seemed that the series would never grab me.  In February 2015, the fine folks at were hosting a play-through of A Link To The Past, and I decided it was high time for me to get on the bandwagon, so I dutifully bought it on the Wii U Virtual Console, and spent a fair bit of time on the game, mostly enjoying my experience, but never truly getting sucked in.  It seemed as thought the "Zelda bug" would never bite me.

In August of 2016, however, I would finally get the bug, when the site again hosted a play-through, this time of the original NES classic.  I joined the play-through, and as I began to play the game and explore the original layout of Hyrule, something struck me.  I was taken aback by how simple the game was, and yet, how deep it was at the same time.  As an adventure game, you explore screens and seek out items and things so you can get further and further in the game, but unlike role-playing games, there's no experience to gain, no weapon and armor stats to fuss with, and no managing of magic points.  You could get a more powerful sword, and a couple other useful weapons, as well as an upgraded shield, and more heart containers so Link can take more damage before expiring, but otherwise, it was a fairly barebones experience, and the player's imagination was engaged, as much of the design was fairly limited, with only a few varied types of landscape were available, and the dungeons, while having differing layouts, were relatively simple affairs.  For the first time, I felt like I "got" the appeal behind the original opus, and was finally on board as a fan.  I live-tweeted much of my experience playing it, and really enjoyed myself.

With all of the average, uninspired, and downright lousy games I played and reviewed in 2016 (with a couple exceptions), I wanted to start 2017 off with a bang, and decided that I should return to Link's Awakening, because in my heart, I knew it was a great game that I had just unfairly abandoned some 15+ years ago.  I knew that I had unfinished business with the game, and that I would have to play through it at some point for this review project.  I decided to play through the original Game Boy release, as opposed to the later DX version, because I wanted to make sure I was experiencing the game in its original form, so I could see what I had missed out on in 1993, when I was happily playing Strider and Sonic the Hedgehog instead of my Game Boy.

Upon starting the game up, I remembered a few key things about the first portion of the game, so I went in already having some vague idea of what I needed to do.  I remember going to the beach to find the sword, struggling to figure out where to go, and generally killing enemies, but kind of wandering around aimlessly without much idea as to what I was doing.  I started this play-through in similar fashion, but with the idea that I wasn't going to let myself go without using a walkthrough, if I got stuck.  That was a wise decision; while I appreciate the exploration, adventure, and experimentation that the development team baked into the game, I just don't have the kind of time to dedicate to this sort of game that I did as a child.  Still, that didn't dull my enjoyment of the game, or the experience.

I'm sure there have been volumes written on this game over the nearly 25 years since its release, so there's little I can probably add to the conversation.  Having said that, it needs to be reiterated that this is an amazing game, and quite a feat that Nintendo crammed as much content into this game as they did, with a world as large as it is (the map of Koholint Island feels nearly as large as the original game's world of Hyrule).  It's also impressive that Nintendo took the ideas of the first game and upped the ante with more items, more weapons, more enemies, and a much more varied landscape, all within the 4 shades of pea green offered by the venerable handheld.  Despite being vastly inferior to the Super NES, the Game Boy held its own, in terms of the experience it got in Link's Awakening, and how favorably it compares to its predecessor, A Link To The Past.  Some consider the Game Boy outing to be their favorite of the series, and hold it above its SNES counterpart as the better title between the two.  There's an argument to be made in favor of that viewpoint, though as I'm still somewhat of a newbie to the series, I wouldn't be qualified to make that determination.  That said, this game is excellent in most every respect.

In terms of story, I won't go into incredible detail, but here's the gist: Link awakens on an island, in a strange house, and a strange bed, and has been watched over by Marin and Tarin, two inhabitants of Koholint Island.  Link's first mission is to go find his sword, as he's told it washed up on the beach, and then from there, figure out what he's supposed to do.  So, aside from the new locale and the nudge in the right direction to find a weapon, versus just the obvious door on the first screen of the original, things are pretty much business as usual for Link.  Once you get your sword, you encounter an owl that can talk to you.  He informs you that the only way off the island is to awaken the Wind Fish.  The only way to do that, however, is to locate the 8 musical instruments you have to play in order to accomplish that.  Thus, Link must set out to find each of those instruments, handily located in 8 different dungeons spread throughout the island.

Graphically, Nintendo was really getting the most out of the Game Boy at this juncture.  4 years into the lifespan of the hardware, and Nintendo had mastery of the system's graphical capabilities.  It's a far cry to compare early titles like Alleyway or Super Mario Land with Link's Awakening, because the graphics are night and day.  where the early titles stressed clarity and minimalist design in favor of playability and making it easy for the player to see what's going on, this game proves that you can use the limited, 4-shade monochrome palette of the Game Boy to create lush landscapes with interesting design that are pleasing to look at.  Animation is often subtle, but used to great effect, such as the water along the shores of the island, the way bushes fly apart when Link slashes them with his sword, the way some enemies flail about when they're hit with a weapon, and more.  The more detailed sprite art style from A Link To The Past carries over nicely on the Game Boy as well, albeit smaller, and devoid of color.  Overall, the graphics are an excellent showcase for what can be done with limited hardware in the right hands.

In the audio department, the game is a delight.  I enjoyed the original NES game's limited soundtrack, with the foreboding dungeon music, and triumphant and iconic overworld theme, but Link's Awakening really takes things to the next level, by having not only a new arrangement of the original overworld music, but also several new themes for different areas of the map of Koholint Island.  One thing that I noticed and appreciated right away, is that a number of the other area songs start out sounding like they're going to be variations on the original overworld theme, but then take a completely different direction, using a couple bars of the original as a touchstone, but going way beyond making simple changes to the instrumentation or arrangement.  The music is well composed, and because music plays such a key role in the game, what with Link needing to collect and play 8 musical instruments to awaken the Wind Fish, it's a good thing that all the music here is first rate.  I especially like the "Ballad of the Wind Fish" song that Link learns from Marin.  For such a short chiptune composition, it's haunting, moving, and beautiful.  Were I 12 years old when playing this game, I probably would have been whistling that at school.  Sound effects are also generally excellent, with fun touches like a sound that echoes old cartoons when Link falls in a hole, or different metallic "clang" sounds when your sword hits different object types.  In fact, that is a device used within the game you can use to help determine where some walls can be bombed, much like knocking on a wall to determine where the wooden studs are.  The annoying sound that plays constantly when you're down to almost no life is still present, though thankfully less intrusive than in the NES original.

Game play is tight and well designed.  The thing that I really like about Link's Awakening and its controls scheme, is that you can designate ANY item to either the A or B button.  If you like swinging a sword with the B button, you can!  If you'd prefer to do so with the A button, you can!  Simply press the Start button to bring up the item screen, move the box to the item you need to use, and press either A or B to assign that item to that button.  It's simple, elegant, and allows players to customize the control to their liking.  Very few games allow for this kind of thing, but Nintendo really thought this through, and made an already good game better by giving players this option.  The Select button brings up the map screen, showing the areas of the island you've explored, and allowing you to move over an area and press the A or B button to identify that area, or sometimes identify a specific building or location.  When the sword is equipped, press the button once to swing the sword, hold the button down and move in that direction to slice through bushes or foes, or hold the button down and stand in place for a couple seconds, and you'll charge the sword up to do a 360 degree slash attack that can take out multiple enemies within range, as well as bushes or grass.  You'll spend a fair bit of time swapping between different items to get through different obstacles or areas, ranging from the shield to Roc's Feather, which allows Link to jump, or the Power Bracelet, which allows you to lift and throw certain objects, to the usual bombs, and the Pegasus Boots, for running fast.  At times, you'll even need to equip two of these items at once in order to overcome an obstacle.

As with A Link To The Past, Rupees and hearts can often be found by slashing through bushes, so it's wise to do so frequently.  Unlike the original adventure, however, many shrines must be unlocked with a key, so there are additional objectives you often need to complete to find the key to unlock each one.  For those that don't require a key, sometimes you have to obtain a certain item that will allow you to access a previously unexplored part of the map, which then allows you to reach that shrine.  Each shrine contains at least one main boss, and depending on the size of the dungeon, sometimes multiple mini-boss encounters.  Once you beat the end boss of a shrine, you receive a heart container, as well as the requisite musical instrument you need to bring the Wind Fish out of its deep slumber.

As strong as this game is, it's not without a few minor flaws.  As mentioned before, when you're down to almost no health, a grating sound plays that gets old pretty fast.  Each shrine contains small areas that change from the top-down perspective to a side-scrolling section, a la The Legend of Zelda II: Adventure of Link - however, the control here isn't as tight as it should be, the jumps feel a bit "floaty", and despite the cool motifs they employ (such as the abundance of Super Mario-themed enemies), they almost feel like a bit of an afterthought, because they're all painfully easy to traverse until the end of the game.  Some of the puzzles are a bit obtuse.  Granted, it's nothing resembling Castlevania II: Simon's Quest or anything, but obviously this was designed for people that have nothing but time on their hands, because some of the puzzles, were I not using a walk-through, would have taken me a while to figure out.  Also, up to the end, most of the main shrine bosses are super easy, and provide almost no challenge, despite their variety.

Despite these few paltry quibbles, The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening is a superb piece of video game art, and one of the finest examples of how you take a console experience and translate it to the handheld format.  Nintendo were masters of this kind of thing, and this game is a shining beacon of light proving why.  No one else could take an experience like the original series game, or its Super NES successor, and shrink it down to this monochrome format with such aplomb.  The development team behind this game should be congratulated, and likely have for the last 20+ years, for such a commendable job in taking the kind of lengthy, meaningful, fun experience and cramming it into the tiny plastic Game Boy cartridge.  If you even remotely like action adventure games, or have even a passing interest in the Legend of Zelda franchise, you absolutely need to play this game.  Downright essential, and I can't recommend it enough.

1 comment:

  1. As a long-time fan of Link's Awakening I was really excited when I saw on twitter that you were playing this title.

    This is without a doubt one of my favorite games, and the only GB game I still physically own with box and manuals.

    I think this was the best Zelda to pick if you were looking for an experience that feels like, and improves upon, the original Zelda for the NES, without being extremely confusing or overdoing the lore like several later entries.

    It carries well the original's simplicity yet it offers a richer experience with tons of optional stuff to collect and do.

    Glad to see you enjoyed it as well!