It’s been fun using my 3DS to reconnect with the Zelda franchise. The most unexpectedly moving of my various revisits has been Link’s Awakening, the 1993 Game Boy title which blew my mind.
I previously played Link’s Awakening sometime around the years of 1996-7, having stumbled across a used copy on sale somewhere. Like my previous experience with its immediate predecessor, A Link to The Past, I was terrible at the game and couldn’t get very far. But the previous owner had left an endgame save file that enabled me to mess around with all the gear and see the ending if I wanted. But unlike LTTP, it quickly disappeared from my life, leaving only vague, dreamlike impressions behind.
So my return to the game’s fancy, 1998 colour version as an adult provoked some major deja vu. And this coincidentally dovetailed with the game’s own aesthetic, which is all about the uncanny evocation of familiarity and strangeness.
The story is simple: you once again control The Legend of Zelda’s eternal protagonist, Link. Having gone out to sea for unspecified purposes, you get shipwrecked and wash up on Koholint island, which features inhabitants like the singing lady Marin and her bumbling father, Tarin, as well as a shy old man who gives you hints over the phone, a lovelorn version of the guy from Sim City 3000, various Super Mario characters, an alligator who collects canned foods, etc.
You quickly learn that the only way to escape the island is to collect eight musical instruments which can then be used to wake the Wind Fish (which is actually a whale; the game acknowledges that he/she is only a wind fish in name), which resides in a giant egg at the top of a mountain. Partway through the game, you learn that this is because Koholint island is actually a dream the Wind Fish is having. Waking the Wind Fish will set you free by ending the dream and erasing Koholint and its inhabitants from existence.
Everything about the setting is designed to have a dreamlike, surreal feeling. Director Takashi Tezuka apparently wanted to produce a Zelda game which would feel similar to the tv show, Twin Peaks. And indeed the denizens of Koholint have a Lynchian character to them. There’s a sheen of weirdness painted over all the warm, homey Nintendo stuff which makes it all feel nostalgic, yet uncanny (not that Nintendo needs much of a push to enter into this zone).
It all sounds like the scenario would be a little bit too surreal to be invested in. But this was also the first Zelda game to really have a cast of characters who have enough of a personality and story to them to make you feel invested. Marin likes spending her days lolling about and singing – but she also thinks about what’s beyond the sea while nursing a crush on Link. You can help Mr. Write exchange love letters with an uh, goat lady pretending to be Princess Peach. At one point, you become haunted by a ghost who just wants to revisit the places that were important to him in life. And so on.
I got attached to Koholint – which made it almost devastating that in pressing through the game I was bringing it closer and closer to non-existence. Dropping the big twist in the middle of the game rather than saving it for the end shifts its tone quite considerably. All the little storylines and characters scattered throughout become rather poignant in the light of their ephemeral, shaggy dog nature.
This makes Link’s Awakening feel more like an antecedent for Ocarina of Time than A Link To The Past, although Ocarina structurally bears more resemblance to the latter game. For Ocarina also functions as a meditation on the ephemeral nature of things (not accidentally does the game begin in a Lost Boys-esque village and come to a close in a scene of destruction and decay). Link’s Awakening also sees the first appearance of an ocarina that you can learn songs for and the owl Kaepora Gaebora among other things made more famous in Ocarina. So why did my recent revisiting of that leave me a bit cold?
In my earlier post on the original Legend of Zelda and Ocarina of Time, I noted that I had a difficult time relating to Ocarina’s Link. I think I’m starting to have a better grasp of why, and the salient point is largely technological.
The shift from 2D to 3D was, among other things, a shift from a much more abstract form of representation to a more realistic, cinematic one. In the silent, 8 bit pantomime of Link’s Awakening it requires some imagining to picture what’s ‘really’ going on, whereas in the cinematics of Ocarina, you see everything. The result is that I feel slightly more like a spectator to the adventure than a participant.
But to get things back on track, the story of Link’s Awakening is really a literalization of its nature as a game: it’s all fake, and beating the game means that it’s over. Waking the Wind Fish means the illusion of Koholint disappears. The player’s trajectory qua player directly maps onto the story arc of the game. It’s like an indie game before indie games were a thing, except without the tiresome, self-aware cleverness.
And all this on a little 8 bit cartridge, which leads me to my next point: Link’s Awakening is proof against the idea that better tech necessarily equals progress in game design. From a technical standpoint, the game is a step backwards from its 16 bit predecessor, A Link to The Past. But in this case it prompted the developers to consider what was truly essential to the Zelda experience, and what was excess fat. And they did a remarkable job of preserving those essentials without diminishing them. The result is one of the most economical action adventure games I’ve played.
The early game is a good example of this. Just about the first thing you do in every Zelda game is to get your sword. In Link’s Awakening, you begin by waking up in Marin and Tarin’s house. They give you your shield and point you in the direction of the beach, where more of your items may have washed ashore – and indeed your sword is waiting there. But the shield (for the first time in the series) isn’t a static accessory that just rests on Link – it’s an equippable item that you have to deliberately press a button to shield Link with. The Game Boy only had two buttons, and so the game allows for both buttons to be mapped onto any of Link’s items (this leads to a lot of menu opening, but it’s less irksome than it seems). By giving the player two buttons to assign the shield to for the walk to the beach, the game gives a lesson on how there is no dedicated sword/shield/whatever button, and that the player will have to come up with different configurations on the fly.
But the walk to the beach also features some easy enemies, as well as obstacles that can only be overcome by pushing them with the shield, and so it also doubles as a tutorial on how to use the shield properly, as well as a preparation for dealing with parts of the game where you may not have a weapon on hand. And if you’re being thorough, you’ll have noticed the first dungeon sitting off to the side, piquing your curiosity. You also might notice a path blocked off by a bush that you might be able to destroy with your sword.And if you’re really paying attention, you may have noticed a couple of details that eventually become relevant to the second and third dungeons.
Almost the entire game has this very layered approach to its design. While a couple of instances get a bit too obtuse, the unfolding of the island has a grace to it that’s quite uncommon.
It’s still a very unusual, quaint title in the Zelda franchise. Link’s Awakening isn’t the franchise’s grandest entry. But the strangely haunting dream world it presents, along with my own childhood nostalgia has made it into the one that feels the most personal.