The Great Zelda Playthrough Part 4: Link’s Awakening

There’s really no solid consensus on which is the “best” Zelda game. You could ask five different people and get five different answers as to which their favorite entry in the series is. The one thing that stays the same is that the conversation is usually centered around the home console releases. The handheld Zelda games tend to be overlooked and generally written off as “fine,” ignored by all but the franchise’s more devoted fans.

The big exception to this is Link’s Awakening. While it’s rarely included in the conversation for which Zelda game is the best, most of those games also have their detractors. Almost no one has a bad word to say about Link’s Awakening. Despite being one of the shortest games in the series, it’s also one of the most beloved, due largely to its story and unique take on the series.

Of course, the question, as always, is whether or not it holds up, and since I’m playing through these games in release order (see the end of the post for links to the previous articles), what it meant for the series as a whole.

The Story: Requiem for a Dream

As I said, the story is one of the most memorable parts of the game, and the story revolves around a big twist it’s impossible to avoid talking about. If you’d like to avoid spoilers, I’d highly recommend skipping this section.

All gone? Good, let’s go.

Link’s Awakening opens with Link getting caught in a storm, being shipwrecked, and waking up on an island called Koholint. Koholint is the first non-Hyrule location in the series, and it’s a somewhat bizarre departure of a location from earlier games, with talking animals, a man who gives you tips via telephone booths, and cameos of enemies and characters from other video game series, from Mario to Sim City SNES to The Frog For Whom The Bell Tolls (a game that would be almost unheard of in the West were it not for Link’s Awakening). As surprising as all the cameos are, what’s equally surprising are how few of the usual Zelda staples are there. There’s no Triforce, no Ganon, no Zelda, all things that the previous games have revolved around. It instantly sets Koholint apart and makes it feel very much like its own self-contained thing.

It turns out there’s a very good reason for that. As the game progresses, you’re told that you’ll need to wake the Wind Fish, a creature slumbering in an egg that’s being assaulted by nightmares. As time goes on and you get closer to waking the Wind Fish, you come to learn that the whole island is part the Wind Fish’s dream, and that waking it will cause the island to vanish.

It’s a gut punch of a reveal. It makes you reconsider your actions up to this point. You’ve been going through and destroying enemies (many that seem fairly benign compared to the vicious monsters of earlier games) that are just trying to protect the island and everyone on it.

But that’s only half the story. Because Link’s Awakening is also a romance.

Equally important to the story of Link awakening the Wind Fish is the story of his budding romance with Marin, the kind girl with a faint resemblance to Zelda who rescues him at the beginning of the game. There has been an implied romance with Princess Zelda in other games, though that’s just the result of the knight in shining armor rescue fantasy. Link’s relationship with Marin is different, because Marin is just allowed to be. She’s not some damsel to be rescued or prize to be won. Her life doesn’t revolve around Link. She’s just a girl living in a sleepy little village on an island cut off from the rest of the world.

The romance develops because the game puts Marin in your path several times for the story to advance. She’s the one who initially rescues you. You save her father after a mushroom he ate turned him into a racoon (don’t question the mechanics of this; it’s just a dream anyway). She’s the one who teaches you the Ballad of the Wind Fish, the song you’ll need to awaken the Wind Fish. When a sleepy walrus has blocked your progress, Marin’s the only one who can wake him up, and the two of you essentially go on a date as you head back to Animal Village together.

The most memorable moment is when you find Marin sitting by the shore, and the two of you sit on a log together looking out at the sea. Marin takes the time to open up to you, saying how happy she is to have met you and sharing one of her silly dreams: the ability to become a seagull, flying free as a bird and singing her songs for as many people as she could.

The romance with Marin is a key part of the game. It grounds it. It makes it emotional. It gives Link and the player a reason to love Koholint Island, and as a result, gives the reveal that it’s all a dream and that waking the Wind Fish will cause everything to disappear even more weight. In fact, the only time you have to rescue Marin is incidental, on your way to the eight and final dungeon. The game once more places her in your path and asks you to care about her even in the final moments, forcing you to reckon with what exactly is at stake. It’s even implied she was going to confess to you.

And then you have to erase her and the world she loves from existence.

Link’s Awakening is a tragedy. A story of loss. The end of innocence. A requiem for a dream. It’d be nice to stay on a pastoral little island like Koholint forever, where the worst enemies you have to deal with are things like smiling goombas or silly clowns, but we all have to wake up eventually. Wake up from what? Well, that’s a very personal and intimate question that’s up for everyone to decide for themselves. But sad as it is, the dream eventually has to end.

The Legacy

As the first Zelda game on a handheld system, Link’s Awakening had a massive hill to climb. The 8-bit Game Boy was a step back technologically from the 16-bit SNES, so it had to take the lessons from A Link to the Past and strip them down to their bare bones. Personally, I think it succeeded. Koholint is a very small map, but it’s a very dense one, with some sort of landmark or secret on almost every screen. What’s more, they did so while telling a narratively simple but emotionally complex story. As a result, it’s arguably the biggest cult classic in the franchise.

However, because of that, the impact it’s had on the series isn’t as obvious. It doesn’t introduce much in terms of new lore or weapons or systems or anything like that. It’s influence has been more subtle, and had I not been playing the games in order, sitting down, and thinking about their impact, I probably wouldn’t have even picked up on them.

First, let’s talk about the elements that were picked up by later games, starting with the characters. While most characters couldn’t be used again for obvious reasons, we got to see new takes on them just one game later, with Malon and Talon in place of Marin and Tarin or Kaepora Gaebora in place of the owl. In addition, the trading sequence to get the magnifying lens

Apart from that, the introductions were more subtle, but I would argue equally important. Because the entire game had to be shrunk down in size, there was less focus on combat and more on puzzle-solving. While the dungeons in A Link to the Past had started to tend more towards puzzle-solving, Link’s Awakening really doubled down on puzzles. In addition, the freedom of making a game that was essentially “non-canon” where they could do whatever they wanted with it opened up Zelda’s canon to be more flexible in the future. Zelda’s lore has, by intentional design, become an incongruous, tangled mess, with creators focusing more on how to make each individual game its own experience rather than worrying about making everything fit together.

And of course, there’s the remake. But we’ll get to that a little later.

My Playthrough

My relationship with Link’s Awakening is a bit of an unusual one. The first Zelda games I ever played were Oracle of Seasons and Ages, which used the same engine. However, it was actually one of the last Zelda games I got to. I don’t remember when in the order I played the games in, but excluding Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures, I believe that Link’s Awakening, The Wind Waker, and Spirit Tracks were the last three I played before Skyward Sword was released (by which point I was caught up on the series). As a result, it felt very nostalgic as it was similar to the first games I played, but because it was an earlier version of the game, it felt a little rough and unpolished. Regardless, I think I ultimately came away with the opinion that the game was better.

I played the remake upon its release in 2019, only a few years ago, and while I thought it was a fine remake (again, more on that later), I didn’t want it to be the version I was replaying if I was going to play through all the games in release order. So I dusted off my old Game Boy Advance SP and popped in the Link’s Awakening DX cartridge.

My first impression is how gracefully the game has aged. The controls were smooth, the chiptune music is still a joy to listen to, and the map design was phenomenal. As I said before, there’s some sort of secret or landmark on almost every screen, and it’s a small enough map that backtracking once you have new items to find those secrets isn’t really a pain. It starts out being difficult to navigate, but gets easier the further along you get, as more of the map unfolds, you have a better understanding of the layout of the land, and you learn to add places you can’t access yet to your mental rolodex. The design of the dungeons is also solid. While they start off simple, they get more and more complex as they go on. The final two dungeons, Eagle’s Tower and Turtle Rock, are particularly tricky to navigate, and made for a really fun challenge near the end of the game.

The story also hits far harder when you’ve been on a nostalgia kick and have been reevaluating some of your beliefs and values, as I’ve been doing in this increasingly polarized world. It’s so much nicer to delve back into a time when things felt simpler. When you could just see Mario enemies in a Zelda game without having to think about intellectual property and branding and rights. When people bought and played games to have fun, instead of as collector’s items to show off or products to resell. Revisiting Koholint was nice. It was fun. It was relaxing. And I didn’t want it to end. The closer I got to the end, the sadder it made me. The more I wanted to stay on the island, spending time with Marin. I was even tempted to start over after a few deaths because it meant I wouldn’t unlock the secret ending, and I didn’t know if I could forgive myself if I didn’t do that (I could, but I still bear myself a grudge).

I think the game’s short length is a big advantage in that regard. It’s an easy game to 100%, but it’s still only to the point of being a challenge rather than a chore. I don’t need to find 900 Korok seeds or 100 Golden Skulltulas or 64 magic rings or anything like that. Just give me 26 Seashells (of which I only need to find 20), 12 pieces of heart, and 12 photographs. Just 50 collectable secrets in a 16×16 tile map. I can do that. I can revisit that again and again if I want to, and probably enjoy the experience every time.

The Remake

So obviously there’s a 2019 remake of Link’s Awakening for the Nintendo Switch, and it’s hard to talk about Link’s Awakening without talking about it, as that’s currently the easiest way for newer fans to access it. And it’s a good remake. It’s solid. It’s not quite Ocarina of Time 3D, which is nearly identical apart from redone but similar graphics and some quality of life updates. But it’s also far from Majora’s Mask 3D, where attempting to add quality of life changes completely ruined a lot of the aesthetic and appeal. A lot of the original appeal still remains. But if I’m going to be going through these games in order, it’s too drastic an update to play it instead of Link’s Awakening DX, and it’s not different enough to treat it as its own game later on. So here are my thoughts as a footnote.

The aesthetic of the remake is a fantastic choice. For a nostalgic, idyllic world, characters that look like Playmobil toys makes perfect sense. The blur around the edge of the screen likely exists for technical or perspective reasons, but it really adds to the dreamlike nature of the game, with elements being just a little out of focus. And of course, there are plenty of quality of life changes. Just giving the sword, shield, power bracelet, and pegasus boots their own buttons in addition to the two equippable items cuts down on a lot of switching. And all the remixed tracks are very good as well, particularly the dungeons. Plus, you get to hear actual vocals for Marin’s Ballad of the Wind Fish, and while I personally like the little high-pitched boops and beeps, I can see how that would be grating for some.

That said, it’s not perfect. It doesn’t quite capture the same gameplay, even if it comes close. I like the original sprite art, and moving seamlessly instead of scrolling screen by screen may feel smoother but the game’s just not designed around it. Perhaps the game’s biggest sin is how it’s become bloated, with the number of seashells doubling and the number of heart pieces almost tripling. It feels a little too extra in a game that was so tightly packed.

So overall, good remake. It’s not the same, and I still think that DX and not the remake is the definitive version, but if it’s all up to your discretion.

The Verdict

It should come as no surprised based on the amount of praise I’ve already heaped on this game that it’s going to be taking my top spot. I adore this game and loved it even more this time than the last time I played. While there are parts that could use some improvement (switching items is a pain, the fast travel system is clunky and tedious, saving requires you to push Start+Select+A+B????? Who thought that was a good idea???), those are all minor things that didn’t hurt my enjoyment in any way. I didn’t expect to enjoy this one quite as much as I did, and I think only one or two games even have a chance of unseating it.

That leaves my current order as:

  1. Link’s Awakening
  2. The Legend of Zelda (NES)
  3. A Link to the Past
  4. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Next up is what’s often considered not just one of the best Zelda games, but one of the best video games of all time, period. That’s right, I’m finally tackling Ocarina of Time. However, despite its reputation, the game’s never been one of my personal favorites. Will playing it with the context of it being the first 3D Zelda in mind help me gain a new appreciation for it? Or will I come away still thinking that it’s overrated? Tune in text time to find out!

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