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The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX (Game Boy Color) artwork

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX (Game Boy Color) review

"Link explores a new world that is suspiciously similar to the one he usually roams. I'm not complaining."

I suppose if one just looks at the basic facts, it would be easy to assume that The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening probably deserves the same sort of "this is TOO easy" mocking that those laughable CD-i games received. It was the first Zelda game released for a portable system and that system was the small, low-powered, gray-screened Game Boy -- making it a giant step backwards from the SNES' A Link to the Past as far as graphics and sound go. It also had nothing to do with Princess Zelda or Ganon, essentially making it a gaiden game to the franchise in general.

Fortunately, Zelda is one of Nintendo's cornerstones, leading me to believe there was no way this game would have seen the light of day if its creators hadn't been successful at utilizing every last scrap of memory available to them to create something that could be considered a great game, as opposed to just a great portable one. Apparently that mission was successful, as when Nintendo upgraded the Game Boy to a color version, they felt Link's Awakening warranted an enhanced port that not only included full color, but also possessed a hidden bonus dungeon designed to make use of that increased palette.

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX screenshot The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX screenshot

So, what makes this game so good? In a way, it serves as a bridge from what Zelda originally was and what it has become. After A Link to the Past introduced puzzles more complex than "push this block" and "bomb that wall" into its dungeons, Link's Awakening built upon that and based its mazes around the art of puzzle solving. Just look at the late-game Eagle's Tower, for example. The majority of my time there was spent lugging around a giant ball to slam into four pillars to drop the place's upper floors down so I could access the boss lurking at the very top. To do so, I had to fling the ball over pits and low walls (those insurmountable waist-high fences that have been the bane of video game heroes for so, so long) and then maneuver around the maze to access it again in order to bounce it off another pillar.

Other places are more subtle with how they make players think. As per the norm, each dungeon contains a hidden item necessary to both get through that place and future challenges. These things tend to be useful from the moment you unearth them until the credits are rolling. Heck, from the area containing and immediately surrounding Koholint Village, where you start play, it will be impossible to travel too far in any direction until you've gained the Pegasus Boots for jumping and the Power Bracelet for removing rocks from your path. In fact, generally speaking, this was the first linear overhead Zelda, as each special item is not only useful, if not necessary, in future dungeons; but also often needed to just reach the part of the game's world where they're hidden.

This world, known as Koholint Island, is essentially Hyrule with a different name, as it contains the same general sort of layout and bestiary as Link's regular stomping grounds. He winds up marooned there after a boating accident, so instead of being able to take a well-deserved break after one of his many battles with Ganon, he has to find his way back home -- a task much more complicated than one might expect. While the game's eight dungeons are the main objectives, the world is loaded with all sorts of secrets helpful to his search ranging from heart container pieces to little gremlins that bestow the ability to carry more bombs, magic powder and other disposable items.

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX screenshot The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX screenshot

To add to the puzzle-solving nature of Link's Awakening, a few of these locations do require a certain amount of ingenuity. If you see a spot of ground that seems a bit out of place, using the shovel to dig there often will give you a seashell, which can be redeemed for a couple prizes, including a superior sword. Scattered through the land are a number of people looking for a specific item, leading you to embark upon a lengthy string of trades to make everyone happy -- which leads to you getting another very powerful item. And, of course, there's the saga of Key Cave.

This, the game's third dungeon, is probably the first in which your brain will truly be tested. As the name indicates, you'll need a lot of keys to get through it, which are found through solving puzzles or simply killing all the enemies in a given room. However, you also need a key just to get into the place and to obtain that, you'll have to find five golden leaves for a guy who was kicked out of his castle by a slew of evil soldiers. Those leaves are hidden in the castle, forcing you to explore what is, in essence, a small dungeon to collect them all. All in all, it's a lengthy affair where you feel like you've achieved something by simply making it inside the Key Cave's front door!

Fortunately, what you are achieving has little to do with tedium. As I said, this game could be considered a bridge from the first few Zelda games and the more recent ones. While the puzzle-filled dungeons provided a look into the future of the series, the fast pace of the game is squarely placed in its roots. A little while ago, when starting up Twilight Princess, I was amazed at just how much busy-work was required just to be able to enter the first actual dungeon -- here, I just had to explore Koholint Village, find my sword on the beach outside of town and then stroll a few screens further and I was at the front door to the first maze. There's something to be said about an adventure where everything just flows so smoothly without such "joys" as hunting down a ton of bugs to chase away twilight and having to endure running errands for half a village just so you're allowed to venture past its gates.

Still, there are a few problems with this game, but they're not particularly bothersome. You have a lot of items to juggle and only two buttons they can be mapped to, so as dungeons get more complex, you'll be visiting the menu screen often to swap one out for another. While this never became as annoying as it did in the later Oracle of Ages/Seasons games, it still was an occasional hassle. A couple of the puzzles, such as the "throw two chess pieces until both land upright" and the "slash three animated playing cards so they all show the same suit" challenges, can be pretty annoying. While the Game Boy Color Link's Awakening DX port, which is the version I played, looks better thanks to the addition of color, its additional dungeon could be considered a game-breaker.

Let's face it -- when a company has an already-completed game that really doesn't need anything else, but it feels compelled to add new content for its re-release, there's a good chance something will go wrong. The Color Dungeon is a pretty solid addition to the game, but the prize for conquering it is the choice between doubling either Link's offense or his defense. One makes it all the more easier to butcher virtually everything in your path; the other makes you nearly impossible to kill. You can't lose either way, but the game's difficulty for the rest of the way will take a definite hit to the degree where I wouldn't advise going here until just before tackling the final boss. When solving dungeons is this much fun, why would one want to unnecessarily neuter them?

Still, this is not just the best Game Boy Zelda -- it deserves recognition for being one of the better games bearing that name on any platform. It maintains the quick pace of the series' earliest titles, while adding the emphasis on puzzle-solving that became its foundation as the games moved into 3-D settings. The simplistic graphics and sound betray its retro portable system heritage, but the vast world of Link's Awakening, loaded with secrets and surprises, ensures that it shouldn't be considered a lesser title because of that.


overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (June 03, 2014)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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