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

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


"CONTAINS: The best Zelda soundtrack since Link 182."


If I ever want to be scoffed at online (and I do; who doesn’t love being subjected to a good scoffing), I’ll generally admit that Link’s Awakening remains, by some distance, my favourite Zelda game. Zelda, as a whole, was something I always struggled to connect with; I never got into how initially obsessed the series was with telling a very similar tale (a princess has been kidnapped: grab your green tunic/floppy hat ensemble and go bloody rescue her!) through the exciting medium of never-ending fetch quests. Awakening was hardly free from these limitations – do-gooding forest sprites just gotta fetch quest – but it did work hard in providing a new narrative. It’s just that this new narrative happened to be subtle mind-wrecking nightmare fuel.

But I was content with my less-celebrated GameBoy game, the way it made the most of its platform’s rudimentary abilities to still build a world very different from Hyrule. Perhaps, in an attempt to flee his never-ending obligations to constantly rescue the titular princess, Link finds himself trapped on Koholint Island. He’s there because he’s stolen Ys’ shtick and survived a shipwreck only to wash up on a beach, sans any equipment and missing big meaty chunks of his memory.

Considering literal wristwatches now have more processing power than the original GameBoy did, it’s worth dwelling on how well defined Koholint Island is. You catch your first glimpses of this on the beach. Lazy tendrils of sea lap rhythmically against a sandy surface, strewn liberally with bits of washed up debris and seashells. The odd palm tree sits serenely in the background as aquatic wildlife frolics merrily in the surf, crustaceans gathering in tight places. Everything is clean, well defined and containing subtle details that are lost on Link, who’s casually downing.



He’s eventually rescued by the island’s inhabitants who, in an effort to really grind in all that Ys thievery, just so happen to be in dire need of an adventurer type who’s handy with a sword. You soon learn that you've been deposited in a once peaceful place that has recently become plagued by monsters; coincidentally, around the same time you showed up. Devoid of your equipment, you are directed back towards the beach your sea-soaked body was found not so long ago. You washed up there, so it's reasonable to assume your stuff did, too. There, you are mercilessly attacked by murderous crabs.

Normal Link, a pointy-eared slaughterer of all angry crustaceans, would consider these a slight inconvenience before stabbing them a few times and hoping they drop some rupees. But it’s not normal Link you currently control. It’s amnesia Link. And he doesn’t even have a sword; the only thing he can find is his shield. But that’s okay! It’ll dissuade the pesky crabs for the meanwhile, and is the perfect tool for nudging aside the obtuse spiny urchins that prevent you from further exploring the beachfront.

You’ll eventually find your sword. You’ll eventually rediscover your memories; but you’ll have to figure out the nefarious nature of Koholint to do so. There’s something not quite right about the oddly idyllic island, sudden monster infestation aside, which you’ll soon learn has something to do with the inconvenient slumber of the Wind Fish and the arrival of a massive egg sat atop the island’s highest peak. After navigating the deadly beach, you’re told all this by a very chatty owl. Just to make sure you’re in no doubt of his owlishness, he starts every sentence with “Hoot! Hoot!”. Owls are many things, but never subtle.



Odds are, he’ll be the driving force behind your exploration, finding your way through confusing forest mazes and unexplored swamps to take part in eight dungeon crawls that often smugly deviate from the Zelda norm. There’s a strong music motiff running throughout, which won’t surprise many people considering the series’ long running ocarina obsessions, but many puzzle solutions revolve around the small collection of instruments you slowly assemble. It’s happy to try out some new ideas, too; the Rok’s Feather gives Link the then-unheard of ability to jump over stuff. You can use this to dodge various attacks, or gain access to enemy weak spots things like the boomerang and/or bombs struggle to reach. You’ll also need to use it to bypass the game’s infrequent side-viewed platforming stages where Link stops being Adol for a little while and has a little go at being Mario instead.

I don’t mind his forays into, ahem, homages, because it’s these little explorations away from the beaten track that combine to make Link’s Awakening a bit of a series oddity. With most of the usual cast completely absent and the all too familiar foundations purposefully muddled, Nintendo gave themselves a rare opportunity to deviate from the script; to produce something different.

They delivered. In between the chatty owls and giant-nosed, rosy-cheeked islanders, there’s something considerably more sinister lurking. Link may think he’s being of help, trying to poke around in the shadowy underbelly, but there’s a chance everyone involved might come to wish they’d never bothered rescuing him at all.

5/5

EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (May 25, 2019)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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joseph_valencia posted May 25, 2019:

Damn straight!

And what kind of fool would scoff at you for admitting Link's Awakening is your favorite Zelda?

Minor note: You misspelled "kidnapped" in the first paragraph, but I recommend keeping it. Misspelling that word seems to illustrate your contempt for this cliche. "Kidnaped" sounds funny too.

Less minor note: Consider deleting "trying a" from the second sentence of the sixth paragraph. Seems to be a random string you accidentally left in there.
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EmP posted May 26, 2019:

Kidnaped/Kidnapped is one of those weird things were neither is actually wrong, and I just go with whatever the first spellcheck software that comes across it usually uses. FOR EXAMPLE: the spellcheck ran through Goggle chrome says only double P is right. Goggle docs ran with single p. If even Goggle can't decide, what hope we?

Thanks for the catches, which I've edited away. Usually, when I dare say that LA remains my favourite Zelda, it only serves to bring the OoT crowd out (and now, perhaps with more weight behind their words, the Breath bunch) but it so wants to be its own game, and go out and do its own thing, that it remains the only Zelda game I've beaten more than once. Maybe so i can just feel awful about the game's ending all over again.

Thanks for reading!
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honestgamer posted May 26, 2019:

As an avid reader, I have run across the word "kidnapped" (or a variant) hundreds or maybe even thousands of times throughout my life. After all, I read a lot of crime fiction, where that's a popular plot point. I also read and enjoyed Scottish-born author Robert Louis Stevenson's famous novel "Kidnapped" when I was a child and that probably went a long way toward cementing the more common spelling in my brain and making any alternative spelling pop out from the page. In spite of doing more reading than a lot of folks I know, however, I can't recall definitely ever seeing the word spelled "kidnaped" until this discussion. I decided a little research was in order!

A quick look at a few online dictionaries (and a corroborating test in Microsoft Word) shows EmP is technically correct. The percentage of authoritative sources that use the single-P spelling may be small, but it's still very real. Though the spelling is generally not in favor, the word can be spelled with just the single "P" if one has an accommodating copy editor. I have to imagine there are examples of this less common spelling in literature or "popular" use to account for that, though as noted, I've never seen one. We might be in the middle of a period of transition, since word definitions and their spelling do evolve.

Someone might reasonably suggest "Well, perhaps this is the case of a European spelling versus an English one." Is that what happened here? Additional searching suggests European literature also spells it with the second "P" and this point is even addressed by documentation I found from a UK grammar/spelling authority. I had wondered if European writers at one point spelled it with the single "P" and Americans dropped that habit due to evolving grammatical norms, but just the opposite appears to be true. This interesting discussion, also on a UK site, referenced documentation showing the word was spelled "kidnapped" when it originated in England in the 1680s. Apparently, the word at the time of its origin referred to people taking children away from their parents to carry them off to the colonies. I failed in my attempt to find any UK source that spells it with the single "p," but I did find a few American dictionaries that do, which leads me to wonder if the single-P spelling might actually be an American quirk. We've certainly changed English words around before, so we could be guilty of it here too.

Where acceptance of that less common spelling comes from appears destined to remain a mystery, but it does look like EmP can get away with it if he likes. Many alert readers will assume he's wrong, but as it so happens, they'll be the ones who are wrong.
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joseph_valencia posted May 26, 2019:

I can't respect a person who thinks Breath of the Wild is better than Link's Awakening. Ocarina, sure. Breath? That's not even a Top 100 contender. I would SMH so hard if someone said to my face that Breath of the Wild was the better game.

Your thoughts on the ending are interesting, EmP. You seem to feel guilt about ending the "dream." I feel that the ending has a more bittersweet quality to it. Everyone you encounter in the game is basically a "projection", to use a term from Inception. They seem to be real human beings, but they aren't. They're dream "actors" who exist in the minds of the only two truly sentient characters in the game, Link and the Wind Fish. In the end, Koholint and its inhabitants can't really "die", because they weren't really "alive" to begin with.

So why does the ending make people feel sad? I think, more than most games, Link's Awakening drives home the bittersweet finality of "finishing a game". The "dream" of Koholint could be seen as a metaphor for the process of becoming immersed in an adventure or RPG game. What happens to Koholint at the end of the game effectively happens to every adventure and RPG world we become attached to when we finish those particular games. They end. There's no more. One you reach that "The End" screen, all you can do is either stare at it or hit the reset button and start over... but the world you became attached to can never truly "continue" beyond that end game state. Heck, you could apply this to any medium besides games. Every story has a beginning and an end, and eventually there's no more story left to tell and we must part with these characters we've grown attached to.

Link, too, has to accept that the island inhabitants he encountered during his short stay on Koholint weren't real. They may have seemed that way due to their vivid personalities and the immersive nature of the dream, but that doesn't change the facts. For Link, there's a "real world" outside Koholint that needs him. Ironically, our hero is also a "projection", but one that exists in a 4-megabit cartridge instead of a dream. That's a thought that could inspire a lot of navel gazing!

No matter how you interpret it, Link's Awakening has one of the most profound endings in video game history. It leaves a lot for the player to unpack. On the other hand, Breath of the Wild has a desolate wilderness and lots of worthless digital ingredients to farm for. YAWN. As Bane said to Robin in that one scene from Inception: "You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling."
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overdrive posted May 27, 2019:

When it comes to me and Zelda games, I think that only the older ones really deserve consideration in "best ever", as the newer ones replaced "quick to get into" and "really fun" with "tons of busy work" and "when the hell do I get to actually explore a dungeon!?".

I've gone between various games over the years as my favorite. The original has the nostalgia vote, the second NES one has the speed-running vote (second quest, when you start out with all the stats you finish the game with) and I think this game, Link to the Past and OoT are probably the ones I currently think of now when I think my favorite.

Majora's Mask never clicked with me, the two GBC Oracle games got annoying after a while because you had to go to the menu to switch equipment on a room-by-room basis in the last few dungeons, Twilight Princess was hilariously bloated, especially in the early going and I haven't played the others, although I own Skyward Sword as part of my 47-game backlog (WTF, Rob...WTF...that doesn't even count ROMs and Kemco games stored on my tablet...) and have Minish Cap in ROM capacity (although my GBA emulator is comically glitchy, so I have no clue as to if it's actually playable).
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joseph_valencia posted May 27, 2019:

Overdrive, have you played Link Between Worlds for 3DS? It's pretty much a return to form for old school Zelda. The pace is fast and the fetch quest stuff is kept to a minimum. It's a shame Nintendo hasn't done more with that game's engine beyond a strange Four Swords spiritual successor.

I actually like speedrunning Zelda II without the 2nd quest. It's a fun game to play in one sitting, especially if you know where all the point bags and 1UPs are.
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overdrive posted May 27, 2019:

No, but I own it; part of the backlog, but I forgot to mention it in the last post. Which means the backlog has reached the size where I can't even remember what all I have...
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joseph_valencia posted May 27, 2019:

Bump it to the front of the queue. You won't regret it!

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