"You'll love how Linkís Awakening throws you into the thick of things right away (remember striking out into the rain in Zelda III?), and without a weapon! We are unsettled by the sense of urgency, and itís very fun to be so off balance so early on. The trumpet-led music harkens back to the very first game in the series, The Legend of Zelda, stirring you into action with appropriate and welcome fanfare."
Itís hard to believe, but itís true. This first Zelda game on the tiny, blurry, black and white GameBoy screen is almost as good as the superb Super NES installment (A Link to the Past) that preceded it, and arguably better than the two NES games that began the series. If you're unfamiliar with that 16-bit gem, rest assured that the comparison is as flattering as they come. This newer quest is even harder in parts, and almost as ingenious about making the tired overhead action-RPG formula fresh and engaging. Perhaps the only thing (other than the lack of colour, which was remedied in the DX update for Gameboy Color) to hold Linkís Awakening back from being on par with A Link to the Past (Zelda III), is the theme.
You see, Princess Zelda isnít actually involved in this fourth 'official' release in the series at all. Of course, youíre still in control of the stalwart young adventurer Link, but the story seems to be a sort of spin-off, wandering quite a bit off the beaten path established by earlier Zelda adventures. While change should always be embraced, as it represents innovation and courage on the developerís part, the tale of the Wind Fish doesnít resonate quite as well as the SNES adventureís yarn featuring Link bravely straddling two separate yet intertwined worlds in peril.
Also, donít expect our adventure to take place in the familiar Kingdom of Hyrule - after stamping out the threat of the evil Ganon, Link decided to take a trip, seeking enlightenment on the high seas. What he found instead was a storm that proceeded to toss his ship like salad, and wash him ashore likeÖ er, dishes. Upon meeting a young woman named Marin, she relates to you that you are on Koholint Island. What of that massive mountain with the giant egg on its peak? The Wind Fish sleeps there, and all will be answered if youíre able to awaken the mysterious creature. Youíll receive your misplaced shield soon enough, but what of your sword? Well, itís on the beach somewhere, so you set off to find it, because solving the riddle of the Wind Fish will be a dangerous task, much to our delight.
You'll love how Linkís Awakening throws you into the thick of things right away (remember striking out into the rain in Zelda III?), and without a weapon! We are unsettled by the sense of urgency, and itís very fun to be so off balance so early on. The trumpet-led music harkens back to the very first game in the series, The Legend of Zelda, stirring you into action with appropriate and welcome fanfare. It's great, but being that the theme is so constant and permeating, it does get a little repetitive. Other, lesser, accompanying tunes are new, yet still fit in quite well with what you might expect for a Zelda adventure.
You might also expect the small screen to obscure items and dialogue, but amazingly, thatís not the case. Everything is crisply outlined in thick, cartoonish black, making the game easy on the eyes when Link is at a standstill. Better still, everything can be tracked effortlessly while our hero is in motion, and that's not always true of even those GameBoy games with similarly good graphic presentation. Even the font utilized for dialogue between characters is large and easily readable. (It's a real treat when a pair of little boys you come across actually school you on the controls, innocently offering that they're unsure of how or why they came to know such things.)
My only complaint with the visuals is that some areas have very similar construction, a common concern with action-RPGs, which, regrettably, has not been addressed in this game as well as it was in the predecessor. When you're adventuring, you shouldn't be saying, ''Wait, have I been here before?'' And that happens at times in Link's Awakening. Thankfully, and somewhat remarkably, the repetition here doesn't permeate at all deeply - remarkable, because Nintendo managed to keep things fairly fresh-looking with only four shades of gray on their palette.
So we've determined that Link's Awakening is faithful... at a glance. But the justice Nintendo has done to their console classic in terms of presentation means little if the gameplay isn't equally true to form. As if this was ever in doubt! Claims are cheap though, so I'll attempt to describe the greatness of Link's Awakening.
Do you remember that curling centipede boss from Zelda III that would speed up with every hit you scored? Connect with an invulnerable segment of the creature and you'd be pushed dangerously near to the edge of the small platform that served as home to the battle. Fall over the edge, and you'd be forced to battle back up to the boss' lair, only to find him revitalized when you returned. Well, that boss is back, only you'll encounter him a lot earlier on in the proceedings. Yes, Nintendo wanted Link's Awakening to represent a marked step up in terms of intensity.
Power Bracelets make a return to give Link the inhuman strength necessary to lift certain objects once again - providing you can find them. Can't cross a particularly wide chasm, even with your velocity-increasing Pegasus Boots and jump-enabling Roc's Feather? Then it's time to bring the indispensable, ever-versatile Hook Shot weapon/tool into play. Fire it like a grappling hook to anchor it securely onto the platform on the other side of the gap, then reel yourself in. If an enemy awaits on the other side, you needn't access the options screen to select your sword again; another tap of the attack button will have the Hook Shot's harpoon-like point pushing the enemy unceremoniously out of harm's way.
Talking to the folks in town and exploring the surface of Koholint Island for tools and clues provides the charm, and scouring the dangerous depths of dimly lit dungeons for the musical instruments needed to learn the Ballad of the Wind Fish, provides the often ingenious challenges. Can't damage that Smasher enemy with your weapons? What's that he's throwing at you? Perhaps if you were to throw it back... Find yourself stuck a level away from obtaining the prize of Eagle's Tower? Perhaps some dungeon deconstruction is in order, and that iron ball might just do the trick... The rooms of Turtle Rock will be difficult to navigate in the ominous dark. That is, until you locate the Magic flame-firing Rod that can light the way and scorch enemies both. When you ultimately learn the Wind Fish's song, what truth will you reveal? And how will it affect the young Marin, who has so recently become a part of your life?
Link's Awakening is to GameBoy what Ristar is to the Game Gear. It's as good a handheld incarnation of the classic that graced the screens of its 16-bit big brother as is conceivably possible. That is no idle praise; but lest it sound that way - aversion to handheld games or not - play the game just one time, and realize that it's almost impossible to leave it at that.
Staff review by Marc Golding (December 10, 2003)
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