Twenty one years ago, Game Boy fans were graced with the wonderful Link’s Awakening, an action-adventure classic that has quite rightfully taken its place in gaming history as one of the greatest games in both the Game Boy’s library and The Legend of Zelda series. But a year before that, Japanese gamers had already played something in the same vein and arguably just as good.
Kaeru no Tame ni Kane wa Naru, or "For the Frog the Bell Tolls” is another Nintendo developed action-adventure game for the good old “brick” Game Boy, starring the Prince of the Sable kingdom and his eternal rival Prince Richard of the Custard kingdom (the same one that pops up in Link’s Awakening), both of which are trying to get one over on each other by rescuing the recently-kidnapped Princess Tiramisu. As you can probably tell from the names, this is meant to be a light-hearted “feel good” adventure rather than an epic tale of woe and despair. (If you’re wondering why “Sable” doesn't fit in with the other dessert-themed names, it’s because it’s from the French “sablé”, and means “shortbread” in Japanese – the more you know!)
At a glance the overhead town and field maps will call to mind memories of Zelda, but the game soon makes its own mark with its unique take on battles and dungeons. All fights, apart from one part of the very last boss, are automatic and their outcome is determined entirely on how Prince Sable’s stats and equipment compare to whoever he’s trying to beat up. The comedy dust clouds these tussles kick up could be in danger of outstaying their welcome but thankfully if the Prince totally outranks his opponent instead of getting into a fight they blown right off the screen as soon as he touches them. As the game relies on item pick-ups hiding in treasure chests to boost the Prince’s health and stats, it’s often a good idea to avoid enemies entirely unless you need to grind for money.
The dungeons, caves, and castles of the Mille-Feuille kingdom are all presented from a side-on point of view, with their difficulty coming more from platforming and environmental puzzles than lock-and-key style puzzling. These areas also put Prince Sable’s frog/snake transformations into good use; when in frog form he can jump much higher than normal and safely walk through water-filled areas, while as a snake he can squeeze into small passages and turn certain enemies into handy blocks. When he’s in an animal form he can’t be understood by humans, but luckily that also means that the guards and soldiers roaming around won’t pay him much attention either and he can pass by unnoticed as a frog into places that he wouldn't be allowed into as a human.
These unique quirks coupled with Zelda-like overworld exploration comes together beautifully to create a game that feels both familiar and fresh all at the same time, even when playing it over two decades after its release. Even though the game is a one-off, it still manages to fill its world with memorable moments and places, and the puzzle-platforming is satisfying without ever becoming frustrating. Straightforward gamers will find an expertly-crafted adventure here, and those that like to explore every nook and cranny aren't forgotten either – finding plenty of helpful items lurking underground and at the end of tricky leaps.
At one point there was a "DX" version planned for the Game Boy Color, much like the fantastic touch-up Link’s Awakening got. Sadly that didn't come through and the game was eventually forgotten, until Nintendo released it on the (Japanese) 3DS eShop in 2012. An English fan translation is also lurking about the internet too, so even though this excellent game hasn't yet had the true remake it deserves, it’s more accessible now than it’s ever been, and well worth a look.