As many of you will have been reminded by playing the recently released remake on Switch, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is a surreal little adventure with an odd cast of characters which give Koholint Island a very specific feel. The first portable entry in the celebrated series, this diminutive adventure would go on to influence every Zelda game to come with its otherworldly, dreamlike sense of place and motley crew of oddballs. The developers have noted the conscious influence of David Lynch on the 1993 Game Boy original, so it follows that the writer/director/artist has left a lasting impression on the series as a whole.
In an Iwata Asks interview on the topic of The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, director Takashi Tezuka was reminded of his desire to build a world of characters inspired by Twin Peaks when he set about creating the original Link’s Awakening in the early '90s. Broadcast in Japan as development began, David Lynch and Mark Frost's hugely influential and bizarre series was as popular there as it was in the West and Tezuka was keen to infuse some of its idyllic small-town flavour and surrealism into his diminutive Game Boy title.
We’re approaching an incredible twenty games in the mainline series now and we’ve grown accustomed to the quirky and oftentimes sinister bit players that give Hyrule a very unique texture in the canon of video game kingdoms. Odd characters have been a feature from the beginning of the series (Zelda II, for example, had plenty of enigmatic, unusual folk residing in its villages), but it wasn’t until the fourth entry in the series that the developers consciously added what Tezuka called ‘suspicious types’:
At the time, Twin Peaks was rather popular. The drama was all about a small number of characters in a small town... So when it came to The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, I wanted to make something that, while it would be small enough in scope to easily understand, it would have deep and distinctive characteristics.
For anybody not familiar with Twin Peaks, the TV show premiered in 1990 and could legitimately be described a dozen different ways, but let’s start with surreal murder-mystery serial. That reductive label, though, hardly does it justice; the show is a synthesis of practically every genre imaginable and defies easy categorisation. Part-supernatural procedural that inspired things like The X-Files, it's also melodramatic soap opera, surrealist comedy, psychological horror, philosophical farce, feel-good nostalgia trip - in fact, it might be quicker to say what it isn't. It's not a musical... although music is utterly integral, and characters aren't beyond breaking into song.
Okay, scrap that - there's an argument for it being part-musical, too. However, despite being of no fixed genre, it had a single question which punctured the confusion and hooked a huge mainstream audience: Who killed Laura Palmer? Lynch takes the viewer on a journey between picture-postcard Douglas fir trees and nightmarish horrors in suburban houses; from the mundanity of diners and high schools to surreal red-curtained waiting rooms with zig-zag flooring populated by maniacal doppelgangers and beings who talk backwards.
Twin Peaks channels much of the ‘50s nostalgia and surreal brutality of Lynch’s Blue Velvet into an ongoing narrative told as FBI Agent Dale Cooper arrives in the eponymous North Western town to investigate the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer and is drawn into the interweaving lives of a large cast of townsfolk. Some are outrageously moustache-twirling, while others are strange loners, community linchpins, honest hardworking citizens or bumbling goofs. While the dark central murder plot might not make for appropriate Zelda fodder, it was this melange of characters that Tezuka had in mind for the residents of Koholint Island.
The preceding three Zelda games had offered suitably epic narrative backdrops for Link’s adventures, but Tezuka believes story took a much more central role from Link’s Awakening onwards, with writers Yoshiaki Koizumi and Kensuke Tanabe expanding the narrative into something which flows and grows through the entire game. Series boss Eiji Aonuma acknowledges in the interview that Link’s Awakening influenced subsequent Zeldas and, therefore, the 'suspicious' types of Twin Peaks have had a lasting effect on the land of Hyrule.
Tezuka: After that, in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, all kinds of suspicious characters appeared. I didn't tell them to do it that way, but personally, I did find it considerably appealing.
Aonuma: The staff who worked on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time had all played The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, so they had a sense of how far they could go with the The Legend of Zelda series.
Tezuka: Oh, I see.
Iwata: That makes sense. Tezuka-san, you broadened what was permissible for The Legend of Zelda without even realizing it.
Tezuka: I guess I did. Well, I'm glad I could contribute.
Ocarina of Time has more than its fair share of cranks, misfits and surreal nonsense. Grotesque figures such as Dampé, Granny and the Master Craftman’s son reside in the picturesque Kakariko Village, a town with a hint of inescapable darkness and madness. You can spot it as Guru-Guru cycles through the Song of Storms on his phonograph, or if you venture to the Bottom of the Well to find the Lens of Truth or through the graveyard into the Shadow Temple that lies beneath. On the surface it's all windmills and cuccos, but that's just one side.
A darker version of the entire kingdom manifests after your trip into the future via the Temple of Time, too. There’s a duality to many aspects of Ocarina which would be explored even more fully in its direct sequel. The Happy Mask Salesman carried that same unnerving spirit into Majora’s Mask and the devs turned the darkness up to 11 in what is arguably the most surreal Zelda game.
The need to appreciate every last moment we have is in the DNA of Majora's Mask.
Many inhabitants of Termina are dreamlike doppelgangers of Hyrule denizens that mirror their Ocarina counterparts, but also diverge from them in fascinating ways. Those familiar with Lon Lon Ranch's Ingo - already modelled after Luigi, remember - may expect the leader of the Gorman Troupe to act a certain way, especially after meeting his devious twin brothers. Ultimately, though, he is revealed to have a sensitive soul, affected by failure after starting out on the showbiz path with youthful idealism.
Horrific elements like the maniacal moon or the tortuous transformation Link endures every time he dons a mask give the impression that Termina is a surreal nightmare version of Hyrule - the literal ‘end’ that its name suggests - but the people here aren’t evil, not even the lonely Skullkid that causes all the trouble when he dons the titular mask. The repeating three-day cycle lets us study them and their daily routines in minute detail in a way video games rarely allow; to see their hopes, dreams and reactions to an impending, inevitable doom.
Despite its downbeat, ominous mood, there are moments of levity, whether it be the alien invasion at Romani Ranch, the Monkey and Deku Princess section in the Southern Swamp, or the numerous interactions with characters in Clock Town. And, lest we forget, the delightful Tingle debuted here too.
Twin Peaks and the Zelda series also both delight in a shared pleasure of 'the little things'. Whether it’s cherry pie and some damn fine coffee, or fishing and fairground-style minigames, the acceptance of a malevolence within (and without) seems to foster an appreciation of the wonderful friendships and momentary pleasures of life, whether that’s a doughnut, a spot of Doggy Racing or simply smashing a pot. The need to appreciate every last moment we have is in the DNA of Majora's Mask.
Ocarina of Time ran at 20fps on original hardware, but you rarely hear about that when you ask someone for their memories.
Strange, off-the-wall elements would continue as hallmarks of the Zelda series. Twilight Princess introduced an entire realm breaking into the kingdom of Hyrule with Princess Midna transformed into a mischievous imp (arguably more interesting than her ‘true’ form) and side characters such as Fabli and the reliably eccentric Postman continued the tradition of fascinating, 'unorthodox’ characters. The Wind Waker features a similarly eclectic mix, with people like the bike-riding shopkeeper Beedle adding charm where these 'zany' personalities could easily feel contrived.
Of course, many of the themes and features in Zelda were established well before Twin Peaks was broadcast. The natural tranquillity and danger of the woods, for example – wondrous and menacing in equal measure. The Dark World from A Link To The Past also twisted players’ perceptions of the game world, turning Hyrule on its head and showing a bleaker, uglier side of familiar things. And we haven't even mentioned Shadow Link, the most obvious and dastardly doppelganger of all.
Not all these influences come from Twin Peaks, then, but echoes and links (no pun intended) can be found throughout the series if you look, whether overarching themes or specific characters. You start seeing aspects of the preening Bobby Briggs in fan favourite Groose from Skyward Sword or finding parallels with the buried evil spilling out into the real world - much like the darkness billowing from Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule Castle across the rural beauty of the kingdom. Duplicitous doppelgangers crop up on that journey, too, although this time with a comical penchant for bananas.
It's easy to get carried away, but it’s not just Takashi Tezuka who's mentioned Twin Peaks in relation to Zelda; Shigeru Miyamoto, too, has commented independently on its influence while discussing Ocarina of Time. Miyamoto famously isn’t overkeen on story for story’s sake, but the milieu of characters in the show appealed to him as a way to build an engaging world and show Link’s place in it through juxtaposition:
I didn't want to tell a story so much as I wanted to have a lot of people appear around the main character and portray their relationships. Some years back, a television show called Twin Peaks was popular. When I saw that, the most interesting thing wasn't the ins and outs of the story, but what kinds of characters appeared.
I think those suspicious and odd characters alone are interesting. I'm more interested in their presence than who is whose cousin and whose parents were sworn enemies way back when.
Essentially, lore-building doesn’t interest Miyamoto in the slightest – it’s the effect of a character’s presence and the reactions their personality affords that make them worthwhile, and this arguably results in the same compelling absence of concrete answers that characterises Lynch’s work. Malon and Talon from Lon Lon Ranch are very obviously versions of Marin and Tarin from Mabe Village, but the link isn't explained - it simply exists and fans are left to their own devices to fill in the gaps how (and if) they chose. Lynch is resolutely opposed to ‘explaining’ his work and that leaves a vacuum for people to lose themselves in, obsessing over meanings, allusions and details and enabling the audience to suggest their own readings and interpretations, investing a part of themselves into the work. These worlds and their inhabitants linger in the mind long after we’ve said goodbye, even if it’s sometimes tough to put a finger on why.
And despite this de-emphasis on superfluous detail, that’s not to say they haven’t been thought through. It’s the unspoken details that makes these characters and their idiosyncrasies feel genuine when they could easily come across as affectatious idiots. Twin Peaks' second season slipped into meandering self-parody as Lynch departed for movie work and the show sailed rudderless through an ocean of outlandish ‘skits’ that aped the style without any of the substance. The director returned for the final episode, though, not to mention 1992's movie 'prequel' and 2017's remarkable third season.
The uncanny quality of the ensemble cast infuses and enhances the environment itself - it’s the people that make a place special, however beautiful the landscape.
In a similar way to how Lynch gets all the plaudits for the series, Miyamoto is frequently singled out for praise across several of Nintendo's celebrated series when in reality it's the collaborative process which produces these works of art. Just as Lynch had writer Mark Frost to temper his opaque, surrealist tendencies with a compelling narrative through line, Miyamoto had his colleagues pulling in other directions to the benefit of the end product.
And as with Twin Peaks, that end product is incredibly tough to summarise. What is it that puts Ocarina of Time, for example, at the top of so many 'best of' lists, to the point that it becomes boringly predictable? It’s certainly not the low-poly models or the muddy textures, nor its puzzles or technical achievements. Ocarina ran at 20fps on original hardware, but you rarely hear about that when you ask someone for their memories. What most people do is describe a feeling in vague, general terms using words like 'atmosphere' and 'tone'. Its greatness is linked to something we struggle to define, tied to a people and a place in the same way nostalgia and memory are.
When it comes to Zelda, Nintendo continues to produce characterful worlds brimming with people worth knowing. The uncanny quality of the ensemble cast infuses and enhances the environment itself - it’s the people that make a place special, however beautiful the landscape. ‘Freaks’ or ‘misfits’ they may be, but just as the Log Lady, bumbling Pete Martell or hapless Deputy Andy are an integral part of Twin Peaks’ charm and quirkiness, the varied citizens of Hyrule are as essential to the kingdom as any of its landmarks, and the pleasure of their company is as much a draw to return as the thrill of exploration and adventure.