To celebrate the 35th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda, we're running a series of features looking at a specific aspect — a theme, character, mechanic, location, memory or something else entirely — from each of the mainline Zelda games. Today, Stu gets all dreamy about one of his favourite entries in the franchise...
It’s difficult to think of Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening as the kind of coherent, cohesive world that the series is famous for offering. But then, it isn’t really supposed to be. The game operates on dream logic, and for good reason. (By the way, what’s the statute of limitations on spoilers when a game has been relatively recently remade?)
When I dream, I tend to dream of intricate patterns. Interweaving, abstract spaces that seem coherent to my sleep-slapped mind. Dream logic, again. And that’s Link’s Awakening; a series of spaces that don’t necessarily hang together. Except they do – mechanically. The way that counts.
Essentially, Link’s first handheld adventure is a collection of single-screen rooms – hundreds of them, each and every single one having at least one interesting thing in it. It’s something of a triumph of minimalism – despite its piecemeal, fragmented, gamey nature it still manages to conjure up a sense of place quite unlike any other in the series (including its “spiritual sequels”, Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages).
By the standards of a franchise that can often feel a little too safe, Link’s Awakening isn’t afraid to bring some truly odd scenarios. Everything about the game is fascinatingly off-kilter, with its overworld and main quest offering a surplus of bizarre characters and situations. The transformed tanuki Tarin bouncing all over the Lost Woods. Crazy Tracy’s special mixture. The appearance of Richard from import classic Kaeru no Tame ni Kane wa Naru. Ulrira and his shyness only letting him communicate via the many phone booths. If you’ve played it, you’ll fondly recall every one of these and many more. And they’re barely scratching the surface.
The later, divisive Skyward Sword was both criticised and praised in turn for it’s transplantation of the gameplay style usually found in the series’ beloved dungeons into its overworld, but Link’s Awakening did it first – the carefully-crafted flick-screen-key-door-action-puzzle intricacy seeps beyond the self-contained multi-floor boss stages and into every single screen of the game.
This makes Link’s Awakening something of an anomaly – a game that’s lean and fulfilling at the same time. By removing the major-league traversal aspect of the game, it changes up the way you look at everything. Even the most innocuous screen could hide something absolutely crucial to progress – a buried key, or the seemingly decorative rooster statue in Mabe Village. Everything here has a purpose, whether it’s pushing you towards the eventual (and brilliant) endgame, or part of one of the many additional quests and activities that will get you better gear and collectables.
And what collectables – has there ever been a completion reward in a Zelda game more useful and satisfying than the upgraded sword? Simply bring twenty of the deviously-hidden Secret Seashells to right place and bam, you’ll be cutting through Octoroks like butter. Even more excellent is the fact that this reward doesn’t actually require every Seashell in the game – there are 26 total. This turns the hunt into far less of a frustrating grind than it could have been, given there’s no in-game way of tracking their location.
Another surprising inclusion is an all-too-dreamlike crossover with Nintendo’s flagship Mario series. It starts off pretty simple with a Yoshi doll available as a prize in the village's “Trendy Game”, but pretty soon you’ll be using the Roc’s Feather to hop on Goombas, slashing Piranha Plants and – most memorably - taking a Chain Chomp for a walk. Side-scrolling wasn’t a new thing to the Zelda series at the time (lest we forget Adventure of Link) but to be presented as such an analogue to the more popular Mario series, complete with enemies from those games, was something new and remains surprising to this day. It fits the dream state of Link’s Awakening, though – particularly when Super Mario Bros. 2’s antagonist Wart turns up, a refugee from Subcon. And what did Subcon turn out to be…?
It’s a visual stunner and probably the best-looking monochrome Game Boy game – while it has a lot of competition, none of it is as expansive as Link’s Awakening. Making its extensive world of single screens feel unique throughout is an incredible achievement and matched by a catchy soundtrack that’s intense and emotional when it needs to be; the tones of the instruments you’ll gather have an unforgettably unearthly quality to them.
All in all, the brilliance of Link’s Awakening is the marriage of its compartmental design with its somnambulist theme – the tight, intricate dungeons blend perfectly with its toybox overworld where anything could be hidden anywhere. There’s no piece of equipment you can obtain that doesn’t have multiple, creative, undocumented uses. No location lacking in mystery or reasons to revisit. The difficulty is perfectly pitched to challenge without becoming frustrating, and the whole thing dovetails perfectly into an ending that’s much more resonant than almost any other in the entire medium. It’s a game that starts small and ends big, both in design scope and metaphysical impact.
Its DX re-release for Game Boy Color turns the game from a perfect 10 to a 9 with an unenjoyable extra dungeon and a garish lick of paint that doesn’t do the visuals any favours, but at its core, it retains the feel of the classic original and is very much worth playing if it’s your only option. The recent Switch remake, however, is a less faithful adaptation. The addition of scrolling fundamentally changes the puzzle-box feel of the game for the worse; it’s not that the remake is bad, but it doesn’t feel like Link’s Awakening anymore – to me, at least. Performance problems also undermine the game’s sheer perfection, but nonetheless, it would be foolish to imply that it was anything other than an excellent piece of software.
The darker, more surreal elements of Link’s Awakening were carried forward in the likes of the beloved, moodier Majora’s Mask, as well as its representation in the tremendous Hyrule Warriors. With the deserved success of Breath of the Wild, I can only wonder if there’ll ever be another series entry that’s quite so bite-sized (Minish Cap notwithstanding) again. I’m fairly sure I’ll never love another Zelda quite like I do Link’s Awakening. You could almost call it my dream (ahem) game.
Love this game. It was my first Zelda game ever. Had the DX version. Played the crap out of it. Switch version to me was just as enjoyable
I think nostalgia plays a huge part in how a lot of these remakes are received. I never played the original. Even though it's one of the best looking games on the console, I just couldn't get into it and dropped it after a few hours.
Hated the ending, without giving spoilers I felt betrayed by it.
A great article that really understands the appeal of the game, and I agree that the original is best. I did come to appreciate the DX version, although I admit it could receive a more subtle colour scheme nowadays. The Switch remake, however, really does lose something with the addition of scrolling, as you say, and I wasn't keen on the multi-direction control either. The Game Boy map, presented as a grid, was an integral part of the design, as you would analyse and explore it square-by-square.
i brought the remake a few days ago after listening to the ost and i'm really looking forward to playing it, just gotta wait for my repaired switch to come home
Hadn't finished it on the 3DS but finished Link's Awakening on Switch. Absolutely loved it! They should've priced it at $40 tbh. I sold it shortly after beating the 9-10 hour campaign so it lives on in my dreams instead of my collection of cartridges. Masterpiece of a game but not something I'd return to for probably another few years, too many things on the market and limited time!
@Dragwhite it's fantastic, really great gaming experience
@Kilamanjaro i've been meaning to pick it up since last year but completely forgot about it until I saw it again in tesco, as soon as i get my switch bsck i'm really looking forward to dive in for the artstyle and music alone
It was my first Zelda game and I still love it today!
Some of these comments are making me very sad
I really don't understand how adding color and an extra dungeon can bring a game down a score and this is the first time I've ever heard such a thing be said about the DX version. I can MAYBE understand not liking the extra dungeon but complaining about the color just seems strange. I don't see how going from black and white (or greenish black) to color can be anything but positive. Maybe that's because I grew up with the DX version though. That aside though Link's Awakening is one of my favorite Zelda games of all time, so I agree with that much. The artstyle of the remake took some getting used to but it eventually grew on me. I'm thinking of replaying the remake again sometime soon in fact!
EDIT: Actually, no, I can't even understand the extra dungeon being that much of a detractor because it's completely optional. So... opinions I guess.
I enjoyed the remake more despite having played the original (well, DX version) twice before. Personally? The Oracle games are much better and I hope we get similar remakes for them, so more people get to experience them.
I welcome more games being set outside of Hyrule in the future, it's always nice to get games which don't follow the usual format of saving Zelda from Ganon. I really hope whatever comes after BOTW2 is set in a different land.
I’m not a purist. It was my first Zelda game and I enjoyed all three versions.
@Onion it really is a case of “I don’t like new things.”
I’ve never played the original, but I absolutely love the remake. As of now, it’s my favorite 2D Zelda. (Although I’m about half way through a link to the past, so we’ll see if that changes)
@blockfight "I think nostalgia plays a huge part in how a lot of these remakes are received."
I generally agree, but nostalgia doesn't always work.
I played, and loved, Links Awakening when it launched on GameBoy. And again on GBC. Then I bought it and played in on Switch. While I did make it to the end, I didn't really enjoy it. To me the gameplay hadn't aged well even if the graphics were new and shiny.
On the flip side I've been playing both Crash and Spyro for the first time and really enjoying both. Though they too have their old school mechanics moments of frustration too.
It's the zelda that hooked me to the series in the first place! The first two just didn't click with me. I was very young and just liked watching others play but they were too hard for me. Heck they still are! Yeah i played Link to the past too but i didn't love it like i loved Link's awakening!
I don't know what it is. There's just something special about it. It's got a goofy charm and it's the one i couldn't put down. Plus that ending oh man what a mind blower! Still get chills everytime!
@Onion Yeah that's nonsensical to me too. Just... don't play the new dungeon. It's an opinion piece, so it's not overly important, but for anyone else looking into the game now, I definitely recommend DX over the original.
Switch version was my first experience of the game (I’m old, but late to Nintendo). Adored it. Perhaps not in my top 10 of all time, but it’s certainly pushing for the top 20.
Link's Awakening has such a homely feel to it. It pulls you in in a way that few games can match
I loved the DX version and have yet to actually play the Switch one, although it has been sitting on my SD card for a good while now.
Quite a magical game indeed that in some ways even surpasses A Link to the Past, which is quite a miracle considering the hardware they run on and the humble beginnings of this project. I also have to admit that the original 1993 release is the best version of the game.
I’ve played Link’s Awakening more than any Zelda other than the original, it’s a gem and I love it. Great world, great dungeons, lots of characters. It’s a wonder this game existed on the first gameboy. I couldn’t get into the switch version though. The action felt off, the camera angle was weird, and woof, slowdown. Great music though.
@blockfight I don't think so, no. Not in this case. I never played the original and I fell head over heels in love with the remake
@avictorao Glad you enjoyed it. I hope they remake some of the other Zelda games in a smilar art-style.
@blockfight yes. Zelda 1 with both quests please.
@blockfight I played the original, but the remake is so starkly different it felt like a new game, so it didn’t make me feel nostalgic. It felt like a new experience, even though the “game” portion is essentially the same mechanics and such. Honestly, it felt like how the game SHOULD have been to begin with, barring hardware limitations of the time.
@Nymos I honestly enjoy Links Awakening more than the original Zelda. It makes the original feel so clunky and dated, hilarious for a gameboy game to do that.
First game generally didn't want to complete once I figured out what was going to happen. Was a sad moment, but one I'll never forget.
I'd say this is almost the perfect game in either iteration. Perhaps not long enough or groundbreaking enough to be considered the best game of all time (OOT v BOTW for me) but probably with less flaws than contenders for that title, and completely successful in delivering what it sets out to achieve.
I liked the colour dungeon in DX. The reward you get is pretty bad ass too.
@Onion I don't get it either. When I played Pokemon Blue on Gameboy and later Yellow on Gameboy Color... I loved it. How the remastered sprites looked in color, how routes and cities had their own colors. It was a nice touch.
I mean, look at it. Here you have the international Red/Blue sprites: https://i.redd.it/no3qfcquvot01.gif
Here the colored ones from Yellow:
Sure, the colors have been limited... But it was a nice addition.
I played Link's Awakening DX on my brother's GameBoy Color a long time ago when I was a toddler. I didn't know what I was doing at all back then but it was fun to explore. Got the remake and absolutely loved it. It's far from perfect but it was a really fun and charming adventure to play through. Took me a while to beat, though. Really hope we see more 2D Zelda titles in the future!
Game Boy was my first gaming system, Link's Awakening my first gaming experience (together with Tetris, TaleSpin, Dragon Heart, and Aladdin, if I recall correctly). Later on there were other Game Boys, there were impressive GBC games like Perfect Dark, Cannon Fodder, the Oracle Zelda games, Alone in the Dark: the New Nightmare,... and GBA games that blew my mind like Ecks Vs Sever (1&2), Kill.Swicth, Star X, Golden Sun (I count both as one), Minish Cap, Max Payne, Payback, Advance Wars,... (3D was "new" to me then). The list goes on and on, but nothing can take away from the near-perfection that was Link's Awakening, both as an introduction to video games and just as a video game by itself. The remake was beautiful and I played it almost on auto pilot while still fully taking in everything I experienced, and while it shows how much games have advanced since then, it also shows how timeless and perfect the source material was and still is in concept, even without the very welcome improvements of extra buttons for easier access to basic actions.
Together with Minish Cap, it's one of the Zelda games that -no matter my mood- always gets in my top 5 Zelda games ever. And at the moment, I'd also add Skyward Sword, so I'm really happy I'll get to play it on my (4 years old...) newest ultra Game Boy Switch.
Slightly off-topic: just finished Chronos: Before the Ashes twice in a row on it now, a great game for Zelda fans and fans of exploring the concept of dreams vs reality, I'd say (I love it on casual, hate it on normal. I'm not a fan of those "hardcore" stress inducing games anymore, ZombiU was the last game I enjoyed best on the hardest setting, Sniper Elite 4 the last one I played on the hardest setting eventually but still enjoy equally if not more on the more moderate settings).
Links awakening is my most important Zelda game personally. Not the best though wind Waker takes that. Took time to like wind Waker and it took 3 playthroughs to really put it up there as I liked it more overtime. But links awakening was not like that. Coming off wind Waker 1st time I didn’t like Zelda. But links awakening was amazing. I had to force myself to do 2 dungeons a day because I did not want to beat it n a day. I had a lot of free time.
But this game made me a Zelda fan. Just last night got majoras mask and Minish cap and would have never done it if not for links awakening. It also made me want to try link between worlds which is a top five game in the series.
I can see what you are talking about. The only problem I had with links awakening was the blurred edges of the screen took awhile to adjust
The DX version for Game Boy Color is the best. Why one Earth would you play the black-and-white version if not out of nostalgia? This reminds me of all the psychopaths who play Phantasy Star on Nintendo Switch with the original American audio (which is so bad it might qualify as torture) instead of the Japanese audio which is now available to the entire world. The Japanese audio is the same compositions played through a far better FM sound chip. Nostalgia is stupid, sometimes.
As for the Switch remake of Link's Awakening, it's ugly and Link feels too slow. The GBC version actually looks better and plays better than the Switch version. I'll never understand why they remake games that were excellent to begin with. It's like remaking the Mona Lisa - what's the point? The games that need remakes are the ones whose quality was hampered by hardware limitations. Metroid II (Game Boy) comes to mind. The 3DS remake turned a bad game into a great game, because it got rid of the awful, game-breaking screen crunch and added color. It also makes sense to remake or port a game that was originally released on a console that no one owns anymore. Skyward Sword, Wind Waker and Twilight Princess come to mind. Only the geekiest people allow a Wii or a Game Cube to take up space in their house.
Amazing article! Link's Awakening has always been my favorite Zelda since I first played it in 1993 - and, in fact, the original GB version is my favorite as well. I thought the added photo quest in DX was pretty tacky and didn't feel like it properly fit into the game. And yeah, I could've done without the color dungeon, which also added a reward that made you twice as powerful or protected, thus trivializing the original game's well-designed difficulty from that point on. The only thing I did prefer in the DX version was the visual effects of Marin's transformation after the end credits - instead of just floating by in human form, but with fairy wings, it had a picture of her which faded and turned into a seagull, which had been her wish. I thought that was a nice touch and a great decision. But ultimately, the caption under the DX pictures in the article sums up my feelings perfectly: "The Game Boy Color remix gave us DX-style extras, but it arguably robbed the game of some of its purity."
I enjoyed the Switch remake, of course, but yeah, the original GB version will always be the most magical to me. (Throughout all the 3DS years, I had really hoped they would release that version for purchase alongside the DX one. But I knew that was just wishful thinking.)
Having only played the remake, I can say I loved the story, the art-style and almost everything else, but it is tooo short to have the same price as BOTW.
I agree. This is pure magic. Perfect size. Perfect new graphical style. Perfect charme. And... oh Marin... thinking of her singing melts my heart, and I'm an old geezer...
I judge each Zelda game in its own merits. Skyward Sword might not have the usual overworld exploration but thats ok. Its dungeon design and bosses are some of the best in the series.
Link's Awakening though was something special because no developer before or since has done so much with so little. It remains my favourite Zelda for this reason. I think the only games to come close were Pokemon Silver and the awesome GBC version of Metal Gear Solid.
original is amazing, remake is TRASSHH i cant begin to fathom how Nintendo published a game that has obvious frame rate errors between EVERY SINGLE screen transition
that alone made it so i will never touch it again after beating it but will play the original for sure
also the remake should have been $20 cheaper at launch because i mean, it's like 7 hours long full completion and a remake...
Links Awakening was not only my first real stab at playing a Zelda game, it was my first step towards gaming.
I had friends with the NES, and I had played Mario Bros. and bits of the original Zelda, but I wasn't really into gaming. I spent all my time outdoors as a kid.
Fast forward to a few years after the Gameboy was released, and I was gifted one with a copy of Links Awakening. I loved it!
I still didn't get into gaming in any real way until the N64 and OoT.
If Link's Awakening would be re-done (legitimately) by Nintendo in LttP graphics-style, I think it would be my favorite Zelda.
I've realized it was my first full Zelda game, definitely why I have such an attachment to it.
My first experience with this game was the DX version via the 3DS Virtual Console. While I certainly enjoyed the Switch remake and a lot of its touches, the original GB/GBC versions still maintain their own unique level of whimsy and charm that didn't quite translate over to the newer iiteration.
Link's Awakening in all its forms still remains one of my favorite 2D Zelda titles.
Funny, I always think kids today are spoilt for choice with amazing games, but actually, I was just as spoilt with Link's Awakening and Mario Land 2 on the GameBoy.
Good article. Interesting point raised at the end of this article regarding the "smaller" Zelda games. I think the Link's Awakening remake and Link Between Worlds on the 3DS showed more than enough success for further entries.
An all new 2D Zelda is surely just a matter of time. Although I've no idea when they can release it when you consider all the Zelda games they've either announced or are heavily rumoured... BotW2, SS HD, WW/TP ported from Wii U, an all new OOT remake, Oracle of Seasons/Ages getting the LA remake treatment... I love Zelda, but even I'm finding it a bit much!
With A Link to the Past being my first Zelda game, I let this slide by me. I downloaded the VC version on 3DS and played it a couple of hours and never went back to it. I'll wait until the Switch version is on a severe discount before I get it.
"Its DX re-release for Game Boy Color turns the game from a perfect 10 to a 9 with an unenjoyable extra dungeon and a garish lick of paint that doesn’t do the visuals any favours"
I know nostalgia plays a big part in things like this, but really? The visuals are great, holding up much better than the B+W originals, and the extra dungeon is short and easy but ultimately it's a nice bit of extra content; it literally just adds an optional extra to the existing content, how does that detract from the experience (unless you had played it before and were expecting more)?
As for me, I played LA:DX retroactively and I have to say, as unpopular an opinion as it seems to be, I think the Oracle games hold up better. LA feels quite clunky in comparison, however many cute references and moments there are.
It was the only Zelda where I felt like I wasn't playing as Link... but as myself. It's brilliant.
Agreed with you about DX. It's still a great game, and I own it, but its colour scheme is forced and dated (since it seems to be designed around making the visuals have a lot of contrasting colours and pop (as a launch title showcasing the GBC's new colour), rather than more natural ones that are designed to conform with the actual graphics of the game, a la the Oracle duo of games'), and that's not even its worst problem, since it slowed down some menus from and eased the difficulty of certain bosses (such as the boss of Bottle Grotto) from the original 1993 game.
Once I complete Breath of the Wild (if I ever do, the game is a massive disappointment. Weapon durability urgh) then I will start going through Zelda games in release date order. Looking forward to getting to Links Awakening (will play the switch version). If only for the Ballad of the Windfish! What a tune!!
Not really played the 2D games so pretty excited about playing them. Nothing beats Ocarina and Majoras for me so far.
I feel much like you do Stuart.
Link's Awakening remains my favorite Zelda predominantly due to how tight a game design it is, while still allowing so many bizarre thematic elements, that end up feeling completely logical, in power of their functionality.
The raw structure of the game is like a finely distilled gin, while its graphics, music, and story make up a refined vermouth. How fitting for the lable to be olive golden.
Played it (and loved it) so many times. If the "Men in Black" memory eraser was real I'd use it to experience Zelda games all over again... oh yeah, and forget about what I did last summer of course.
Great piece. I’ve always preferred Links Awakening to the other 2D zeldas.
A few comments though: I don’t think turning the game into colour was a bad step. It was only black and white due to the limitations of the original Game Boy - not an artistic/creative choice. Same goes for the scrolling ‘puzzle box’ open world. The remake on the Switch does away with this, but the hidden shells and secrets are to find are still intact.
I would love to read an article about the merits of game remakes and how much nostalgia affects our interpretation of it. Would be an interesting discussion especially with Zelda games!
@MetalKingShield I kind of agree on the scrolling, but I’m perhaps almost neutral on it. I AM thankful we at least have the static screen style gameplay in dungeons for the most part. (At least for small rooms.)
Doesn’t really need to replace the original, both are great.
I think the game itself is brilliant and the remake is done very well, what isn't cool is how the Nintendo tax keeps going up though. When a game doesn't even break 20 hours in totality and still costs $60 for a graphics update. Then again the Switch All Stars shows that just 3 roms should costs $15-20 each for no reason. Their abuse of nostalgia is getting to be a bit much. All Stars was a graphical update for all the games at least and included 4, Galaxy 2 should have been included and at least some effort into updated garaphics and effort and not milking fans with the least amount of effort.
Edit: The 3DS version at least tried by adding other playable characters and metrics and was portable. Mario 64, in all stars, is less innovative than the Mario64 executable that was compiled after the leak. They don't even try sometimes.
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