Link’s Awakening (NS) Thoughts

NA Release Date: August 6, 1993 (GB) / December 15, 1998 (GBC)
Initial Playthrough: c. Summer, 1999 (GBC)
Replay: c. July – August, 2020 (NS)

This was a real treat. Both because it was exciting to get to play a brand-new entry in the series on the Switch (I played BOTW on WiiU because the Switch was impossible to find at the time…), but also because Link’s Awakening is one of the more nostalgia-drenched titles for me personally. Hot off the excitement of OOT, I spent most of the summer of ’99 traipsing about Koholint- I have the faded label on my Game Pak to prove it! Whereas with OOT I didn’t really know what to I was getting into, LADX was the first game where I had some expectation at the outset of what a proper Zelda experience could deliver.

SOMEDAY, THOU MAY RECALL THIS ISLAND CARTRIDGE…

In my case, I think it was just the right game at the right time. Not too steep of a learning curve, and easily consumed in more frequent, shorter sessions. The island setting seemed to match up nicely with a typically warm Midwestern summer, so I always think back on my time with this game really fondly. I’d gotten the NS version as a birthday gift several months prior, but had been patiently waiting to start it until the appropriate time in the play-though.

A Scene on the Lid of a Sleeper’s Eye
The look and feel of the new version is really something special. The care and attention in the art direction are superb, with the diorama-styled characters and environments perfectly capturing the big-little-island of Koholint. The detail here is really stunning, with a shallow depth of field (which blurs things in the back and foreground) really making it feel like you’re playing with an animate miniature of Link running around some beautiful scale model.

So kawaii, yet so frowny.
You can see the depth of field effect even here in the promo material.

Beyond just the sheer pleasantness of the new look of the island, the conceit of the design is more meta than that. I was thrilled to boot up the game and find the introduction had been fully animated in what seems to be hand-drawn anime style. Almost shot for shot, they recreate Link’s fateful trouble with that storm which wrecks his boat and leaves him stranded ashore, just like in the cutscenes from the original GB/C version- neat! But it’s more than that.

When you beat the same (I guess.. spoiler alert?) and the island finally fades away, the graphics revert back to that animated style for the final scenes. This visually communicates to the player that Link has returned to the ‘real’ world, while the toy model of the island is the part of the strange, other-worldliness of the dream… It’s a small thing, the payoff for which takes literally your entire time in the game to reach the punchline, but it’s such a thoughtful detail. In the original, it was much harder to draw a strong contrast between the worlds- in so many games the sprites bear only a passing resemblance to the conceptualized character art (looking at you, FFVII)- to play that up to the extreme here was a brilliant decision that knots the dramatic thread of the entire game into a full circle.

It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.

Someone From A Half-Remembered Dream
Another aspect of the game which contributes to its dream-like nature is the totally unexplained nature of some of the things which show up… What might first seem like a little wink/nudge-homage to fellow Nintendo stalwarts Mario & co. gets out of hand quickly. The Chain-chomp and Yoshi Doll make early appearances in Mabe Village, while Goombas, Bloopers, and Cheep-Cheeps are all occasionally encountered as well. That’s not to mention the cheeky appearance of Peach as ‘Christine’ in a very early example of ‘catfishing’ in video games.

As if that isn’t all strange enough… Prince Richard is here too, the rival of the protagonist in The Frog for Whom the Bell Tolls. This is a well-worn bit of trivia, further notable because LAGB was built on the same game engine of Frog (the dialog text fonts are identical as well). While players outside of Japan wouldn’t have recognized Richard, the last ‘class’ of cameos should have been all too familiar…

It was interesting to play this game immediately after LTTP, which I previously didn’t have a lot of background with. To follow it immediately, even with the new coat of digital paint, was illuminating. While that game set the table for so many items, mechanics, and themes that would surface time and again in the Zelda franchise, it can be argued that the similarities in LA go beyond that. I think that Turtle Rock is the most striking. It’s not like the series to recycle dungeons so explicitly, and yet here it is done by name, no less.

Beyond that, the appearance of shades of both Agahnim and Ganon offer yet another hint that this place is something between real and imagined. I thought it was a particularly nice touch in the final battle that the animation of the nightmare amalgam seems to originate from Link, further cementing that some of these things, nightmares included, he brought with him to Koholint. Another small detail, but one applied in such relentless service of the notion of the island as a shared dream is something I found myself really appreciating.

Talk about baggage.

Non-Traditional Mechanics
Part of what I’d guess has given this game its enduring appeal is the… goofiness of it all? The elements detailed above do lend some dream-like sense to it all, but at a more superficial level they also just tend to tilt the game’s tone towards one of levity. In that same vein, the game mechanics follow that lead are also a little non-traditional (insofar as tradition can be said to have existed after only three entries). For one, the acquisition of Roc’s feather early in the game allows you to jump… an ability which is not to be taken for granted in Zelda games.

Jumping is especially important because, apropos of nothing, there are random (?) platformer segments in this game? Mentioned earlier were Goombas- which can be defeated just as one expects, by jumping square on their heads. Bloopers and Cheep-Cheeps populate the underwater flavor of these little asides, which almost makes you think they were included squarely to make sure you really got the Super Mario Bros. reference (like Tarin’s character design wasn’t enough…).

While I’m not completely sure as to the intent, it wouldn’t be fair to say these sections of the game are simply window-dressing. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, this perspective of the game becomes your vantage for two of the boss encounters! First would be the Angler Fish, and second is the memorable battle with Evil Eagle atop Eagle’s Tower. In both cases, the aquatic and aerial combat would lend poorly to the three-quarters view we get for most of the rest of the game. It makes the battles more dynamic, and also seems to justify the inclusion of the other passages, but still adds to the quirk-factor of LA.

The other odd mechanic which shows up here are the bomb arrows. I still remember the feeling of discovering, for the first time, that equipping bombs and arrows, and mashing them at the same time, gives you projectile explosives! In every Zelda game I’ve played since, I try in vain to achieve the same effect… to chase that giddy feeling of explosive discovery- seldom does it pay off, sad to say.

Something You Once Knew…
It was really fun playing Link’s Awakening ‘again’ for the first time. A few things, like the bomb-arrows, or ‘Christine’, and the general arc of the plot, I of course remembered. But most of it had been lost in the past… 20 years or so? To get to walk through that world I had really loved as a kid again, viewed through a completely different and amazingly styled lens has been a truly special experience.

Sure, I messed a much of things up. Not realized how to dispatch the Dream Shrine’s Arm-Mimics with the dash attack, I methodically hookshot-stunned, lifted, and chucked them down the crumbled holes in the path. I did this to every last one of them- if the wrong tile crumbled the whole scheme was often lost and had to be repeated. I finally managed to get the Ocarina around the time of the 6th dungeon (Face Shrine), while you could have accessed it circa the 3rd (Key Cavern). As it’s primary use is warping, I ended up walking a lot more places than I otherwise may have…

All that exploring and traveling would have been more useful if I’d had the seashell detector to accumulate those in a more distributed fashion, but I was late to that too (don’t know how I managed to avoid it for so long). Thus, I just had to grind them for the L-2 sword late in the game because it makes the final encounter(s) so easy. I also forgot about the color dungeon entirely, despite having found the hint, but I like the look of the green tunic best anyway, so maybe we can chalk that up to an aesthetic decision. One thing I didn’t stumble on was the trading sequence, which I managed to pull off quite easily- at least I’m not totally losing my edge!

Worst of all, though, I sped through the part with Marin, anxious to advance the plot so I could get… what? The Angler Key?! What a waste. I’m really looking forward to a replay where I can take more time to explore the island with her, as I know that’s where a lot of her best dialog and and chances to show her personality can be seen. I think my rush was because I remembered somewhere that there was something else besides a dumb fish key hidden in that desert, though. Something more crucial, something more… sinister.

This, of course, is the Southern Shrine. For me, I’m really hard-pressed to think of a better reveal in any Zelda game. The gameplay and traditional narrative structure of the series just don’t really lend themselves to big twists like this one (IE: did anyone really doubt that WW’s Tetra was going to not be Zelda by the end of that game? Maybe if you never played OOT.).

That’s the magic of LA, though- it’s off on its own, in this strange, bizarre place where much of the traditional Zelda meta-myth don’t apply. True to the LANS edition, the experience is just that much richer in the new version. The Southern Shrine theme is an amazing, lilting tune- in the structure’s antechambers it’s a simple version, with some kind of flute and the plink-y percussion accompaniment- but the moment you interact with the mural, however, the the full string backing fades in, perfectly mirroring the tonal shift as the understanding of the mural’s message is fully comprehended by the player.

CASTAWAY, YOU SHOULD KNOW THE TRUTH!

Improving on this pivotal moment of the game is a tall order, and LANS certainly delivered. Better still, this secret isn’t bottled up until the very end and watered down by the catharsis of the game’s conclusion- it hits you roughly at the mid-way point. You spend the entire second half of the journey thinking about what that means. The nightmares, from that point on, are self-aware, and repeatedly entreat you to think about what you’re doing. While little effort is made to develop any empathy for these still-aggressive dungeon bosses, it does give the player pause. Sure, you don’t think about blindly mowing down the big bads, but what about the kids in Mabe Village? What about the Raft Ride guy? What about Marin?

Are they acceptable collateral damage in Link’s dogged pursuit of an objective reality, or are their lives of sufficient value to stay your hand? It’s a fascinating question to ask… though I’m reasonably sure we all eventually make that long, last climb up Mt. Tamaranch to crack the egg and meet with the Wind Fish. If you’re a skilled player (or a diligent, if occasional, save-scummer, like your author) you know that there’s a little consolation prize after the credits for all this existential angst- that much I did not forget in all these years.

Wrap-Up: Winners and Losers
Winner: The new soundtrack. LA already boasted a stacked soundtrack to begin with, but the composer/arranger of the LANS version, Ryo Nagamatsu, has given us all an amazing gift that will last well beyond the conclusion of the game. Pretty much every track is better: the quirky ones are weirder, the dramatic ones are more emotional, the epic ones soar even higher. (To that end, I don’t know that any other Zelda track can improve on Tal Tal Heights… I feel strongly about this.)
Loser: The new dungeon builder mechanic. I’m sure it’s well-done, and I liked the music they wrote for it, but it’s hard to imagine following the narrative masterpiece of the main quest with some hacked-together dungeons stripped of any plot? No hate, it’s just not what I’m playing Zelda for.
Winner: The Wind Fish. We didn’t spend any time talking about what a completely nuts thing it is for this character design to exist. And somehow the name- Wind Fish, simply works, despite that fact that it’s ‘in name only, for it is neither’. It was fantastic to see him animated at the end. [While certainly non-canon, I also loved the voice given to him for the associated track of the OCR take on LA, Threshold of a Dream, which is worth a listen.]
Loser: Mad Batter. Always thinks he’s really making your life tough with the extra inventory capacity… but it’s really helpful?
Winner: Boomerang. One of the few times the reward of an extended trading sequence feels worth it. Suddenly being able to lay waste to Bubbles and Sparks after they’ve been tormenting you through many of the game’s earlier dungeons was incredibly satisfying to me. Normally the boomerang is an intro/stun weapon, but here it’s one of the most powerful items you get, which is a fun inversion.
Loser: Link’s Emotional State Post-Game. We walk away when the credits roll, but our poor hero is left with his memories of this whole little world, and knows that is all that remains of the good folks that lived there. You gotta wonder what that does to the guy… though he seems largely ‘over it’ when we meet again in the Oracle stories.

Final Thoughts
If you couldn’t tell, I’ve got a real soft spot for LA. It was a favorite when I was young, and that it was chosen for such a thoughtful and beautiful remaster has left me quite satisfied. The story might be one of the strongest entries of the entire franchise; mix in some of the most memorable songs (Ballad of the Windfish, Tal Tal Heights, Southern Shrine / Face Shrine) to really cement the emotional connection, and the execution leaves very little to be desired.

Maybe the one nagging bit I found myself missing was nostalgia for the old-school (LADX, anyway) graphics that I remember from my childhood. As luck may have it, next up in the queue are the Oracle games, which utilize essentially the exact same engine, so that’ll be a great way to get my fix, but still keep this project moving along.

P.S.: Sorry for all the Inception references all over this entry. Clearly I have a thing for these kind of stories.

Up Next
Oracle of Seasons (3DS Virtual Console)

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