Links Awakening(5)

Genre: Action-Adventure
Year: 1993
Developed by: Nintendo EAD
Published by: Nintendo
Platforms: Game Boy, Game Boy Color
Feeling Like: A short walk on the beach

Taking a franchise in a new direction is very risky, no matter how successful previous iterations were. Pivoting from an established formula means potentially alienating your existing fan base, and confusing newcomers. Video Games are such expensive, difficult endeavors that very few studios can absorb a massive loss. The creative possibilities for a game are nearly endless, which sounds like a positive thing, until you realize there’s also endless ways a development cycle can go wrong.

Few franchises have the clout, or the record of success, as The Legend of Zelda does in terms of successful experiments. It is staggeringly impressive.

Links Awakening(1)
It’s no Ocarina, but it’ll do.

The Legend of Zelda was one of the most success games on the NES, and one of the most influential in video game history. Nintendo immediately followed up this beacon of quality by shaking things up with Zelda 2: Link’s Adventure by replacing the top down world based on exploration with a side scroller action game, with a greater focus on combat and…random encounters? What the hell?

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was the third Zelda game and is still considered by many to be one of the greatest products the video game industry has produced. It expanded upon everything seen in The Legend of Zelda, but stayed tried and true to the mechanics of exploration, gaining new items, dungeons and rescuing a princess.

Then comes along The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, which has no Hyrule, no Zelda, no Ganon, no Triforce and came seemingly out of nowhere. Oh, and it was also made for the Game Boy. And had enemies from Mario games. Again…what the hell?

Links Awakening(2)
Pay no attention to the Italian plumber on the right.

But if there’s one franchise that has consistently earned the right to experiment, it’s the Legend of Zelda. Indeed, many fan’s favorites are the “oddballs”: Majora’s Mask, Oracle of Ages/Seasons, Link Between Worlds to name a few. If the classic formula is so good, why the appeal of those that all but abandon it? Is it the freshness of a new setting? Is it the  deviation from gameplay found in other Zelda titles? Regardless of the reason, the fact remains that nearly every Zelda game has something for somebody, and Link’s Awakening found an audience in perhaps the most unlikely of places; the Game Boy, and Koholint Island.

How can an adventure as grand as a Legend of Zelda take place on a handheld system, particularly 26 years ago? It’s a small miracle, but it does. The entire island can be walked across in a few minutes, but every screen is packed with friends, enemies, secrets and puzzles. The introduction is absolutely terrific, classically beautiful. The plot structure is so simple, yet so perfect; Link washes up on the shore of a mysterious island after a storm destroys his ship. A girl finds him on the beach and brings him up to speed.

Links Awakening(3)
It’s insane how much personality are in the Game Boy’s visuals.

I really try to avoid just describing what a game is, or what it’s about. You can read that on Wikipedia. In this case, I felt obligated to avoid my own experiences with Link’s Awakening because I admire it, albeit moreso as a scholastic topic rather than playing through it. I found the dungeons a bit tricky, and the switching of perspectives from top-down to sidescrolling a bit jarring. I played it years later, removing any influence nostalgia would have. Still, it’s incredibly impressive what Nintendo was able to do with such little hardware at their disposal.

There are so many beautiful, quiet scenes that it feels very modern. The game’s signature song, “The Ballad of the Wind Fish” is unforgettable, and a popular target for remixes even today. The sorrowful ballad permeates every memory I have of Link’s strange adventure. It’s tremendous.

I think the focus on the unknown, the somber ending, the melancholy atmosphere all were a huge factor in the game’s success, but I will say that during some of the later dungeons, I grew a bit impatient. I was so keen to see the ending that I looked up a few walkthroughs – something I rarely do in Zelda games. I felt a bit embarrassed, but those feelings were washed away when the final minutes of the game rolled across my eyes like an old letter I’d found after a very long time.

The timing of this entry could not be more perfect. Nintendo has announced a remake/re-imagining of the game, and true to the experimental nature of the series, it has a look that is so fantastically unique that I’m compelled to watch every trailer, every video, every screenshot.

LInks Awakening(4)
I can’t get over how endearing the updated graphics are.

It’s perfect. There’s no hangups on what a 3-D Link’s Awakening would look like anyway. It’s not one of the better known Zeldas. It’s incredibly old. Why not take a chance, as they did in 1993, and go with a completely unique, new look? It’s gathered a huge buzz already and it should be no surprise to you that I’ve been swept up in the excitement as well.

I didn’t mention much of the gameplay, but that wasn’t the main appeal for me. Oh sure, it’s still Zelda – you go to various dungeons, collect new items there, defeat enemies on a top down perspective while helping various townsfolk in their tiny town with their tasks. You can swipe your sword, jump over chasms, help townsfolk find MacGuffins, and use music to uncover secrets. Did I mention how good the soundtrack is? 

Still, it’s bizarre to see Goombas and Chain Chomps in a Zelda game. You truly do feel like Link off the beaten path. It’s almost like the developers weren’t sure what the game would end up as. However, it’s legacy is a successful experiment and we’ll see just how well it’s held up on September 20th, 2019 when the remake comes out.

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