The successful video game franchises often release periphery titles on handheld systems or mobile phones. Consider the Final Fantasy series. Some of those games, like Final Fantasy X and XIII, got direct sequels on the PlayStation and X Box consoles, but there are many sequels, prequels, and spin-offs on handheld systems and mobile phones that are well known with an avid fanbase, like Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings, Final Fantasy IV: The Afteryears, and perhaps most famously, Before Crisis and Crisis Core, prequels to Final Fantasy VII.
And what about Kingdom Hearts? Between the first and second games, there was Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, originally released for the Game Boy Advance, but while we’ve been waiting for Kingdom Hearts 3, there have been six side games, not counting the three remixes of the main two games.
Do you need to play any of these side games to understand what’s going on in the main games released for the consoles? No. In Kingdom Hearts 2, when you join Sora, he’s waking up in some kind of tank or capsule. If you played Chain of Memories, you know exactly how all this came about, as well as quite a bit of background for many of the new characters in the game. But KH2 does a very good job of explaining things. Chain of Memories is helpful and enriching to have played first, but it’s far from essential.
I suppose, technically, the same argument could be made for The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. Don’t try it with me, because I will definitely fight back. Starting right . . . now.
I never had a Game Boy. The only handheld gaming systems I’ve ever owned have been hand-me-downs or purchased cheap and used from friends. As a kid, I was strictly a console girl, and when I moved out of my parents’ house, I started getting into PC gaming too. I played Link’s Awakening on the Super Game Boy, a peripheral that allowed you to play Game Boy games on a Super NES, as well as apply a simple four color palette to the game. My sister is a huge Zelda fan, which is why this happened. We both adored A Link to the Past, a SNES game that many people argue to this day is THE Zelda game, over the original Legend of Zelda for the NES and Ocarina of Time for the N64. Link’s Awakening, even before the Hyrule Historia came along to attempt to establish some kind of continuity, was the direct sequel to A Link to the Past. So playing this game, for my sister and I, was not optional.
And to this day, I will argue that we were not wrong. If you are a Zelda fan and you have never seen or played this game, you are missing out.
Link’s Awakening came out in the US in 1993, a couple of years after A Link to the Past. The manual tells us that after Link defeated Ganon and saved Hyrule, the people of Hyrule were still restless and anxious. “Who knows what threats may arise from Ganon’s ashes?” the people worried. “Ganon’s ashes,” of course, makes me think of The Adventure of Link, where Ganon’s monsters sought Link’s blood to sprinkle on the ashes of their master to resurrect him; doubtless the reference is intentional.
The manual goes on to say that Link decided to go on a “quest for enlightenment” to be better prepared against any looming threats to Hyrule. “Months of difficult travel passed” before Link finally set sail for home after “a long and fruitful voyage.” According to the Hyrule Historia, the quest for enlightenment takes place in the Oracle games for the Game Boy Color, which came out in the US in 2001, and then Link has his adventure on Koholint Island in Link’s Awakening, implying the same Link was the hero of A Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening, and the Oracle games. That incarnation of Link was a busy guy.
In any case, attempt at cobbling together a timeline aside– I’m sorry, the Hyrule Historia has always felt to me like an exasperated attempt to end the unceasing barrage of questions from rabid fans demanding some kind of chronology for the series. Does no one else remember Nintendo denying for years any kind of relationship between the games, insisting they were simply re-imaginings of the story of Link and Zelda?– Link finds himself on a island he cannot escape unless he awakens a mysterious being known as the Wind Fish, slumbering in his gigantic egg on top of the tall mountain in the middle of the island. To do so, he will have to defeat terrible beasts called Nightmares, and collect the eight Instruments of the Sirens, the magical orchestra Link can use to play the only song capable of awakening the Wind Fish.
Despite being a game on a handheld system as opposed to a console game, Link’s Awakening provides many of the “firsts” of the Zelda series. Perhaps you think Ocarina of Time was the first use of a list of songs playable on the game’s instrument that must be learned and have different functions, or the introduction of the wise Owl that guides the hero on his journey? Nope. It happened in Link’s Awakening first. Oh, and Malon and Talon from Lon Lon Ranch? They look an awful lot like Marin and Tarin from Link’s Awakening, don’t they?
According to the Zelda Wiki, Link’s Awakening was also the first occurence of fishing in a Zelda game, the first time the game didn’t take place in Hyrule, the first time there was a sequence of quests that involved trading items with NPCs, the first clear example of a fire/lava themed dungeon (Turtle Rock), the first appearance of the Roc’s Feather item that allows Link to jump, and the first time there’s a set of hidden collectibles that have no use by themselves but can be redeemed at a certain location to receive useful items– Secret Seashells in Link’s Awakening, with Gold Skulltulas and Poe Souls as examples of successors.
Finally, Link’s Awakening is the first Zelda game to have unique background music for each dungeon rather than reusing the same single theme or few themes, as its predecessors did. Its composers have a combined pedigree that is quite impressive. The music was composed by Minako Hamano and Kozue Ishikawa, for whom it was their first game project. Hamano went on to compose for the Metroid series, while Ishikawa moved on to compose music for Star Fox 2, EarthBound, and Wario Land 2 & 3. Kazumi Totaka (composer for Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins and Mario Paint, later more famous as the voice of Yoshi) was responsible for the sound programming and sound effects.
Why all this detail about the game’s sound, you ask? Because it’s amazing. I went back and listened to the soundtracks of A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening while I was researching this article, to see how they compared. After all, Link’s Awakening is a sequel. Its music should sound quite similar– perhaps lazily so– to the prior game, right?
Only when appropriate. Like many Zelda games, the overworld theme is a re-imagining of the original Zelda theme that is rather faithful in the first half and makes a meaningful deviation in the second that feels both organic and natural (by the way, if you enter the hero’s name as Zelda, you get a remixed overworld theme). The game’s main theme is centered around the Ballad of the Wind Fish, a theme you hear echoed in multiple tracks, none so well as in a song called “Southern Shrine.”
This is the song that echoes in my mind over twenty years after originally playing this game. I’m not going to spoil any plot for you, but this eerie, slower version dropped into a minor key is haunting, and staggeringly appropriate for the plot drop that happens in the shrine. Because this isn’t a just mindless dungeon crawl for MacGuffins that allows you to beat the bad guy and save the girl. Oh, no. In the Southern Shrine where this track plays, Link finds out there are very real consequences if he succeeds in his quest to get off this island, which he must do if he’s going to get back to his homeland and protect it. Consequences dire enough to make the player question whether waking up the Wind Fish is a good idea after all.
The music in the next dungeon, the Face Shrine, is also haunting, ominous, melancholy, unsettling, in a way that ties in beautifully to the horrible truth you just learned. The dungeon theme utilizes the eerie song from the Southern Shrine without dwelling too heavily on it; it is definitely its own piece of music.
This may be just me, but I see a progression in these unique dungeon themes. The first few levels are undeniably dungeon-crawling music. They inform me I am definitely risking life and limb exploring a cave underground and there’s probably something that wants to chew on me hiding in the dark, but there’s nothing particularly tense or driving about those themes. They’re “business as usual” themes, for a kingdom-saving hero.
Then the tension starts to ramp up. By the fifth dungeon, the Catfish’s Maw (which is basically what it sounds like), you’re starting to feel it as an ostinato bass line hammers it into you that you may be in over your head (Fancy musical term! Ostinato means a musical phrase that persistently repeats in the same musical voice or rhythm, usually at the same pitch. In this case, a short, insistent repeating bass line). Then the tone moves from tense to ominous in the Face Shrine, as I’ve said, and the rest of the dungeon themes aren’t so much tense as unsettling and mysterious (save a few phrases in the Wind Fish’s Egg theme, which are suddenly, jarringly tense), meant to make to question yourself right down to the last battle.
In short, every song in the Link’s Awakening’s soundtrack is thoughtfully tailored to the scene and mood of the story at that point. How do you do that so well with midi music?! It’s truly exceptional.
But you don’t just play a game for its music, do you? No, you’re also there for story and gameplay. Link’s Awakening delivers here too. The game was described by series producer Eiji Aonuma as “the first Zelda game with a proper plot.” The villagers all have personality, and seem a bit odd, which apparently was intentional. According to Wikipedia, game director Takashi Tezuka intended the game’s world to have a similar feeling to the TV series Twin Peaks, which, like Link’s Awakening, features characters in a small town. He suggested that the characters of Link’s Awakening be written as “suspicious types”, like those in Twin Peaks—a theme which carried over into later Zelda titles. I mean, think about Kakariko Village in Ocarina of Time. Some of those folks are shifty looking! Certainly they are all remarkable.
And Marin, the female lead . . . again, no spoilers, but she has dreams and goals and the drive to achieve them. Like most protagonists with more pluck than skill, this gets her into trouble in the story, but she is in it, organically without ever feeling tacked on, and trying to accomplish things on her own. She is a dreamer, wistful and optimistic, a cheerful soul who confesses to Link that she wishes she were a seagull so she could leave the island, fly away over the endless ocean, and share her songs with the world.
You find yourself sympathizing with Marin. The island at once feels idyllic and claustrophobic. It’s a tropical paradise full of dark secrets. It’s a gilded cage. And then, of course, you sympathize with Link. You are enchanted with the island’s beauty and people even while you’re desperate to be away, back to Hyrule, your beloved home and sacred duty. And then, in the course of your journey, in a world full of captivating music where your goal is to find magical instruments– that parallel was never lost on me– you find out the terrible secret of Koholint Island and must grapple with the fact that, in all likelihood, there is no way to finish this quest in a way that’s best for everyone. This was way deeper than any Zelda game to date at the time, and gives some of the more modern ones a run for their money in the “fascinating story” category.
The gameplay is all the wonder and satisfaction of old school isometric Zelda. Find those dungeons, plunder their loot, use those tools to solve more puzzles and access more places. Search for Secret Seashells and trade them in for a better sword that goes old school and shoots beams when Link is at full health– or don’t, your choice. Only half of the long series of quests where you trade items with villagers is necessary to beat the game, but finish it, if you like, and eventually earn the Magnifying Lens for your trouble. This both allows you to actually see the tiny merchant who will trade for a Boomerang, and more importantly, make getting through the final dungeon much easier.
In 2009, Guinness World Records named The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening the 42nd most influential video game of all time, and it’s not difficult to see why. This was a Game Boy game. This was supposed to be nice to have, but not necessary to the plot of the real games in the series. It was a side game, a sequel. It was supposed to be little more than a port of A Link to the Past for the Game Boy. It began as an unsanctioned side project the developers were working on in their spare time! It became much bigger than any of that, a full fledged story that has every right to stand with any of the console games in the Zelda series. For many Zelda fans, Link’s Awakening is their favorite Zelda game! It’s certainly one of my favorite games of all time. If you’re a Zelda fan, you absolutely owe it to yourself to get a copy of this game, or at least watch a Let’s Play.
I’m not spoiling the ending for you, but in my humble opinion, our silent protagonist is more expressive here that he’s ever been in any Zelda game. Oh, and there’s a secret scene at the end of the credits if you get through the game without dying. You’re welcome!
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Zelda Wiki: https://zelda.gamepedia.com/The_Legend_of_Zelda:_Link%27s_Awakening
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Legend_of_Zelda:_Link%27s_Awakening
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Instruction Manual: http://www.retrogames.cz/manualy/GameBoy/The_Legend_of_Zelda-Links_Awakening_-_GameBoy_-_Manual.pdf
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages, Zelda Wiki: https://zelda.gamepedia.com/The_Legend_of_Zelda:_Oracle_of_Ages
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons, Zelda Wiki: https://zelda.gamepedia.com/The_Legend_of_Zelda:_Oracle_of_Seasons
Link’s Awakening Trading Sequence, Zelda Wiki: https://zelda.gamepedia.com/Link%27s_Awakening_Trading_Sequence
Super Game Boy, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Super_Game_Boy
Link’s Awakening OST, YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5o_UOPNaQQ&list=PLBFE1F3D5C2ABE5FF&index=1
Marin and Link Picture, Zelda Universe: https://zeldauniverse.net/guides/links-awakening/