Recently, Nintendo re-released a classic Zelda game for the Nintendo 3DS. You’ll be able to re-live the classic moments you did in your childhood once again. I’m not talking about Ocarina of Time 3D by the way, but a certain other game.
Link’s Awakening, along with the Oracles games, is one of the most obscure Zelda titles of the series. At the time of release, it got excellent reviews. The game has crept into numerous top 100 games of all time lists. It was also a great commercial success, so much so that Nintendo decided it was worth re-releasing a colour version of the game in 1998 on top of the original black and white 1993 version. But while Zelda fans fondly remember titles like Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening doesn’t quite recieve the same attention, which is a great shame if you ask me. You can buy the game for a few bucks from the 3DS eShop, and it’s worth every penny. Even if you hate 2D graphics and 8-bit sound, it’s difficult not to like Link’s Awakening. For everyone else, this is a chance to engage with a hidden classic (but a true classic nonetheless).
When the original Link’s Awakening was released in 1993, a significant minority of critics complained about the graphics, suggesting that it was sometimes difficult to discern objects and environments. In some places this was definitely true, though I’d say this was down more to the limits of the original Gameboy system than the inadequacies of Link’s Awakening, and for most of the game, the black and white graphics worked well. Nonetheless, the re-release of Link’s Awakening DX in 1998 swept aside such criticism with waves of colour. Critics got their discernable objects, everyone else saw Koholint enter a new level of visual vibrancy. Nintendo’s use of bright, varied colours worked wonders and made Koholint feel that much more alive.
The game’s animations are also top-notch, particularly with the characters. Whether it’s Marin singing or members of the animal village dancing about, you can tell Nintendo put so much effort into making Link’s Awakening a graphical marvel.
Generally, the sound is excellent. For a gameboy game, the music is stellar. The tracks range from frantic to calm, elated to sombre, forthgoing to mysterious. The music in Link’s Awakening is something to revel in, something that provokes your emotions and heightens your sense of hearing.
The melodies in this game add a substantial layer of atmosphere to the game. Each track has been composed carefully to make sure it musically represents the area you’re in as much as possible. The catchy overworld theme instills a great sense of adventure and openness as Link explores the outside areas of Koholint. The dungeon themes give each dungeon a distinct character. What Nintendo achieved with an 8-bit sound system was outstanding.
When you start the game, the menu system becomes instantly noticable. You bring up the item menu by pressing start, and you can assign the use of two items to the A and B button respectively. This system works great, especially since the sword button is not tied to a buttons and you can combine any two items – such as the roc’s feather and the pegasus boots in order to jump long distances. My only complaint about the system is that the item menu is a bit unresponsive. There is a slight delay when opening up the menu, as there is with the cursor that highlights your selected item. This is far from a major problem, though it can get a little annoying if you are in a situation that requires you to change items a lot. This problem would be fixed in the future, with the fast-loading menus of the Oracles games.
Like the other Zelda games, Link’s Awakening is about finishing a series of dungeons, defeating bosses, collecting items, and killing an antagonist at the end of the game. There are some tricky puzzles, and a few annoying boss fights, but generally Link’s Awakening isn’t too difficult by any stretch of the imagination. It’s nowhere near as difficult as A Link to the Past, but at least Link’s Awakening is more challenging than Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks.
So, what makes Link’s Awakening so good? Simply put, Link’s Awakening took what made the console Zelda games so successful and managed to cram it into a gameboy cartridge. Despite the severe technical and spatial limitations of the gameboy (remember the cause of the missingo glitch in Pokemon red/blue?), Nintendo incorporated all the elements that makes a top Zelda title into Link’s Awakening. An expansive overworld, eight dungeons, tons of quests and secrets, and plenty of items to collect and upgrade – all on the little gameboy screen. If you thought Pokemon Red/Blue were expansive, wait until you see Link’s Awakening. Koholint island comprises 256 screens in total, and there are hundreds more screens when you factor all the houses, caves and dungeons. The game starts of in a linear fashion, since most of the routes around the island are blocked by obstacles that can only be bypassed after finishing the first two dungeons. Once you’ve got a few dungeon items, though, you are free to do lots of exploring.
Combat is fairly simplistic. Most of the time you’ll be using your sword, whilst other items are required situationally now and then. Bombs and arrows are particularly useful. The puzzles are also fairly straightforward, often based on pushing blocks, finding keys, navigating confusing layouts and other things you’ve come to expect from the Zelda series. On paper, then, Link’s Awakening would not appear to be an amazing game. But what makes Link’s Awakening great is how all the elements of the game combine to make a whole. And it’s not just a splattered canvas, either. The graphics are so detailed, the gameplay filled with great touches, and the game has such a satisfying pace since there are so many secrets to discover with little backtracking needed. Like I said, it’s the mechanics of the Legend of Zelda games we’ve come to love, all seemlessly woven into a gameboy cartridge.
Finally, the game mechanics are brilliantly responsive. Aside from the minor issue with the menu screen, there are virtually no needless delays or slow-downs. Whether you are just walking around or fighting a frantic battle, the game runs very smoothly.
As I’ve established, Koholint island is a big place with plenty to see and do. It’s packed with hidden secrets and side-quests, and the main quest is fairly lengthly for a gameboy game. Link’s Awakening will last you a while if you want to complete the game and find all the hidden items and quests. Replaying the game is enjoyable, especially since Link’s Awakening, like many old games, is very accessible to play through multiple times – once a few brief story events are over, you are free to start exploring the island and advancing through the dungeons.
Link’s Awakening is one of the best handheld games ever created, and even it puts many modern games to shame in terms of just how fun it is. It was groundbreaking in its day, and gamers can derive huge levels of entertainment from it today.
Overall Score: 10/10