This post is part of a very much larger and very much more collectively awesome series orchestrated by my friend NekoJonez. Do make sure to check out his wonderful NekoJonez’s Gaming Blog, but especially this page, which is the hub article for the overall project: here you’ll get an explanation of what this project is about, and links to articles that a whole load of other talented bloggers have written about every other Zelda game that there is. It’s very cool! Also, credit has to be given to the creator of the logo we’re using in all our posts, so check out their other work here.
In the annals of ages past, in the Great Era of Millennium’s End, now named in songs of legend as the Early Nineties, there was a Games Console. And so it was that this Games Console attained such awesomeness that all of the Populace did purchase it, and it was by Decree that ‘twas the Best-Selling Handheld Console of All Time (until it was overtaken by the DS, anyway). And lo, that console was called…
the Game Boy.
The Legend of Zelda was already a pretty popular franchise by the time the Game Boy emerged as Nintendo’s flagship handheld – competing against the likes of the Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx – so it was only a natural move that, in 1993, the series should make a little jump from the Famicom and SNES hardware of yore to the not-quite-as-bulky-but-still-pretty-ginormous-by-today’s-standards Game Boy cartridges, which really were quite revolutionary back in, as it was called then, ‘modern times’. (I mean, really, all times are modern times until they pass. Maybe modernity is a fixed concept around which time itself revolves, but then again maybe that’s a discussion for another time, or never.) The series’ first entry on a handheld console was ‘93’s Link’s Awakening, a story about a boy and a giant dreaming god fish. Sort of.
I’ll be spending a lot of time in my Minish Cap entry talking about that game’s plot, so I’ll try not to go too in-depth with the synopsis here, but I do need to do a bit of summing-up because I think this game actually has one of the better self-contained stories Zelda’s ever told, so bear with me. It’s also pretty unique in a few ways which are worth mentioning, and we’ll get to those.
So, basically, after defeating Ganon in Link to the Past, which was the third game to release and therefore the one that came out immediately before Awakening, Link heads off to… I don’t know. Journey of self-improvement or something. (Turns out that the stories of his adventures on that journey are actually told in the Oracle games, though those wouldn’t release until 2001.) On his way back to Hyrule, his boat gets caught in a storm, and he wakes up on an island called Koholint, where he’s told by an owl that the only way to get home is to wake a sleeping being called the Wind Fish, who’s slumbering in a giant egg, and the way to wake the Fish is to collect eight musical instruments.
Since this is a Zelda game, collecting the instruments turns out to involve trekking through eight dungeons, surprising no-one. Along the way, Link learns that the entire island is nothing more than the Wind Fish’s dream, and battles nightmare creatures trying to control it. In the end, he collects all the instruments and plays a tune called The Ballad of the Wind Fish, awakening the creature (in line with its wishes, since it didn’t want its dreams to be invaded by the nightmares any more). It’s actually a very poignant moment: Link made friends on the island, but waking up the Fish so he would be able to leave ended the dream and erased the whole place and all its inhabitants from existence, the only thing keeping them alive Link’s fading memory of a half-remembered dream.
Anyway, Link does indeed commit dream genocide and wakes up floating in the ocean as the Wind Fish flies ahead, so good for him.
The whole thing reads like an episode of Twin Peaks, something Alan Wake might well have taken inspiration from, and indeed Peaks was apparently an influence. If that doesn’t sound like the sort of thing you’d expect from a Zelda game… well, Awakening is kind of odd like that: where most Zelda games tell the simple story of Link defeating Ganon and rescuing Zelda, saving Hyrule, this one doesn’t take place in Hyrule. There’s no Ganon, no Zelda, no Triforce… but what this game does have is the first Navi-style Interrupting Guide Thing in the form of the owl, plus a side cast that was larger than any before and the first instance of the ‘play music to make stuff happen’ mechanic-cum-plot-point. It even has a secret ending of sorts, which is (I think?) still a unique feature in the series, rewarding the player for a deathless run with the hope that one of the island’s inhabitants might have somehow been reborn as free as a bird. It’s also notable for featuring a bunch of characters from other Nintendo franchises, including a couple of enemies from Mario and Kirby: the story, so it goes, is that a few developers started working on Awakening as a sort of unofficial side project just as a way to test out how they might be able to port some of the previous entries to the Game Boy, but ended up creating a whole new thing out of it, hence its slight oddball status.
Awakening’s legacy probably spans further than it might appear. It may not have exactly reimagined the series, or become one of the defining, quintessential titles, but it was brave enough to take a few risks, and they pretty much paid off. In 2009, three Zelda games made Guinness’ list of the top 50 games of all time: Ocarina came in fifth, Link to the Past eighteenth, and Awakening forty-second (right between Knights of the Old Republic and God of War). That’s not bad, to be one of only three Zelda games on that list, and a lot of it is probably down to its charm and singularity. Plus, let’s not forget that it did set a precedent for Zelda games on handhelds, a market vertical that’s formed a pretty significant bulk of releases since: almost all the games in the series that originally released on consoles more than a few years ago have been remade or ported to handhelds, and a good chunk debuted in portable form.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that unless you were a big gamer in the GB era, or a fan of the Zelda series, you might write off Link’s Awakening as kind of unimportant. And yes, maybe in the bigger picture of the series timeline, it doesn’t add an awful lot when compared to Ocarina or even Skyward Sword. Aaaaaand yeah, the gameplay can be a little bit tricky at times owing to the GB’s two-button setup and monochrome visuals. But it’s fun. It’s different. It actually makes a lot of good stuff out of a basic premise, one that’s been done to death now but was rather less trite back in the day – and it doesn’t hurt that it never tries to sell ‘it’s all just a dream’ as some enormous, lifechanging twist, revealing it fairly early in the story and then playing around with it a bit. Don’t skip Link’s Awakening, because it’s actually really rather good.
That wraps up my take on Link’s Awakening, but don’t forget that this is only a very small part of a very cool project, so check out NekoJonez’s hub article and the rest of the posts – yeah, we’ve got, like, a dozen bloggers covering every single Zelda game, how cool is that? – for more excellence.