The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening is one of the overlooked gems of the series

Rewind Review – Link’s Awakening / DX

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening is one of the overlooked gems of the series

Week 4 of the Legend of Zelda Rewind Review has arrived, and with it we arrive on the first portable Zelda game: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.

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Link’s Awakening arrived on the Gameboy in 1993, two whole years after the success of A Link to the Past on the SNES. According to an interview with Satoru Iwata, Link’s Awakening originally started as a port of A Link to the Past for the Gameboy. Over time, Link’s Awakening became something different – namely the first Legend of Zelda game to have a dedicated writer. As such, Link’s Awakening – despite being one of the most overlooked games in the series – may actually be the foundation of all modern Zelda games.

As with all Rewind Reviews, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening will undergo a review process through the eyes of a modern critic. No nostalgia glasses, no excuses, no rationalizing hardware limitations, and no sparing myself from angry fans and readers. 

Nothing will excuse this game from anything that we – as modern gamers – would expect to see in the genre today. So without further ado, let’s get marooned on Koholint Island and awaken the Wind Fish in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX on the Gameboy and Gameboy Colour.

The Plot

Link’s Awakening greatly benefited from a dedicated writer. Unlike earlier entries to the series, Link’s story is not one of saving the princess, or defeating the legendary evil, as it is his fate. Instead, Link is actually on a quest that is – at least in part – self-gratifying.

Let me explain:

In Link’s Awakening, Link has been marooned on the strange Koholint Island after his ship was destroyed during a storm. After a girl by the name of Marin finds Link on the beach, Link awakens in her father’s home. Marin tells Link that his gear might have washed up on the beach, and her father returns Link’s shield that he found. However, soon after he retrieves his sword, Link is visited by a strange owl that tells him that only by awakening the Wind Fish will Link be able to leave Koholint.

As such, Link is not setting out to wake up the Wind Fish for the sake of saving the people. Instead, Link is only trying to get off the island to save himself. It is only by coincidence that the bosses (or nightmares) are terrorizing the people, and his defeating them saves the islanders. 

Another benefit of having a dedicated writer for Link’s Awakening is that the NPC characters are much more memorable. The story is also a lot more flushed out than a simple: save the world, win the game feel. In fact, the story actually has darker themes that are not addressed in the forefront.

[Spoiler Alert!]

Was Koholint a dream? Or did we actually bring about the island’s demise?

One example of darker themes in Link’s Awakening is the fate of Koholint itself. After Link awakens the Wind Fish, the island of Koholint disappears, because is actually the fabrication of the Wind Fish’s dream. As a result, all who live on the island technically die after you beat the game. The only exception to this rule is the fate of Marin who – in theory – turns into a seagull if you successfully beat the game without dying once. That is…assuming that they weren’t all seagulls to begin with. If Koholint was nothing but a dream, would Link’s failure to save Koholint actually have resulted in his demise via drowning? We are never given a straightforward answer, and so fan theories have run rampant.

[End of Spoilers]

As such, this is the first time I have actually appreciated what the Zelda series has provided in terms of an actual narrative. I would certainly recommend playing through this game just to talk to all the NPCs and get a feeling for the world. Koholint is a beautiful place, and considering that this is the first story-driven Legend of Zelda game it does a great job of showing the series’ potential.


The Beautiful:

The Koholint overworld sprite map. Click to zoom.

Having originally been designed as a port of A Link to the Past for the Gameboy, Link’s Awakening carries over many of the SNES title’s gameplay mechanics to the Gameboy. Among the returning gameplay features are: a world map, swordplay mechanics, item variety, and over 100 different enemies to battle. The map also rivals the size of Hyrule in A Link to the Past, containing 2 villages, 8 dungeons, and many hidden caverns as well.

Link’s Awakening sports 9 unique bosses, one of which has the ability to recreate several bosses from A Link to the PastEach dungeon has its own boss – as A Link to the Past did – as well as a selection of 9 mini-bosses that reappear in several dungeons. There are also four overworld mini-bosses that Link must defeat to get several key items or pets that are needed to enter the dungeons.

The introduction of the Roc’s Feather allows for new dungeon and puzzle ideas thanks to the jump mechanic.

The game also introduced a number of its own unique additions to the Legend of Zelda series. The first unique feature that had not been shown in previous games was the ability to use different songs that had various effects. This feature would reappear in Ocarina of Time and later Zelda titles. Also, this game introduced the Roc’s Feather – and simultaneously the ability for Link to jump. Another addition was a guiding figure – the Owl – who would help players with riddles about where their next destination was. These features and changes – while deceivingly small – helped the Legend of Zelda get to where it is today.

The Good (DX Version)

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX adds several features to the original Gameboy version. The first feature – and by far the most noticeable – is the addition of complex colour maps. Every sprite gets its own colours, and every background looks beautiful as a result. The game also includes a new dungeon – aptly named the Color Dungeon – which provides interesting color-based puzzles. While these features are not necessarily a game-changing addition to the game, it does make it difficult to justify purchasing the original over the backwards compatible DX black cartridge.

The Bad:

There is very little to complain about when it comes to Link’s Awakening due to its similarities in gameplay with A Link to the Past. However, there are some issues that come about as a result of the change in hardware.

The main issue is the file-saving method. In order to save the game, players must press the A, B, Start, and Select buttons all at once. While this does not seem all too troubling at first, it can lead to some accidental soft-resets if the player accidentally hits the D-Pad.

Another small issue is the overworld map. While the grid-like format allows players to select each section to find out more about an area, it also lacks the detail of A Link to the Past’s overworld map. As a result, it is difficult to find out which way players can travel to get from one side of the island to the other. The most notorious of these sections is the path to Tal-Tal Heights (at the northmost point of the map) which seem impossible to reach due to almost every single tile on the overworld map appearing to be untraversable.

The Presentation

My opinions on Link’s Awakening are divided between the original and DX versions. Ultimately, the DX version is better. With the addition of Gameboy Color compatible pallets, and a number of visual updates, Link’s Awakening DX is ultimately the better game in terms of graphics. Both games, however, share the same sprites. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Bosses look cartoonish compared to the detailed versions seen in ALttP.

Link’s Awakening – while not as beautiful as A Link to the Past – shares much of its art style, albeit simplified to fit on the Gameboy’s screen. Every enemy is distinguishable from others, even without color, and that is something worth noting. Locations and buildings are all distinguishable from one another, and as such I must commend the game’s developers for their success in making a Gameboy Legend of Zelda title that was not as drab as the original NES title, despite both being 8-bit games.

The music in Link’s Awakening is certainly the selling point for me.

Unlike previous Legend of Zelda titles, Link’s Awakening introduces the concept of every single dungeon having a unique theme. It is for this reason alone that Link’s Awakening excels beyond A Link to the Past in terms of presentation. While the game is nowhere near as graphically complex as the latter, Link’s Awakening actually has twice as much music and jingle tracks – over 70 tracks, compared to A Link to the Past’s 28. Quality has not been sacrificed for the sake of quantity either. Many tracks are remixes of earlier Legend of Zelda songs, and each track is actually quite well-composed even without considering the hardware. As always, you can listen to the soundtrack for yourself in the video below.

The Verdict

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening marks the first successful Legend of Zelda title on handheld platforms. That alone should earn it plenty of praise, but it is the game’s effective use of the hardware that earns it my respect. This game never feels as though the developers were compensating for the limitations of the hardware. Instead, the developers turned limitations into a new puzzle feature – namely the Power Bracelets – while adding new features into the mix, such as the Roc’s Feather.

As such, I give The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening a 9/10 for maintaining A Link to the Past’s key gameplay elements, while also adding new features. Had the game not sported a dedicated writer, I would have given the game an 8/10, since the story itself provides that extra feature that pushes it beyond A Link to the Past’s legacy. The only reason the game does not earn itself a 10/10, however, is that it does not do enough in the gameplay department to separate it from the success of A Link to the Past.

With that, I bring Week 4 of my Legend of Zelda Rewind Review to a close. Has anyone played Link’s Awakening? What did you think of the game in terms of gameplay and story? Do you believe this game is overshadowed too often by the success of A Link to the Past? Leave your opinions in the comments section below!

Also, be sure to check back on this article or the GameSkinny front page for future reviews, as well as swords and sorcery action as we make our way from the original 1986 release of The Legend of Zelda on the NES to the 2013 release of A Link Between Worlds on the 3DS!


Reviews in this Series:

Rewind Review – Link’s Awakening / DX
The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening is one of the overlooked gems of the series

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David Fisher
Author, GameSkinny columnist, and part-time childhood destroyer. David W. Fisher (otherwise known as RR-sama) is a no B.S. reviewer and journalist who will ensure that you get as close to the facts as humanly possible!