I never had occasion to review this game; indeed, my first encounters with it predate this blog by over ten years. So since I’ve just completed it, scattered across a couple weeks of commuting, I think it’s about time we harked back to what remains one of my all-time favourite games; and time has definitely not dulled that warm and fuzzy feeling.
Needless to say, spoilers may be contained herein… But really, you have played this before — or you’ve never lived.
Playing for about 45 minutes a day, it took roughly eight days to complete this game — that’s six hours of gameplay. Six hours. That rivals a lot of next-gen games these days, and we’re talking about an eight-bit handheld from decades ago. And I’m a veteran that can still remember how to get all the secrets; imagine how many hours of fun a new player could get out of it?
It’s got everything; a massive world, loads of items to be found, loads of secrets to uncover… All on a satisfying little cartridge (clunk-click). I also love how the original GameBoy is a brick — it fits my hands very well. And my fancy-pants rechargable batteries (designed for that power-hungry whore of a digital camera) are so far unwavering.
Koholint Island is a beautiful place, for all it’s rendered in what can’t be more than 256×256 pixel blocks and no more than sixteen colours, if even that. It’s got a lovely aesthetic that still manages to convey bright beaches, the dull but mysterious forest (well, it’s a little bit mysterious) and dank dungeons, despite everything being a curious shade of olive green.
One thing I have much admiration for, but never really paid any heed to at the time, is the inventory system.
See how Nintendo handled having only two buttons with which to control interaction with the world — they slowly introduced abilities in the form of items. Things like jump that you’d take for granted in, say, a PC game, are swappable items that can be on whatever button you want. And this trickle of items also makes the world slowly become accessible without arbitrary lumps of rocks that I tend to favour — certain locations can only be accessed once you’ve been through the appropriate dungeon, and unlocked a certain capability.
That’s another point — the humour in this game. It’s absolutely wonderful. From the way the bosses go “NEEER NEEER” to the kids around Maybe Village that say “Whoa! I don’t know, ’cause I’m just a kid!”, to the canned-food-eating alligator Sale and his house o’ bananas, to Papahl warning you that he’ll be lost in the mountains later in the game… Even as Link reprises his role as a completely silent hero that can still get all the information he needs out of the people around him, those very people are still delightful to interact with.
And yet it’s still a very moving game. From Marin’s subtle romancing of Link, to the island dissolving at the end…
It is the only story where “I woke up and it was all a dream” is a satisfying ending. Throughout the game, you’re poked and prodded right into the dream world scenario — the owl’s dialogue, the kids finding the concept of living outside the island completely alien… And finally, that shrine with one of the most sorrowful soundtracks I’ve ever heard (where you get the Face Key), and the mural on the wall that makes it (almost) certain.
Then it finally happens. As you play the Ballad of the Wind Fish one last time, you get that heart-rending last glimpse of some of the characters and locations you have come to love, and it’s all gone. Just a scene on the lid of a sleeper’s eye, gone when he wakes like a bubble on a needle…
But even still, it’s not the end for Koholint. As Link awakens in the wreckage of his boat (did the entire game take place in a single night, do you think?), he hears the song in his head and the Wind Fish sails overhead — even though the dream is ended, we know that the Wind Fish has been saved and he knows that we did it and all is right with the world. How can you not shed a tear? … Okay, I was on a crowded commuter train, I really had to hold it in.
As I said, the only time “I woke up and it was all a dream” actually works. But then again, it wasn’t “just” a dream. The Wind Fish really had been locked down by the nightmares, and you really did save him…
Even after more than ten years of growing up, of maturation, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening still had the power to captivate me. The people, the puzzles, the bosses, the music, the aesthetic, the atmosphere, the world…
If you’ve played Link’s Awakening, and you’ve played anything I’ve ever made, it’s not hard at all to see how much this game has shaped me. I have the utmost admiration and respect for it and its creators — they really did make a game that deserves to be remembered for all time, a game the transcends its frankly pitiful technological shell.
Sometimes I’m glad that I picked the job in Edinburgh — otherwise, I’d really never have had the excuse to drag this out and rediscover something truly amazing.
And if you’ve never played this game… I can’t recommend it highly enough.
As if this huge-ass blog (huge ass-blog) isn’t testament enough.