My last Zelda blog post covered Zelda 1, The Adventure of Link, and Link to the Past. This post will cover the delightful Game Boy Zelda game Link's Awakening.
4. Link's Awakening (1993)
I've wanted to play Link's Awakening for years, but I've never gotten around to it. I knew a few things about it from reading plot summaries and TV Tropes, but, unfortunately, that's not quite the same as actually running through it. I was glad to finally get a chance to play what turned out to be a really cool game!
I've always thought of the portable Zeldas as somehow lesser than the console games. I don't have a good reason for this, but it's how I've felt. Seeing this game side by side with earlier Zelda games has helped to correct this impression. There's a full-sized Zelda game here, and a good one at that. This game even has some new tricks and additions up its sleeve.
I was happy in general with the dungeons in this game. Each dungeon had its own unique soundtrack, which really helped each dungeon feel different from the others. The dungeon puzzles in this game are very good, though some gave me a lot of trouble. I think this was a me problem - the solutions were usually really obvious in hindsight. The Roc's Feather got a lot of use in dungeons, and hopping around with it was a lot of fun. My favorite puzzle was probably one you have to work on across a few rooms in Eagle's Tower. That's the one where you have to break four columns across the dungeon, bringing a whole section of the tower down into a lower floor. I haven't seen anything comparable in a Zelda game before, and it was awesome to see it happen.
The grid-based map Link's Awakening and the Oracle games use is a neat idea. I'm fairly motivated in most Zelda games to explore every corner of the map, because I want every heart piece and item, but there's something particularly compelling about seeing what you have and haven't explored on the map. I wanted to fill every grid square, and I wanted to go everywhere. Getting new navigation items is built up a lot by this game, because you've been staring at blank areas on the map you couldn't explore for hours. When you get the Roc's Feather, or the hookshot, a bunch of grid squares suddenly become accessible. At the same time, you find a bunch more squares that you still can't get to with the items you have. The areas around the last couple dungeons stay blank until nearly the end of the game, and finally getting over there was very satisfying.
I'm a big fan of the music in this game. The gritty Game Boy bass on the intro got me on board immediately, and I had to leave the game on the title screen so I could hear it over and over again. Like I said before, I really appreciate that each dungeon has its own (very good) background music. It's not just the dungeons and the title screen music, either - every song in this game's soundtrack is great. The soundtrack is playing while I'm writing this, to refresh my memory, and I think it's going to have to stay on for a while. The Mt. Tamaranch/Tal Tal Heights music is probably my favorite. I was glad that I spent enough time around there to hear a dozen loops of that track. I'm really happy that the dev team for this game managed to squeeze so much good audio out of the Game Boy.
This is the first Zelda game that calls out chests on the dungeon map. I always figured Ocarina of Time was the first, so I was surprised and pleased to see that feature in this game. I want everything in every dungeon - every room, every chest, every secret - and I'm glad I had everything on the screen so I knew what I had. I liked the compass calling out keys as well, and wouldn't really mind that feature being in later games as well (though, to be fair, I've gotten on pretty well without it).
The two-button item system works really well. It seems very much like a design choice forced by the hardware - one I enjoy, because it changes the game in interesting ways. It means you can choose to be without a sword during many points in the game, which is crazy. I spent a lot of time with Roc's feather and the Pegasus Boots, weaving around enemies because I didn't feel like dealing with them. I paired the Power Bracelet and Roc's Feather a few times because I had puzzles to handle, and didn't want to keep switching. Sword and shield was probably one of my least common choices, because I needed the shield so infrequently. Being able to combine items by equipping both or pressing both buttons was an inspired choice. The Roc's Feather and Pegasus Boots I just mentioned also let me make incredibly irresponsible jumps, including a few that I think the game didn't really expect me to manage. I got the bomb arrows a few times to try them out, but unfortunately I didn't find much use for them. Seeing that items could combine meant I wanted to try every item with every other item, just to see what would happen or how they worked out. It's a shame this combining idea is an idea that's basically been dropped from Zelda (with the exception of Twilight Princess), because it's a lot of fun.
I enjoyed the trading quest, more than I thought I might. I think I had the wrong impression going in. What I expected was a fully optional quest with a lot of random wandering and backtracking to complete it. That wasn't really the case. It happened naturally along with the plot, which I liked. Whenever an NPC appeared that wanted something, I had it. I very rarely had to backtrack. I never had to wander to find the next person in the quest. It makes sense that the trading quest in this game is more mandatory and guided than in most Zelda games, seeing that the Magnifying Lens you get is necessary to find the route through the Wind Fish's Egg. I don't think the quest being mandatory made it any less fun. I really enjoyed having a weird item on hand, and waiting to see what situation the game was going to conjure to take it from me. I never got frustrated because I had no idea where the next person in the quest was. You still get a fun bonus item (the boomerang) for completing it, alongside the game-required item, though I think I had to turn to a guide to find out where it was hiding. Trading quests are always a fun part of Zelda for me, and I'm glad I've gotten far enough in the series to see one.
The color dungeon was a neat thing. I didn't really expect it to be so explicitly about color. It was a fun gimmick, and the dungeon was a good length to take advantage of it without wearing it out. I enjoyed fighting the color-coded boss, who tells you how to win, and reminds you when you're doing it wrong. I enjoyed the version of the Zelda 1 music that the dungeon features. The bonus you get for completing the dungeon was a nice touch. I went with the attack boost, though in retrospect the defense boost probably would have saved me a few deaths. This bonus DX area was definitely worth the trip.
As it turns out, I've never played any Game Boy Zelda game, so this is my first experience with that particular section of Zelda. I've really enjoyed Link's Awakening. it does a lot of cool stuff, and works with its limitations in interesting ways. I wish I'd played it sooner. I'm glad I at least get to play Link's Awakening and the Oracles close together, so I can see what they do differently and what they do alike - and I'll try to capture that in later blog posts. I'll definitely write in some comparisons with the DS Zelda games as well, when I get that far.
Next blog post will cover Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. Thanks for reading!