Zelda: Link's Awakening DX (Virtual Console)
As you may be aware, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX is now available on Nintendo 3DS’ eShop. Just to let you know, I am reviewing this version. Anyway, just like Ocarina of Time 3D, the ability to play Link’s Awakening in a modern context comes with a vague sense of apprehension. It seems like 2011 is all about Zelda, with Nintendo wonderfully commemorating Link’s adventures by producing a brand new one later this year (Skyward Sword), breathing new life into a modern classic, and directly porting this vintage title into the modern era.
But gaming has changed a lot since Link’s Awakening was released on the GameBoy in 1993. With an entirely new audience’s modern tastes to satiate, it’s all the more remarkable that it still remains the involving, evocative adventure it has always been. The game’s structure and style will be familiar to anyone who has played other top-down adventures, but the setting and circumstances certainly won’t be.
It’s for a very good reason that Link’s Awakening is considered an anomaly when it comes to the wider Zelda series. It’s not set in Hyrule, there’s no Triforce to be had, there’s no Ganon to fight, and there’s no Princess Zelda to rescue. Instead, Link finds himself washed up on Koholint Island after a shipwreck and you must wake up the Wind Fish to get off the island. It’s simpler than most (if not, all) other Zelda titles, but that’s because it’s a pocket-sized adventure aptly created for Zelda fans many a year ago. Strange cameos and enigmatic character dialogue extend the offbeat tone, although in pure gameplay terms, it’s classic Zelda.
Taken in by friendly father and daughter combo Tarin and Marin, Link begins an island adventure that’s tighter and more focused that its (much) bigger brothers. Cartridges were less than luxuriously roomy back in ’93. Screen y screen, you explore and learn Koholint’s locations – the friendly Mabe Village, the Mysterious Woods, Kanalet Castle, Yarna Desert, Goponga Swamp – they’re all standard Zelda archetypes, but that never diminishes the sense of discovery. There’s a unique sense of place that makes Koholint Island a joy to explore, as long as you don’t mind retracing your steps more than a few times.
All that overground exploration could get a little tedious if Koholint’s inhabitants weren’t such a colourful bunch. One of them is literally called Crazy Tracy, while another communicates only through the telephone (yes, apparently they exist here). You meet a bear who’s a chef, and you can help a talking goat to deliver a love letter to a man called Mr. Write. Even the signs crack little gags, and let’s not forget that your main task is to wake up a sleepy flying whale that lives in a pink, spotty egg atop a mountain. Essentially, the game doesn’t take itself seriously and subconsciously creates a statement about fantasy games as a whole. While all Zelda games have had their quirks, none lay on this much humour so heavily as Link’s Awakening. The slew of allusion and references to other Nintendo characters confirms this is Zelda at is kookiest. Tarin, for example, has a big nose, a mustache, likes mushrooms and at one point turns into a raccoon. There are plenty more direct Mario series references too, and even Kirby appears at one point. The side-quests are so enjoyable and quirky that it’s often more fun completing these fetch quests for these characters than playing the main game.
Even Wart from Super Mario Bros. 2 makes a cameo as a friendly frog king.
Classic Zelda games were created before walkthroughs, meaning that completing a Zelda dungeon was more of a challenge. I, myself, pride myself on never using walkthroughs, just so I maintain the challenge presented before me. You should all do the same, if you’d like to get out of Link’s Awakening DX with your dignity. Of course, dungeoneering is designed with the same ingenuity and faultless internal logic you’d expect from a top-quality Zelda game. Find a key, push a block, vanquish a foe – they start simply enough and become genuinely labyrinthine just a couple hours in.
This is old-school at its best. Link’s Awakening DX’s dungeons possess unquestionable class, but they require real concentration to conquer. This is not dip-in, dip-out stuff. There’s no hint system, no computer-controlled Link to jump in and show you the way, and no Sheikah Stone to show you glimpses of what you should be doing. It’s you and your handheld against old-fashioned, unforgiving dungeon design. To break this down into layman’s gaming terms (“gayman’s terms”, if you will): Imagine you’re playing Pokemon, where every cave is another Victory Road.
In the bigger dungeons, you’ll find yourself stopping to mutter at the map screen, before checking every nook and cranny wondering what you’ve missed. Usually, it’s your fault. You failed to notice that slight crack in that innocuous wall, or didn’t realise that flinging Link into a certain pit makes him land in a previously inaccessible room. Getting stuck and finding your way out is one of the slightly perverse pleasures to be discovered here, while the promise of a new toy constantly drives you on. Nintendo’s dastardly dungeon design team is always placing the next shiny new thing just out of reach, or showing you parts of the dungeon you could get to easily if you just had a new piece of gear. It’s brilliant and torturous at the same time.
Piled on top of the puzzles, you have the enemies to contend with as well. Playing as you do from the classic pre-Ocarina perspective just feels naturally harder – no strafing, no L-Targeting, just you and whatever items you picked to be your A and B weapons. Surviving becomes more about keeping on the move and away from danger than simply locking on and raising your shield, as you would in any of Link’s 3D adventures. Later bosses, inevitably, are sweaty-palm inducing beasts. You will die many more times fighting these guys than you would in more recent Zelda titles, which has maintained a systematic “use the thing you found in the dungeon, and then hit the monster” formula for over a decade now. Close study of weak points and plain old practice are required to beat these things, and when you do, victory is made all the sweeter.
While punishing and certainly not for Link’s softcore fans, Links’ Awakening’s dungeons remain highly satisfying slices of classic Zelda. Emerging triumphant from these monstrous caverns to be greeted by the simple chiptune charms of the main overworld theme never fails to make me breathe a breath of relief and satisfaction.
Back into the light, the tunes are still brilliant, remarkably. Nintendo is famed for doing the best with what it has, and this eminently hummable soundtrack joins a surprisingly accomplished visual style which serves to emphasise that Nintendo really has worked wonders with what is now laughably rudimentary hardware. Anyone who remembers playing this game on the Game Boy will recall that struggling against its dimly-lit screen was almost as challenging as the game itself. It makes me wonder how we coped before the GameBoy Advance SP was released, flaunting its backlight at us as if it were the Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Actually, I don’t really know where that analogy was going. ‘Having the 3DS backlight is nice,’ is what I’m trying to get across here.
Chances are, if you’re a hardcore Zelda fan, you’ve probably already got this on an emulator for your PC, but Nintendo has done the world a great favour by rereleasing this feisty Zelda title to the public via Nintendo’s eShop. Link’s Awakening is at once brilliant, archaic, funny, frustrating – but never, ever anything less than fantastically entertaining. Download it now, if you have a 3DS. Yes, all 4 of you out there.