Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening - Rising Above Its Technology
Link's first portable adventure laughed in the face of technical limitations and showed me what true power really is.

So much of what constitutes my memories of a game is dependent upon the hows and the when: The season during which I discovered it. The process by which it worked its way into my life. The friends with whom I played it. How my relationship with it evolved. How it shaped my thinking in those formative years. And, most relevantly, the way it framed for me the current state of the medium and sometimes challenged my perception of how things were.

Before The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening hit the scene, everything about my gaming world made perfect sense. I had my NES, my SNES and my Game Boy, each of which I understood to be a creature of its own design, its games beholden to a set of unmistakable technical attributes. The NES remained on my TV stand in the interest of keeping the 8-bit spirit alive, its presence allowing me to (a) perpetually relive old favorites, (b) explore all of the legacy games my brother was continuing to dig up plus those I'd recently rented from the video store, and (c) stay up to date with the console's still-active (though rapidly waning) release-schedule and mainly the classic Mega Man games. I turned to my SNES for its collection of unrestrained, technologically advanced master works. And the Game Boy could provide me instant entertainment, whether I was at home or on the road, with its library of accessible, bite-sized action games and puzzlers and even a growing number impressive NES-scale releases--the type that were surely pushing the system to its limits, I thought.

At least, that was my conception of the Game Boy post-Metroid II. A little more than a year later, I wasn't so sure that my world-view was holding up; in light of a certain big-name release, the waters were becoming ever-muddier, and suddenly I could no longer properly define what Nintendo's portable was supposed to be. It began life as a platform tailor-made for simple, scaled-down games, then it surprisingly started to encroach upon the NES' space, and now it had designs on taking a slice of that SNES pie despite its clear technical deficiencies! The pioneering software in this case was Super Mario Land 2, which fascinated me with how it convincingly replicated the look of the Super Mario World, though it obviously couldn't match it in terms of scope.

Oh, it proved itself to be a great portable title--well-designed in all aspects and aesthetically distinct despite its resemblance to World--but it just wasn't anywhere in the same galaxy in terms of sheer quality. What it taught me was that this new push for graphical similarity was mostly a facade--that the Game Boy had already realized its full potential and simply didn't possess the capability to produce something that was truly on the level of a 16-bit game.

That's why I was highly skeptical when Nintendo Power Volume 44's Pak Watch feature revealed that the company was working on a Game Boy-exclusive sequel to the legendary A Link to the Past. As I was previously with Super Mario Land 2, I was fascinated with how closely its sprite-work resembled A Link to the Past's--an achievement that still seemed like the work of sorcery to me--but I couldn't envision any final product that could rate as even half as good. Moreover, having apparently learned nothing from my experience with Metroid II, I was kind of peeved that the direct follow-up to the beloved A Link to the Past was coming to Game Boy and not the system of origin--the SNES, using the power of which Nintendo could have crafted an even larger world and a sequel capable of blowing away its predecessor! I mean, this was a main Zelda entry--not one of those nebulously related Mario offshoots that we held to varying standards.

They were giving us, instead, a Game Boy-ified version of A Link to the Past, its real-estate looking uncomfortably cramped, its world assuredly far smaller in scope, and its quality no doubt lagging far behind the original work's.

I had no expectations for Link's Awakening. I simply couldn't get hyped for it, nor could I bring myself to even closely follow Nintendo Power's future coverage. I was so disinterested in it that I don't even recall how I got a hold of the game--whether it was a birthday gift received that August, which also happened to be the month of its release, or if I went out and bought it for myself at a later date. All I remember is a feeling a sense of enlightenment as Link's Awakening confidently strutted its stuff and taught me that clinging to predisposed notions was an amazingly shortsighted way of judging video games--that sometimes the best things come in the smallest packages.

Considering that there was no true build-up to its arrival--that its portable nature prevented it from generating anyway near the same kind of excitement that its predecessor stirred up a little more than a year earlier--it makes sense that my memories of Link's Awakening are more scattered than chronological. In terms of my earliest interaction with the game, I remember only my initial impressions. I recall how, from the very start, I liked how the game looked and felt--the whimsical-though-wistful vibe it projected. I'd explored not more than ten screen's worth of map space, but I could already sense was that Link's Awakening was elaborate in a way that other Game Boy games could only dream of being, in both design and emotional conveyance; its was a strange yet desirable median--it embodied the visual energy of its SNES predecessor, yet it felt more like an NES game in how it captured the simple-yet-indelible sensibilities of the 8-bit era and tickled my imagination.

The visuals were surely evocative, but my thoughts and feelings were shaped more heavily by the music, which had a quality to it that I couldn't describe at the time. On the surface, a tune could convey anything from cheerfulness to solemnity to even an unnerving quality, but I could always sense an underlying sadness to its composition, as if to advertise that there was an detectable air of desperation seeping through cracks of this world. The town theme, for instance, sounded festive and jovial, but if I listened to it for too long, I'd be tranced into a state of idle pensiveness. The abbreviated cave theme, similarly, was mysterious-sounding at first but somehow increasingly glum on subsequent loops. It was the same deal with the unsettling woods music, whose creepy vibe could barely contain its creeping despair. And yet I couldn't explain what the music was doing or how it was doing it. Save for credits theme to A Link from the Past, no Zelda music ever evoked those kinds of feelings from me.

Oh, I thought it was an interesting approach to world augmentation, and it certainly worked to the desired effect, but it was all very jarring at first. That's why it was such a relief--such a great moment of escape--when I retrieved my sword from the foamy grasp of the beach's lonely coastline and an empowering intro gave way to that classic, reliably welcoming Zelda overworld theme! Well, it lifted my spirits for at least a few moments, after which Awakening, with its pessimistic outlook, took domain over even the classic theme and veered its composition more toward mournful, the now-unique second verse tainted with strains of melancholy.

It might have taken a decade or so, but I finally did figure out what that music was trying to tell me. Listening to the music in Link's Awakening would always serve well to remind me why I was so prone to becoming hopelessly absorbed in the game's world. More importantly, as the years dropped off, its music would come to accurately define what the Game Boy meant to me at the time.

Of course, there were parts of it I didn't so much care for. I wasn't a fan of how early on whole sections of the map were partitioned off with bushes, rocks and other obstructions, creating a sense of linearity that was counter-intuitive to the exploration factor I'd come to demand from my Zelda experience; more of the game would open up as I'd retrieve the appropriate items (a power bracelet to clear away rocks, for instance), yes, but it worked to make the action feel overly confined at times. Otherwise, the game never ceased to aggravate me when I'd bump into an obstructing item, be it a pot or one of those crystalline protrusions, and it would prompt the same unnecessarily long warning message telling me that I lacked the capability to negotiate around it. 

Really--this game treated me like I had some type of severe short-term memory issue, particularly when it came to its propensity to repeat that excruciatingly long thousand-word description every time I procured a compass. "I get it--it shows me where the treasures are! Stop telling me this!"

Having to constantly pause the action to assign weapons to the two action buttons quickly grew tiresome and might've been Awakening's greatest shortfall, but I couldn't put too much blame on game's designers, who were really strapped for input options; considering what they had to work with, theirs was a commendable effort to compact the SNES control scheme down to four buttons, however tedious the resulting processes.

Also, those guardian acorns and Triforce pieces, though helpful, were oversupplied to the point of absurdity. I didn't mind having ready access to offensive and defensive enhancements, but their accompanying theme--an eight-second loop of discordant noise that grew increasingly grating over time--was too much to bear; I was always sort of relieved whenever their effect would wear off--when I'd leave an area or make contact with an enemy--and the music would return to normal.

But I couldn't deny that I was being effectively drawn into the world of Link's Awakening despite its shortcomings, my heart firmly invested in both its superlative action and its hauntingly communicated story about an island whose existence was in peril, its every space and every inhabitant perhaps the product of a passing dream. It was turning out to be a damn good game. Though, I wasn't about to admit to myself that it was on par with A Link to the Past, because conventional wisdom told me that such a thing couldn't be true. "Come on now--how can a cramped, colorless Game Boy game compare favorably to an SNES game?" To even consider as much felt like heresy.

Still, I couldn't deny that the game's aura was so powerful that it managed to successfully transcend the bonds of monochrome visuals and meager sound hardware, Link's Awakening meeting or exceeding its SNES counterpart in terms of thought-provoking world design, engrossing narrative structure, and how it used music as an atmosphere-defining storytelling device.

It didn't feature quite as many dungeons, sure, but I'd rate the majority of its grottos, shrines and caverns as some of the series' most brilliant constructions; each had its own unique audio and visual theme--if not in terms of color then certainly in decor--an interesting sub-boss or two, and its share of cleverly designed puzzles. Oh, there were of course generic water and lava themes and their expected pitfalls, but Link's Awakening could be apt to base its dungeons around pot-tossing, skeleton-hunting or any ol' contrivance. The one that stood out to me most was the brain-busting Eagle's Tower, within which I had to carefully, cleverly maneuver both Link and an iron ball around the tower's innards with the goal of demolishing four pillars and collapsing part of the tower onto itself for purposes of accessibility. No dungeon in A Link to the Past provided anything so ingenious.

Link's Awakening differentiated itself wherever it could. Most notable was how it handled dungeon access: I couldn't just waltz my way into, say, a Tail Cave or an Angler's Tunnel; rather, the lead-up to a dungeon's entry was itself treated as a dungeon-esque travail. It wasn't always that I had to complete some kind of task to acquire a dungeon's key; no--there was no keeping with convention here. The designers' bending of their own rules led to some of my favorite moments in the game, like when I had to breach the Bottle Grotto, whose entrance was obstructed by a number of seemingly impervious swamp creatures, by volunteering to take possession of the fearsome "dog" Bow-Wow (a jerkily moving Chain Chomp taken directly from the Mario universe) and walk him over to the swamp area, where he'd begin tearing through its partly submerged inhabitants with his sharp razor-sharp teeth and sudden lunges.

Bravely (or perhaps recklessly, I originally thought), they incorporated a jumping mechanic via the Roc's Feather. I wasn't immediately comfortable with the idea of jumping in an overhead-style Zelda game, since I was concerned that doing so would compromise the world's design ("Overhead Zelda action should remain grounded!") and make a mockery of certain types of dungeon challenges; however, it did nothing of the sort, its inclusion instead allowing for a more convenient means of exploration and the potential for new kinds of puzzles in both the overhead and 2D sections. Mainly, though, I just thought it was a whole lot of fun to just hop all over the place and soar over enemies' heads! Roc's Feather added a whole new dimension to the classic formula, and I couldn't imagine a future overhead Zelda without it.

Link's Awakening went above and beyond to prove that it wasn't some dumbed-down iteration of an SNES masterpiece; it craved distinction and worked hard toward that end, almost as if it were created by people who ventured to play as loosely as possible with the blueprint. 

And they succeeded in crafting a Zelda world that was unlike any other I'd ever know. I wound up forming a personal attachment to Koholint Island and its cast of unaffected, amiable characters, who sensed that they were doomed but continued living their lives with the hope that a better tomorrow awaited them. I always had a great time exploring every pixel of their fading world, gleefully jumping and dashing about its every accessible space, but I especially enjoyed breathing it in and savoring it--bathing in its ambiance while letting its music--those quintessential Game Boy tones--influence my thoughts.

I would be sure to stop by a villager's abode whenever I was in such a state, since the houses' soft, comforting music did well to conjure images and feelings of a special time in life that was sadly fleeting, which was a theme not just of the game but of what was currently going on in the real world; I'd park Link in there and let that touchingly poignant music play on as accompaniment to my continuing rumination. 

More so, I couldn't wait until it was time to visit the mountainy Tal Tal Heights, whose vertically aligned skyline and sea-view backdrop defied the game's sense of flatness and gave full scope to my everlasting mental image of the remote Koholint Island. I loved in particular Tal Tal's theme music, whose deceptive buoyancy would fill me with wonder but soon turn my mood reflective as it shed its cover and revealed a wistful song about days past and the dangers ahead; it spoke of finality--of overcoming the largest of obstacles before moving on to new adventures. It was the perfect song for a mountain setting. 

I was particularly obsessed with the game's 2D side-scrolling sections, which greatly expanded upon the NES original's idea of briefly switching to a front-view perspective whenever Link entered into an item or transition screen; where the original's 2D scenes merely served as a temporary break in the action, Awakening's added a fun, memorable platforming element. I loved everything about how these scenes were constructed and presented, from their painfully nostalgic ambiance to how they tested Link's dexterity and weapon skills on a y-axis.

There were two integral parts to their makeup: Their imagination-stirring aesthetics--the cavernous, dimly lit passages as augmented by a mysterious, slightly unsettling 8-note ditty that encapsulated their entire existence. And their exclusive residents--a specially assigned group of Mario enemies whose cast included Goombas, Piranha Plants, Cheep Cheeps, Thwomps and Bloopers, all of which behaved just as the did in Super Mario Bros., Link able to squash Goombas by jumping on them, stifle a Piranha Plant's activity by standing near its pipe, and evade the crushing Thwomps by swiftly dashing beneath them. The majority of these 2D sections were situated in dungeons, but there were also one or two of them to be found in the overworld, including my favorite of their kind--the one near Kanalet Castle, where Goombas marched about obliviously and castle's surrounding woodland served as the inspiration for a quaintly drawn miniaturized background.

Two such scenes were even reserved for boss battles, which were equally well-integrated and welcome instances of variety.

Link's Awakening had a strong Mario influence in general. There were all those Mario enemies, including the unmentioned overhead lurkers Bob-omb, Shy Guy and Pokey. The character Tarin was clearly based on Mario, himself. Bow-Wow was obviously a Chain Chomp. There was a Yoshi doll on display in the item-game shop, its presence nothing more advertisement for the green dino's newest games. Princess Toadstool was depicted in the photograph that Link delivered to Dr. Wright, though I didn't get the joke about the picture labeling her "Christine." And, most fittingly, Wart, the would-be conqueror of the dream world Subcon, was hanging around the Signpost Maze.

Their appearance in the Zelda universe felt surreal yet not intrusive, because, as we've learned, the two series have been intrinsically linked since their conception, and they've shared much in the way of design philosophy. (Though, I can't explain why they thought to have Kirby, of all characters, show up in Eagle's Tower--his a certainly strange but nonetheless impactful cameo.) More than anything, the inexplicable inclusion of the Mario characters (and Kirby) informed me of just how unrestrained the developers' efforts were, though I couldn't guess as to why they'd be given such freedom.

Not that I needed the excuse, but I was happy to return to Link's Awakening to test out Nintendo Power's usual mind-blowing secrets. There was that game-breaking warp cheat using which you could magically transport to the far side of an adjacent screen by hitting the Select button during a screen transition; it was fun to mischievously put it to use and attempt to find Metroid-style secret worlds, but the novelty wore off quickly when the best I could do was become permanently lodged in a wall. I also learned that you could also steal items from the shop by distracting the owner with a quick roundabout movement, though it didn't seem worth it when the penalties included being labeled a "Thief," which ate my conscience, and being viciously electrocuted and killed by the all-powerful owner if I dared to return to his shop. Seeing Link struck down so helplessly made me wonder why this shopkeeper wasn't the main hero.

While I played through Link's Awakening a bunch of times in those early, I didn't pay it much attention in the years that followed. My focus began skewing more toward big-name SNES releases, which were now arriving at a rapid clip. I didn't find the motivation to return to it until the summer of '96, when the N64 had taken the mantle and the pickings had become slim. This was actually when my best memories of the game were formed--during the final months of my senior year in high school, right before everything was about to change. More than ever, the wonderful aesthetics of Link's Awakening were the perfect augmentation to my thoughts and feelings during this time of transition; its music and imagery stayed with me over the course of those last few days, when I was free to roam about the school and reflect upon my adolescent years.

I remember leaving school that spring day (after our teachers Mr. Bonano and Mr. Miller dismissed us from the library following a viewing of The Shawshank Redemption, of all things) and walking down the front stairs of Adelphi Academy for the final time. It was quiet. The sun's warm glow was indiscriminately bathing every surface and every tree. There wasn't another student in sight. And all I could think about was Link's Awakening's house music, which served as a firm reminder that it was time for me to head out into the great unknown, just like in a Zelda game. I played through Link's Awakening that summer in tribute to the moment.

Corny, huh?

As with everything else Game Boy-related, I lost access to Link's Awakening when the portable went and died on me. I didn't see it again for more than a decade, though the memories remained strong--so much so that I made sure to pick up the colorized DX version, which I hadn't played before, when it arrived on the 3DS eShop in June of 2011. I was happy to again have access to Link's Awakening in some form, and I appreciated how they used the Game Boy Color's enhanced color-schemes to match it more closely to its SNES predecessor, but I still preferred how it looked on that old Game Boy, whose unforgettable aesthetic qualities did more to color my mental image of the game than any tacked-on color palette could ever do.

I wasn't surprised to learn via that Iwata Asks interview with Takashi Tezuka and Toshihiko Nakago that Link's Awakening was indeed a passion project headed up by a group of young, free-spirited game developers upon whom there were placed next to no restrictions. I understood, then, why everything about Link's Awakening felt so disparate; their youthful exuberance and creative whimsy pervaded every pixel of that game and wouldn't allow it to conform. It's a shame that future development teams weren't afforded the same type of freedom; the Zelda series, particularly in the modern era, could certainly use for that same type of bold, unrestrained creativity.

"So which one would you say is the better game?" you ask. "A Link to the Past or Link's Awakening?"

Well, that's a tough one. Really, I don't think that I can confidently state that I like one more than the other. I mean, I can't deny that I consider A Link to the Past to be a standard-bearer for excellence, but I also can't ignore how Link's Awakening makes me feel. The best solution is to say that Link's Awakening is neither better nor worse; it's just different--as good as what it does on the Game Boy as what A Link to the Past does on the SNES.

I could go on and on about why Link's Awakening resonates so strongly with me. How it was a creature of the moment. How it somehow matched the quality of a game made for a technologically advanced console and with three-times the budget. How it couldn't have been done on any other platform at any other time. How its music and imagery have the power to infiltrate my brain. How it doesn't adhere strictly to the established formula and instead actively seeks to betray the player's expectations (hell--you earn a powered-up sword by collecting shells, which common sense would tell you are marginally important secondary items). And how it's capable of telling a powerful story without using a single word. 

But quite simply, I'll let the fact that it can inspire this much text stand as a testament to its transcendence.

I can sum up my feelings on The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening by quoting a line that stuck with me as I was reading through the comments section of a Youtube video reserved for the game's house theme:

"Thank you, Nintendo, for the memories."


  1. Link's Awakening is indeed a gem without equal in the original Gameboy's library. That cartridge spent a lot of time in my handheld when it first came out and I still give it a whirl every few years or so. As a less-experienced gamer, the Eagle Tower and Turtle Rock dungeons really frustrated me back in the day, but, I eventually figured them out on my own. The later, Capcom-developed, Gameboy Color Oracle of Ages/Seasons, while decent, failed to capture the magic/feeling of Link's Awakening in my estimation, even though they utilized the same engine and many of the graphical assets (actually, their somewhat-rehashed nature was probably the problem). Seiken Densetsu (Holy Sword Legend): Final Fantasy Gaiden (Final Fantasy Adventure here in the states) is the only other thing that comes close, but, while I love it, said game lacks the polish and atmosphere of Nintendo's work.

    "Christine" is the name of the goat woman in the Animal Village that Mr. Wright corresponds with, which is why said moniker is written on Toadstool/Peach's photo. Needless to say, much like many an internet romance, she didn't provide an accurate portrait of herself (I guess she's afraid that Mr. Wright isn't into bestiality). I don't think that there's any special significance to her name (the only cultural thing that comes to mind is Stephen King's novel/movie about the evil car, which I doubt was on either the development or localization teams' minds). Speaking of which, said possessed car actually does appear, as an enemy, in Atlus' Japanese Super Famicom RPG, Shin Megami Tensei If...

    1. The joke makes sense from that angle. It's sort of like one of those prolonged Youtube comments-section arguments, where the participants are all perpetual Mr. Universe contestants who hold multiple master's degrees and PhDs while juggling a dozen supermodel girlfriends.

      I'm with you on the "Oracle" games not quite measuring up despite their advancements, but I'm still glad they exist. They represented sort of our last shot at experiencing "Zelda" games with 8-bit sensibilities before the emergence of hardware that would decisively end the potential for any more of its authentic pedigree. I appreciate them for that.