Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Magic of Link's Awakening

*plays title screen music*

On June 6th the 3DS Virtual Console launches and Link's Awakening DX will be one of its launch titles. I want to use this occasion to finally talk about Link's Awakening, which in my eyes is absolutely magical. It was my first Zelda game and it instantly made me into a Zelda fan. It's still part of my favorite Zelda games next to Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. I finished this game already a dozen of times, more than any other Zelda game, but I still can't get enough of it. But what is it exactly, what makes this game so magical?

It already starts with the story. And that's something to say, because I'm normally not too interested in the story (try to find a blog post of mine that extensively deals with the story or timeline stuff). But I think there is no other Zelda game where I could identify myself with Link as well as in this game. This story is not about some Hero chosen by the gods who is destined to save the princess and all the world of Hyrule. This story is about you, a stranger, who stranded on a mysterious island. All that's left of your past are a sword, a shield and a boomerang washed up on the shore and faded memories of a princess named Zelda. Your goal is getting off the island, returning home. But this is no ordinary island and getting off it is quite a task, a big adventure. Link's Awakening is pretty much the LOST of the Zelda universe, just without the disappointing finale.

But I can be really myself in this game, which is great. You don't feel like you're just some marionette of the overall story, it's your doing, the game even constantly tells you that what you're doing is wrong and will have consequences. And the bitter sweet ending then will leave you thinking for a while.

But emotions aren't forced onto you, a pretty good example would be comparing Marin to Ilia. In the case of Ilia we got Link, who has feelings for her, while she is more interested in your horse or just ignores you completely. The player doesn't care about her character, but the game still tells you, that you have to. Which is why a lot of Zelda fans despise the character of Ilia. Marin, who was the base for Malon's character in Ocarina of Time, on the other hand was much more smartly written. She is the one, who is developing feelings for you. Whether you return them or not is up to you. The game doesn't tell you to care for her character, it's completely your choice. There is even this one very clever scene, where you accidently happen to rescue her on your way to Turtle Rock. No one tells you to do so and there's no big drama that she got captured by Moblins or whatever. Unlike in Twilight Princess, where you have all this big drama about Ilia and her lost memory, where Link gets all sad and blah blah blah. But in case of Marin, you just happen to run into her and you will be her hero, whether you want to be or not. For yourself you can pretend that you really are her hero or you can just say things like "no biggie, you just happened to be in my way, girl".

The game has his own unique charme, which no other game managed to copy successfully. It's just so full with fun and crazy ideas. In no other Zelda game you will battle Mario enemies or evil Kirbies, use telephones to ask some weird old guy for advice, have bosses talking to you and even mocking you or play instruments before a giant egg on a mountain. It's full of unique and unusual ideas, which makes it so refreshing.

Link's Awakening established many things for the Zelda series and interestingly it still shows some of the best uses of its new concepts. For example now there was a special quest before most of the dungeons. The goal was simply to get into the dungeon, but mostly they were locked and you needed a key for the dungeon. This was a really cool concept, which sadly only was copied by the Oracle games. The dungeons are places of evil and it's only natural that they are somehow locked from the outside world to protect the people living on the island. Later Zelda games would simply use the "cursed holy temple"-concept from Ocarina of Time, which is getting stale. But the quests to get in the dungeons are all fairly unique. From taking a Chain Chomp for walkies, over collecting golden leaves for a prince up to resurrecting a Flying Rooster. Link's Awakening is full of unique and charming ideas for quests.

The overworld is great and also full of unique environments like a Pothole Field, a Signpost Maze and a village full of animals. The island is opened bit by bit after each dungeon, but it doesn't feel like you're following a linear path. Because mostly you don't, for example the Power Bracelet opens the Tal Tal Heights and a part of the mountains, but also the Ukuku Prairie, Kanalet Castle, the bay and more. Lots of choices for you. And the game likes to tease you. For example you can enter the west part of the Ukuku Prairie right in the beginning of the game. I remember cleary that when I first played the game as kid I just wanted to go there (instead of facing the evil dungeon) and dreamed of the rest of the island. Or west to the swamp there is a spot that leads up to Tal Tal Mountains, one square next to the final dungeon. You can visit this spot right after the first dungeon, that's one hell of a teaser! And when you finally reach the spot from the other side it's one awesome feeling of accomplishment. The manual also teases you with artwork like this one:

Wonderful! It really stimulates your imagination and you dream of how the world will be. It's magical and something that wasn't done in later Zelda games. There they don't want to spoil you like that, but that's the wrong approach in my eyes. For Skyward Sword or following Zelda games they should always release a similar artwork for the overworld. If it doesn't scream "explore meeeee" like this one, then they failed in making a good overworld.

Now let's enter the dungeons. I just need to mention their names like "Tail Cave", "Key Cavern", "Face Shrine" or "Eagle Tower" and you will already notice, that the dungeons are based on some quite unusual ideas as well. In later Zelda games all you get will be "[insert element or environment type here] Temple", which gets predictable and boring. And like in the first Zelda game on the NES, the dungeon rooms form interesting shapes. For example the Tail Cave looks like a worm and inside the dungeon you will fight lots of Moldorms. Key Cavern is shaped like two keys and this dungeons has tons of keys and locked rooms/blocks. All fairly unique in the series.

The dungeons also shine with really great level design, a high level of non-linearity and lots of optional parts are awaiting you. These dungeons are supposed to be mazes, even though they were created for the limited memory of the GameBoy. There are many different solutions for a single dungeon. You will explore and you will hit dead ends - two qualities absolutely missing in dungeons of modern Zelda games. You can also take short cuts and skip many parts, which is nice for speed running. I'm normally not interested in speed running, but this game is an exception. Because the dungeons are really interesting in this matter. Just check out the following map of the Turtle Rock dungeon. On there I drew a minimalistic course to solve the dungeon. The colored rooms are the ones, which I've visited. And the grey rooms are the ones, which I've never even entered.

As you can see, I skipped more than 50% of the entire dungeon, which is crazy. I had to use tricky short cuts with the help of Bomb Arrows, but it can be done. And I even avoided four recurring mini-bosses on my way. Try something like that in Spirit Tracks. It's simply not possible, if there are optional parts in a dungeon, they are usually pretty small and unimportant. And there's a reason for that, called "the developer". The guys at Nintendo put a lot of time and energy into making these dungeons, bosses and so on. So, it's only natural, that they want the player to experience every bit. If you read these developer comments about Link's Awakening DX, you will notice that Yasuhisa Yamamura talks about the optional parts and even mentions that there was opposition to this in the team. But luckily they did it anyway, because the dungeons turned out great. It's fun to explore them and a good dungeon needs to have misleading parts, dungeons are supposed to be mazes. The linear room to room gameplay style of modern Zelda dungeons is just utterly boring and an insult to my intelligence.

But like with many other things Link's Awakening established some new concepts for dungeons as well. It's the first Zelda game, where you have a boss key, called the "Nightmare Key". It's also the first Zelda game to introduce mini-bosses. Also, it's the first time, that the item found in the dungeon has many uses inside the dungeon. A Link to the Past did this partially, but not as much as Link's Awakening. However, while these concepts slowly became standard in the series, Link's Awakening already added tons of variety to it, for example the mini-bosses. In the Tail Cave the mini-boss defends the actual boss. In the Eagle's Tower the mini-boss can be fought at any point during the dungeon and he then starts a personal vendetta against you. In the Catfish's Maw one mini-boss steals the dungeon item and you have to hunt him down. And the other mini-boss can be skipped entirely. What other Zelda games offer ideas like that? Usually the mini-boss protects the dungeon item and that's it, always the same predictable formula. A formula that gets boring. So, why is it, that the fourth game in the series with 18 years on its shoulder is the one game, that already twists all those formulas? All members of the current Zelda team should be ordered to play this game and learn from it! This is how you do it!

(In the above picture: you can actually go up or left! It's the magic of choices!)

At this point I want mention the great Eagle's Tower dungeon, one of my favorite dungeons in the entire series. The puzzle with the pillars and the iron ball is simply one of the smartest puzzles in the entire series. And the atmosphere is fairly great for GameBoy standards, primarily because of the music. The music tracks in Link's Awakening are fantastic, starting from the title music, over the Mysterious Woods theme to the dungeons. Great tracks. (Except for the annoying powerup music, when you pick up a Piece of Power or a Guardin Acorn. I always avoided those two powerups, because I wanted to keep listening to the music. :D)

Well, am I finally done praising Link's Awakening yet? No, I will never be done praising this game, but I'll try to focus on one last point: items and sidequests. Actually that's two points, but it's pretty much mixed up, because a lot of the main items are actually optional. The Bow is not a dungeon item like in most other Zelda games, but you buy it from the shop for insane 980 rupees. Or you steal it, but then everyone calls you "THIEF" and the shop owner will kill you with a lightning beam, when you enter the shop for the next time. Crazy stuff. The Bow is entirely optional (with the exception of one key, but you can skip that one), but helpful in some fights like against Armos Knights or the Gohma Twins. It can also be combined with Bombs to make Bomb Arrows, which is cool. Link's Awakening is the first Zelda game, that let's you dequip your sword and combine other items in cool fashion. The Boomerang is hidden very well in this game and turns out to be a powerful weapon instead of just something that stuns enemies like in other games. The L-2 Sword is also entirely optional, which is a lost art. Sword upgrades used to be optional, you had to really search for them, and they were a huge help. But starting with The Wind Waker all sword upgrades became a part of the plot and therefore boring. But here you'll get the sword after collecting 20 or more Secret Seashells.

Yes, you get the L-2 Sword after a collecting quest! The Seashell hunting was pretty much the debut of alternative collectible items in the series and it's still one of my favorite collecting quests, because they can be found bloody everyhwhere. Beneath bushes and rocks, buried somewhere, inside treasure chests, everywhere. You can't keep a single stone left standing in order to find them all. The Pieces of Heart are also very well hidden in this game. Some are behind bombable walls in caves, where you don't see any cracks at the walls. Or they are sunk in the water and you have to dive for them (I originally only found those by accident). You might think that this is crazy, but optional hidden items are meant to be optional and hidden. You really have to look for them. All this predictable stuff in Spirit Tracks for example is just extremely boring and not very challenging. And Link's Awakening is also the first Zelda game to offer a trading sequence. It all starts with a Yoshi Doll and ends with the Magnifying Lens (some sort of Eye of Truth). Good times.

Link's Awakening is quite a short game, I can finish it easily in a couple of hours. But every single minute of the game is purely great, the replay value is immense thanks to great world and dungeon design and all the charming ideas. I don't know how many times I've already beaten this game, I simply forgot to count at some point, but probably more than 15 times. Save for Ocarina of Time, which I've also replayed many times, I've fully beaten all other Zelda games "only" between two and four times. So, Link's Awakening really, really stands out on its replay value.

As you probably know, the game has two versions, one originally made in 1993 for the GameBoy and an updated version for the GameBoy Color, made in 1998. The 3DS version is of course be the latter one. But for some reason I always prefered the monochrome version. It just adds so more to the charme of the game. The Color Dungeon definitely is a great plus, but the new photo sidequest is a mess with all the missable pictures. And one snapshot requires you to steal from the shop and you know the result of that... but maybe the 3DS version let's you switch between both versions. I really doubt it, but it would be possible.

However, if you've never played the game, you simply MUST get it for your Nintendo 3DS. No, everyone with a 3DS should download this game, even if he or she already played it. It's one of the better Zelda game, it has a great story, tons of charme, great world and level design, good side quests, lovely music, high replay value and offers a fairly unique experience in the series.

1 comment:

Frédéric said...

Great summary - Zelda : Link's Awakening is also my favorite game ever. I always feel nostalgic thinking about it, and it also made me love the Zelda series. It is sad, as you pointed it out, that all the recipe of a great Zelda seems to be forgotten...