Originally released in 1993 and started as a side project to port A Link To The Past to Nintendo’s new console, the Game Boy, Link’s Awakening has been through many iterations from original, Game Boy Color and a Nintendo Switch Remake in 2019. Link’s Awakening has been recently added to Nintendo Switch Online, so now is a great time to check it out if it’s your first time, or you are revisiting this classic Game Boy game.
A Link To The Past had recently released and it was a massive hit. Staffers a Nintendo took a Game Boy dev kit and started a pseudo after-work club, seeing if they could port the massively successful title to the Game Boy. The 4th iteration of The Legend of Zelda series was born out of that process and turned into Link’s Awakening and would go on to be the definitive Game Boy experience. Five years after the original released, Nintendo reworked the original into Link’s Awakening DX, adding colour, as well as new content to improve the experience.
Link’s Awakening is different from all the other Zelda games that came before it. We’re not in Hyrule, Princess Zelda is nowhere to be found, and we’re not out to retrieve the Triforce. This is the story of the mysterious Koholint Island, where Link wakes up after suffering a distaster out to sea on his ship. After collecting our sword and shield, we’re met by an Owl, who tells us the story of the sleeping Wind Fish and it’s our job to collect the 8 instruments, and play them in order to wake it up.
We travel around Koholint Island, solving puzzles and completing dungeons, items along the way that allow us to progress in the dungeons and explore new parts of the world. A few items returned from A Link To The Past including the Pegasus Boots, Hook Shot and Mirror Shield. There are new items introduced too including Roc’s Feather which allows Link to jump around, improving his mobility. Side scrolling sequences were introduced too, similar to Zelda II, albeit these were bite-sized side-scrolling areas rather than the majority of gameplay as found in Zelda II.
There’s something strange about Koholint Island, underlined with the addition of Mario and Kirby characters. We have BowWows, Goombas, Kirby himself, photos of Princess Peach. The villagers too seem suspicious, and all is not quite right on the island. The environments are varied. We have our home base of Mabe Town, plus rivers to swim, castles to explore, mountains to climb and deserts to inspect. Much if the team that developed A Link To The Past came back together to work on Link’s Awakening and you can see that in the gameplay and design.
While the story and setting doesn’t feel like a Zelda game, the gameplay certainly does. Link goes from Dungeon to Dungeon solbing puzzles, unlocking new items and leveling up as he goes through the weapons. The dungeon designs are good, starting off fairly simple, and building up to the complex Turtle Rock, which is the final dungeon. Eagle Tower for me has to be the best dungeon, which features a neat mechanic where you have to unlock the upper levels of the dungeon by picking up a ball with your upgraded power bracelet and throwing it against 4 pillars. By knocking down the pillars this opens up access to the floor above.
The side scrolling sequences are used well. Zelda II experimented with side scrolling, having much of the overworld exploration in the top down view, and then going to a side scrolling view for the combat and majority of gameplay. Here Link has to traverse through underground sections, plus a few boss battles too. There’s a boss battle underwater against a huge fish, plus we fight on the top of Eagle Tower against a huge bird. It’s impressive stuff for the Game Boy.
The Ocarina makes a return in the game, which lends itself to the great music in the game. As you progress through the game you’ll learn various songs, like The Ballad of the Wind Fish, and Manbo’s Mambo (which allows you to fast travel). Once song later in the game allows you to bring living creatures back to life. The audio throughout the game is great, in particular the moments where you have to playalong with Marin as she sings The Ballad of the Wind Fish.
Link’s Awakening also introduced cutscenes to a Game Boy game, with a great scene with Marin and Link on the beach near the start of the game. Marin tells Link about her dreams to soar with the seagulls, and trying to imagine what is beyond the sea. Nintendo hint at a romantic connection between Link and Marin, and you can see Marin is desparate for Link to tell her what else is out there in the world. As someone who always wanted to spread their wings and leave home for something new, this really resonated with me when I first played it as a child, but also now coming back to it years later.
There are some gameplay restrictions in place, which makes a lot of sense given the platform the game released on. In A Link To The Past you had certain items assigned as ‘always on’ items. For example, once you get the Titan’s Mitt in ALTTP you can pick up heavy rocks at will. Here in Link’s Awakening you have to equip the Power Bracelet to enable picking up heavy objects. This means often you will bump into items when you don’t have this equipped and you’ll get a pop up on screen saying “it’s too heavy”. This can get a little annoying and repetitve. Some items are ‘always on’, like the flippers, but some items like the Power Bracelet or Roc’s Feather have to be equipped in the A or B button slot to be used, meaning you can spend a lot of time in menus. This can get a little tricky if you are facing off against a boss and you need more than 2 items to take them down.
Overall, Link’s Awakening is still a fantastic game. I recommend playing it via Nintendo Switch Online, which is part of the Game Boy catalogue, however, you can also play Link’s Awakening via the 2019 remake if you really don’t enjoy the older graphics. The original Link’s Awakening demonstrated to the world Nintendo could craft an exceptional video game on this restrictive platform, and GameBoy games didn’t have to be lesser versions of game that appeared on SNES or N64. It’s a slightly different Zelda game from the series, but one that stands out and will live long in the memory of anyone who completes it.
Platform: Game boy, Nintendo Switch, Nintendo Switch Online
Release Date: 1993, 1998 and 2019