Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Mysterious Nature of Link’s Awakening

I posted this piece to a Zelda forum a while back, but after recently playing through the original black and white Link’s Awakening (I’d previously only ever played the Game Boy Color “DX” version), I thought I’d revisit these thoughts and expand on them. Heavy spoilers for Link’s Awakening are in the latter half of this post, but I’ll warn you beforehand when we get there, as well as put a marker where the spoilers end.

The first Legend of Zelda game I ever played and completed was The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX for the Game Boy Color. I remember my older brother showed me the original black and white version of Link’s Awakening and simply said something like, “This is Zelda.” I recall looking over his shoulder and watching him fight Moblins in the Mysterious Woods (from that day on, I would never, ever forget that music). I was immediately intrigued. I picked up the newer, color version of the game and dived in. I spent so much time just being enthralled at how you could cut grass and practiced doing a spin-attack to cut as much grass as possible in Mabe Village, where this adventure begins.

Link’s Awakening has a mysterious nature that I still can’t quite accurately describe to this day. The special, surreal feeling that this game exudes has remained unique to it even all these years, and many other games, later. After about a year of being stuck on a puzzle in the game’s second dungeon, Bottle Grotto (the one where you must defeat three enemies in a certain order), I fully immersed myself in the game during a week of being home sick from school with strep throat. I’ll never forget that initial playthrough. The endless feeling of discovery and intrigue the game provided was something I’d never experienced in a game before. I realize today that this sense of discovery was one of the key factors that initially attracted me to Zelda, and adventure and exploration games in general.

Link's Awakening DX for Game Boy Color
The entire experience is layered with mystery in a way that no other Zelda game has quite captured for me, not even Majora’s Mask, the spiritual successor to Link’s Awakening (don’t get me wrong: Majora is magnificent and mysterious in its own right, and equally as special in its own unique way). The game is full of baffling discoveries whose true purposes only become clear when you find the right tool, character, plot device or when you unlock some other mystery. I remember the first time I entered the abandoned House by the Bay. The music was so lonely and I could only wonder what the significance of this dark, decrepit shack was. Who lived there? Where were they now? Then there are the numerous secret passages and caves that one can find that lie just out of reach and seem impossible to get to, as well as countless other puzzling circumstances present in the game (why is there a flamethrower blocking my path in this cave, and how do I get past it?). The feeling of finally figuring out how to reach one of those secrets or solve one of those puzzling scenarios is one of the most satisfying feelings in all of my gaming career. Of course, you could attribute these elements to many Zelda games, but this one feels especially puzzling and cryptic at times (in a good way), often dangling a tantalizing secret in front of the player but leaving it up to them to figure out how to solve it. And then of course there is the incredibly memorable cast of characters and enigmatic narrative.

Everything and everyone in the game gives off this surreal, almost suspicious vibe. Character dialogue ranges from comically puzzling: “Yep!  Those're  my boys! I'm Papahl, pleased ta meetcha! I'll be lost in the hills later, so keep a look out for me, hear?” to oddly suspicious: “HO HO HO! I'm your bad guy this time!! HO HO HO!” to just plain surreal: “I dreamed that I turned into a carrot last night… What an odd dream...” The central narrative that winds through Link’s adventure is also shrouded in mystery, and the odd (yet charming) cast of characters only builds on this enigma. What are the mysterious Owl’s motivations? Who or what is the Wind Fish? Just what exactly is going on? Nothing is ever quite clear, and as a young kid playing it for the first time, the entire experience felt something like a dream.

…and Spoiler Alert for those that haven’t experienced this handheld gem… (skip the next four paragraphs to avoid major spoilers)

Koholint Island, the setting of Link's Awakening
…that’s because it is a dream. But this isn’t your typical “it was all a dream” story that reveals the twist at the very end as the main character wakes up, and doesn’t explore the concept any further than that. In Link’s Awakening, the dream narrative is woven into every facet of the game’s world and character interactions. Hints are dropped everywhere about the true nature of Koholint Island, and roughly three quarters into the adventure, the truth is revealed to the player, leaving them to ponder it for the remainder of the game and question every step they take. But this isn’t Link’s dream; the entire world in the game along with all of its inhabitants and a visiting Link exist within the dream of a slumbering deity-like being known as the “Wind Fish”. I said earlier that I can’t quite accurately describe the atmosphere of Link’s Awakening, but the best and most obviously appropriate adjective to use is “dreamlike”. One of the interesting aspects of this story is that all of the main characters are driven by selfish motivations, including Link, who wants to wake the Wind Fish so he can leave the island; likewise, the Owl, as an agent of the Wind Fish’s subconscious, manipulates Link into waking up the being, the “villainous” Nightmares…well, we’re told that they want to take over the island, but it seems to me like they’re just trying to protect their own existence. You see, if the Wind Fish wakes up, the dream will end and Koholint Island and everything and everyone on it will disappear.

The friendly couple with the quadruplets in Mabe Village? Gone. The two pen-pals trading letters? Gone. A chef that wants to start a restaurant chain on the island? Gone. And then there’s Marin, a curious young girl fascinated with Link for one reason: he is from outside the island. Marin envies the seagulls and wonders where they come from, she wishes she could sprout wings as well and discover what lies beyond the sea. Her curiosity and actions seem to be those of a sentient, intelligent being. But when the Wind Fish wakes up? She never existed…or did she?

Marin opens up to Link about her dreams
That’s the question at the heart of Link’s Awakening, and it’s a harrowingly complex one for a humble little Game Boy game that first released in 1993, and in a larger context for video games as a whole at the time. In the end, Link destroys the last of the Nightmares (who had been keeping the Wind Fish asleep interminably so their world would never disappear…can’t say I blame them), wakes the Wind Fish, and we watch helplessly as the island and all of its inhabitants are wiped from existence. Link wakes up in the middle of the ocean, floating on the wreckage of his ship, and watches the Wind Fish fly overhead as the credits roll, before “The End” pops up on the screen. It’s a starkly simple but appropriate ending. Just as the Wind Fish tells Link at the end: “It be the nature of dreams to end”. Have you ever had a dream that felt so real, so tangible in the moment, only to suddenly awaken and feel a sense of sadness that all of it is gone forever? I have. Sometimes when I’ve first awoken, I’ve tried to fall back asleep, to go back to the adventure that I was having. But I can’t. It’s gone, existing only in my memory and soon that will likely be gone too.

Now, if the player manages to complete the entire quest without ever dying (something I’ve never managed to do as it’s very easy to die in Link’s Awakening), we are greeted with an extra scene that differs slightly between the original black and white version and the DX version, but both basically amount to the same meaning. Essentially, it is implied in this bonus ending that Marin gets her wish and becomes a seagull. This provides some touching closure for Marin’s character and it also raises even more questions about just how real the world of Koholint really was. I can’t think of another action/adventure video game where the world and all of its people is not only not saved at the end of the adventure, but is completely obliterated, and at the “hero’s” own hands no less. This one aspect is enough to make Link’s Awakening unforgettable for me.

Major Spoilers end here for those who skipped ahead.

Beyond the mysteries and the intriguing narrative though, Link’s Awakening was a trendsetter for the rest of the Zelda series, and it never seems to get any credit for it. Not only was this the first time we see Link venture away from Hyrule, Princess Zelda, Ganon, the Triforce and all that business into a completely new place with a completely new story, mythology and characters, but Link’s Awakening also pioneered several trends that would go on to define Zelda games in the future, and that had an especially large influence on the Zelda game that immediately followed, that being the most widely regarded game in the series (and one of the most widely regarded video games of all time), Ocarina of Time. A large cast of uniquely quirky NPCs, a large trading quest that stretches across a sizable portion of the game (a la the Biggoron’s Sword quest in Ocarina of Time), a large collectathon side-quest, fishing, dungeons with unique background music and more of their own personality, a talking owl that serves as the hero’s guide, an ocarina with a more expanded role that plays several different songs used for warping and solving puzzles, and even the Lens of Truth (known as the Magnifying Lens here, but it essentially serves the same function) all come from Link’s Awakening. I’m sure many people would be quick to credit Ocarina of Time for bringing all of these elements into Zelda, but nope, it was the first handheld title in the series; a humble, often underappreciated little masterwork that established all of this. Ocarina of Time only developed these elements even further, and later titles continued to develop them and add to them. I would argue that Link’s Awakening is just as important to what the Zelda series would ultimately become and be known for as A Link to the Past is. As for the influence that Link’s Awakening has had on me personally, that should be clear by now: it’s one of the most important works of art in my life and continues to inspire me all the time.

So basically what I’m saying is that if you’ve never played Link’s Awakening, I highly recommend you change that, dammit! It is one of the deepest and most unique games in the Zelda series and tied as my personal favorite, along with Majora’s Mask and The Wind Waker. You don’t have to know anything about the Zelda series to get something out of this game (it was my personal first after all), so even if you have no experience with the franchise, I’d still recommend checking Link’s Awakening out. You can still find the original Game Boy cartridge and the DX Game Boy Color version online, but if you own a 3DS, you can simply download the DX version from the eShop for a few bucks (that’s the version I recommend anyway). Hey, while you’re at it, you can also download two Zelda games that are even more overlooked than Link’s Awakening: Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages, both of which also come with a high recommendation from yours truly.

What are your thoughts on Link’s Awakening? Do you have a similar memory of your first Zelda experience? Or of your experience with the first game you played in one of your favorite series? What video games give you a sense of wonder and mystery similar to my experiences with Link’s Awakening? Let me know! I’d love to hear about it!

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Nintendo E3 2015 Predictions

It’s that time of year again and so I’d thought I’d make some E3 predictions on the Nintendo side of things. Nintendo had a fantastic showing last year, with some great reveals, fun events, and just an overall incredibly positive atmosphere throughout the week mainly thanks to the excellent Treehouse steaming event. I’m glad that Nintendo recognized that they had something great last year and have decided to pretty much do the same gig again this year, which is fine by me. After fumbling for a few years, it seems the quirky company has found their unique E3 sweet spot. This year could be another great for them, or it could just be solid; what made last year great was all the surprises and just the overall presentation of the thing. I have no doubt the presentation will be on point again this year, but so far I’m a little iffy on whether they’ll have as exciting a show, with their lineup being composed of a lot of games we already know a lot about, an already confirmed absence of “Zelda U” (which could change, but I’m inclined to think not, as much as it saddens me), and no Smash Bros. to fall back on this year. Still, I’m hoping they have a few mystery projects in store.

First off, the obvious: Mario Maker, Yoshi’s Woolly World, and Xenoblade Chronicles X will all be present and demoed (and hopefully will get release dates, and in Xenoblade X's case, finally get a western release date), with a big focus on Mario Maker since 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of the original Super Mario Bros. (they’ve already announced that Mario Maker is going to be the Best Buy demo title this year). Super Smash Bros. DLC will also be discussed, with a  release date for Lucas, perhaps they’ll surprise us by announcing that Lucas is available the very same day (they’ve already said he’s coming in June, so why not?). Some more DLC details will likely be talked about, perhaps a hint at another character, maybe the return of Wolf to tie in with Star Fox later this year, and also some talk about how the Smash Ballot is going. I’m also predicting that Mother 3 will finally be announced for a western eShop release to go along with Lucas, maybe for release also in June, maybe later in the year. The new Wii U Star Fox game will finally get its proper big reveal and be demoed extensively by the Treehouse, likely with Shigeru Miyamoto in tow, passionately talking about his game with Bill Trinen by his side as always. Speaking of Miyamoto, it’s possible we’ll some more of his “Project Guard” and “Project Giant Robot” games in more mature forms, and maybe with proper titles.

Star Fox is gonna be big this year

Next, the surprises: Most of the stuff above is expected, and most of it is games we’ve either already seen extensively or at least know about already, so I’m hoping Nintendo has some nice surprises in store for us. Here’s what I predict. First off, a new Metroid for Wii U from Retro Studios. We know that Retro has been working on something since the release of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze back in February of 2014. As much as I wouldn’t mind a follow-up to the sublime platforming masterpiece that is Tropical Freeze, I doubt they’re doing another DKC game. Maybe they’re working a new IP or something else, but it’s clear that people want a new Metroid from Retro, and I think Nintendo and Retro are both well aware of it. Given how much Nintendo has been catering to its fans lately, I think there’s a good chance that it’s happening. We’ll probably only get a teaser trailer and the game probably won’t be out until 2016 at the earliest, but we’re long overdue for a Metroid game, and even more overdue for a good Metroid game.

Hopefully the actual boxart won't be this terrible

My second prediction is either less likely or more likely, I can’t decide which. Miyamoto has already hinted that they’re planning a big Mario game for Nintendo’s next home console. We also know that EAD Tokyo, the group responsible for all of the 3D Mario platformers since the original Super Mario Galaxy has been working on a new Mario game, though they won’t say for which platform. This mystery Mario could very well be for Nintendo’s next home console (which would explain why they won’t say which platform it’s on), but I’m also still not completely ruling out another 3D Mario on Wii U. With the 30th anniversary and all, I think now would be a good time to announce something like that. Maybe it would simply be “3D World 2”, but I’m predicting it will be something close to the Galaxy style, something that fans have also been asking for. There is definitely evidence that would make something like this less likely. Perhaps they want to focus on Mario Maker for one, and not distract from it. Or perhaps EAD Tokyo, assuming they are the ones developing it, want to put all of their energy and focus into this big Mario game for Nintendo's next console (which is something I'm not against). Some also say that Nintendo is not going to go back to a style more in line with Galaxy or dare I say, Super Mario 64 or Sunshine, and looking at the progression of the 3D games in the series and also hearing statements from the core people currently involved in the 3D Mario games, they’re probably right. I personally really want to see the next huge evolution in the series or at least something completely new (which in my eyes hasn't really happened since the first Galaxy, though arguments could be made that the 3D Land/World style was an evolution of sorts), but I wouldn't be completely opposed to another 3D outing on Wii U before then, and if that other Wii U outing is that revolutionary title, than that'd be pretty great too. I just have a feeling…something else Mario, something rather big, is going to show up this year.


I'm hoping there are some more surprises that I can't predict as well, even if it's just a teaser here or a small tech demo there; that kind of stuff is part of what made last year such a great E3 for Nintendo and I hope we see some more stuff like Miyamoto's "project" games, the cryptic Star Fox "reveal", and even the Zelda teaser; some stuff to get me excited in addition to the more substantial game trailers and demos.

One last prediction that probably won’t happen: So Eiji Aonuma has already confirmed that “Zelda U” won’t be making an appearance at this year’s E3. Aonuma and the Zelda team could change their minds and give us a short trailer or something, but I’m not counting on it. However, perhaps the Zelda series won’t be entirely absent. Given the game’s very positive reception, both critically and fan-wise, I wouldn’t be surprised if we got another 3DS game in the same style as A Link Between Worlds; the “Majora’s Mask” to A Link Between Worlds, if you will. It probably wouldn’t take too long to develop either, if it reused that game’s assets. Maybe we’ll get that reveal at E3 this year; after all, I’m unaware of any huge new 3DS games on the horizon, besides that new Fire Emblem game coming at some point. Obviously, this is a wild guess, and I’m not in any way expecting it, especially on the heels of Majora’s Mask 3D’s release. I’m thinking that Zelda will probably just take a break for the rest of the year, which is honestly fine by me. The Zelda series has gotten a lot of love recently and in order to avoid oversaturation, I’m fine with Link and Zelda (and Tingle) taking a break for a little bit. …Although I won’t lie: the void left by “Zelda U’s” absence at this year’s show is probably going to be felt, at least by me.

I wouldn't mind another dose of top-down Zelda goodness on 3DS

So there you go! Agree? Disagree? Have some E3 predictions of your own (Nintendo or otherwise)? Let me know!

I'm not sure what picture to put here, so just enjoy this photo of Iwata, Reggie, and Miyamoto hanging out with Donkey Kong