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!

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