Chapter 4: A Link to the Past
• Adam Wilson is a senior student at Innisdale Secondary School. He became a fan of The Legend of Zelda 11 years ago when he first played the fifth game in the series, Ocarina of Time. Though he has been writing for many years, he only began writing professionally in May 2009. Adam is writing this retrospective of The Legend of Zelda for his co-op at City Scene Barrie, combining his two passions of writing and Zelda. Check back often for Adam’s pieces looking back at the history of the Legend of Zelda series.
By Adam Wilson
Hello and welcome back to Zelda: 25 Years of the Legend. In the last article, I discussed the franchise’s jump to Nintendo’s second home console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Following its release, the third entry in the Zelda series enjoyed immense acclaim comparable to the first game in the series.
Fans were overjoyed at how it had built upon ideas established by the two games that preceded it and some critics were declaring it to be Zelda’s best game so far. In 1991, with the third game’s American release approximately a half a year away, Takashi Tezuka started work on Zelda’s first handheld game that was set for a release on the Game Boy.
When the project began, Tezuka’s intent was to give Zelda fans a handheld port of A Link to the Past, allowing them to play the game on the go. However, the fourth entry in the series quickly took on a life of its own and became a game of its own which would eventually be given the title of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.
As he had with all the other games in the franchise, series creator Shigeru Miyamoto returned as producer on the project and the writers of A Link to the Past, Yoshiaki Koizumi and Kensuke Tanabe, also came back to write the story and dialogue of Link’s Awakening. Hoping to shape the game into more of a spin-off, Tezuka instructed Tanabe to avoid using recurring series staples such as the Triforce, the land of Hyrule, and even Princess Zelda herself.
In addition to these omissions, the spin-off feel of the game allowed for less restraint that led to a stranger tone that Tezuka compared to David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks. The gameplay style of Link’s Awakening was very similar to its predecessor, continuing to use broadsword swings, the spin attack, and the ability to walk in diagonal directions.
However, unlike A Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening gave players the ability to equip other items in place of their sword and shield, making for several different item combinations, all useful for different puzzles or boss battles. However, unlike the games that came before it, Miyamoto did not provide creative input save for the opinions he expressed after testing the game.
Link’s Awakening, much like A Link to the Past before it, took some inspiration from The Adventure of Link, despite its status as the black sheep of the series. However, unlike its predecessor, Link’s Awakening did not feature the magic metre introduced by the second game in the series, instead it contained several short side-scrolling segments which, through use of a new obtainable item, allows Link to jump.
Likely due to being initially envisioned as a port of A Link to the Past, the fourth game in the series takes heavy inspiration from it. Most of the items, such as the Hookshot, Magic Powder, and the Pegasus Boots, were lifted directly from the game’s immediate predecessor. However, the powerful Magic Medallions that were present in the previous game did not make a return in Link’s Awakening.
Due to Tezuka’s request that Link’s Awakening not feature Zelda in any way, Koizumi and Tanabe once again had to avoid making the game’s plot a simple save-the-princess story. Instead, the two used the new setting outside of Hyrule to their advantage. The game opens with a wordless sequence of Link attempting to sail through a fierce storm and, soon after his ship is destroyed by the weather conditions, washing ashore on an unknown island.
As a young girl, soon revealed to be Marin, attempts to awaken Link’s beached form, the player’s attention is drawn to a mountain in the background that holds a large egg at the top. Unlike the previous games, there was no large amount of text to tell players what they need to do or explaining what had happened prior to the game. The title screen of Link’s Awakening was so unique and different from anything Zelda had done before because it tells the player nothing, but implies so much that it makes the player want to find out just what was going on.
Upon beginning the game, Link is told that he has washed up on Koholint Island, a small landmass completely isolated from Hyrule. Now stripped of his equipment, Link must scour the island’s eight dungeons to regain his arsenal and discover the mythical instruments of the Sirens. After first retrieving his sword, Link is informed by a mysterious owl that it is his destiny to wake Koholint’s legendary deity, the Wind Fish, and that he will be unable to leave the island until he does so.
Similar to the storytelling style of A Link to the Past, the plot and its developments in Link’s Awakening were revealed through dialogue, most of which was, bizarrely enough, provided by the bosses Link would face. However, the aforementioned owl and various townspeople would also be helpful in pointing Link in the right direction.
While it did add less to the overall structure of the Zelda series, Link’s Awakening was not devoid of ideas that would soon become commonplace in future games. One of the most notable ideas brought to the franchise by the fourth game was the trading sequence.
Appearing in six later games, the trading sequence made its debut in Link’s Awakening when the titular hero wins a doll at the Trendy Game, one of the title’s many mini-games. Link can give the doll to a child in the village in exchange for a ribbon, thus beginning a long and semi-mandatory side-quest which spans much of the game. And while the trading sequence has reappeared in future games, none of them have been able to match the length of the one in Link’s Awakening that contains 13 items.
The game’s developers have explained that the trading quests that appear in the Zelda games take heavy inspiration from a popular Japanese folktale called the Straw Millionaire. The legend tells the story of a peasant who trades a piece of straw and a horsefly for three oranges which he then trades for a silk cloth and so on. Eventually, he meets an incredibly rich man who wants the peasant to marry his daughter that makes him into a millionaire himself.
Another important addition brought to the table by Link’s Awakening was the inclusion of dungeon themes. While the first and second game featured a single dungeon theme for almost every one and A Link to the Past had unique music for the Light World dungeons and the Dark World dungeons, Link’s Awakening took things one step further by giving each temple a different musical piece to suit its elemental theme and overall design. Also on the music front, the game featured an ocarina that players could use to learn three different songs with three different uses.
Much like in The Adventure of Link, Koji Kondo did not return to compose the music in Link’s Awakening. Instead, a team of three composers, Kazumi Totaka, Minako Hamano, and Kozue Ishikawa, was brought on to put together approximately one hour of music, both original and arrangements of Kondo’s previous work.
Unlike the other games in the Zelda series, Link’s Awakening was far more connected to other Nintendo franchises. Featuring enemies and characters from the Mario games and even an enemy based on the main character in the then-fledgling Kirby series, these crossover cameos were likely the result of the game’s freeform development which Tezuka remarked made the game feel more like a parody of the previous Zelda games.
In addition to the items lifted from the previous game, Link’s Awakening took inspiration from A Link to the Past in other ways. It followed a very similar visual style, though it was somewhat simplified to work on a handheld console. Also, much like its immediate predecessor, Link’s Awakening did not feature a Second Quest upon completing the game. It did, however, have a secret ending which could only be unlocked by beating the entire game without dying once.
After a year and a half long development, Link’s Awakening hit the Japanese Game Boy in 1993 to both critical and commercial success. Worldwide, the game has sold 3.83 million copies and remained on bestseller lists for over 90 months after its release. Its release and subsequent popularity is often cited as being a reason for the Game Boy’s boosted sales during the year of its release.
Though it didn’t enjoy the praise of its predecessor, Link’s Awakening was still beloved by fans and critics. The game’s portability was well received, particularly due to the fact that the game’s grand scale wasn’t lost, and many called it the best game on the Game Boy.
However, it was not without its criticism as some felt that using only two buttons for Link’s items made using his large arsenal clunky and awkward. Others were unsatisfied by the monochromatic graphics of the Game Boy. However, in 1998, five years after the release of Link’s Awakening, the graphical complaints were addressed with the release of Link’s Awakening DX, a remake on Nintendo’s new handheld system, the Game Boy Colour.
Now utilising the features of the Game Boy Colour, Link’s Awakening DX featured full colour graphics that many believed made the game easier to navigate. The remake also added in an entirely new dungeon that was based around the concept of colour. It featured colour-coded enemies that could only be hurt on floor tiles of the same colour as well as either a red or blue tunic for Link which would increase his offensive or defensive power, respectively.
The game also featured a new side-quest that revolved around a photographer who would pop up in 12 different places across Koholint Island to take Link’s picture. Also, while it was similar to the one in the original Link’s Awakening, the remake contained an altered secret ending, though it still had to be unlocked by completing the game without a single game over.
Like the original game, Link’s Awakening DX was a critical and commercial success, selling 2.22 million copies. It was praised for the additions to the game as well as the colourisation of the original content, even if some felt that the new features added little to the remake overall. Both versions of the game won awards, though the original earned more, and in 2009, Link’s Awakening was listed as the 42nd most important and influential game of all time in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Still considered to be one of the best entries in the series and an example of the right way to bring a series to a handheld system, Link’s Awakening continues to be remembered and loved by fans today.
However, its popularity and critical praise is nothing when compared to the game we’ll be discussing next time on Zelda: 25 Years of the Legend. I hope you’ll join me then when I talk about The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.