The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening Game Boy (reviewed) and Game Boy Color Developed by Nintendo Released in 1993
You might have remembered from the last Zelda review that I am not much of a fan of the older titles in the series past the original classic. Stiff controls, less storytelling, less interesting visuals, there are a lot of problems that bug me about games like A Link to the Past. Link’s Awakening was the first handheld entry in the series and, while some of my problems with its predecessor are resolved, it has new issues of its own.
Welcome to Koholinth
For the first time in the series, though not the last, a Zelda game does not take place in Hyrule. While out on adventure at sea, also a “first but not the last time” for Link, our hero ends up shipwrecked and awakens in a small cabin on an island. A young girl and budding singer Marin informs Link that he is on Koholinth Island and, as it quickly turns out, you can’t actually leave the place.
An entity known as the Wind Fish guards the island, but is caught in a deep slumber. In order to awaken him and leave Koholinth, Link needs to journey across the island, fight monsters known as “Nightmares” and gather the various instruments needed to complete this task.
Older games were already light on storytelling compared to today’s standards, but by being a portable game on top of that Link’s Awakening had a lot going against it. Still, I feel it did fairly well and manages to actually set up a great final plot-twist that is certain to move some of the more invested players. It’s just a shame that a lot of the dialogue is conveyed with hard-to-read text boxes and the game is often eager to spam descriptions at you, such as its tendency to inform you, in great detail, that rocks are heavy each and every single time you so much as brush past one.
Story score: 6/10
In my review of A Link to the Past I tore the combat system a new one because of how clumsy it was, but I must admit that I am somewhat perplexed that Link’s Awakening side-steps this issue without actually changing too much. Link isn’t really that much more mobile than he was before, though he does learn some neat new tricks, but the game makes for a much better introduction to combat by not making the first enemies sword-wielding thugs that gang up on you the moment they appear on screen.
Enemies as a whole are slower and less aggressive, allowing you to play the game more like the original The Legend of Zelda. As you traverse the beaches and forests of Koholinth, searching for the next temple to raid and using new items to unlock previously-blocked paths, enemies feel more like fun hurdles to leap over that may drop goodies you need. It feels miles more entertaining than Hyrule’s screens filled with obnoxious guards and archers and that made the parts between the temples a lot less frustrating to deal with.
Even so the game did not hold my attention for particularly long. The somewhat dull presentation and mediocre level-design, as well as a general lack of challenge and the clumsy controls made Link’s awakening kind of a bore to play actually. I struggled to muster enough interest to play the game for sufficient lengths of time to actually finish temples as I found not a single shred of joy in solving the simplistic puzzles. Boss-fights make the experience come somewhat alive, but are pretty easy overall and forgettable too.
Gameplay score: 2/10
Why did I do this?
For some bizarre reason I opted to get the original Link’s Awakening, which released for the original gameboy, instead of going the sensible route and buying the DX version. The gameboy, as great a device as it is, always had the tendency to make games look ugly with its black-on-green color palette and the DX version looks absolutely stunning, adding so much color to Koholinth Island that it’s easily the definitive version of the game.
The sprites are still simplistic, but it’s obvious what monsters represent. Link’s Awakening also adds a few creatures from the Super Mario bestiary to the game, so you’ll be going on adventures with Chain Chomps and fight with Piranha Plants and Goomba (what is the plural for Goomba???). Accompanying this are all-new 2D segments that utilize some of Link’s new items; it was a major surprise to see a handheld game try its hand at adding a whole new perspective to an existing series.
Legendary composer Koji Kondo was once again absent for this game, but his replacements did a solid job and, in fact, I feel Link’s Awakening‘s version of the Zelda overworld theme is by far the best in the series. It’s just a shame that it all has to be delivered through the gameboy’s screeching speakers, which make touching moments like Marin singing the Ballad of the Wind Fish lose all of their appeal.
Presentation score: 7/10
Get the shells
Link’s Awakening has a pretty boring collection quest to do in the form of shells that are spread around the island and these unlock a new weapon for Link to use, which actually is a neat reward. The seashells are sometimes hidden in chests, though more often than not they will be in random patches of gras or dirt, making this a bit of a chore unless you use a walkthrough to find them all.
There are also some interesting things you can do, such as the infamous shopkeeper who you can rob. This will permanently change your save file, but it’s hilarious to do and he kind of deserved it for overcharging on important items. On the other end of the spectrum you can also try to complete the game without dying once in order to unlock a super special ending. I am not going to spoil what happens of course, but I will tell you ahead of time this will be a steep challenge, since death in this game is often cheap and unexpected thanks to stubborn controls.
As for replay value, what really hurts the game is that I don’t find it intrinsically fun to play. The puzzles are too simplistic and the improved flow of combat alone doesn’t really carry it, so I can’t really fathom why I would want a second helping now that I know the story already.
Extras score: 4/10
The problem with Link’s Awakening is plain and simple: it bores me. While getting the much prettier DX version would have helped this issue a bit, the core of the problem is that the dungeons feel plain and lacking any sort of theme. They are dull mazes with puzzles that take little to no effort to solve and which lead to boss-fights that are only briefly interesting. It feels like this game was more of a testing ground for Nintendo to try future features, such as the navigator character (which would become iconic for Zelda games), different perspectives, and ongoing collection quests.
Link’s Awakening is a game you can safely skip over, but I am glad Nintendo did not.