As my first ever video game system, I played a ton of games on the Game Boy. From the age of four I was glued to the green, monochrome screen on that brick-sized, bulky mass of digital wonders. It served as my introduction to many Nintendo franchises and the beginning of my favourite hobby in the world.
As someone growing up with these 8-bit classics (and as I’m sure many retro gamers can relate), I was no stranger to high difficulty levels. Missing a jump and watching Mario plummet to his death, getting punished by the Elite Four’s impenetrable Pokémon squad and desperately attempting to micro-manage high-speed falling Tetris blocks as they inevitably began to tower higher… Yet, I had never been challenged in quite the same way as when I first played Link’s Awakening.
More specifically, I first played the DX version. Since the gaming obsession had already dominated my young mind, I obviously begged my parents later on for a Game Boy Color. Shortly after receiving one, I had inherited a cartridge from my auntie which read “ZELDA” in big block letters, from the logo we all now know and love. I had never heard of Zelda before, but the image of a sword and shield was enough to convince me that this was going to be an awesome game.
After slamming in the cartridge and turning on the game, it was instantly clear that this was nothing like I’d ever seen. Again, to compare with those other games I played, this wasn’t the cute and cheerful world of Super Mario Land or Bubble Bobble. Sinister music began playing during the opening cutscene, with a thunderstorm raging on among harsh seas and black clouds. Upon seeing a mysterious man clinging on for dear life and screaming before his ship was struck by a lightning bolt, I knew this was going to be something I’d never experienced before.
Shortly after the game began, it was already more story-driven than anything I’d played before. As Link awoke to the friendly Marin and Tarin, I was seeing something I’d rarely encountered before: dialogue. I didn’t need a plot before to know how to move, jump and progress through a game. Yet, the speech and character interactions captured my interest. Wandering outside the house and into Mabe Village, I discovered even more characters and animals just living their own digital lives. Despite still being provided with an objective, for what felt like the first time I was allowed to explore and do what I wanted, at my own pace.
Eventually, with only a shield to protect myself, I set out in search of my washed-up sword. After navigating through Toronbo shores and avoiding the enemies that awaited there, I found and acquired my blade. This was my first taste of reward–after feeling considerably helpless against evil forces before, I could now feel deserving in the fact that I could now vanquish any foes in my path. Of course, with only three heart containers to boot, I still had to display skill and remain prudent to survive. I had experienced my first small victory, but the real challenges awaited.
It wasn’t until I reached the dungeons that I began to see the true extent of Link’s Awakening‘s strenuous nature. Instead of my reactions, it was my brain that was being tested. Thinking outside the box when confronted with the Owl Statues’ cryptic messages and riddles, remembering which rooms and areas to revisit later, trying out all of the items in my inventory in different situations… Solving puzzles and exploring the world quickly became the most rewarding gameplay I had ever experienced. Hours of frustrated wandering through dungeon rooms became infinitely worth the time and effort invested when I finally figured out I had to bomb a specific wall, or defeat enemies in a certain order. I even started taking notes and drawing maps on paper.
The strong atmosphere and sense of adventure was also maintaining my motivation and avidity to progress. The music changing as I traveled through each screen really brought the game to life, transitioning from the cheerful tones of Mabe Village, to the adventurous and vigorous main theme that plays across the overworld. Then, of course, there was entering into the Mysterious Woods for the first time; being suddenly plunged into a dark and eerie area crawling with enemies, the gloomy musical tones serving as a reminder of my solitude.
Being the DX version, the vibrant colors were beautiful and the variety of areas and themes across the entire map of Koholint Island was amazing. To this day I think the sprite art remains extremely visually appealing, creating characters with charm and spirit while also giving enemies and bosses a sense of evil and ferocity.
My emotional investment in the story meant that each time a dungeon was conquered and an Instrument was acquired, I felt content in becoming one step closer to waking the Wind Fish. There were only so many Game Over screens I could take in other platforming games, but in Link’s Awakening, my first true adventure game, the challenge only made me want to play more.
I still have that old cartridge you see above, complete with my old save file. Replaying it has been like talking to and enjoying the company of a long-lost friend – despite the years and years prior of no contact, the familiarity, nostalgia and long-running affinity allowed for an instant re-connection, like I was just playing the game yesterday.
Link’s Awakening will always hold a special place in my memory for a number of reasons. It was my first Zelda game, marking the beginning of a passion for the franchise; it’s in many ways responsible for my place here on Zelda Universe; and most of all, it taught me the importance of challenge, persistence and independence–aspects not only prominent in the enjoyment of gaming, but also true to success and happiness in life.
Now, I want to hear from you! Do you have any fond memories playing Link’s Awakening? Maybe you too remember playing it long ago, or experienced it for the first time on the 3DS eShop. Perhaps you played the original version, and/or the DX version. Or perhaps you’re experiencing it now for the first time through Chuggaaconroy’s ongoing Let’s Play. Share your thoughts, feelings and memories of the game below!