Looking back at The Legend Of Zelda: Link’s Awakening

With Skyward Sword out now, we take a timely look back at one of the less well-known yet key games in the Zelda series: 1993’s Link’s Awakening…

Of all the games in the Zelda series’ lengthy history to revisit, Link’s Awakening may seem like a left field choice. Given just how ground-breaking the 1985 original was, and how beloved A Link To The Past and Ocarina Of Time were, this 1993 Game Boy title may seem, at least by comparison, rather obscure.

Nevertheless, there are many reasons why Link’s Awakening was a key title in the history of Zelda games, and there’s a strong argument that it’s the most underrated. With the series celebrating its 25th anniversary, and the latest Zelda title, Skyward Sword, in shops now, join us as we explain just why this little gem of a game was so important…

Tiny beginnings

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In 1991, the Zelda series had received a rejuvenating jolt with the release of the frankly beautiful A Link To The Past. Harnessing the superior 16-bit graphics and sound of the then-new Super Nintendo system, this third Zelda entry was the most acclaimed yet, and went on to sell more than four million copies worldwide. Along with games such as Pilotwings, Super Mario Kart and Super Mario World, A Link To The Past led Nintendo’s charge into the next generation of console technology.

Over on the company’s other piece of hardware, the Game Boy, the Zelda series was conspicuous by its absence. Having launched in 1989 to immediate success, Nintendo showed little interest in developing a handheld adventure for Link, and concentrated instead on launching titles like Tetris and Super Mario Land – the sort of quick-fix blasts of gaming well suited for those on the move.

Link’s Awakening therefore began as an unofficial Zelda adventure, put together by a handful of Nintendo staff with a Game Boy dev kit and a lot of imagination. Shortly after the release of A Link To The Past, Takashi Tezuka intended to create a portable version of that adventure, but the resulting game would quickly branch off into rather different territory.

Link’s Awakening, more so than A Link To The Past or either of the games before it, established a surreal, dreamlike tone. Aside from the presence of Link, the game had little to do with the earlier titles; for one thing, it was set not in Hyrule, as the other Zelda titles were, but on a remote island called Koholint.

Washed up on the island’s shores after a storm destroys his boat, an owl tells Link that, in order to get back home, he must recover eight mysterious instruments in order to awaken the Wind Fish, who slumbers at the top of a distant mountain. As if that backstory wasn’t odd enough, Link’s Awakening was full of strange and unexpected cameo appearances from apparently random characters in Nintendo’s back catalogue; Yoshi, Kirby and even Mario were among the familiar faces who would briefly appear throughout the game.

So given that Link’s Awakening was originally envisioned as a cut-down port of A Link To The Past, just how did this handheld outing wind up so different, and so darn strange?

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After-school project

In an interview with Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata, Tezuka and colleagues Toshihiko Nakago and Eiji Aonuma described how this unorthodox Zelda entry first came into being.

“We weren’t particularly planning to make a Zelda game for the Game Boy, but we thought we’d try it out to see how it would work,” Tezuka said. “So at first there was no official project. We’d do our regular work during normal work hours, and then work on it sort of like an after-school club activity.”

This after-school club atmosphere was perhaps the major reason why Link’s Awakening emerged as such an unusual Zelda title – series creator Shigeru Miyamoto had no creative input at this early stage, and outside interference was minimal. It was, as Iwata himself point out during the interview, something that would be “unthinkable now”, at a time when intellectual properties are more closely protected than ever.

As this handheld Zelda project began in earnest, Tezuka began adding various ideas he’d come up with for A Link To The Past, but never had an opportunity to use. The game began to come together so rapidly, in fact, that the Mario and Yoshi character designs appear to have been added to speed the design process up. Aonuma pointed out that, due to the technical limitations imposed by the Game Boy’s low resolution, monochrome display, “We couldn’t do much anyway.”

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“We moved along at quite a good speed in a relatively freewheeling manner,” agreed Tezuka. “Maybe that’s why we had so much fun making it. It was like we were making a parody of Zelda.”

As curious as it was in terms of tone, the free-form inclusion of characters and elements from other Nintendo games occasionally resulted in some quite imaginative gameplay ideas. In one part of the game, a Chomp – a toothsome enemy borrowed from the Super Mario series – can be uprooted from its tether point, and dragged around the map like a little pet on a lead.

Lynchian adventures

The decision to include those familiar Nintendo characters was also made, Tezuka said, to create an air of unease. At the time the team were creating Link’s Awakening, David Lynch’s surreal television series Twin Peaks was hugely popular in Japan. When coming up with the game’s back story, Tezuka wanted to introduce a similar air of dreamlike unease.

“I was talking about fashioning Link’s Awakening with a feel that was somewhat like Twin Peaks, Tezuka said. “At the time, Twin Peaks was rather popular. The drama was all about a small number of characters in a small town. So when it came to Link’s Awakening, I wanted to make something that, while it would be small enough in scope to easily understand, it would have deep and distinctive characteristics.”

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Including a character “who looks like Mario” was therefore an attempt to unsettle the player with a familiar-looking design – to introduce the familiar in an unnerving manner. The result was a game that played much like a top-down 8-bit Zelda adventure (with the occasional side-scrolling section not unlike Zelda II), coupled with a surreal story that took in nightmarish creatures and recognisable yet strangely untrustworthy villagers.

Much of the character dialogue was written by Kensuke Tanabe, who’d also written A Link To The Past, while Yoshiaki Koizumi, another veteran from that SNES hit, assisted with the plot – and both of them would continue to provide considerable creative input in the Zelda games that followed.

Lasting influence

On its release in 1993, Link’s Awakening was greeted by both glowing reviews and excellent sales; within a year, more than 3.8 million units had sold worldwide. An enhanced version for the Game Boy Colour, released in 1998, sold a further 2.2 million copies.

It’s fair to say, though, that Link’s Awakening is seldom discussed with the same level of hushed reverence that its console brethren are treated to, and to a casual observer, it could be regarded as a miniature oddity, an eccentric side quest in a lengthy and venerable series.

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Nevertheless, Link’s Awakening exerted a lasting influence on Zelda’s creative team, and the series’ leading creative names, such as Eiji Aonuma and Takashi Tezuka, have argued that this humble Game Boy entry actually paved the way for its illustrious cousins, Ocarina Of Time and Majora’s Mask.

“The staff who worked on Ocarina Of Time had all played Link’s Awakening, so they had a sense of how far they could go with the Zelda series,” Aonuma explained, before adding that, “A Link To The Past had a bit of a story, but a story running throughout the whole game really started with Link’s Awakening.”

Tezuka even argues that the influence of Twin Peaks, and his own inclusion of “suspicious characters” was something that was carried over into later Zelda games. “After that, in Ocarina Of Time and Majora’s Mask, all kinds of suspicious characters appeared,” Tezuka said. “I didn’t tell them to do it that way, but personally, I did find it considerably appealing.”

Many of the creators of Link’s Awakening would go on to contribute to the Zelda games that followed, which would explain why the ideas seen in this tiny game spread so eagerly into Ocarina Of Time and its successors. It’s worth noting, too, that it took Link’s Awakening to prove to Nintendo that a handheld Zelda adventure could work on a handheld – following its success, others joined it, such as the Oracles games, The Minish Cap, Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks.

Tiny and bizarre though Link’s Awakening was, its impact on the Zelda series was profound. Eiji Aonuma, who would later play a key role in the creation of Ocarina Of Time, The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, has no doubt about its importance in the Zelda canon.

“I’m certain it was a breakthrough element in the series,” Aonuma said. “If we had proceeded from A Link To The Past straight to Ocarina Of Time without Link’s Awakening in between, Ocarina would have been different.”

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So while Ocarina Of Time is commonly mentioned as the game that carried the Zelda franchise into a new era of 3D gaming, it’s this tiny, unassuming title, tucked away on its diminutive Game Boy cartridge, that deserves more than its fair share of that glory.

Iwata Asks

The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword is out now on Nintendo Wii – you can read our review here. Lots more exclusive Zelda content can be found here.