Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Link's Awakening

By: Patrick "TheLaw" Morris

There was something magical about the Gameboy Advance. Of the many handhelds that I've owned over the years it's  the one with which I've  spent by far the least amount of time and yet it's one that nears the top of my list when it comes to naming my all time favorites. Links Awakening was originally a Gameboy game that was later enhanced on the Gameboy color and then laid dormant for nearly 21 years. But now Link's Awakening has been remade for Switch and released alongside the new miniaturized Switch Lite and despite having never been officially made for the GBA the combination of Link's Awakening and the Switch Lite has ripped me back to my days of angling my GBA just right in the third row of my parent's Land Cruiser to be able to see those nearly Super Nintendo graphics on that terrible screen. Conceptually I adore Links Awakening, its unique deviation from the Zelda formula and obviously catered for handheld design language combined with the nostalgic form factor of the  Switch Lite makes for the best Gameboy experience I've ever had and it's not even on a Gameboy.

Welcome welcome welcome everyone welcome back to LegalSpeak a ColdNorth Production. I'm TheLawMorris and this is the video essay series in which I get to talk about the game that I've been playing and what I think of the medium as a whole. I've been playing a new to me Zelda adventure over the past couple weeks so lets talk about that.

The Zelda series started as a top down 2D adventure game in 1987 and for the first four entries it would remain that way. In 1998 Zelda broke into the third dimension with Ocarina of Time to massive critical acclaim, but just three years later the franchise would go back to its 2D roots and contrary to traditional thinking Nintendo has kept Zelda alive in both the second and third dimensions as distinctly different but equally good variations of the same series. With well over a dozen entries behind them Nintendo has continued to iterate and improve upon the gameplay featured in both the 2D and 3D Zelda's. And after playing though Link's Awakening on Switch It is easy to say that this is as good as 2D Zelda has ever been.

Movement across Koholint Island is pleasant and intricate with puzzles and item gates along the way that lead to portions of the island being blocked off for the majority of the game. There are secrets to be discovered almost everywhere and in many cases even secrets within secrets offering even more to explore. Combat is responsive and has finally overcome that silly feeling of having to offset Link from his attackers in order to ensure contact with the swing of the sword in all but the most extreme scenarios. The items that Link uses are enjoyable and satisfying but a bit limited in number and scope. Where the hookshot is often used as an option for stunning most enemies in other games it feels extremely contextual in Link's Awakening offering the same functionality the Zelda audience has come to expect but in a much more limited capacity. The Bow and Arrow is really only utilized in a combat scenario in the ancient ruins and a puzzle scenario in the face shrine whereas in other entries it’s a staple for players to lean on heavily in ranged combat situations. The actual combat and movement are an all time high for the 2D games but the game having been designed originally for a two button interface feels as though it was designed to not utilize items to nearly the same extent as A Link to the Past before it and almost all subsequent games.

Overall the design of the game is excellent. The overworld is charming and enthralling, while the dungeons feel well plotted and for the most part logical. Koholint Island isnt the biggest overworld of any Zelda game ever and in fact it's almost certainly one of the smallest but where Koholint shines is in its density and complexity. The developers used a winding path and varying levels of verticality to make the world feel much larger than it actually is. Through clever map design the player can both see where they need to go and be a three to four minute journey from that point as they have to wind their way around the labyrinth that is Koholint island to reach their destination. The island itself is a gigantic puzzle that continues to leave the player wondering until after hours of play time it can be completely mastered. From a design standpoint alone Koholint Island is one of the biggest assets the game has to offer. Dungeon designs are a bit less satisfying. Early on the dungeons are fine but as the game progresses and the difficulty curve ramps up the developers leaned more and more heavily on frustratingly unintuitive design choices to create an illusion of difficulty.

Some particularly frustrating points in the game occurred when the player is left not knowing what to do with almost no hint pushing them in the right direction. As the game continues this becomes increasingly common and left me with little choice than to look up where to go just to be able to continue. Typically I try to not use a guide as I think it makes for a fundamentally different experience than figuring it out for yourself, not worse or any less valid just different. But I'm also not willing to beat my head against a wall trying to figure something out that I may have just missed or may be a result of a simple lapse in cohesive game design so I am willing to turn to a guide when necessary. I've played plenty of Zelda games and am well versed in their puzzle mechanics but as I got further into the game I found myself having to refer to a guide more frequently and when seeing the next step was left wondering how I was supposed to know that. Essentially it feels as though for the sake of longevity the devs created something that began to feel artificially long and not fully realized; into the later dungeons and overworld exploration Link's Awakening starts to feel distinctly like a Gameboy game in a bad way.

But while it may not be the best designed Zelda game in the the last 30 plus years it is definitely one of the best Zelda stories. As the player is forced to repeatedly back track across the world and speak with all the inhabitants of the world learning about them personally and seeing them in their own home environments they cant help but fall in love with not only the people but their environment. Koholint island is shockingly alive feeling compared to other Gameboy games and even home console games of the era. There are constantly things happening across the island that have nothing to do with the main story which contributes to the feeling of this being a world that exists and raises the stakes of the main quest. From the outset of the game Link and the player alike aren't given much context as to why they're doing what they're doing but they press forward regardless.

Early in the game there are different things hinting at the twist ending but towards the end the dungeon bosses blatantly tell both Link and the player that this is all just a dream and if Link wakes the Wind Fish it will all be over. Having known the ending of the game prior to playing this version every time one of the bosses warned me about this it was a bit more heart breaking. Here I was moving throughout these dungeons as though this was any other Zelda game but for the first time in the series Link's actions have significant negative consequences. Operating under the assumption that we are doing the right thing without taking the time to look around at what we are doing can lead to grave mistakes and that’s what Link's Awakening seemed to be and should have been all about. Link and the player are the villain of this story and it just goes to show that even an ignorant villain is still a villain regardless. Where I felt the story went off the rails a bit was in trying to vilify the nightmares at the end. That story beat wasn’t earned and just devalued the masterful story telling the game had setup previously at the last minute in a feeble attempt to present Link as the hero.

Conceptually I love Link's Awakening. It’s a great 2D Zelda and the remake continues to shine an already excellent gameplay experience. For better of worse it is undeniably and unapologetically a remake of a Gameboy game from more than 20 years ago and that shows. But despite its flaws the Switch version of this game offers up a complete and enjoyable Zelda experience. Link's Awakening's deviation from the typical Zelda story arc helps it stand out in my opinion as the second best Zelda story with just a minor hiccup that is easily ignored at the end. It's not my favorite Zelda in fact I'm not sure where it lands on the spectrum of Zelda games for me but I can definitely see a case being made for it being in the top five.

What are your thoughts on this new old Zelda and which old Zelda would you like to see be new next? Let me know in the comments down below. Also shout out to Bounty Hunter 115 thanks for your support I'd be glad to have you on the podcast sometime.

Don’t forget to check out everything we do all in one spot over at Ill be back next week talking about something else…maybe sega but maybe something Gears of War related I'm not sure yet so until then just go play some games!

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