After More Than 20 Years, I Beat Link's Awakening
I dug up this article I started writing several months ago when I finally beat Link’s Awakening (GameBoy) for the first time. I never finished writing it, but in light of the game’s upcoming remake on Switch, I figured now is the perfect time to go ahead and share my writing here. At the time, my feelings were still fresh, and I don’t think I could finish the article properly now, but I think my feelings are well-captured in what I did write. If you’ve ever finished a game, book, or other story decades after you started it, perhaps these feelings will be familiar. Here’s the article! (Article doesn’t feel like quite the right word, but I don’t know what else to call it!)
After More Than 20 Years, I Beat “Link’s Awakening”
It feels weird to finally finish, at the age of 28, a story I began more than 20 years ago as a young child. And by weird I mean wistful, nostalgic, and grasping for some feeling I can’t quite pin down. Putting an end to a sense of incompleteness that has lingered in the background for most of your life isn’t something you get to do often.
But that’s exactly what I did last night before I fell asleep. I finally beat “The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening,” a game released in 1993 that I first played in monochromatic shades of green on the tiny screen of a Game Boy Pocket. The version I beat was a colorized re-release as emulated on a 3DS, but the game is largely identical to the original.
I first played it when I was around 5 years old, outside my older brother’s bedroom in the hall by the linen closet. I was borrowing his Game Boy, and he had rules: he only let me play for half an hour at a time, and I wasn’t allowed to progress farther in the game than he had. So my time with the game was fleeting and consequently that much more precious. It didn’t help that the game’s puzzles could be very obtuse, making many a 30-minute play session disappointingly fruitless.
“The puzzle-solving, enemy-whacking gameplay was fun, but what really drove my interest was the story.”
And yet, I found the game completely mesmerizing. The puzzle-solving, enemy-whacking gameplay was fun, but what really drove my interest was the story. We play as Link, a seafaring boy who gets shipwrecked on a remote island. A young girl named Marin finds him washed ashore, unconscious, and takes him back to her father’s house where they nurse him back to health. When he awakens, he goes looking for his sword and shield. He meets an owl who tells him that the island is only an illusion and begins to guide him through a series of dungeons. Link learns he must defeat the monsters called Nightmares hidden in each dungeon and retrieve 8 legendary musical instruments necessary to wake a mysterious being called the Wind Fish. (As the game mentions, the “Wind Fish” is that in name only, and turns out to be some sort of magical flying whale.)
You see, through a slow drip of information, Link gradually learns that the island of Koholint doesn’t actually exist, and is in fact part of the Wind Fish’s dream. Everyone Link has met on the island, including Marin, her father, and an entire village of friendly characters, as well as all the monsters and locations — they’re all part of the dream, and as soon as the Wind Fish is awakened, they will all disappear.
But there is no other goal than to wake the Wind Fish, which means that our journey as players has a wistful tinge to it. In most Zelda games, we play as the unequivocal hero: the champion of the local people and the bane of all evil. But in Link’s Awakening, there is a sense that we are working toward vanishing away the charming inhabitants, and the Nightmares’ taunts that we are working to destroy everything — well, they have a point.
“In most Zelda games, we play as the unequivocal hero, but in Link’s Awakening, there is a sense that we are working toward vanishing away the charming inhabitants.”
All of this storytelling, by the way, is conveyed through tiny pixellated images on an itty-bitty screen with so little room for text that it can only fit 5 or 6 words onscreen at a time. The dialogue is so efficiency-oriented it often feels like we’re only getting the Cliff’s notes, and yet we get a sense of character, humor, and atmosphere beyond that of many a game with HD graphics and miles of dialogue.
Nowhere does that efficient storytelling shine brighter than in Link’s encounters with Marin. Throughout the game, Link’s path crosses hers several times. He escorts her to the Animal Village so she can sing for the locals; he rescues her from monsters when she travels to the mountains to try to wake the Wind Fish herself. We get snippets of her independent personality, but nothing was more affecting to me as a child than the quiet time Link and Marin spend sitting next to each other watching the waves by the shore.
This scene is unique. The game is usually shown from a bird’s eye view, looking down at the world like a tiny, grid-based map. But for just this one scene, the camera switches to a ground-level perspective behind our two characters. And here, Marin bares her soul to Link. She tells him that she wonders what lies beyond the island’s borders, and she wishes for the Wind Fish to turn her into a seagull someday so that she may find out. She wants to ask Link all about himself, but gets embarrassed and changes the subject.
“We get a sense of character, humor, and atmosphere beyond that of many a game with HD graphics and miles of dialogue.”
As brief as the scene is, and written in what amounts to shorthand, it beautifully captures a moment of deep sharing between two young friends that skirts into romance. We get a sense of Marin’s restlessness, the searching going on in her soul, and the beacon of hope that Link represents to her. We start to care about her, and we feel that wistfulness again, that she is helping Link to ultimately vanish her away.
As a kid,
…And that’s as far as I wrote. I was probably going to talk about how epic the story felt to me as a kid, and how the game strikes a perfect balance between wistfulness and silliness — of all the main-series Zelda adventures, this one perhaps takes itself the least seriously. Which in turn makes it only more charming, and the ending more bittersweet, and yada yada yada.
I’m so excited that they decided to remake this game for the Switch with an entirely new look. Whether they update the gameplay or leave it exactly the same, I’m getting it either way.
Anyway, if you have fond memories of playing the game, or got closure on a different game or story many years later, tell me about it in the comments below! Thanks for reading.
Update: for more contemplation of the themes of Link’s Awakening, I found this thoughtfully-written article: https://www.goombastomp.com/links-awakening-fragility-existence/