'The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening' Is Ahead of Its Time


The moment you wash up on Koholint Island, the setting of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, things are a little off. You awake in a room tended by someone who you immediately mistake for Zelda, only to find out that, no, no, her name is Marin. You’re soon sent to the beach to retrieve your things from the shipwreck. Along the way, you see a Chain Chomp tied up in front of a house, a familiar sight … for another videogame franchise. Inside a house, you find a woman praising her other pet—another Chain Chomp—for its beautiful fur. Upon close inspection, you find that it doesn’t have fur, or, even, a body. At the beach, you find your sword. How do you know it’s yours? It has your name on it, naturally. Isn’t that how everyone keeps their swords?

After you find your sword, you meet an owl, who tells you to go to the forest to begin your quest to wake the Wind Fish at the top of the island, who currently resides in a giant egg. Why should you do this? Well, that’s the only way to leave the island. Besides, that’s why you’re here, right? Right? In the forest, you find that Marin’s father has turned into a raccoon after eating a magic toadstool, and it’s the most normal thing you’ve seen all day.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (2019) is not very interesting to talk about as a remake. It’s almost verbatim identical to the original game, with a handful of small additions to the gameplay and setting. The most significant change is the new visual style, a cutesy 2.5D look that has the appealing side effect of making the whole surreal world look like it was made out of plastic, as if Link and everyone else on Koholint is a toy and one wrong nudge of the game console could send them all tumbling to the carpet. What this lack of other meaningful changes means is that the best way to talk about the Link’s Awakening remake is just to talk about Link’s Awakening itself, which is fortunate, because there’s a lot to discuss.

Originally released for the Game Boy in 1993, Link’s Awakening feels from top to bottom like an attempt to respond to and iterate on the formula for a Legend of Zelda game codified two years earlier by the Super Nintendo game A Link to the Past, the formula that would go on to become the structural basis for every 3D game in the series up until 2017’s Breath of the Wild. As such, Link’s Awakening shines even more in hindsight than it did at the time. Whereas in 1993 it felt like a title responding to one game, in 2019 it’s responding to 20 years’ worth, and it does so with an elegance that is astounding.

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Here’s the twist, for those of you who have managed to avoid it for this long: as you progress, you learn that Koholint Island, and all its inhabitants, are just a dream of the Wind Fish (who, in a predictably surreal revelation, is not technically a fish). To wake the Wind Fish, and allow Link to return to the world he’s familiar with, will be to undo this place and everyone in it. “It’s all a dream” is hardly an original plot device, but it gives the entire game a unique tone, and allows it to be playful about itself. This is The Legend of Zelda, devoid of context. All the directives don’t quite make sense, and don’t come from a clear narrative origin point. You’re forced to gather a number of instruments in this dream island in typical Zelda fashion, as they’re the only way to wake the Wind Fish. But the question remains: Why is that the case? And how did you end up here, anyway? The premise of Link’s Awakening, combined with the regular notes of surreality scattered everywhere around Koholint, renders the entire structure of the game suspect. Link’s Awakening is charming, but it’s a charming fever dream, a haze of swords and keys and events that don’t quite chain together the way they should and ambling toward a conclusion that feels as necessary as it does dreadful.



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