Link’s Awakening, first released in 1993, was the first Zelda game to appear on a portable console. Originally planned as a port of Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening became its own game and, despite the primitive limitations of the original Game Boy, would go on to set the standard for all Legend of Zelda games to come. Before the project began, Nintendo programmer Kazuaki Morita created a simple Zelda-like system using one of the first Game Boy development kits, and it became a sort of playful, but unofficial, after-hours toy for the other staff members. In between other projects they threw things together, experimented with various ideas, and generally played around without the constraints of worries that came with an official project.
This free-wheeling, fun-filled approach meant that even after director Takashi Tezuka got permission to develop a handheld Zelda title, the team had the freedom to include many disparate elements and experiment far more than usual. Perhaps this “afterschool club” atmosphere was what led Tezuka to develop the game as a spinoff, without appearances by the land of Hyrule, Ganon, Princess Zelda or even the Triforce. When Link to the Past script writer Kensuke Tanabe was brought on board he was given specific instructions to disregard the traditional canon and create something new. Tanabe came back with the image of a mysterious island with its egg-capped mountain at the focus.
While Tanabe came up with the setting, it was Yoshiaki Koizumi who came up with the central plot. Koizumi had also worked with Tezuka and Tanabe on Link to the Past, and Koizumi and Tanabe had free-reign to construct the story as they saw fit. Koizumi’s story was more overtly romantic and subtle than previous Legend of Zelda titles. The plot of the previous three Zelda games were largely identical: monster steals princess, boy defeats monsters, land is at peace. In Link’s Awakening we have the first Zelda game with its own plot, a fact series producer Eiji Aonuma has commented on before.
Tezuka brought something else to the plot of Link’s Awakening: a fondness for the American TV series Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks, created by David Lynch, was a critically acclaimed drama about a small town murder. With its surreal story telling and focus on a small collection of well developed characters, the show became a huge hit internationally as well as domestically. Tezuka wanted to bring in that same focus and sense of suspicious dread Lynch had utilized so well. Using the themes of Twin Peaks as a template, Tanabe sprinkled the island with odd, slightly-off characters. The end result is a small, tightly focused Zelda game with surprising depth under its surface.
You can see the Twin Peaks influence early on in the game’s characters. Mabe Village is a small provincial town and every person living there is unique. There’s a set of quintuplets who give you tutorials on button usage while commenting on how they have no idea what anything they are saying means, their father who breaks the fourth wall to tell you he will need rescuing later, a shy old man who refuses to talk except by telephone and his wife who inexplicably becomes estranged from him leaving the player to guess what could have happened. One of the very first things Link sees is a gigantic chain chomp, right out of Mario Bros, bouncing around and occasionally lunging at Link. Yet despite its fearsome appearance, it is harmless to our hero. Inside the house we meet Madam Meow Meow, who raises chain chomps and refers to the monster outside as “BowWow.” BowWow is, according to his owner, very proud of his fine fur coat. This raises a lot of questions about chain chomps that are never really answered. Madam Meow Meow is perhaps the oddest person in Mabe Village. A refined woman, complete with “oh ho ho ho” laugh, who raises unspeakable monstrosities which she dotes on lovingly. While BowWow and the little chomp inside don’t speak, the chomp in the doghouse pines for fashion accessories. What is going on in this village!?
The rest of the island has just as bizarre and disconcerting a cast. Inter-species penpal romances, unhinged and lascivious potion-dealers, sinister merchants that extrajudicially execute thieves, mushrooms that turn their eaters into evil raccoons, and many others. Every part of the island has characters who are usually given no explanation and invite the player to make sense of it. What is the story behind the ghost that haunts you until you visit the abandoned house on the coast? If the alligator artist made the mermaid statue that guards the magic magnifying glass, what does he know about the secrets of the island? Is that Wart from Super Mario Bros 2? What did life at the castle look like before the knights expelled Richard, and what brought about this revolution? What exactly do Marin and Link feel for each other?
Link’s tools and how the player relates to them is different in this game too. The sword and shield are just another tool to be selected and equipped, not Link’s default attack or method of interaction. Many challenges require you to use your tools in interesting ways and think beyond simple action. The player will end up a master of Link’s arsenal and the strange world he explores with it.
It is this connection between the player and the island that makes the game so bittersweet. Spoilers for anyone who is worried about spoiling a 20-year old gameboy game: Koholit Island is a dream of the sleeping Wind Fish. The entire island and all its inhabitants are figments of the Wind Fish’s sleeping imagination, and they will all cease to exist as soon as it wakes up. If we play the game, we are dooming the island. Or are we? Will it exist as part of the awakened Wind Fish? If it is an island of dreams, will it exist in Link as he takes it with him? Will it exist in us outside the game, escaping its 8bit reality as memories? We’re never given an answer, instead we’re asked to make the choice to beat the game and live with the result. We can justify it however we want. Do we doom a world? Restore reality? Were we secretly learning the psyche of a flying magic whale the whole time? Did we have our own psyche invaded by a wandering dream village? Every player’s interpretation is equally valid, but that means every interpretation is equally invalid as well. No matter what we decide to make of the game and its ending, there are questions. All we know for sure from the ending is that Link is stuck floating in the middle of the ocean, with just a glimpse of the Wind Fish to let us know the events really happened. We don’t even get the satisfaction of knowing for sure if Link got home safe.
That is, unless we decide he did and trust ourselves to have let him.
Pictures are courtesy of the Zelda Dungeon.