Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening

2011 had one final gift for me:  food poisoning.  So despite all the movies I need to review and all the posts I should be making about my new video games, I was instead in bed or almost in bed all week, and I don't feel much better now.  This is also putting the kaibosh on my dreams of getting ridiculously drunk tonight and completely failing to hit on girls.  But there was on light spot on my miserable week:

While thumbing through my room on Christmas Eve, I found the most magnificent thing:  a model one Game Boy.  This beautiful portable machine was the first ever true Nintendo handheld console, the beginning of a glorious tradition of great machines full of great games that has lasted over two decades.  Speaking of lasting two decades, this Game Boy itself has survived four Presidencies to see 2012, and its still working!  Nothing from 1989 still works, but this does, I love this machine.  Its an amazing find.  The Game Boy is the epitome of pure gaming praticality and engineering brilliance.  It is well-known to be completely indestructible, has impressive memory space for its cartridges, and most amazingly, perhaps unlimited battery life.  I've been playing this thing since Sunday on the batteries I found it with, and it is still running!  Not even the Wiimote will last that long!

The Game Boy really is singularly the most perfect example of pure gaming.  It was a system designed with only that in mind.  It didn't waste resources on graphics, it didn't waste resources on silly bells and whistles.  There's no touch screen, no Internet connection, no 3D, no microphone, no DLC, only the games doing what they do best:  gameplay.  Its spartan simplicity shows exactly what modern gaming has lost, purity.  The Game Boy wasn't made to show off Nintendo's so-called "revolutionary" control methods or 3D, it was just a handheld platform to play games, that's all it ever was and that's what it did better than anybody else.  One can't help but think that the Game Boy's great-great grandson has completely forgotten that philosophy.

And what a better way to show off the brilliance of the Game Boy than "The Legend of Zelda:  Link's Awakening"?  A game I never played until recently and beat just yesterday.

At the end of my "Skyward Sword" review, I got really angry with that game for ultimately being the wrong direction for Zelda.  At first, "The Legend of Zelda" was designed entirely with the idea of giving players the experience of wandering around the woods exploring freely.  Its that sense of going hiking without a map, walking down a trail with nothing but your sense of direction guiding the way, never knowing how horribly lost you can become.  "Skyward Sword" has completely lost that design-philosophy, it could not be more directed and controlled*.  So that left me really depressed, "Skyward Sword" was the biggest disappointment in a year full of disappointments:  "Dragon Quest X" is going to be an MMO, "A Dance With Dragons" didn't have an ending, "Captain America" sucked, "Okamiden" was vastly inferior, the list goes on.  However, at least the last game of 2011 can be really good, even if the game is from 1992.

"Link's Awakening" is a huge game, which is very impressive considering how old it is.  This is a classic 2D Zelda game, the style of games that hasn't been properly made since "Minish Cap"**.  Its clearly graphically inferior to "A Link to the Past", the previous Zelda game on the Super Nintendo.  But the Game Boy is an amazing system, and so the game is huge.  For the first ever handheld Zelda game, for a game twenty years old, it holds up brilliantly.  Eight dungeons, an impressive overworld that is easily as big as "Skyward Sword"'s - only connected.  And if you're looking for challenge, this game is tough.  It is nothing but an endless stream of challenge from beginning to end, I must have died fifty times during the entire game.  The enemies are ruthless, and its all skill.  Plus, this game is actually really sophisticated.  "Link's Awakening" easily had the most complex plotline of any Nintendo video game at the time, and the plot is still impressive even today.  There are great characters, funny moments, and a real world to explore.

The first ever Zelda game I played was "Oracle of Seasons" on the Game Boy Color when I was eight years old.  It took me something like five years to beat.  Zelda games are supposed to be hard.  I don't know where this concept of "just tell the player what to do" came from, but it needs to go away.  Yeah, its 2011 and now everybody believes that every time they buy a game they automatically deserve to beat it carte blanche, but that isn't how it should be.  Zelda games should be tough, they should stump you, they should take real effort to learn and solve.  And if people can't do that, they have walkthroughs.  The games themselves don't have to be a walkthrough.

What I'm saying is:  "SHUT UP, FI.  SHUT YOUR WHORE MOUTH.  You are the worst character of 2011!  You are the worst thing to ever happen to my life!  Go back to Hell and never come back."

"Link's Awakening" is not a game that holds you hand.  The most advice it gives you is Mr. Owl coming down occasionally from the sky telling you where on the world map you vaguely need to go.  He isn't going to solve the puzzles for you.  The dungeons themselves are huge labyrinths.  If you even want hints as to what to do, you need to find a secret item from a treasure chest.  What I really love is that the hints are clearly placed and are entirely optional.  There isn't an annoying beeping noise from Fi basically forcing you to talk to her.  You enter a room, and you often will have no idea what you need to do, you can pass right by a big secret without any knowledge.  Old-style Zelda dungeons required you to go back and feel around the walls, make sure you haven't missed anything.  That's great.

Another thing that's interesting about "Link's Awakening" is that it does the backtracking Metroidvania-style gameplay that "Skyward Sword" half-assed, but it does it well.  Ultimately every item you find in "Link's Awakening" is a key to overcome a barrier.  At the beginning of the game, you see bushes in your way, you need the sword to cut through them.  You need a magic bracelet to lift a rock, you need Roc's Feather to jump over pits.  All the items can be used in battle, but they also break through the barriers and help open up the world map.  So every time you get a new item, you want to go back to every place you've been to make sure you find every secret hidden all over the place, and maybe just find that one pathway you need to make it to the next dungeon.  "Skyward Sword" doesn't make you actually want to go back to the old areas, it forces you to go back there to do stupid quests.  You aren't exploring, you're doing busy work.

The plot of "Link's Awakening" is pretty bare-bones, but its impressive even today.  Link is traveling the world after "A Link to the Past" and he's caught in a storm.  He awakes on a strange island, helped by a girl named Maron and told by a mysterious owl that he has to go on a quest to awake the Wind Fish.  If he can't wake up the Wind Fish, he'll never leave the island and never go home.  But there's a catch:  the island itself doesn't exist, it all exists inside the Wind Fish's dream.  (Yeah, I'm spoiling this game but its twenty years old, get with the program.)  So effectively by finishing the game, you're ending the lives of all the friendly people you've met, including pretty Maron.  This leads to a surprising moral ambiguity to a classic Nintendo video game.  All the villains, the Nightmares, are just trying to survive, if you wake up the Wind Fish they all die.

The ending is a pretty sad moment as well.  Not only do you get that somber moment at the end of every video game when you realize that this part of your life is over, but you're literally ending the existence of all the characters within the cartridge.  "Twilight Princess" had a sad moment when Midna trapped herself in the Shadow Dimension, but you know Nintendo can always bring her back whenever they want.  But "Link's Awakening" is pulling such a downer on the player, making you kill so many people.  I guess they'll all die anyway because I guess the Wind Fish will starve to death after sleeping forever.  (I, of course, am a world-leading expert of Wind Fish biology.)  I wish the Wind Fish was ever properly explained, like it was shown to be important somehow.  Maybe if it stays asleep the world ends or something, it doesn't have to be complicated.

I'd also have liked to have seen if Link ever actually got back to land.  At the end of the game, during the credits, Link wakes up hanging onto some logs, staring into the sunset happily.  But... that's it.  You never see anything past that, he's in the middle of the ocean alone.  I guess what happens next is a bit too much for the kiddies.  I, however, was inspired to write a new screenplay:  "Open Water 3:  Link's Awakening".  There was a "Perfect Ending", of some kind, but to unlock it you need to beat the game without dying once.  I died fifty-three times, so that wasn't going to happen for me.

On a brighter form of the game's plot, it is a mostly a light-hearted adventure.  Link has a pathological need to lift things he finds over his head dramatically, so when Marin joins him to travel to Animal Village***, he lifts her over his head too.  "You got Marin!"  Also, since she's wearing a skirt, the implications are pretty clear.  Marin might have been erased from existence, but she can live forever in Link's memories - as spank material.  I also really like how a lot of item descriptions go a little insane.  You find a Fire Rod and it says "burn baby burn!"  You find a Yoshi and the game mentions how he's showing up everywhere these days (remember its 1992).  And how the game is populated with all kinds of random Mario enemies for no particular reason, but its adorable.  Oh character when you meet him mentions how later in the game he's going to get lost in the hills.  Guess what?  He does.

So I guess what I'm saying ultimately here is that I don't hate everything, despite what you might think after my less-than-stellar "Skyward Sword" review.  I do hate bad things though.  Zelda is a great series with tons of great games, including at least one classic I haven't beaten ("Majora's Mask").  "Skyward Sword" just sucks.  "Link's Awakening" is great and it shows exactly why "Skyward Sword" fails.  And the old Game Boy is great.  I'm so glad these ancient gaming devices have survived for me to keep on playing.

As for more traditional end of the year comments on 2011, wait till next week.  I still got a couple of movies to see until I declare 2011 over, but I will make a post on the worst of the year.  That's coming up.

* Honestly, "Twilight Princess" isn't particularly better at the sense of overwhelming freedom than "Skyward Sword".  However, it at least does a good job of covering that up by being really epic and awesome throughout the entire game.  Yeah, there isn't all that much to explore, but you can ride Epona and kick ass.  There is just so much awesome in that game, the Double Clawshots, the bridge jousting, the bomb arrows, its amazing!  "Skyward Sword" just isn't as flashy, it doesn't have as much pure cool, and its not as good.

** "Phantom Hourglass" and "Spirit Tracks" get close to the old 2D Zelda formula, they definitely have 2D dungeons, but they still have the weird issues of divided world maps.  And for some reason, you have to use the fucking stylus, you can't just use a D-pad and the four fully functional buttons the Nintendo DS has.  Again, this is Nintendo forcing its stupid "innovative" control schemes on the players, why not give us a choice?  WHY NOT?

*** Hey look, more than one town in a Zelda game?  NO WAY!  Not only that, but the world is populated with people all over the place, many of whom are not comic reliefs, unlike "Skyward Sword".


  1. Nostalgia is one fucking helluva drug.

  2. @MasterThief: I actually never played this game until just now, so its not really nostalgia speaking, at least not nostalgia over this specific Zelda game.

    If I wanted to make a nostalgia babble-fest, I'd have reviewed A Link to the Past.

  3. LOL good point.

    Regarding LA, I think its the only Zelda game I simply cannot beat because the dungeons are near impossible to beat on blind playthroughs (I refuse to look up walkthroughs). It's a good example of a Zelda game being to close).

  4. *being to crptic

  5. Links Awakening actually takes place after the Oracle series, which takes place after Link To The Past.

    Just check out the Official Nintendo Timeline that just got released:

  6. BlueHighwind, your Final Fantasy walkthroughs have been very helpful to me over the years and I'd like to repay you. Majora's Mask is my favorite Zelda game and if you ever need help with it, just ask.


  7. @AnchorCrab: Thanks, but the thing I really need help with is my cartridge. Its dead... =(

    I'll have to Virtual Console this one.

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  9. I'll throw in my opinion here. I played this game when it was brand new on my black and white gameboy, no nostalgia, it was a new game. This is before that kiddy-crap Zelda, this is when Zelda was supposed to be a serious game (the N64 ruined the series for me.)

    Now. As a game, it was amazing. loved it. Great quest, it was a small black-and-white version of Zelda 3. So on that aspect, for riding in the car, it was a perfect game. Yes I do recall the ending feeling a bit sad. The dungeons were cool and original, especially number 7 where you pickup that heavy ball and have to figure out how to break the pillars and actually alter the castle. Or if you steal from the shopkeeper and when you go back, he actually murders you and they change your name to thief. So....if you play this game, don't try and steal from the shopkeeper.