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28th Oct 2020 | 2,369 views
It is important to note, before this wall of text begins, that this review will be more about the general idea of the game than this later iteration on itself, or rather: i will talk about the orginal game in a historical context and sometimes describe how each version did something to address particular situations. So if you just want a description about how the Nintendo Switch version of Link's Awakening stand as a remake this review will probably just take too long to get to the point you care about.
I also want to address that i do not like using numerical scores because i find them tools that distract more than add to the point of written thoughts like this, so since i am forced to give a review score because of the scale below having a 1 as the defaul option, know beforehand that i'm giving this game a 10 because that number better reflects how i feel about it as a whole. If you are one of those people who belive in objectivity, or that scores between games should be compared and adressed based only on the number themselves i'm afraid you won't have a good time reading this either.
In recent years the Zelda franchise developed something that is close to a continuity about itself. But rather than Hyrule Historia, which is a cute but pointless atempt at tying together the lore of every game in the franchise; i am more interested on the lore about how the series progressed as games over the years. It is usually understood between the fans that, in a general manner, the series first appeared as a exploratory puzzle game with some rpg elements in the NES entry, to then be refined into a working formula with the third installment, to then translate that same formula into 3d with ocarina of time, which lead the series to a long string of mainline games based on those same parameters, which also lead to the long standing formula being questioned and studied with breath of the wild. However, the problem with general ideas such as that timeline being passed on is that, over time, we lose the obvious minutia which would fill the gaps of that progression. Case in point, i do not think that link's awakening should be ignored on the transition between A link to the past to ocarina of time, and i do also want to make a case for it being the first entry in the series to undersand the best aspects about itself.
With the NES and SNES entries, zelda still had a lot of its own world and characters be simply adaptations of folklore and classic fairy tales. The plot and characters were simple and vague, simply indications of an idea of towns, cities and castles. Your willingless to explore and "save the world" was expected to come from the same places were we find pleasure on listening how the estoic prince saves the default princess from older tales. And it is a testment to how good the systems and mechanics were in conjunction that it was still a compelling experience from beggining to end. However the consequences are just that the lore and characters are gonna be less memorable, because helping the people that live in the town, and have a line of dialogue and that look like a default jrpg sprite is not why the games are gonna be remembered fondly. The temples and bosses are, getting the master sword is, going into the dark world and beating ganon is. You're not saving the world to help this specific world(because it is simple a series of challenges and enemies for you) or the people on it(because they do not show enough personality), you're doing it because of the fun and glory inherent on doing so.
And, to be clear, that is an absolutely valid and even good aproach to have. However, when the time for a handheld zelda came, we saw the formal estabilishment of something i like to call "internal zelda logic". Now, your progression is gonna be more closely tied on how you help people and the world. The npc's and towns are more specific and have unique activities, even if simplistic, and you need to understand they a bit more in order to progress. To get to a dungeon, you still have to do the usual quest to find the necessary itens to do so(directly or not, keys are what literally open dungeons in this game, but in order to progress you still need things like the rooster or the ocarina songs), but this time you get them by knowing different people and doing what you can to rescue or simply making their lives better. To enter the first dungeon you need to turn tarin back into a human, to enter the second you have to rescue bow ow(the chain chomp), you need to help prince richard to get into the third, and so on. Obviously, it has to be said that a link to the past didnt completely overlook that, since you do need for example to ask kiki,the monkey, to open a dungeon for you later on, and some of the interactions from LA also came from ALTTP(such as the witch giving you an item or the bat giving you more magic). However those are not the front of the main quest of the game, and are not nearly as memorable due to execution. The characters having more expressive sprites help a lot, but LA also usually places them in the central piece of the main progression. The witch example is an optional item in ALTTP, but it is vital to the progression of the game in LA, and because of that it has a bigger importance on the player main quest(even if in this specific example, in both cases she is a very minor character).
There is naturally a downside to this approach, and it is simply that because you need more interaction to progress, it is very easy to make the path to take too obvious. In a link to the past, in order to get the the desert dungeon, you need a book to understand old scripts. However the only hint that the game gives you is the location of the temple, the player has to figure out for himself that he needs a book to translate it, and what he has to do to get that book in his way to that same dungeon. In comparison, having the characters tell you what they need and where to go can feel rather dull, but i propose that is just as valid a sacrifice, at least when it is done in a way that gives the game a better sense of place.The zelda franchise with this game did a bigger jump in order to streamline the experience, one that i'd argue is closer to what ocarina of time would implement later on, and it comes with all the advantages and downsides of it.
Of course, a lot of the decisions regarding the said structure and other elements of LA come from the development and limitations demanded by the system in which the game released. Navigating even a small island in the tiny screen of a gameboy can be confusing, so making the characters give you cleared directions is perhaps a necessity. And those same characters being a biggers part in the experience is also, maybe, a decision made by realizing that the world couldnt realisticly be as big and expansive as ALTTP. Regardless, problems, errors and limitations are part of a product and a work of art. Decisions that are made out of limitations are just as worthy of praise as those made with clear intentions on my judgment. But so, of course, are the faults. One of the consequences is that infamously the developers had to accomodate for the fact that the game boy only had 2 buttons and a directional pad for inputs, and so the players is forced to toggle the menu the whole game in order to use both equipment and normal items. The remake accounts for it with some items such as the sword and boots being permanent, tho it isn't as good as it could have been, since there are more buttons that could be used and are left with no function in the final release.
But Link's awakening is also, quite famously, a weird game. The piece of trivia about it being inspired by twin peaks is well know, and while tezuka was mostly refering to the aspect of having a tiny town full of suspicious people as the main focus of inspiration, the surreal elements of LA are also an important part of the game. Being a series that borrows a lot from fairy tales, the way zelda can be not natural usually involves having a game that is very dissonant from the tone of the series(which would be majora's mask) or to be aware of itself. Koholint island is a nonsensical place with animals doing weird stuff(like an aligator painting a nakes hippopotamus) and it's habitants speak in overly literal and preposterous ways, with the kids talking about how to save the game, and then how they dont know the meaning of it, since they are kids. Or the grandma yahoo being called that because she screams yahoo all the time. Or the old man ulrirra not speaking to you unless you call him by the phone, since he is too shy in person. Or even the non-justfied cameos of other nintendo franchises, that are simply there for the sake of creating a feeling of something being out of place. Elements of surrealism in a game aren't enough to justify anything on itself, when made without purpouse they are nothing more than a cute and/or charming side gag. However, those same elements in link's awakening are how the game justifies its gameplay decisions. Ulrirra being like that is used as a way to justify the hint system with the telephone trees, the kids are obviously a charming way to do a simple tutorial and even grandma having that one line of dialogue helps you remember her later in the trading sequence. It's tone and athmosphere allows the devs to do pretty much anything and take as many risks as they want.
The ideas that are possible by that approach are also present in the game's main dungeons. They start much simpler than the ones in the console games, with the first one being about the feather item that allows link to jump. While that was a very novel concept for the isometric franchise, the main dungeon on itself is quite simple. However the escalation of difficulty was done better than ever before in this entry. The laters dungeons introduce concepts that require outside of game knowledge(the horse puzzle of face shrine) or understanding of the dungeon layout in a tridimentional sense(with eagle's tower). The monsters and bosses are also more creative, with different attack patters and ways of being defeated than the older entries. Some require being feed bombs, some require jumping or hitting a specific pattern. It isn't always logica, and sometimes it is too obtuse, but it makes for a more entertaining run than i remember having in older titles. The more overt aesthetic differences between each dungeon, as well as having unique ost's for those, also improve greatly the experience.
The game was called by tezuka as a parody of zelda, and it surely can be interpret that way. By reducting the progression of the series to the absurd, with one character literally saying he's gonna be lost in the mountains later and will need rescuing as an example, the game is able to show how the act of helping someone, even in a ridiculous scenario such as that, is a prazerous and fulfilling activity. It shows that if your ideas of mechanics and systems are working in conjunction with the context for them happening, you can turn even this island with a giant egg on top of a mountain a place you remember fondly, with people you want to make happy. And even with all the nonsense you face on it, this game also does show how to make a good zelda princess. The problem with zelda and/or the maidens in past games is that they dont matter. They're nothing more than an excuse, with the only moment of action being the very beggining of alttp, with zelda asking for your help. The maidens may as well not exist and the crystals be the only thing that link's rescue,because they do not have a personality or a story, they're simply a formality once you complete the dungeon.
And i'm not gonna pretend as if marin is the best written character ever in the franchise, but i do think its one of the most effective, and is purely because she has an actual reason to care for link in this game, and its related to what she wants to do for herself. She always lived in an island that is isolated with nowhere to go, and not even knowing if an outside world with more interesting things exist, and even so she wants to go. And then you, the player comes and so does the living proof that something else exists out there. It is a very related feeling, because its analog to what your objective is(leaving the island) and, in conjunction with the cute interactions the game has, makes her memorable. And that is why having an intern world that feels alive can have such a difference in output quality, and its also why i love marin so much as a presence, because she represents to me what this game best introduced to the franchise.
The later hours of this game are, in contrast with my other favorite game in the franchise(majora's mask) melancholy, but warm. This game, despite the higher degree of contextualization compared to older titles, didnt commit the mistake more recent titles would do: it didnt completely removed the vagueness of its world and lore. Zelda later become too self important, the games would bloat you with so much information and justification for everything that the result would be the opposite of what those things were supposed to do(making you care). In LA, you dont know what the wind fish is, or what does even being in his dream means, but you do know that if you complete your task the island is gonna dissapear. And it is the proof that the game succeeded in doing what it proposes to do that you feel sad or hesitant on doing so. The wind fish is a bizzare encounter that feels ominous and weirdly sad as it should be, and that was only possible because i cared about the people that lived in that place, and it made me legitimately sad to see them dissapearing. I will once again not pretend as if what it means is something incredibly deep or that wasn't being attempted before or since in a gigantic amount of mediums, but it was effective. And i do not think any other ending in the series will be as memorable to me going foward.
Aonuma, in a iwata ask related to LA, says that ocarina of time would be very different without LA, and i when talking about this topic the obvious link to do would be the presence of a tutorial owl, talon and malon(and how the latter teaches you an ocarina song). But the things zelda got from this franchise go beyond that. The way to contextualize your path, how to create characters that are simple and easy to understand but that also are vague enough for you to suspect of them, and keep you on your memory. How associating the quest with the world in a direct way(with the sequence trading) makes for a more memorable experience, the first steps into modeling a dungeon that has to be understood in a 3d enviroment, and how, if you truly created a world that feels worth saving, the memories that the players create will stay with them for much longer than the duration of the game.
It's not easy to describe why you like something outside of quantitative points or opinions on what works or not, but the point i want to get across is simply that this is my favorite videogame. It has enough vagueness on it to feel mysterious and inviting, but enough context for the path the player has to take to not feel dry and void. It shows that this medium can create a place that feels worth staying even if that same place is devoided of logic or aesthetic realism. It shows that the zelda franchise can offer much more than an epic tale of swords, princess and dragons; it can offer a more sincere personal connection with the experience, something that will, i hope, make people into better persons. It is the quintessential videogame experience to me, and something that i will forever remember as a beautiful dream i once had.