3DS Virtual Console review: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX

Set after Link has saved the kingdom of Hyrule from Ganon’s onslaught in A Link to the Past and subsequent adventures to other lands in Oracle of Ages and Seasons, Link sets course for his return to Hyrule. As he is sailing across the ocean, his ship is caught in a storm, the power of which knocks him unconscious and he drifts ashore on the island of Koholint. When he comes to, he finds a girl named Marin has come to his aid. Not long after, Link meets a talking owl and is told that he must collect eight instruments in order to wake the Wind Fish and leave the island to complete his journey home.

Of all the elements I most look forward to each time I play a new Zelda title, the boss fights rank near the top. Sadly, Link’s Awakening has a severe lack of boss fights that are even remotely challenging. In my review of Twilight Princess, I was highly critical of how easy most of the bosses in that game were to defeat, but at least some were aesthetically interesting to look at. Link’s Awakening requires a very straightforward approach with the likes of the giant Angler Fish, giant Eagle, Moldorm, and Slime Eye, as Link must strike his sword at these beasts enough times to fell them. The remaining bosses do require Link to use other weapons, but not all of these are the weapons he has recently acquired from their home dungeon. Frankly, this is probably the single most disappointing run I have had with the boss encounters in any Zelda game. Any given one of the dungeons bears a more interesting layout than the bosses that call them home, with a strong balance of puzzle and combat mechanics across the board. Any single dungeon is, at worst, decent, but only a couple of the later ones really stand out as being ‘above average’ at best.

Thankfully, the overworld design redeems a large portion of the rest of the experience. While Koholint Island is not particularly large, the development team has done a strong job in making the most of the space they have been allotted. Many regions are divided into subsections, presenting interesting and frequent environment transitions. Though there are not as many cave to explore as in the Oracle titles or any of the home console Zelda releases, they are all different and offer distinct, if not brief, challenges, many of which are specific to one weapon in Link’s arsenal or another. Because the island has so many cliffs, rock formations, and pits, you may find yourself lost at times, even with the help of the overworld map and its many marked locations of importance. Thankfully, Koholint Island boasts a few warp points that are placed within reasonably close proximity to all the dungeons, shops, and homes Link will need to visit and revisit in his quest to collect all the instruments required to wake the Wind Fish.

The early portions of Link’s Awakening display relatively short dungeons, offering Link ample opportunity to explore the island, and sometimes flat out requiring him to adventure deep into the desert, prairie, and mountain regions of Koholint. In a similar fashion to Majora’s Mask, Link’s Awakening places as much emphasis on the tasks that need to be completed in between dungeons as the act of dungeon-crawling itself. Some areas, like the castle, act as mini-dungeons that involve brief, less linear objectives. Often, these reward Link with a key that will grant him access to the upcoming dungeon, with the task of reaching said dungeon only halfway complete. Most of these ‘mini-dungeons’ and similar tasks that fall in-between the dungeons are placed between the point where Link sets out to reach his next objective and the objective in question, requiring minimal backtracking or cause for confusion. Should you find yourself at a loss as to what to do next, however, there are a few telephone booths located around Koholint that Link can use to call Ulrira, an elderly man who lives in Mabe Village. All of his advice is straight-to-the-point, leaving zero room for further confusion.

Another thing that struck me as odd about Link’s Awakening was the lack of a real memorable soundtrack. While Tal Tal Heights is a standout track, the rest of the soundtrack felt largely lacking. Admittedly, this may be due to my already being familiar with variations and reorchestrations of these tunes in other Zelda games. But compared to the strikingly original tunes that helped shape the Oracle games, the soundtrack to Link’s Awakening is vastly underwhelming. The sound effects that accompany the instruments required to wake the Wind Fish, the owl that acts as Link’s guide, and the enemy noises are all selected very well, considering the Gameboy’s limited capacity. Graphically, the game runs on the same engine that would later be used for the aforementioned Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons, though this Link’s Awakening DX release lacks some of the more vibrant colors and high-detail character and environment models seen in the Oracle games.

One of the few sidequests on Koholint Island is the option to aid a mouse photographer in completing his photo album. He will offer to snap Link’s photograph at various places around the island, and these are viewable from an album in his shop. In a break from the traditional simple character models seen in the rest of the game, these photos are presented in an exaggerated, cute manga style.

On the topic of talking animal characters, that element is certainly one that marks this title as one of the more bizarre Zelda games ever released. Majora’s Mask was weird due to its dark and sinister thematic, as well as the looming threat of total destruction. The oddities in Link’s Awakening stem largely from inclusions like a whole village of talking animals, and enemies like Bloopers, Shy Guys, and Goombas from the Mario series as well as Kirby lookalikes making regular appearances in the game’s dungeons. While Ocarina of Time had cameos by the Mario cast inside the Hyrule Castle courtyard, these were included as easter egg content, and were not core to the gameplay experience. While Moblins and Octoroks are still more frequent on Koholint, these enemies from other Nintendo properties feel very much out of place, and the novelty of seeing them in a Zelda game wears off after about the second or third encounter. Occasionally, foes will drop Pieces of Power or Guardian Acorns, objects that provide Link with a temporary boost to offense and defense respectively. Unique to Link's Awakening, these offer a bit of a fresh spin on the typical item drops and approach to combat, though there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason as to when Link will be rewarded with these or how frequently.

Due to a severe lack of important characters beyond protagonist Link, the story of Link’s Awakening is quite single-minded in its focus, and unfortunately rather forgettable as a result. Marin plays a support role of decent importance early on, but then only make a few brief appearances after the halfway point. The Wind Fish – Link’s ultimate objective, and an effectively faceless entity until the game’s finale – plays a more consistently prominent role than any of the characters with proper forms and faces on Koholint. When Link’s Awakening finally tries to do something that will leave a lasting memory, it is rather interesting and unexpected, though unfashionably late to the party. The same goes for the endgame boss fight. It should also be noted that the in-game trading sequence, much like Marin, seemingly falls off the radar by the game’s midway marker, but is in fact crucial to the endgame events. Should you complete the final dungeon without having first completed the trading sequence (the importance of which is never stated nor even implied by the inhabitants of Koholint), you may find yourself devoting a decent chunk of time running about the island just to be able to reach the endgame.

My rating: 7 (out of 10)

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