This is the week, just counting the days now until my Nintendo Switch and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild arrive on my doorstep and I can immerse myself in the open world Hyrule Nintendo crafted this time around.
Without further ado, here’s number 2:
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening stands out from the rest of the games in this list in that it’s not a main entry on a console but one of the handheld titles, the first of them in fact, releasing over a decade ago and defining the look and feel, and gameplay of course, of all handheld Legend of Zelda titles to come after it, at least before the DS era, where it all changed to stylus controls.
Until the release of The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia no one knew where exactly Link’s Awakening fell in the series chronology, with some speculating it was a sequel to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past which had released only a couple of years earlier. I remember some people saying the game took place in the middle of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link’s plot, particularly during the section where you use the raft to reach the eastern part of Hyrule, a very long dream sequence.
But no, the game is indeed a sequel to A Link to the Past, but not a direct one, because the Oracles duology takes place between the two titles. The official story is as follows: After A Link to the Past, Link leaves on a journey of enlightenment, which of course means he gets into trouble in another kingdom, this being the story happening in the joint games Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages. Only after finishing these adventures did he shipwreck on Koholint Island, the setting for Link’s Awakening.
One I love about The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is that it’s the only title in the series where you really don’t know if what you played through was real or just a vivid dream. Over the course of the game, you’re looking for instruments to play The Ballad of the Wind Fish to awaken the eponymous fish, a giant Whale-like deity who governs over the island and is in fact its creator. Early in the game, an Owl shows up and tells you that awakening the Wind Fish is the only way to leave the island.
When you finally awaken the Wind Fish and defeat the nightmares plaguing it, it tells you that the island was just his dream and that all dreams must end, and so the entire island disappears, and everyone you meet in your journey just cease to be. If you finish the game without ever dying, there’s an extra bit at the end where you see a small seagull in the distance, hinting at one character escaping the dream and making her own come true, that of flying free as a bird, but if this is true or not is also in question.
If the entirety of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is real, then Link met wonderful and colourful people and then saw them disappear before his eyes, as if they had never been there, with Link being the only one to remember they ever existed, which is rather sad to be honest.
If it was all a dream, then it was probably a vivid one Link’s mind conjured up as he struggled to survive in the storm, gripping a piece of driftwood as tightly as possible, his only life-line.
The ending is, perhaps one of the darkest in the series’ history, as it leaves Link, now fully awake, in the middle of the ocean, with not even a single hint that salvation is coming. He’s left there, floating aimlessly on a piece of wood with no water to drink or food to eat. It’s rather grim.
The dreaming nature of Koholint island allowed Nintendo to do some cool things with The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening that they really couldn’t do with the other titles in the series, and that is crossing over. There are so many cameos in the game, particularly from characters in the Mario series—though a certain pink puff-ball named Kirby makes an appearance as well.
My favourite of all is perhaps the chained Chomp you take with you at one point, walking him like a dog. Getting this task is instrumental in opening the way to one of the dungeons, as the chomp will happily devour enemies and obstacles in your way, so that you can reach the next palace and continue the adventure. There is nothing in any Legend of Zelda title quite as empowering as having your own chained Chomp. It’s something I would love to see them do again.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening also did a lot for the series, aside from you know, defining how other handheld titles in the series would play. Fishing happened on Koholint first before it did on Ocarina of Time and any other title in the series. Photographs, guess what? Yep, Link’s Awakening did it before it was cool in Wind Waker. How about exchange quests chains for cool items and collecting specific items to exchange for prizes? You got it, it happened first on Koholint Island before the Big Goron Sword and the Golden Skulltulas were even a thing!
Hell, this was the first isometric game in the Legend of Zelda series that allowed Link to jump, using the Roc Feather item, which opened the world and dungeon design so much. And since you could control your movement mid-jump there are so many amazing strategies and trick jumps you can do to reach important locations. And it’s not just speedrunners, but Nintendo intended for you to do this, particularly when combining the feather with the Pegasus Boots, as it allows you to clear large gaps. It was an interesting design choice that rewarded high-skill level play, something that isn’t that common in the series. Maybe that’s why dungeons are so great and why the mechanics in them are so complex and feel so rewarding when you finally figure out how to clear them, particularly those with the one-way doors.
I will forever remember the side-scrolling sections of Link’s Awakening. Sure, they’re not original to this game, appearing in the original Legend of Zelda on the NES and being the sole playstyle of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, but when you combine that with the Roc’s Feather and the dual item configuration of Link’s Awakening (where you map one item to A and another B, no matter which they are), it just opened the possibilities and let you do some crazy stuff. It was great.
And that’s it for my number 2 pick in the Top 5 games in the Legend of Zelda series. Link’s Awakening has a straightforward plot, but one that messes with your head and leaves you wondering if it was all real or just fantasy, something that is phenomenal for me and would like to see more of in the series–Phantom Hourglass did some of it, but not to the same extent as Link’s Awakening. This game did a lot for the series and nothing really beats having a chain chomp partner!