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Retro Corner: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening

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Retro games are a hot commodity. With the Xbox Live Arcade and Wii's Virtual Console, it's quickly becoming a prolific segment of the industry. Blogcritics is going to start looking at gaming's generally under-appreciated past in a different way.

Teaming up with classic gaming database Digital Press, Blogcritics will be presenting some lost or under-appreciated classics in short reviews. Extras may include odd facts, the title's impact on the industry, some personal retrospective, different ports the game may have received, and how well they hold up on today's market. Our hope would be to introduce a new generation of gamers, or even those who recently purchased a game console for the first time to those games they missed and the legacy they left behind.

The Game
When people think of the Legend of Zelda series, most of the time they think of the 3D adventures that Link has embarked on since the days of the N64. You’ll have a couple of people mention the original for NES and maybe a few people complaining about the CDI games, but that’s about it. I find in my experience speaking with fellow gamers that the Game Boy’s different takes on the series get cast aside in favor of the longer, shinier versions available. Quite a shame, that fact – one of the best games in the Zelda canon is the 4th installment, Link’s Awakening.

The entire game boy collection of the Oracle games and Minnish Cap were both drawn straight from the original formula given from this game. Various dungeons spread out throughout a large square world, with items to collect in every dungeon. An overhead camera follows you through different squares of the world and underground. You could call the game a polished version of the original NES game The Legend of Zelda, actually.

For an early-ish Game Boy game, the graphics are quite detailed and clear, with all the sprites clearly distinguished from each other. The older Game Boys might have a bit of trouble with blurring when sprites are moving rapidly, but that’s only a minor problem throughout the game. A newer SP or Color won’t have those troubles. The music is well scored, but very repetitive. A few more songs wouldn’t have hurt this game.

As with every Zelda game, the best part of this one is the exploration. For such a small game, there is a huge overworld and big dungeons to go through, so you’ll rarely run out of new places to find stuff to do. Such a huge map occasionally leaves you overwhelmed and lost at times, but fortunately a well placed group of warp-zones allow you to effectively navigate around so it doesn’t get too tedious. I’m looking at you, Wind Waker.

Surprisingly for such a little hand-held game, there is a lot of strategy involved in the dungeon crawling and fighting. None of the usual gambit of run-up-to-the-boss-and-hit-him-a-lot. Some bosses require you to break outer shells, some require you to memorize moving patterns, some can’t even be hurt by your sword. The puzzles also require some bits of thinking at times. Block pushing and candle lighting all make token appearances here, but some other harder puzzles like move copying enemies make the dungeons more challenging than you’d expect.

The plot is as straightforward as you’d expect from an early Zelda game. Link, off on a sailing adventure, is hit by a storm and washed up on Koholint island. The natives of the island kindly inform Link that the only way to get off the island is to wake up a large beast called the “Wind Fish.” Link must go on a quest for magical instruments so that he can wake the Wind Fish with the magical music. Hilarity ensues.

The only real problem with the game is its straightforward approach. It’s almost impossible to not do things in the order the game intends, mostly because of the specialized items each dungeon holds. In a way, it’s fairly refreshing to be able to charge through a game without having to strain yourself thinking so much. Eventually it gets a bit old when/if you get stuck and literally cannot do anything. Very few side-quests are present to partake in, minus a fairly amusing trading system similar to that in Ocarina of Time. This combined with the linear story can leave you feeling a bit constricted in the end, but the redeeming features well overshoot the few issues I may have.

The Present
In fairly recent memory, (all right, 10 years ago) the game was re-released for the Game Boy Color as Link’s Awakening DX. The only real addition was a new dungeon based on the concept of being able to tell colors from shades of grey, but for the perks of color, it was worth it. Color removes any problems that were present with the graphics and also gives the game a nice new look, I’d say.

A small side quest is presented in the new version involving pictures. A mouse with a camera occasionally finds you throughout your adventure taking pictures of you for a personal album. It’s not all that engaging of a bonus feature, but it is fun looking at all the pictures you’ve accumulated. It’s also fairly difficult to collect ‘em all, so that provides a bit of sport in the whole deal.

All that is really as close to the present as you’re going to get out of this game. As I said before, it’s not nearly as appreciated as it should be these days. The Zelda series has continued to flourish on handhelds, though. The acclaimed Oracle series was a fine follow up to Link’s Awakening, and Minnish Cap wasn’t too shabby itself. LA did set quite a fine precedent for it’s followers to… er, follow.

Facts and notables
* It’s possible to steal from the store in the town, but doing so will automatically change your in-game name to THIEF. This cannot be reversed, so you’ll have to endure being called THIEF the whole game if you want to get the boomerang easily. You also cannot enter the store after that point without being automatically killed by the shop keeper.

* If you manage to complete the game without dying, the ending scene of the game features Marin flying in the sky instead of your garden variety seagull.

* The color dungeon in the DX version gives you a new tunic which either doubles your defense or attack power.

* The underground sections of the dungeons contain goombas and piranha plants from Zelda’s sister series, Super Mario Bros.

* The characters Marin and Tarin would later be used with very similar likenesses in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Personal Reflection
My first experience with the game was my personal copy of DX, bought the day it came out. I wasn’t yet incredibly familiar with the Zelda franchise at that point – my first real Zelda game wound up being Majora’s Mask – but I thoroughly enjoyed myself from what I can recall. The game later got eaten by my brother’s dog, so who knows what other amounts of fun I could’ve had with it in those days? I never did beat it back then, now that I think about it. How sad.

I recently picked up the excellent emulator service at Console Classix, so I’ve been re-going through this fine game a few times. A fine game doesn’t lose its touch with age, and LA is just as intriguing as it was all those years back in 1998. Get yourself a copy of it if you haven’t tried out any of the Game Boy entries in the Zelda canon, or if you especially enjoyed the Oracle series. You won’t regret it. And if you do, you must be a big grump or something.

Review courtesy of Digital Press.

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