In the circles I frequent, both online and in real life, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is considered by many to be one of the premiere games in the series, mentioned up there along with A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time. For the longest time I could not understand the love Link’s Awakening received. It was just a smaller, talkier LttP. Plus, it was on the dark often blurry original Gameboy screen. I was never able to push through and really get started in large part because it was just so hard to see. For my 2nd Quest, I played the Gameboy Color’s DX version on my 3DS. Playing it when I could actually see what I was doing made a ton of difference. Now that I’ve beaten it, I still don’t understand the hyperbolic love this game gets. Link’s Awakening is phenomenal for a Gameboy game, but it is greatly hampered by the limitations of that system.
Link’s Awakening does an admirable job cramming what is essentially A Link to the Past on to a Gameboy cart. However, there are some drawbacks. Some come from elements abandoned from the original Legend of Zelda that Link’s Awakening decided not just to bring back but to expand upon, like the side scrolling rooms where new items were hidden. Those are more numerous and larger in LA and they are not particularly good. Most of those segments could have easily been removed. Then there is the limiting, at least after having played later Zelda games, A Button and B Button weapon set up. Sure, Link’s Awakening makes the sword optional, but I still spent way too much time in the menu changing items. This is partly due to the games laudable attempt at more complex puzzles by mixing a variety of items into their solutions. Puzzles have more steps to their completion, but in between each of those steps is pausing the game, going to the menu and changing equipment around. It seriously breaks the flow of the game.
Some of this could have been alleviated by not having the power bracelet be an equipable item. It is the same with the shield. The shield could have just been automatically equipped, like the original LoZ. Really, Link’s toolset is pretty lackluster here. There are the usual tools: bow, hookshot, and bombs, with only a few new or interesting ones. Link’s Awakening is the first appearance of the ocarina, which would play a large part in several games to come. There is also the Roc’s Feather, which allows Link to jump. It is an interesting tool for the 2D games, but Ocarina’s auto jump made it superfluous to most future games. Because of the limited tools, Link’s Awakening feels like the most generic Zelda game.
At least the dungeons are largely good. The first couple are pretty basic, for obvious reasons, but after that they get to be really good. Except for Level 5, it relies on making the player fight the same mini-boss, an exceptionally easy mini-boss, four times. Which in and of itself wouldn’t be so bad, but he only appears in the four fighting rooms in a specific order, meaning that a player who takes the wrong route through the dungeon might have to run through it as many as four times. It is some tedious crap. That is just a small hiccup, ignoring that these are some really good dungeons.
People also talk about how charming LA setting is, the island of Koholint in place of the usual Hyrule. I’ll agree to that some, but not to any real extent. With one exception, the “charming” townsfolk are just mostly the same as the residents of the average video game town. Okay, that is too harsh, the game does give several of them a little more than that, but for the most part they are just townsfolk. Marin, Link sort of love interest, is well realized. She is a genuinely interesting character. There are other supposedly charming moments, including a wealth of references to Mario games. Those are pretty neat, but a quick picture of Peach or stomping some Goombas really doesn’t do a lot for me. Though I did like the appearance of Wart from Super Mario Bros 2, since it is at least thematically appropriate. There are more references to other games, like an enemy that looks suspiciously like Kirby, which does add to the whole dream world feel.
One of the biggest problems I had with the game was how often it would stop the player to give them some useless piece of advice. This is a complaint often leveled at newer entries in the series, especially since Twilight Princess onward, but I think it is worse here than in other games. It is worst with rocks and other lift able things. If the bracelet is not equipped, then every time it stops the player to tell them its too heavy. It is absurdly easy to bump up against something and have to go through that. I found it infuriating.
Some of my complaints are admittedly rather nitpicky, but there are enough to hamper my enjoyment of the game. Link’s Awakening is still a really good game. Especially when compared to other gameboy games. It is head and shoulders above most of them but compared to most of the Zelda series, it feels like something of a runt. This one belongs squarely in the liked, not loved category. It was certainly better than Zelda 2, though.