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07 November 2016 @ 08:58 pm
Game Review: ゼルダの伝説 夢をみる島 DX  
The Game Boy was kind of a weird time. There were a ton of puzzle games, exhaustively (and exhaustingly) covered in Jeremy Parish's Game Boy World series. There were the games that were brought over and then jammed into an existing series, like how 魔界塔士 SaGa (Makai Tōsho SaGa, “Spirit World Tower Warrior SaGa”) became Final Fantasy Legend. There were the ever-popular licensed platformers with almost nothing to do with their source material, like the Batman game where Batman ran around shooting all his enemies in the face. And there were the spinoffs from popular Nintendo franchises. Sometimes this turned out badly, like the first Castlevania Game Boy game where the developers had to add a ton of invincibility powerups as compensation for the incredibly cheap enemy attack patterns and level design. And sometimes it turned out well, like Link’s Awakening.

A couple of years ago, I went to a concert called Symphony of the Goddesses that features orchestral arrangements of Legend of Zelda songs--I first wrote about it here when I went to an earlier arrangement--and they had a focus on Link’s Awakening. In addition to gameplay sequences from the DX version of the game, they had anime sequences they inserted cutscene style, made specifically for the concert. It was listening to that, to the music from a game I had never played and watching Link work his way through the dungeons, that first got me interested in playing through Link’s Awakening. softlykarou and slarnos’s advocating for it also helped, and that’s why I started this game so quickly after I finished the previous Zelda game.

And I like the name a bit better in Japanese, I admit. ゼルダの伝説 夢をみる島, “Legend of Zelda: The Isle of Dreaming.”

I, too, write my name on the back of all my possessions.

It's kind of ironic that right after my review of A Link to the Past where I wrote that there's always a princess, there's always a man, and there's always a Triforce, I played a game that only had one of those. And they make that obvious right from the beginning, too, when Link washes ashore after his boat breaks in a storm and the woman who rescues him tells him she’s never heard of Hyrule. He meets the inhabitants of Mabe Village, who mention that the island is called Koholint and that monsters have started to appear since he came to the island, and then goes south to the beach in the hope that his sword has washed ashore, and there he meets an owl who tells him that he needs to awaken the Wind Fish if he wants to be able to leave.

Then the game rapidly becomes pretty similar to previous Zeldas in the broad strokes. There are eight dungeons, each of which has a piece of a set that must be collected to win. There’s a final dungeon that Link has to enter to defeat the final boss. Each dungeon has an item, like the flippers or the hookshot, that can be used to reach new areas of the island and unlock previously-inaccessible caves and rewards. Despite the story differences, it was clearly a Zelda game, it followed the patterns of previous Zelda games, and it felt like Zelda when I played it.

This seems strangely familiar.

It's not entirely like Zelda, though. There wasn't much attention paid to keeping consistency of milieu (as Gygax might say), and all kinds of other Nintendo franchises creep in. There was a quote in an Iwata Asks episode about this:
“I remember that we made Link's Awakening in a really peculiar frame of mind. We began in the free spirit of an afterschool club, so the contents are quite unrestrained. If you look at it, you can tell. Characters similar to Mario and Luigi appear and Yoshi Dolls appear, too.”
-Takashi Tezuka, Iwata Asks
As he says, one of the first quests requires Link to buy a Yoshi doll from the crane game shop, the dungeons have side-scrolling underground sequences filled with Mario references like piranha plants and goombas and thwomps, Luigi lives on top of a mountain in a house full of chickens, a woman in Mabe village keeps a chain-chomp named ワンワン (“bow-wow”) as a pet, and one of the dungeons even have monsters that are clearly Kirby and try to eat Link when he gets too close to them.

There are other references not seen in other Zelda games that I really liked. There's a tanuki early on that, as tanuki do, webs Link in a maze of enchantment so he can't progress further in the mysterious forest. There's an entire village of talking animals, which is never explained and is all the better for it. From pretty early on, you can climb the Tal Tal Heights to the highest mountain on the island and see the giant egg on top, proving that all this discussion of the Wind Fish isn't just the rumors of townspeople who don't understand their world. And there's the talking owl guide, a device that would be reused for Ocarina of Time, with his theme music that gets more and more ominous the more you learn about what is going on.

"when the Wind Fish awakens, Koholint will turn into seafoam."

I knew the story before I played, of course. Somewhat from that Symphony of the Goddesses concert, somewhat from geek osmosis, I learned that it was all a dream. But Link's Awakening is probably one of the most satisfying executions of the “it was all a dream” premise that I've ever seen. At first there’s just a few strange notes, like who this owl is and why he’s so insistent Link collect the instruments, but the mystery gradually deepens. The way that Tarin insists there is nothing outside the island. The way the villagers say not only that they don't know what is outside the island, but that they've never even considered that there could be anything out there. The way the dungeon bosses tell Link he’s making a mistake.  photo doomguy.gif

The villagers tell Link that the monsters appeared when he showed up, and when you learn that the island is a dream of the Wind Fish and when Link awakens it, all of it will vanish, it makes sense. The monsters don’t oppose Link because they’re mindlessly evil. They’re afraid. They don’t want to disappear like a bubble, so they’re fighting to perverse their own existence, not to stop the Hero of the Triforce.

But everything ends. It’s mono no aware actually done well, with how the Wind Fish needs to awaken because of the nightmare that infests its dream but the bittersweet knowledge that when it does awaken, all that it dreamed will end. We can’t sleep forever, no matter how sweet the dream is. That’s a surprisingly poignant message for a pseudo-spinoff Zelda game, and in terms of plot, this is my favorite Zelda game to date in my replay of the series.

It has to be here somewhere.

Sadly, the limitations of the Game Boy make it kind of a trial to play at points. Link’s Awakening may be the only game where Link can unequip the sword, and sometimes has to unequip the sword. There are two buttons and a dozen items to juggle, and several items that had dedicated buttons or context-sensitive usage, like the Power Bracelet or the Pegasus Boots from A Link to the Past, now require swapping to them to use them. That means that dungeons especially require opening the menu and switching items almost every room just to traverse the dungeon. At first I was excited about the possibilities available from being able to freely mix-and-match items, but by the fiftieth time I had to pick up a rock, go over a screen, switch items and jump over a pit, go over a screen, switch items and fight monsters and then switch items again to throw a statue, I was done.

Well, I wasn’t done because I had to finish the game, but the novelty had worn off. In the beginning I switched things due to the novelty, but by the end of the game I spent 99% of my playtime with the boomerang in one slot, since for some strange reason the boomerang of Link’s Awakening is an unstoppable superweapon, and either the Roc-Bird’s Feather or the Power Bracelet in the other slot. I rarely used the sword unless there was an enemy who could only be damaged by it.

Except for the shell-finding subquest, part of which is depicted above. They could have at least included some hints other than the owl statues right next to some of the shell's hiding places..  photo latest.gif And the ones you can only get if you show up to the shell hut with exactly five or ten shells? Come on.

After I gave him the canned goods he wants, he ate it whole, can and all.

Outside of the dungeons where having to switch items was most in evidence, though, the whimsy took over and I rarely even notice the gameplay. I wasn't evident in A Link to the Past, but here I can really see the quirky characters that would later become a hallmark of the Zelda series. There's Marin, of course, who clearly has a crush on Link but in classic fashion doesn't come out and say it until it's too late, but I my favorite is probably Ururira, the game's hint system. He's so shy that if you go to his house he'll refuse to talk and tell you call him, which you can do from the series of telephone houses scattered around the island. If you're ever stuck, as I was sometimes, he can prod you in the right direction.

There's also the old woman who asks you to take her chain chomp for a walk for his health, which turns out to be necessary to get into one of the dungeons, and who speaks in obvious Yamanote Tokyo dialect. The owl, of course--having never played this before now, the owl in Ocarina of Time came out of nowhere and I had no idea they were referencing Link's Awakening, and the owl does an excellent job of propelling Link onward while becoming more and more ominous as the mystery of Koholint is revealed. There's a cameo by Wart of Super Mario Brothers II fame, who teaches Link an ocarina song that can raise the dead--"Put a soul into that which has no life," in the Japanese--and even the bosses are memorable in the way they ask Link why he's fighting them and if he knows what his quest will ultimately accomplish.

I couldn't tell you more than a handful of characters in A Link to the Past. The Dark World tree, the old witch, the dwarf smiths, Sahasrahla, Zelda...that's about it. I could probably list almost all of them for Link's Awakening.

She could have gotten her wish if I had beaten the game without dying.  photo emot-argh.gif

I knew Link's Awakening was an odd entry in the series in the same way that Majora's Mask is, but I hadn't expected to like it so much. I don't think it's dethroned A Link to the Past as my favorite Zelda game because the actual gameplay is kind of wonky, what with the constant switching of items and the way that the boomerang makes every other weapon obsolete except against monsters that are immune to it--seriously, the final boss dies instantly if the boomerang hits it  photo emot-commissar.gif--but the story is better. A Link to the Past is the classic "collect the bits and stop Ganon" story that was refined in Ocarina of Time and then resounded down through future Zelda games to this day, though eventually they started to break the mold. Link's Awakening has character.

It's also the first game I played through entirely in Japanese with a story I had to keep track of, so that's a milestone in and of itself.

I've seen articles comparing Link's Awakening and Majora's Mask, and if that's remotely true, I'm more looking forward to playing Majora's Mask than Ocarina of Time, which I have fond memories of but which I suspect won't hold up nearly as well today, especially since I love Wind Waker so much. Link's Awakening, however, still holds up even with the control issues, and I think I appreciate the story even more now than I would then.
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