It is befitting that Link’s Awakening, the first portable title in the Legend of Zelda series, takes place on an island. Time has closed the gap between the console and portable experience. This is doubly true now that we are on the eve of the Nintendo Switch. Certain principles remain for portable gaming: an experience capable of being quickly ended and resumed, designed for being played in busy lifestyles, simple and easy to process visuals, and streamlined narratives. Over the years, improvements on handheld platforms have made those requirements to the portable gaming experience more optional. Good portable games still adhere to some of those principles in their design, but it is not as pivotal as it used to be. Link’s Awakening made this crystal clear as it excelled at bringing The Legend of Zelda experience to a portable platform without sacrificing the core tenant of exploration and puzzle solving.
The gameplay of Link’s Awakening was designed for the directional pad and a whopping total of two face buttons and it shows. In most iterations of the franchise, the sword is always equipped and always at the ready but now those two face buttons are free to be mapped to literally any item. No action button exists and so even picking up pots and rocks requires an item to be mapped to one of the face buttons. I could praise this as customization, but it’s really just a hardware limitation. The actual tools and equipment are pretty standard for a Zelda Game: Bow and Arrow, Bombs, and Boomerangs. The best addition, however, has to go to Roc’s Feather, an item that allows Link to… wait for it… Jump! I know you could do this back in Zelda II, but that was a different kind of gameplay, it was satisfying being able to jump in a more standard Zelda title. Well… More standard in gameplay. Other than that though, the gameplay checks all the boxes: puzzle-solving dungeons, connected overworld that allows for exploration based on the dungeons you’ve conquered, heart pieces scattered for you to find. Yet for all the boxes it checks, innovation is not one of them.
This next part contains a few spoilers, but if that isn’t apparent in this series so far I allow another warning here. I mentioned that Link’s Awakening takes place on an island- Koholint Island. Until Termina blew it out of the water two games later, Koholint was the weirdest and quirkiest setting in a Zelda game. The inhabitants are strange and their problems are stranger but the quest to awaken the mystical Wind Fish (it’s a whale in an egg on a mountain and it is as ridiculous as it sounds) is one that leads to interesting truth. The events of this game are all a dream of the mighty Wind Fish. Awakening the Wind Fish Awakens Link. The title is a bit on the nose, actually. As such, the quest, while memorable, is inconsequential to the larger Legend and I am therefore disinclined to invest too deeply into it. The Island and its inhabitants disappear after waking the Wind Fish anyway.
In conclusion, while Link’s Awakening is certainly a great game for its time and hardware limitations, it’s rather bland by comparison to others in the series. It’s quirky nature and memorable, if unreal, cast of characters, and novelty of being the first non-Hyrule destination in the series cannot save the title from the decay of time. I am perhaps unkind to this much beloved title, but I find it rather unremarkable in a remarkable series. It is certainly a good game, but in The Legend of Zelda, “good” is a low bar.