Games have transformed beyond all recognition since Link's Awakening made its debut on the Game Boy in 1993. With an entirely new audience's modern tastes to satiate, it's remarkable that it still remains the involving, evocative adventure it has always been. The game's structure and style will be familiar to anyone who has played other top-down adventures (think a lo-fi Link To The Past and you're almost there), but the setting and circumstances certainly won't be.
It's for very good reason that Link's Awakening is considered an anomaly when it comes to the wider Zelda series. It's not set in Hyrule, there's no Triforce to be had and there's no Princess Zelda to rescue.
Instead, Link finds himself washed up on Koholint Island after a shipwreck and, as befits a pocket-sized adventure, his aspiration is much simpler than usual - you must wake up the Wind Fish to get off the island. Strange cameos and enigmatic character dialogue extend the offbeat tone, although in pure gameplay terms, it's classic Zelda.
Taken in by friendly father and daughter combo Tarin and Marin, Link begins an island adventure that's tighter and more focused than its bigger brother A Link To The Past. For good reason, too. Cartridge sizes were hardly luxurious in '93.
Screen by screen, you explore and learn Koholint's terrain by rote - the friendly folk of Mabe Village, the Mysterious Woods, Kanalet Castle, Yarna desert, Goponga Swamp - they're all standard Zelda archetypes, but that never diminishes the sense of discovery. There's a unique sense of place that makes Koholint Island a joy to explore, as long as you don't mind retracing your steps more than a few times.
The Crazy Gang
All that overground exploration could get a little tedious if Koholint's inhabitants weren't such a colourful bunch. One of them is literally called Crazy Tracy, while another communicates only through the telephone. You meet a bear who is a chef. Later, you can help a talking goat who likes to eat paper to deliver a love letter to a man called Mr. Write, who likes to write. Even the signs crack little gags, and let's not forget that your main task is to wake up a sleepy flying whale that lives in an pink, spotty egg atop a mountain.
While all Zelda games have a sense of humour, none lay it on quite so thickly as this one. The slew of cameos from other Nintendo games confirms this is Zelda at its kookiest. Tarin, for example, has a big nose, a moustache, likes mushrooms and at one point turns into a racoon. There are plenty of other, more direct Mario series references too. Some enemies are lifted wholesale, and for this DX version, Nintendo added side-scrolling sections with Goombas and Piranha Plants in them. Even Kirby gets a look-in.
As the overland map slowly reveals itself, you not only get introduced to the full range of Koholint oddballs, you also get to know them. It's often more fun completing fetch quests for these jokers than playing the 'main' game.
So the overworld is joy, that much is clear. The dungeons, on the other hand, are where modern gamers used to more thorough sign-posting may come unstuck. Of course, they are designed with the same ingenuity and faultless internal logic you'd expect from a top-quality Zelda game. Find a key, push a block, vanquish a foe - they start simply enough and become genuinely labyrinthine just a couple of hours in.
Their class is unquestionable, but they require real concentration to conquer. This is not dip-in, dip-out stuff. There is no hint system, no computer-controlled Link to jump in and show you the way nor Sheikah Stone to show you glimpses of what you should be doing. It's you and your brain against old-fashioned, unforgiving dungeon design.