Hey. You should read this AFTER you’ve finished Link’s Awakening. Remake or original, though the remake is quite good.
Sitting in a hospital bed somewhere in Columbia, Maryland, around 2001, frustrated, alone, and worried, I would lay my hands on my very first handheld system: my very own GameBoy Color. As the dumb eight-year-old kid I was, I would often play with my big dogs. Probably too rough, like a kid would do. This time, my dog turned around and bit my nose off.
There is zero ill will or resentment in my heart about it to this day, but I think it’s safe to say it was a pretty bad call on my part. The result was weeks in a hospital, and I’d be spending my time with my GameBoy Color in my moments outside a hyperbaric chamber to heal the wound on my face.
The light at the end of the tunnel would be the end of 2001 where I’d get Link’s Awakening DX for GameBoy Color for Christmas, and while I had played and seen many of my brother’s Zelda games at this point, this one was mine.
I’d play it over and over again to try and solve its secrets, and I wouldn’t beat it for at least three years after that Christmas. In fact, the memories I have of Link’s Awakening DX are almost equally as dreamlike as the game itself, because any eight-year-old kid new to the wonder of handheld gaming wouldn’t ever claim to understand why goombas and Kirbys were suddenly showing up in their Zelda dungeons.
The Legend of Zelda Link’s Awakening is something humblingly sad. It’s a more soulful story, in it’s feelings, like a Majora’s Mask or Breath of the Wild. For a while, the off-kilter releases of the franchise would always go for something dark, grounding itself in a story that doesn’t necessarily end happily, or at least comes at great cost. What I always loved about Link’s Awakening was that it didn’t feel sad. The moment you see the end of your journey, you’re not just sad, you’re almost amazed. Seeing all your dreams change right in front of you by the end of it, it just felt like what needed to happen.
Link’s Awakening’s 2019 iteration is an almost perfect recreation of Link’s Awakening DX for the GameBoy Color, and loses none of that feeling; that justification in your adventure by the end that the world must move on. But me as a 26-year-old man playing it, I think I’ve gained a lot from this trip this time around.
One of those little things you don’t pick up on as a kid is Marin slowly falling in love with Link as the game goes on. Sure, this should be obvious. You go on an adorable beach date with her, you save her from monsters on multiple occasions, and she teaches you her favorite song, singing it for you every time you come to her. You almost want to see what it’d be like if you chose to settle down, stay on this island, and protect these people from the nightmares forever—a seemingly endless dream. But dungeon six must be followed by dungeon seven, and eventually, the Wind Fish’s egg must be broken.
Revisiting Link’s Awakening is almost like reliving a dream: it brings a certain level of clarity to the experience. Whether it’s a first visit to the remake or going through the GBA classic again, knowing how the story ends up lays everything out ahead of you with far more weight. The time you spend in Koholint takes on a different meaning. Each character stands out as something I think most people can connect with. I see a lot of me in Marin, falling for the exciting thing from outside your sphere, and loving that even if it seems like a dream.
But who doesn’t see a little of their own quirks in the Alligator Man who collects different kinds of canned food? Or the Prince, kicked from his castle who wants to go on a swashbuckling adventure to get it back? Or Madam MeowMeow, who couldn’t own any more Chain Chomps but keeps adopting them because she just can’t stop.
Each character in Link’s Awakening’s little town has some gleaming sense of a dream. Both in the abstraction of who they are, be they talking alligators or fish, but also in the sense of character. They reach into themselves and find something to love, vehemently holding onto that and committing to it, not through unwieldy dialogue or awkward cutscenes, but simply by loving their thing as hard as they can. Knowing the Twin Peaks influence on Koholint’s inhabitants, I think Zelda’s charming style conveys far more earnest characters, these little sprites that just love loving things.
Where this feeling conflates into something more complicated is seeing this beautiful and jolly little family of islanders chase their bliss all while knowing how this ends. At the end of Link’s Awakening, you can’t help but feel delight because all these characters along the way just lived such wonderful lives that gave a little bit of that light back on you, and then they’re all gone. Why?
I think when I first finished the game as a more discerning adult, that was the burning question in me. What shouldn’t be missed in that question is the truth that Koholint’s moments of charm tie you in and build stronger bonds to these simple characters than most adventures of any comparable size. Link’s Awakening is special. Those specific quirks are what make these characters relatable, and the fact that each possessed a dream of their own, true to their happiest bliss, is what makes them all the more real. So when they all cease to be, the exact feeling you get is seeing all those dreams die right in front of you.
Then Link wakes up and we’re left with the fading images and thoughts of “How the hell is he going to get out of the middle of the ocean?” We don’t see that part. Just like we never see the waking up and going through the motions of everyday life, and the only parts of the stories are what comes in between. In this metaphor, those are the dreams themselves.
That same lingering feeling, the thoughts of what’s next, I don’t think relate to us really wanting to know what happens next, but rather some excuse for us to fester in those memories and linger in the land of dreams a little longer. All these revelations poured over me when I finished Link’s Awakening all these years later because when I was a kid, I was in the dream, and now, I’ve woken up. It’s not a bad feeling though, because what makes Link’s Awakening carry a happy final note with us is knowing that we all have those things we love and wear on our sleeves, just like every member of Koholint. Those little lingering feelings are okay, just like dreaming.