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Waking the Wind Fish (now in HD)

A screenshot from the Catfish's Maw dungeon in Link's Awakening. The text "Ssso...you are the outsssider, come to wake the Wind Fisssh..." is visible.

I didn't grow up playing Legend of Zelda games. I was strictly about Mario and Pokemon games. I don't even think I knew Zelda was a Nintendo franchise, as a kid. It seemed so much darker and edgier than the games I was used to playing.

Because of this, it wasn't until 2018 that I actually played a Zelda game. I can't remember what I played first; it was either the original Legend of Zelda, or it was Breath of the Wild, which is funny because that's literally the widest possible range of Zelda games that existed at the time. I didn't really like either of them. The original Legend of Zelda is very obtuse and difficult. You basically have to look stuff up in order to know where to go, and the difficulty is very punishing. Breath of the Wild has a similar directionless feeling, and I really couldn't stand the fact that weapons would break on you. They're both excellent, critically acclaimed games; they're just not for me, per se.

The next Zelda games I tried playing are probably not ones most people would automatically think of: Oracle of Ages, and Oracle of Seasons. They're a paired set of games for the Gameboy Color, intended to be completed in either order, and playing one gives you a password for the other game that allows it to act as a sort of continuation of the other. Playing both games gives you access to the true final boss, and ties the story together. I'd read online that Ages focuses on puzzles while Seasons focuses on battles, so I decided to play Ages first, as I like puzzles more. And I loved it.

I'm not sure what exactly about Oracle of Ages is so good to me. It's delightfully retro, with simple but expressive graphics, giving me nostalgia for a time that I didn't actually participate in (perhaps it reminds me of the similar graphic style from generation 2 of Pokemon?). Just like the original Legend of Zelda, the world is made up of single screens that you switch between by going off the edge, which really focuses the experience to a room-by-room puzzle. The map was interesting to traverse, there were fun secrets hidden everywhere, and the fighting was much less annoying to me than in Breath of the Wild.

Oracle of Ages was an instant classic for me. I played Oracle of Seasons immediately after, and the focus shift onto battling didn't bother me at all. If anything, it provided an even more interesting experience, because after spending so much time in Labyrnna, Holodrum seemed like a bizarro world where everything was familiar and yet not. It had taken me a while, but I was hooked on Zelda. Even though I've played more entries in the franchise by now, the Oracle games remain my favourite.

Now, why am I going into so much detail about the Oracle games, when the post title clearly mentions Link's Awakening? I'm getting there. In 2019, Nintendo released a remake of Link's Awakening for the Nintendo Switch, featuring updated graphics and an enhanced engine. I hadn't played the original Link's Awakening at this point, but I was intrigued by the trailer. It gave me a similar vibe to the Oracle games -- something I later learned is because the Oracle games were actually built on the original Link's Awakening game engine. And guess what! I loved it!

Now, the Switch remake is cool and all, but wouldn't it be really cool if there was a remake for the PC? And, like, don't get me wrong, I like the Switch version's graphics quite a bit, but I love the original art style so much. I'd love to see that again, in a game with an updated user experience. That'd just be delightful, wouldn't it?

...

Anyway, someone (or many someones) released a free PC game that is an entire from-scratch reimplementation of Link's Awakening and it SLAPS.

This is really such a cool project. The most noticeable thing about it is that instead of being restricted to seeing one screen at a time like in the original game, you can see a bunch of the map around you, and those adjacent screens are actually ticking. Enemies will move around even if you aren't in the room with them. It makes the world feel simultaneously bigger and smaller, both in incredible ways. It seems less daunting to get somewhere, without having to wait for all of the screen transitions, but at the same time you can stand in the middle of a field that used to be 4 screens wide and 3 screens tall and you can appreciate for the first time how big it really is.

There's a lot else to love too. You can bind items to four buttons, as opposed to the two that the original game gives you. Particle effects like cut up leaves have drop shadows on them; really, everything does. The second boss (the genie in the bottle) looks so cool flying around with the drop shadow. And light sources actually glow. Stepping into a cave gives off such a dark, moody atmosphere.

A cave in the Mysterious Forest. Notice how gloomy the whole place feels, contrasted with the warm glow coming in from the exit. The crystals in the bottom right also glow. As a side note, I also just love this little cave because you're required to go through it early in the game, before you have the Power Bracelet, meaning that you have to look at the Piece of Heart and go "Huh, that looks cool. Maybe later I can come back and get it."

It's incredible, I love it, I can't recommend it enough, and I'm sorry to say that you can't download it. Because it was cease-and-desisted by Nintendo two days after release. Yeah. I'm sorry. That puts a bit of a damper on this post, but we can move on.

Originally, this post was just going to be about Link's Awakening DX HD, but the more I wrote, the more it started to become a love letter to Link's Awakening in general. There's so much about this game that really works for me. I play it all the time -- more often than I play the Oracle games, but that's probably because Link's Awakening is included in Archipelago. And now that I've got a newer, fancier way to play it, I can think more on why it makes me feel the way it does.

If Holodrum seemed like a bizarro version of Labyrnna, then it was nothing compared to how Koholint Island felt. So many familiar environments were remixed and smashed together into a compact space. You'd walk one screen out of town and end up in a mysterious forest, or you'd walk up a staircase and end up high in the mountains. So many regions had weird, almost unnatural ways of reaching them. You could only reach Animal Village by going through a passage hidden under a single cuttable shrub somewhere.

The Signpost Maze. You have to read each sign in order, and the signs direct you to the next one in the sequence. Many people find this tedious, especially as the maze is spread across multiple screens in the original game, and there are enemies littered throughout just to stymie you. I can't help but find this challenge incredibly charming. It's a masterclass in having arbitrary yet manageable puzzle requirements.

Figuring out what you have to do to achieve certain tasks can be complicated, but in my opinion it's much better than, say, A Link to the Past. There's very little in Link's Awakening that feels like guide-bait to me. There isn't a sense that you just have to interact with random things to make progress. Rather, the world feels like a dense puzzle, ready for you to sink your hands in. And every time you get a new power-up, that puzzle unfolds. Rocks would be surrounding a treasure chest in such a way that you had to return to the area from a different direction to access it. And there were random cameos from other Nintendo properties just scattered around, like Shy Guys and Kirbies and a Yoshi doll. It seemed like a distorted dream version of a Zelda game.

Of course, it turns out that's because Link's Awakening takes place almost entirely within a dream. The game immediately begins with Link getting shipwrecked in the middle of the sea, and then waking up on a mysterious island. You later learn that this whole island is a dream conjured by a godlike entity called the Wind Fish. The Wind Fish is asleep, within its own dream, in an egg at the top of the mountain, and the only way to escape the island is to wake it up. But waking it up would also destroy Koholint Island, along with all of its inhabitants, some of whom are blissfully unaware of the nature of their existence, and some of whom are very much not.

I defeated an enemy, which spawned a Piece of Power, and it happened to go flying off the top of the map. This shot here reminds me of the end of the Truman Show, when he has reached the end of the world to find that the sky is just painted on a wall. Koholint Island really is fake, after all. It is just a dream.

The bad guys in Zelda games are often like bad guys in a lot of Nintendo games; they are evil because they're evil. But the villains in Link's Awakening are fascinating to me. They're inhabitants of the island that have become twisted by their knowledge of the dream they reside in, now resembling nightmares themselves. A few of the nightmares wish to rule the dreamscape they live in -- it's said that they torment the Wind Fish by keeping it trapped in its egg -- while others seem more concerned with prolonging their own existence, some even begging you not to wake the Wind Fish. Speaking of which, the Wind Fish will only wake if the eight Instruments of the Sirens are played near its egg, and so the nightmares have distributed the instruments across the island and tasked the strongest among them to protect them from anyone who would try to end the world.

"Okay, listen up! If the Wind Fish wakes up, everything on this island will be gone forever! And I do mean... EVERYTHING!"

This is rather dark, when you think about it. Many of the bad guys haven't really done anything wrong. They just fear their own demise. Even if they cause harm in the process, it's more ambiguous than in most Nintendo games whether the nightmares truly deserve to be destroyed. And setting the villains aside -- Link makes friends on the island. There's a couple of whole villages of entirely innocent people. There's even a girl who seems to have a crush on him. They'll all die if he wakes the Wind Fish. And yet, remember how the game started. Link gets lost in a storm and goes overboard before losing consciousness and ending up on the island. It's never stated how this occurs, but it's implied that in the real world, Link is still submerged in water while his consciousness is in the Wind Fish's dream, and that if he doesn't get out soon, he will drown.

What matters more: an entire island full of imagined people -- imagined, yes, but people all the same, with lives, personalities, some good, some evil, some of whom are children -- or, a single elf boy from the real world? The Wind Fish tells you upon waking that dreams are meant to end, but that's easy for it to say. It's a powerful deity, and its life is not tied to the slumber of something greater than itself.

Link's Awakening has the best story of any Zelda game and I could think about it for hours.

I've also really enjoyed playing the randomizer for Link's Awakening. The fact that it's a Metroidvania makes it feel like it was made for randomization. Getting items out of order opens up weird paths through the world that you likely wouldn't take if you were playing the game normally. Sometimes shortcuts can become mandatory. Sometimes you get bottlenecked into doing something frustratingly difficult. The other day, I had to do a jumping puzzle in Angler's Tunnel without flippers and it was borderline impossible. It's fantastic. Playing a randomizer helps you learn how the world is structured, and what things are next to one another, in a way you might not be totally aware of when playing the game normally.

The Eagle's Tower is one of the more confusing dungeons to traverse. The second floor, shown here, has a large puzzle where you have to carry a metal ball from one room to various other rooms on the floor and knock down load-bearing pillars. With only a single-screen view of the game, understanding the layout of the map and the locations of the pillars can be difficult. Seeing it in full like this pulls it together nicely.

Link's Awakening feels like such an important game to me. The story, the graphics, the twisting world, the fun gameplay, all come together to build something that feels nostalgic to me even though I hadn't played it until I was 25. And even though the HD remake isn't available anymore, it's made me realise that these are all elements I want to put in a game myself. If I love the top-down gameplay, the Metroidvania style progression, the tightly compacted world, and the emotionally complex story, why can't I use those elements too?

Why not indeed.

Hatkirby on February 9th, 2024 at 2:50:20pm
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Comments

Apparently this game has been preserved on archive.org, so I'll be trying it out -- thanks for the recommendation!

darkid on February 24th, 2024 at 9:14:57am
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