When we last left our elven (?) hero, Link was adrift on a small boat in the middle of a torrential storm at sea. A massive bolt of lighting cracked into his vessel, and Link was tossed into the tempestuous ocean. Some time later, Link wakes up in a bed on the island of Koholint. Link has washed ashore in new territory and instead of the usual trope of “outsiders bringing doom to an island paradise,” no one on Koholint seems to mind this newcomer at all. In fact, most of the island’s inhabitants are glad to have someone new to talk to, as many of them did not think there was anything beyond their tropical home (save for an omnipotent being who might need tips from villagers on how to play the game).
So at this point, we have Link, who provides the player with some sort of comfort in this Zelda-less, Gannon-less world. The classic top-down view is still present, and thankfully, Link finds his sword within the first ten minutes of the game (as it is dangerous to go alone, so he should take it). A mysterious owl appears and tells Link in order to return to Hyrule, he must travel to various dungeons, collect mystical items, and awaken the Wind Fish. And sure enough, Link is thrust into the first dungeon as soon as you can find a mushroom in some mysterious woods and get a witch to grind it into a powder. So far, we are in familiar territory.
But once the player receives his/her first key item in the Tail Cave, everything changes. You see, the first tool Link acquires is not the traditional boomerang (in fact, the boomerang does not appear until the end of the quest, where it is the strongest weapon in the game, but more on that later). The first item our Hylian hero gets is the Roc’s Feather, which allows Link to jump.
I will repeat this for those unfamiliar with the Game Boy Zelda: an item that allows Link to jump. Not run towards a chasm and hope to fumble across, nor face-plant a short cliff wall until Link gets the hint to climb upwards, but an actual item that causes a jump when the player pushes a button. By adding such a simple tool (and an action that Link’s contemporaries have been performing for years), the developers of this game opened up entirely new ways for Link to move (literally). Dungeons could feature puzzles around jumping over chasms, bosses could have barriers/attacks to be vaulted, and gravity’s hold over our epic hero would be broken!
To really get some mileage out of the Roc’s Feather, the developers included side-scrolling sections in each dungeon. While this sort of mechanic was briefly viewed in the original Legend of Zelda, the addition of a jump allowed platforming challenges and stomp-able enemies to be included in this adventure. Yes, those are Goombas, and no, we are not going to talk about that in this post. The fact that enemies from Super Mario Brothers make an appearance in a Zelda title will be covered at another time. Be patient.
Even foes from Link’s previous adventures were no match for his new vaulting prowess. A boss from a previous game, the Giant Moldorm, was normally fought using careful slashes and blocking, so as not to have our hero fall off the edge of a platform, thus restarting the battle. With the blessing of flight (well, jumping), Link can now dodge the worm’s onslaught and jump over his foe to have a clear strike at his (obvious) weak spot. Some people might see the inclusion of a boss from just one game prior as a lazy move for the developers. But with the Roc’s Feather in tow, players could discover new means to defeat an old enemy, which provides a rather satisfying feeling of accomplishment.
It is so strange that a gaming staple like jumping would appear and disappear so quickly from the Legend of Zelda series. The move to 3D in Ocarina of Time allowed Link to be able to dodge from side-to-side, as well as perform an overhead leaping slash, but the actual, “push this button to jump at any time,” was abandoned completely for future adventures. Just imagine what the inclusion of a jump would do to the entire design of the three-dimensional Legends of Zelda. Aerial foes would no longer have to be felled with arrows or Deku Seeds. New areas featuring platforming challenges could be included. Link’s usual move list could feature new jumping strikes and the downward-thrust could finally make an appearance outside of Zelda II (or Smash Brothers). The game series that we know and love could have drastic changes in gameplay and style, as opposed to just setting Link on a giant bird and letting him slowly float around in a boring, sparsely populated sky world (That’s right, I’m still bitter).
Allowing the player to leave the bounds of terra firma was not the only innovation brought by Link’s Awakening. Join us next time as we take a look at the interesting inhabitants of Koholint Island, and the many errands they would push upon the player.