When Link made his first big move to a portable device, players could have easily expected another romp through the fields of Hyrule. Until this point, the Zelda series stayed safely in the medieval tropes of adventure novels and films: mysterious forests, the wide open moors of Middle Ages Europe, and an occasional swamp or desert (just to mix things up). But when our hero washed up on the sandy beaches of Koholint Island, he arrived in quite a different setting. Tropical rain forests, quaint island towns, even a calm bay with a catfish for a dungeon! All of these strange and exciting new locales were populated with equally interesting people.
Instead of the usual wizened old sage or battle-hardened knight, now there were island cuties with hibiscus flowers in their hair and strange old men who would only talk to Link over the phone (and provide hints, no less). The usual humans of Kakariko Village were replaced with a town of animals, which included a crocodile painter and a bear as the mayor (and resident chef). But with the new characters came new responsibilities for our Hylian Hero, as each of the Koholint inhabitants seemed to have some sort of request for Link.
The series of errands begins with a young mother who is desperate for a Yoshi Doll for her newborn baby. All Link has to do is win the doll from a crane game located in the starting village, give it to the mom, and go about his business. But sure enough, the mother gives our hero a ribbon in return, and now the player is left to wonder how a little girl’s ribbon will help him on his quest to awaken the Wind Fish. Several items and encounters later, Link is rewarded with… a boomerang. I am sure when players encountered this final item, they must have been quite disappointed. Link has just spent so much time, trading item after item (fifteen in total), and he is rewarded with an angled piece of wood. What a waste! In the first Legend of Zelda, Link acquired this trinket from the first dungeon, and all it did was temporarily stun enemies. But little did players know that by engaging in this interesting barter sequence, they had just acquired the strongest item in the game.
The boomerang in Link’s Awakening does not simply stun enemies into Moordoor (sorry, couldn’t resist). The boomerang can defeat almost all basic foes in one hit, cut through almost any path in the game, and wipe out the final boss in a single blow! The developers of this title must have found changing the power of the boomerang so hilarious; a fantastic inside joke around the Nintendo hallways. But the greater design contribution comes from the inclusion of a trading sequence. Nearly every Zelda game following Link’s Awakening features some sort of trading plot to bestow an amazing weapon or tool to the player for all their hard bartering. Ocarina of Time had the player trading for an awesome sword, Wind Waker gifted the player with a piece of heart and magic armor, and Majora’s Mask was practically nothing but trading sequences and side-quests. Yet another way that this first trek into portable Zelda gaming set the framework for most future titles.
But for all the ways that Link’s Awakening molded what the world of Zelda would become, the odd and bittersweet story is where this title both shines and stands out from its brethren. Join us next time for a final look at this amazing game: same Link time, same Link channel! Hmm, too much?