Reflection: Link’s Awakening and The End of A Dream

There’s something about the imagery of scaling a mountain to its very highest peak to confront your dreams, nightmares, or to smite your enemies that has resounded with mankind for ages. The metaphor of rising from the bottom, overcoming all trials, mastering yourself, and ascending to your full potential that is embodied by the mountain climbing theme is as relevant to the hero as it is to the everyday man or woman working through life’s trials. You see it in popular media in everything from Journey to God of War III to The Lord of the Rings. But what if by climbing the mountain, you destroy everything you set out to save?

 

Welcome to Koholint Island.

 

I think this metaphor is one of the things that struck me about The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening back when I was a kid. Why? It was because it followed the metaphor right to the end, and then something happened that jerked everything inside out. Link’s Awakening is perhaps my favourite Zelda game of all time, largely because it is so remarkably detached from the rest of the series in terms of story and atmosphere. It always amazes me how people manage to overlook what made this game so special. At its very core is the classic hero’s journey from nothing to everything, but it was the first time in the Zelda series that the characters were actually worth caring about, and the only time I’ve ever wondered: am I really the good guy in all of this?

 

Link’s Awakening: it was different.

To briefly introduce the game, Link’s Awakening was the first in the Zelda series to take place outside of Hyrule. According to Nintendo, the adventure unfolds after Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons in the series canon, and Link is said to be on a quest to prepare for future threats. At the time of its original release, Link’s Awakening was the direct follow-up to A Link to the Past, so I’ll always consider it under that light. During a voyage across the ocean, Link’s boat capsizes during a storm and he washes up on what appears to be a remote island. There is something unusual about this island, though. Characters reminiscent of people from Link’s past are everywhere to be seen, the Ultimate Sword he eventually uncovers is strikingly similar to the Master Sword, and the island’s guardian is a mysterious creature lost in dreams atop the Tal Tal Mountain range. Koholint Island is strange but oddly familiar.

 

Link is rescued on the beach by a girl named Marin who takes him into her home and quickly becomes his closest friend. Link later wanders down to the seashore to look for his sword and is told by a mysterious owl that he must awaken the guardian Wind Fish in order to leave Koholint island, or he will never escape. He sets out to do so. It was a pretty unusual story for a Zelda game at the time, and stands up as rather unusual to this day.

Marin: a girl who wants to see the outside world.

She rescues Link, and they become very close.

 

After being instructed as to what you must do, you climb to the top of Tal Tal Mountain only to discover that you can’t break into the Wind Fish’s egg and awaken him from his dream just yet. In order to meet with the Wind Fish, you need to be able to summon the power of the eight siren instruments and play ‘The Ballad of the Wind Fish’ from atop the mountain. Only then can you begin to unravel the question of how to return home. And so you are left to travel back down the mountain, journey across Koholint to find the legendary siren instruments, and become stronger than ever before. Only a true hero will have a chance to enter the egg, you realize. Being a true hero in Link’s Awakening involves not just collecting magical artifacts and weapons, but assisting the locals with all sorts of dilemmas and participating in the series’ very first trading sequence. Throughout this adventure you will indeed help many people (and animals), grow attached to a few, and perhaps foster deeper feelings for one.

Romance hasn’t often played a serious part in Link’s adventures as a hero, but Link’s Awakening was a little different. There are so many nods to what may be happening between Link and Marin over the course of the game that it’s impossible not to acknowledge that there was more to this relationship than merely friendship. One example is in the text hinting that Link hopes something will happen between him and Marin when he is carrying her to awaken the Walrus in Animal Village. Another is in the special moment they share together on the cliffs, wherein she tells Link that the spot should be their secret place. Another occurs when they sit together on the beach to watch the sun glimmering on the water. Marin tells Link that she wants to know everything about him, and later in the game she’s about to confess something to him but is interrupted by her father. The moments of human connection between Link and Marin, as well as other characters, were numerous, unusually cinematic for the series, and made me grow even fonder of Koholint as a potential setting for future Zelda games. But as wonderful as these simple-but-charming character relationships were, the narrative would always shift back to its focus: the quest to awaken the Wind Fish.

 

After a long and immensely rewarding journey, I vividly remember acquiring the final siren instrument and returning to climb Tal Tal Mountain one last time. I was practically giddy as I smashed through obstacles, leapt across pits, and fought off hoards of enemies. And then I was there, standing outside the egg. The siren instruments rose into the air, began circling me, and one of the most memorable songs I’ve ever heard in a video game rang out over the mountains. The egg broke open and I climbed inside to battle the Wind Fish’s nightmares and wake him from his dreams.

 

I struggled to destroy all the Shadow Nightmares until at last I slew the final Nightmare, Dethl, and awaited a twist that I did not expect. I’d overcome the toughest trials, climbed the mountain, and woken the Wind Fish as I’d set out to do. But for what? The mysterious owl who had guided me this far appeared for one last eccentric chat, and then a staircase rose into the black, starry sky. At the top, the Wind Fish spoke to me about his dream, and requested that I play his song once more…

 

 

And I did.

 

But to my shock, something unexpected happened. As the melancholic Ballad of the Wind Fish echoed out across the island, all the places I’d been to and the people and animals I’d made friends with on Koholint gradually faded away until there was nothing left of them. I later woke up amidst the ocean waves, clinging to a piece of driftwood with nothing in sight but blue on blue. The Wind Fish flew over above me, slowly disappearing into the clouds. What happened? I didn’t feel that I’d simply put an end to a dream, but that I’d put an end to the lives of everyone on the island, and whether they were a dream or not didn’t matter.

 

I was deeply touched by this ending — this awakening. It was so bittersweet that I could never get it out of my head. I always wanted to return to Koholint Island, but I couldn’t. I’ve never experienced this emotion in a video game since. I had climbed the hero’s mountain to save everyone I cared about…

 

 

 

But they were all a dream. And I destroyed that dream myself.

21 thoughts on “Reflection: Link’s Awakening and The End of A Dream”

  1. Excellent retrospective Charles. I remember the very first time I played LA, it was the day it came out. I had my enormous original GB and was just blown away. I couldn’t understand how this game looked and played so much better than the NES, which was way more powerful than the little GB.

    I am of the belief that A Link to the Past is the greatest game out there, or one of the top three for sure. Being that this was the direct sequel to ALttP, regardless of what books or Nintendo say, it had a huge impact on me as well. I adored everything about ALttP, and seeing Link go out on another adventure was just amazing. Then to see all the oddities introduced in LA was fantastic. It felt like a continuation, but something unique and special at the same time. It was also the first Zelda to introduce so many musical references, which have been followed all the way until Skyward Sword.

    When I finally beat the game, it was extremely sad to see everyone disappear and I’ve always wondered if we could see these characters again in another game, because they were so fresh and original.

    Really great work Charles, I truly enjoyed that :)

  2. Nicely written. I’ve come to understand Link’s Awakening motif in the plot later in my life. I played it when I was so young, fresh right after A Link to the Past. and that’s the original Game Boy version without those nice colors and cut-scenes. I didn’t actually play the color version until I dabbled with it with the 3DS VC release. I remember the plot really confusing me…didn’t exactly know what was going on even in the end sequence. At one point, I remember actually thinking that the Owl was actually The Wind Fish in disguise or something like that. So while I do have a lot of sentimental and nostalgic values in the gameplay department, I didn’t give the plot much credit until I got older. I’m still not quite sold on the ambiguity of it, but I can’t deny how creative it got. People still analyze it to this very day, as your article suggests.

    It holds up well today, I’ll give it that…but as a whole it’s never been one of my top Zelda games. I actually feel that the Oracles really took it to the extreme and were quite meaty compared to LA.

    An interesting tidbit: Phantom Hourglass’ ending sort of pays tribute to Link’s Awakening when it comes to motif. It’s not quite as philosophical, but it was nice to see it pay homage at least.

  3. I’m glad you enjoyed the article, Jarrod. Link’s Awakening is one of those games that left a huge mark on me, and it did it without a comprehensive story, dialogue trees, or voice acting. For me it has that “x factor” going on for it that will always keep it burning bright in mind. As you can tell from my recollection here, it was the first time a video game made me question the morality of the protagonists. The Nightmares may be evil, but they are very much self-aware and warn you that you will destroy everything. It’s not them who cast Koholint into oblivion; it’s you.

    I think I told you this a long time ago but my favourite three Zelda games are Link’s Awakening, Majora’s Mask, and Wind Waker. Yes it’s tough to make this kind of call because I love OoT and ALttP to bits, but my three picks are the ones I always keep thinking about. They were all sort of like black sheep in the series in one way or another but I honestly found them the most powerful from both a storytelling and gameplay perspective. I sense future Reflection articles. ;)

    1. For me, nothing will ever beat A Link to the Past. I just loved the idea of traveling to another world, and how your actions affected the other world, etc. That was just the coolest thing ever, and how all these descendants of the sages were now locked up, etc. Just everything about that game came together in such a way that it has stuck with me all these years. I recently replayed the game while on Xbox Live with Steven and we did a crazy session where we beat the game in two sittings I think it was. I remember that game more so than almost anything else lol. Just loved it.

      Link’s Awakening is another one that holds a special place as I said, but nothing will ever compare to ALttP, not in terms of how it impacted me, etc. It’s why I have a Triforce tattoo, or at least a big part of what it represents.

      1. Same here, man. ALttP holds the distinction of being the most game I’ve played and completed multiple times. I’m also one of those people which remembers almost every single detail it provided to this very day, even some of the game’s locales are fresh in my head. Really should bust out the VC version and play through it once more for old times’ sake.

        1. Steven has a funny story about how we played the game. When we first started I had asked him how he wanted to play and he was lost. I was referring to the order, because I like to extend the game as long as possible to I sequence break constantly, almost to the point where I don’t even know the regular order anymore lol. There’s never been another game like ALttP for me.

  4. Thanks, Ahmed. Like I said in my reply to Jarrod, it simply has an x factor separates it from other games for me, whether it was because of the timing, situation I played in, or whatever. I agree that the Oracles games were a lot more meaty and an improvemnt in terms of gameplay but they just didn’t draw me in in the same way that Link’s Awakening did. The Mysterious Forest, Ulrira, Richard’s Villa, the quest for the secret seashells, and the introduction of one of my favourite game mechanics to the series (trading sequences!) — just a few of the things that hold great memories for me.

    I like how you thought the owl may have been the Wind Fish in disguise, it kind of makes sense, really — that the owl could simply be an extension of he Wind Fish. No matter what you think, the mysterious owl motif lingered on into the N64 era and I was quite pleased about that.

    I still haven’t played Skyward Sword. Looking forward to seeing what it offers as Twilight Princess came off as more of the same to me. I think Wind Waker is where the formula introduced in Ocarina of Time reached its pinnacle to be honest. We’ll see if SS can revitalize the series in my eyes.

    1. Yeah I like the owl as a recurrent character in the series, too. But now when I think about it, Link’s Awakening portrays him best. In Ocarina of Time was a bit too chatty.

      I think you’re really going to like Skyward Sword. It’s a strong package all together. Gameplay is it’s biggest ovation…and even though the plot wasn’t quite as gripping as I expected and I didn’t enjoy the fruity antagonist, it does manage to pull off some nice touching moments and twists towards the end, but you’ll have to be patient as it starts off slow-paced. There is a lot of charm to be found with the NPCs and side-characters though as you’re involved with them through sidequests, similar to Majora’s Mask. The locals are awesome though.

      I have to agree that The Wind Waker is definitely pinnacle of 3D Zelda games. It’s the point where it surprised us a lot with every single element despite using Ocarina of Time’s assets. In terms of narrative, I find The Wind Waker to be the best in the series. Jerked my emotions a lot.

  5. The problem with Wind Waker for me is just how bloody easy the game was. I didn’t like that part. It’s like they made sure that you would never die in that game. I really really enjoyed the skull stabbing scene at the end however. Was so surprised to see Nintendo do something like this….

    1. Gotta agree. The Wind Waker was indeed a very easy game. Fun, yet easy. I even remember not having a hard time with the puzzles compared to Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. Despite that, the whole ending sequence still gives me chills to this very day. Not just the stabbing bit…the narrative took an amazing twist. Ganon’s speech just makes me feel sorry for him even though he’s the antagonist. There are a lot of parts in The Wind Waker which were really well done…including when you enter the drowned Castle of Hyrule for the first time and everything was frozen in place. Pure awesomeness with the pacing right there. See, I remember these bits so well even though I haven’t played through the game in years.

  6. Hey Ahmed, your theory was actually pretty close by the way. The owl himself actually says “”As part of the Wind Fish’s spirit, I am the guardian of his dream world” at one point in the story. So you weren’t off the mark at all back when you were a kid. ;)

  7. Steven, I know what you mean about it being easy in terms of it being literally difficult to die. That never bugged me though as it just allowed me to focus on enjoying exploring the world. I think a lot of the puzzles were still pretty tough but maybe I’m just not good at solving puzzles. :P

    Ahmed, I’m right with you on the ending. It was really something else. It really moved me back when I finished the game. And pulling the Master Sword from its stone and seeing everything spring to life in the sunken Hyrule — that was amazing. I absolutely love exploration and side quests, so naturally Wind Waker is a special one for me. Nothing quite like sailing around discovering mysterious islands full of secrets and encountering other ships (like Skies of Arcadia!). Not to mention the combat was improved over Majora’s Mask. And the visual style… I would have been so happy if they stuck with that for at least one more console release.

  8. Don’t get me wrong, I still really enjoyed Wind Waker. I could be totally mistaken here…. but I think there was a time where the game pulled off music from Zelda II which really made me lose it. Adored that part…. which could be a fragment of my imagination. Just love the music from Zelda II so much.

  9. This is a really cool article! :D I enjoyed Link’s Awakening quite a bit. I didn’t get the game until well after its initial release, so it had to compete with Ocarina of Time for my attention back then–needless to say, Ocarina of Time took my attention much more and has remained in my memory more vividly. I still stuck with Link’s Awakening and completed the game as well, and I was very pleased with the adventure. I agree with you on the feel of the game: it has a different mood and atmosphere than the majority of the Zelda franchise. The nature of the story is much different. It isn’t about a hero on a quest to save a princess or to defeat a monster or to prevent calamity–it’s about waking up from a dream. I love that Nintendo can do so much with the Zelda franchise and take it to so many great places. That’s why we can have experiences like Ocarina of Time be followed up by vastly different ones like Majora’s Mask, even if the graphical assets are the same.

    My personal favorite Zelda game is still A Link to the Past. It was the first one I really fell in love with as a kid and I was able to put all of my attention into it. The game world, the music, the sense of epic adventure was all fantastic. I also loved teh dichotomy between the Light World and the Dark World. Going into the Dark World and seeing the gloomy, rainy weather actually gave my shivers–I think it helped that on the day I played it, it was dark and stormy, so it has been permanently ingrained in my memory, lol.

  10. Thanks Tim, and you’re right, they’ve went all over the place and done some very cool things.

    I also have really great memories of A Link to the Past. My dad bought it for me to cheer me up when I broke my leg and it’s gotta be one of the best pick-me-ups I’ve ever had. That’s cool how ingrained the gloomy weather is in your mind because of the context you played the game in… it’s kind of like how I could never play Pokemon Ruby without thinking of chicken quesadillas due to eating one when I started the game for the first time. But that’s mostly just weird. :)

    1. I remember when you broke your leg, Charles. That was such a long time ago! Of course I didn’t forget, though– heck, I was present when it happened! ;)

  11. Nic! I haven’t seen you in ages. What are you up to lately? Hope you’ve been playing lots of Turok Evolution. :)

    1. Turok Evolution is undoubtedly a masterpiece, far ahead of its time. It will forever be revered. :P

      Well, the past few days I’ve been packing like crazy. I’ve lived over a year and a half in the beautiful State of Maine, but now it’s time to head to Calgary. Tomorrow I’m leaving for Montreal and the day after that I hop on a plane, back to Alberta.

      I feel like there are a million questions I could ask you! I guess for right now I’ll ask, how has your trip to Japan been? And how did it come about?

      An interesting thing in Link’s Awakening is the part just before Turtle Rock, where Marin is stuck on a broken bridge in Tal Tal Heights. You’re supposed to use the Hookshot to rescue her, but you can use the Pegasus Boots and Roc’s Feather to bypass her completely. It’s possible to complete the game with her still stuck on the mountain. Obviously that’s not a very nice thing to do… :) (Alternatively, you can use the Pegasus Boots and Roc’s Feather to jump right to Marin. She then miraculously defies gravity, walking in thin air to safety.)

  12. Will always remember that powerful artifact — the “Turok wang”.

    You were in Maine? =o Sounds awesome. I landed a job in Japan which is pretty great but I’ll be returning to Canada in August. Why don’t you send me a message or some contact info and we can chat?

    I actually never knew about the Pegasus Boots/Roc’s Feather alternative. That’s cool, although it definitely would be pretty rude to purposely leave her there and then destroy her world while she’s still sitting there hungry and wondering why everyone’s fading to white in a weird, pixelated way. :)

  13. Sorry for taking so long; it’s been really hard to find a computer with internet connection lately.

    My email address is:

    colortvgame at gmail.com

    Feel free to send me an email. :)

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