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.