Review: The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (Game Boy)

The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening was released for the Game Boy in 1993 and was the fourth Zelda game released state side. It is also the first portable Zelda game developed. Generally, I'm not a huge fan of RPGs: I don't like level grinding, random battles, turn-based combat, and 40+ hours of game play. But there is something about the Zelda games that really breaks the RPG mold and captures my attention.

So for the first time since I was a kid, I decided to play through this classic once again. The first thing you notice when you fire up Zelda: Link's Awakening is the graphics. Despite having only 4 colors, Zelda appears to have far far more. The world is brimming with life, both in the environment and the enemy sprites. And most impressive is the illusion of depth. Trees seem to grow towards you and there are hills and terrain changes. It's very true to the graphical style introduced in the Zelda: A Link to the Past (Super Nintendo).

I review Game Boy games on a Super Game Boy so I can enjoy them on a television screen and a proper controller. The DX version of Link's Awakening supports the Super Game Boy for an expanded color palette, as well as the Game Boy Color, for up to 56 simultaneous colors. This review is based of the original Game Boy version. (Playing the DX version on a Game Boy Color offers an additional dungeon.)

If you haven't played a 2D Zelda game before, you are essentially placed in a world where you are free to move about and explore to your hearts content. To progress through the game, you need to find or unlock dungeons. Defeating the bosses in these dungeons furthers the plot and allows you to progress through the game.

The game play is excellent and Link responds as expected with the D-Pad. Despite the limited buttons, everything is laid out in a logical manner. The A and B buttons control your 2 selectable weapons. The Select button brings up the world map, and the Start button brings up the item selection screen. In order to Save & Quit, you need to press A, B, Start, and Select, which is the only awkward control in the game. Unique at the time was the ability to select any 2 items for your A and B buttons, rather than being tied to the sword.

So the game gets the fundamentals correct, good graphics and solid controls. But what makes this game so engaging is how everything slowly reveals itself to you. You start the game without any weapons, just a shield. As you explore, obstacles block your way from seeing everything there is in the world. Eventually you obtain the sword. This unlocks a little more of the world, as you can now cut down bushes.

As the game progresses, and you obtain more items that unlock a little more of the world. Additionally, hidden areas and secrets of locations you have already explored become available. So each time you get a new weapon or item, it pays to explore where you have already been, to see what new secrets are uncovered. Previously impassable rocks can be lifted, and cracked boulders can be destroyed, for example.

The weapon and item play mechanics work the same way in the dungeons as well. Each dungeon will contain a new skill/weapon for Link to use, and is required to complete the dungeon. Skills learned in previous dungeons will also be required to solve the puzzles. The pace of Zelda Link's Awakening is perfect. The game is always giving you just enough to keep you interested and moving.

The story in Zelda: Link's Awakening isn't bad considering this is a Game Boy game. Link awakens in a house on Koholint Island and can't remember how he got there. To leave the island, he needs to collect 8 musical instruments (which are earned after completing a dungeon) to awaken the Wind Fish. A few clues throughout the game give you hints as to what the ending may be, and how Link got on Koholint Island. Overall, the ending is disappointing, and does not push the Zelda story along. With that said, it's still a satisfying experience to complete the game.

The music in Zelda: Link's awakening is classic Zelda. Each area in the world has it's own little tune, the the classic Zelda track dominates a majority of the world. I haven't played Zelda II on the NES or A Link to the Past on the SNES, so I am not sure how much music was inspired by it's predecessors, but what's here is excellent. Much like Super Mario Land 2, I am surprised how many different sounds they were able to get out of the limited hardware. It's really great stuff.

Zelda: Link's Awakening is a terrific title, and worth buying if you didn't play through it back in the 1990's. I play my old Game Boy games on a Super Game Boy so I can play on the television, and it doesn't take long before you forget you are playing a portable game. This game is that good.

Overall, The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening is one of the best Game Boy games you can buy. Even with the Game Boy's limited hardware, the graphics and sound hold up well even today. The excellent game play, charming characters, and moderate difficulty level puts it over the top. Even if you aren't a fan of 8-bit RPG's, most will be won over by Link's Awakening. A must own.

Graphics 8/10 - Excellent use of the limited color palette Sound 7/10 - Catchy tunes Game play 10/10 - Epic Overall 9/10 - Buy a Super Game Boy or Game Boy Advance SP just for this title.

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