Warning – Spoilers for Link’s Awakening DX appear in this blog post!
Recently I completed The Legend of Zelda – Link’s Awakening DX for the first time, becoming the 5th Zelda game I have beaten, after Minish Cap, Phantom Hourglass, Ocarina of Time 3D, and Majora’s Mask 3D. Despite this being the internet era, I had somehow managed to avoid the major spoilers behind this title, and it has quickly become my second favorite Zelda title after Majora’s Mask (mainly hampered by the Gameboy’s two face button scheme which made item switching too tedious). I was amazed at what Nintendo managed to programme into a console as weak as the Gameboy, and every tile seemed to have some purpose behind it. It got me considering as to why I liked these two particular titles apart from the rest.
First of all, there were the different premises for these two games. These two games are quite unique in that they are two full Zelda games which have little to do with the Princess, or the Triforce, or other Zelda lore which tie the games to the main series. They are essentially outliers in theme, if not in who they feature (both Links have had previous adventures, with one traveling across a Light and Dark world, and the other having travelled across time itself). Yet for what are sequels to other games, both these games fling their respective protagonists to what is essentially a world cut off from their previous one, being Termina and Koholint Island respectively.
Perhaps there is also some difference in tone that set them apart from the others. Majora’s Mask is known for having a dark tone that reflects its dying world, which wouldn’t be revisited in some aspect until the recently released Breath of the Wild. In fact, one thing that adds to this tone is the reusing of NPC character models from its predecessor, Ocarina of Time. The dialogue and stories of the NPCs in Termina are a distortion of their stories in Hyrule, giving off the sense that there’s something wrong with Termina in general. Creepy NPCs like the Happy Mask Salesman, and the Skull Kid in the Lost Woods are played up as major characters in Majora’s Mask, so it seems that this effect and difference in tone is quite a deliberate choice by the developers.
Meanwhile, there is nary but a namedrop of Zelda for the other Link’s adventures on Koholint Island. The tone seems comparatively more lighthearted than A Link to the Past, as questing to save two different worlds is replaced with a primary objective of finding a way off the island (that just happens to require dungeon crawling). However there are still some things that don’t feel quite right with this island – such as the appearance of enemies and characters from other Nintendo games. Mario, Kirby, SimCity and Frog for Whom the Bell Tolls are all referenced here. Meanwhile, Link encounters bosses who can speak and grow increasingly desperate to stop him as there is a secret behind the island – setting up an ominous tone as well. Halfway through the game, it is revealed that Koholint is but a figment of the Wind Fish’s dream, and by waking up the Wind Fish (the only way off the island), the island and everything on it will disappear from ‘reality’.
From this revelation onwards, there is a tinge of sadness to every step of progress, and every line of dialogue from other characters such as Marin, the sweet girl who finds Link unconscious at the start of the game. As the game progresses, some dialogue hint at the fact that Marin and some other NPCs on the island are realizing what they are… Sadly, with the game being a top-down Zelda with a linear line of progression and being on the Gameboy to boot, there’s no other option than to press onwards. Link, being the expressionless player insert that he was up until arguably Wind Waker, cannot express any particular feelings of his own on the matter. Despite this downer, Link’s Awakening DX not only pulls off the plot well but supplements this with excellent dialogue and memorable quotes, which help create a ‘dream-like’ yet uncertain tone that can flunctuate without feeling jarring.
But let’s not forget to factor in one of the key things that make the games what they are – the tight but focused world for the player to explore. I was once amazed while watching a speedrun video on Majora’s Mask. The speedrunner was at the Observatory, using the telescope, and in that same time not only triggered the main story-needed event but also the flags for certain Heart Pieces to be obtainable. Exploration is fun in Majora’s Mask, as while a small field doesn’t allow for an ‘epic’ feeling, it means that you will be finding new things at every corner that help you to power up. The best bits of the Zelda series are condensed into small amount of area, and the small scope also lets all the NPCs be fleshed out through their own Mask events.
Then we have Link’s Awakening DX, where not only are there Heart Pieces to find, but also Secret Seashells, photo snapshots, and lots and lots of rupees to find. Not only does every screen have something relevant or interesting on it, the tight design and size of the world map makes it so that you move from one dungeon to the next quite quickly in comparison with other Zelda titles, keeping up the story pace as well. The feeling of progression by being able to explore more and more areas with the additional items gained in each dungeon is also brought to the forefront thanks to this.
The density of Koholint Island
Considering that in these games less emphasis is put on the traversal of the overworld due to the smaller size of the world, with quick shortcuts even appearing in both games (the Owl Statues in Majora’s Mask and the portals and Mambo’s Mambo in Link’s Awakening) so that no one area is too far away, the focus is then put on the characterization of the NPCs. Majora’s Mask is the Zelda game that locks everything behind NPC sidequests, letting you empathize with their plight to escape the falling Moon in 3 days. There is a ton of resources placed into giving contextual dialogue relating to what day it is, what time it is, the weather, and characters like Kafei or Cremia with backstories and dialogue showing that not everything about Nintendo is kid-friendly. Link’s Awakening has NPCs that comment creepily foreshadowing the nature of the Wind Fish, many Owl Statues that give clues about why monsters are attacking Link, and tons of contextual dialogue even during the small period of time that Marin is following Link that give you a better feel for what she is like. These games feel perfect in terms of the care they give to making players care about the world.
A bonus scene you can get walking in the right place at the right time
In conclusion, sure, there are no epic quests spanning two time periods or two worlds, constituting two different overworlds to explore with tons of dungeons, but Majora’s Mask 3D and Link’s Awakening DX feel much more dear to me because of the limited world which let the developers focus on other aspects of the game such as making you care about the characters. NPCs don’t stand around speaking the same one line, like in Castle Town in Ocarina of Time. Progression also feels quicker without losing the sense of accomplishment, as you still open up new places to go on the world map. These aspects which exist thanks to a smaller world, coupled with the dreamlike atmosphere thanks to where these games take place, are what pushed these two games from ‘great games’ to ‘absolute favorites’ for me.