Link's Awakening and the Saga of Bizarre Zelda Sequels
Exploring the history of strange Zelda titles through Link's Awakening
For the past couple of days, I’ve started replaying last year’s Nintendo Switch remake of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. It’s only one of three 2D Zelda games I’ve fully beaten, and it’s been roughly a year since it released, so I thought I would revisit it. I love the hazy wash over every environment, the clay-like textures of the characters, and the memorable, revitalized soundtrack. But there are so many components of this game that were compelling back in 1993, way before I had discovered it (and before I was even born).
Link’s Awakening takes place soon after the ending of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, meaning that it follows the narrative of the same protagonist. A Link to the Past is fairly straightforward. Link awakes in his house to receive news that the Kingdom of Hyrule is under siege by the nefarious Agahnim, who works alongside the staple villain Ganon to (you guessed it) rule Hyrule. It’s interwoven with the damsel-in-distress trope in the form of Princess Zelda’s capture. Its plot-line is predictable in every sense of the word. It’s still a fantastic game 29 years later, but it’s not exactly seeking innovation through its storytelling.
The game’s sequel, unlike its predecessor, takes a cliche and breathes new life into it. This is a spoiler for a 27-year-old game (and it’s honestly fairly clear during your play-through), but the entirety of Link’s Awakening’s is a dream. What differentiates this game though is how it conveys its dream-like ambiance and its truly bizarre world. In the Switch version, every place Link visits fades at the seams, creating a cloudy effect in each location. In all versions, creatures from the Super Mario universe inhabit its villages, including Chain Chomps, Goombas, and a Yoshi toy, and even Kirby makes a cameo as an enemy in a late-game dungeon.
The world of The Legend of Zelda series is rooted in the fantastical, but Link’s Awakening intensifies it. After crashing onto a beach in a tumultuous storm, Link discovers that he is on Koholint Island, a place where every villager is unaware of “the outside,” the place Link is trying to reach over the course of his adventure. He’s told that the mythical Wind Fish sleeps in a purple-spotted egg atop the island’s mountain, and that the only way the Wind Fish can wake up is if Link collects the eight instruments from the eight dungeons and performs “The Ballad of the Wind Fish.” Everything in this game feels fictitious, and intentionally so.
When he awakes the Wind Fish, Link can return home, but all of Koholint Island will disappear in the process. That means Marin, Link’s companion, will fade into nonexistence, alongside everyone else on the island. Nearly every boss Link fights, particularly toward the end, warns Link of his impetuous actions. If he acquires these instruments to wake the Wind Fish, everyone will die. Because of this, Koholint is ephemeral, and it’s Link who is ultimately responsible for that. It makes the player wonder if they’re really “the good guy,” and it’s a thoughtful exploration of morality through the lens of the player’s actions. Maybe Link doesn’t want to eliminate Koholint and everyone on it, but he has to get home.
Essentially, Link’s Awakening is a bizarre game, and, more specifically, it’s a bizarre sequel. The pure strangeness in the Zelda series isn’t exclusive to this game, either. After the original Zelda released, Nintendo made Zelda II, which is much more of an absurdly unfair platformer than it is a bona fide adventure game. But perhaps a much better example is The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, which released on the immensely impactful Nintendo 64 in 2000.
When Nintendo’s developers finished work on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, they were met with unprecedented success. This was the first Zelda game in the third dimension, and it’s still regarded as one of the greatest games ever made. Prior to the release of Breath of the Wild, Ocarina of Time was frequently considered the blueprint for all 3D Zelda titles. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of the series, wanted his team to make a sequel to 1998’s Ocarina of Time, but he gave them a notoriously unethical timeframe. He wanted it to come out in the next year.
Faced with their impending deadline, one developer had recurring nightmares about finishing the game on time. Using this as inspiration, Majora’s Mask follows Link after the events of Ocarina of Time, when the Skull Kid from that game, wearing the titular Majora’s Mask, accosts Link in an unnamed forest. This encounter leads Link to fall off of a cliff, down a black hole, into the eerie, strange land of Termina, but as a Deku, not as a human.
In Termina, a monstrous, angry moon hovers in the sky. In the central hub of Clock Town, residents tell Link that the moon will fall in three days. After retrieving his ocarina from the possessed Skull Kid, he uses it to travel back in time before the moon causes total destruction. Throughout his adventure, he meets many of the same characters he met during Ocarina of Time, but with completely different names and dispositions. To eradicate the threatening moon, Link also needs to use the power of masks, each of which represents someone who has died. He re-experiences their pain and horrifically screams when he equips one. The whole thing is honestly nightmare fuel.
Similar to Link’s Awakening, this also cultivates a dream-like, fantastical atmosphere. Majora’s Mask is unequivocally the darkest, strangest, and most depressing Zelda game yet. Death and sorrow run amok here, to say the least, and it’s even stranger when you think about the fact that this was a game marketed to children and received an E rating from ESRB.
For Breath of the Wild 2’s announcement trailer at E3 2019, Link and Zelda trek through a shadowy cave while a reversed choir soundtracks the video. They come at a dead end to find Ganon, whose neck cracks, jaw drops, and eyes alight, and the camera shifts to a landscape view of Hyrule, where the kingdom’s castle inexplicably rises into the sky. Very weird, I know. Who knows? Maybe Nintendo will resurrect the scrapped aliens idea for this game.
But this is what I’m excited about. Zelda games invariably stick to a predictable narrative with excellent gameplay for the “first” games (A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, Breath of the Wild) and then throw it all out the window and get weird with the sequels (Link’s Awakening, Majora’s Mask, Breath of the Wild 2). I absolutely love every bit of it.
We haven’t received any news of Breath of the Wild 2 since June 2019, but I’m eager to see what this game becomes. This could be the spiritual successor that aligns itself with the saga of bizarre Zelda sequels. It’s been a while since Nintendo has done this, the most recent being Majora’s Mask, and with fans clamoring for another weird Zelda game, it’s about time.