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‘Link’s Awakening’ Dungeon by Dungeon: Eagle’s Tower

After the longest Direct drought in history, Nintendo dropped a stunning showcase of upcoming 2019 titles on February 13. But none could measure up to the left-field dream game announcement of a “reimagined” Link’s Awakening. And how timely that such an announcement would drop exactly halfway through this very Link’s Awakening analysis series, where I analyze The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening dungeon-by-dungeon! As I have The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, each entry in this series focuses on a particular dungeon, delving into the intricacies of various aspects of design. Because it adds color and an additional optional dungeon, I will be looking specifically at the 1998 re-release The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX. In this entry, I will be examining Link’s Awakening’s seventh dungeon, Eagle’s Tower.

Eagle's Tower Link's Awakening Zelda

The path to Eagle’s Tower is theoretically straightforward. Link heads to Mabe Village to push aside the bird statue, where he discovers a dead rooster he resurrects through song. From there, he treks through Tal Tal Mountains, Flying Rooster in tow, to discover the Bird Key and eventually the entrance to Eagle’s Tower. The problem is that Tal Tal Heights actually has a confusing layout with many branching paths, including some that lead to unexpected locations, such the bottom of the mountain. This makes discovering the key and the dungeon more about trial-and-error than conscientious decision-making. In turn, progress toward the dungeon feels determined more by fate than meaningful choice. Unfortunately, the game’s navigational woes don’t end there…

Eagle's Tower

LEVEL DESIGN

Indeed, Eagle’s Tower is as crammed full of ways to get lost as it is novel ideas. A four-floor Rube Goldberg machine of trial-by-fire pathfinding, Link has to work his way through three major navigational hurdles: how to move from floor to floor, how to move when certain paths are inaccessible because of blocks that raise or lower when Link hits a switch, and moving while holding an iron ball that is used to destroy pillars which eventually results in the collapse of the third floor onto the second. On its own, none of these obstacles are particularly tough, but together they can be the cause of an infuriating amount of backtracking. While hopping down floors and figuring out how to get the iron ball from place to place both feel unique and thematically appropriate, the switch-dependent blocks are a needless irritation that makes navigation here the most frustrating part of the entire game. Furthermore, the iron ball and falling mechanics are only relevant on the second floor, while the switches impact the layout of every floor in confusing and circuitous ways.

Eagle's Tower

Meanwhile, the dungeon’s puzzles are also subpar, with many lacking in imagination or feeling outright imbalanced. For example, after defeating the mini-boss, Link accesses a room with a switch and two movable blocks, one of which is orbited by a Spark. Solving this mandatory puzzle requires Link push the two blocks in a particular direction, a fairly common puzzle type seen throughout the game. Yet Link is given no hint as to which direction to push the blocks, not from an owl statue, nor the layout of another room, nor markings on the floor. Instead, Link must guess which direction to push each block, likely getting damaged by the Spark with each attempt. Since there are a total of sixteen combinations Link can push these blocks, and this puzzle occurs right after the mini-boss, Link can lose a life trying to figure out the seemingly random order in which to push these blocks. It’s a totally nonsensical inclusion that only detracts from the overarching experience, but it also acts as a metaphor for the randomness with which many players probably stumble through the entire dungeon. Here, progress is made by hitting switches, bombing walls, and falling down holes until eventually discovering some combination of things that carves a path forward. None of this is even slightly fun, nor is it deft design or fair difficulty — it’s the opposite of all those things. Moreover, almost every room in the entire dungeon contains something irksome like this, whether a frustrating puzzle, or seemingly random navigation, or sloppily placed enemies. But the rotten cherry on top is that many players will have to go through these same rooms dozens of times. In terms of sheer level design, Eagle’s Tower is the game’s most ambitious dungeon but also its worst. It might age well in players’ memories because of its specialized gimmicks, but in practice the dungeon flubs at every turn.

Eagle’s Tower’s themes are quite obviously birds and height. Though it doesn’t feature a bird-like map, its four floors make for the game’s only tall dungeon, and it uses this height to its advantage by asking the player to frequently navigate by falling from one floor to another, understanding how these floors overlap. The dungeon is also full of bird statues, unlocked with the Bird Key, and accessed with Flying Rooster. The dungeon’s final boss is also against an eagle (though it looks more like a vulture), and it takes place at the top of a tower, ending the height-based experience on a fitting topographic and thematic climax.

ITEM

The Mirror Shield makes a return from A Link to the Past, though here it is a relatively useless item that serves little purpose inside and outside the dungeon. Much like the L-2 Power Bracelet in Face Shrine, the Mirror Shield feels like a slightly beefed up shield used to access a couple of areas otherwise artificially gated off, such as the entrance to the game’s final dungeon. Though the Mirror Shield has been implemented in several other Zeldas to great effect, here it acts as little other than an endgame filler item, which is especially disappointing given how enjoyable it can be in to use in both puzzles and combat scenarios built with it in mind.Eagle's Tower

ENEMIES

Eagle’s Tower is home to an impressive array of seventeen enemies, though the only new ones are the Anti-Kirby and Rope. Anti-Kirbies are evidently based on Nintendo’s popular Kirby character, as he looks like Kirby and can swallow Link (but what makes him “anti-”?). It’s a fun cameo, but since he’s nearly invincible and rarely uses his swallow ability, he isn’t much fun once the novelty wears off. Meanwhile, Ropes are Zelda’s snakes, which here feel as if they were shoehorned in last-minute so they could be checked off a list. They’re incredibly easy to defeat and don’t require any strategy. Despite the wide range of enemies featured in Eagle’s Tower, combat is typically disappointing because it rarely presents a thought-provoking scenario. Instead, it seems as through the designers took a kitchen sink approach, cramming as many enemies into the dungeon as they could, but placing them so haphazardly that they just bombard the player. And having to go through this messy hodgepodge repeatedly, due to the dungeon’s incessant backtracking, can make these sloppy encounters grow aggravating.

Eagle's Tower

Grim Creeper is a strange mini-boss that requires Link to kill six Keese he summons. Upon doing so (likely by just standing in a corner and swiping for a few seconds), Grim Creeper disappears. He is imbalanced to the point of feeling unfinished, but at least he is less frustrating than the quasi-mini-boss Hinox that Link battles in a room full of holes. Grim Creeper shows up again in the boss battle against Evil Eagle, which is actually superb. Although he can easily push Link off the edge of the tower, forcing Link to start over, it is far less frustrating than any of the myriad other opportunities where Link can fall throughout the dungeon. And Evil Eagle’s diverse array of attacks is perfectly balanced with his agility and unpredictability to make for one of the deepest, most strategic, and most engaging fights in the entire game.

CONCLUSION

No buts about it — Eagle’s Tower is the most memorable and inventive dungeon in Link’s Awakening. Conceptually and thematically, it so thoroughly integrates height into its layout and gameplay that it remains an impressive design feat in several regards, especially considering the strict hardware limitations of the original Game Boy. So it is for somewhat good reason much of the Zelda community holds Eagle’s Tower in incredibly high regard, with many considering it the greatest dungeon in Link’s Awakening. But conceptual genius, innovation, and uniqueness don’t necessarily make for great game design, and unfortunately Eagle’s Tower is held back by numerous practicalities. It is torturous to navigate, the manner in which its puzzles are tied to said navigation is often tedious, its enemy placement is haphazard, and its mini-boss and item are nearly nonexistent. For these reasons, Eagle’s Tower is not so much a great dungeon as it is the promise of a great dungeon, better remembered than replayed. And after playing through it multiple times in the past few weeks, I would go so far as to say it is among most overrated dungeons in any Zelda game. But with some minor changes, which may be coming in the Switch version, it could be among the best.

For deep dives into other levels from Link’s Awakening, as well as levels from other classic Nintendo games such as Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, click here.

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