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How ‘Link’s Awakening’ Left Tradition Behind

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening marked the first time that the series had strayed away from its established setting of Hyrule. The Legend of Zelda introduced the kingdom; Zelda II proved that it could be more than just a wasteland; and A Link to the Past greatly expanded both Hyrule’s lore and history. With three successful entries under the series’ belt, each one firmly establishing Zelda as a powerhouse franchise in their own ways, it’s only fitting that Nintendo use the series’ fourth installment— the first to not be released on a home console— as an opportunity to leave Hyrule behind. Or at least it seems fitting on a surface level.

In actuality, leaving Hyrule behind, not just so early in the series’ career but in general, is a risky move. After three games, Hyrule had become one of Zelda’s core tenets. A Link to the Past had solidified Link, Zelda, Ganon, the Triforce, and Hyrule as the five defining elements of any given entry in the series. For as radical a departure as Zelda II was in terms of gameplay, it very much harbored the identity of a Zelda game. For a sequel to release and abandon all but one of the series’ defining features was frankly shocking.

This is especially apparent when taking into consideration the context surrounding Link’s Awakening’s release. This was the first entry in the series to abandon Nintendo’s home consoles. It was a proper follow up to A Link to the Past, but it was not being released on the Super Nintendo. Rather, the successor to one of the SNES’ greatest titles would be released on the Game Boy, Nintendo’s handheld system that neither had the power of the SNES or legacy. With the series straying from its home console home, Link’s Awakening could have very easily been a paint by numbers entry that showed fans that The Legend of Zelda could be done on the small screen.

Instead, Link’s Awakening showed audiences that The Legend of Zelda could innovate independent of whatever system it was on. The Game Boy was noticeably weaker than the SNES, but good game design transcends technical limitations. More importantly, the risk Link’s Awakening took in leaving so much of what makes Zelda the series it is behind ensured that the franchise would never need to lock itself in familiarity to maintain its quality.

Link’s Awakening on a purely conceptual level was a bold risk on Nintendo’s part. Princess Zelda is mentioned once in an offhand comment; Ganon and the Triforce never appear; and Koholint Island is worlds apart from Hyrule, a small town situated by the sea as opposed to a prosperous kingdom. Of the four Zelda titles released between 1986 and 1993, Link’s Awakening is by far the most unique. Zelda II might have its own signature gameplay, but Link’s Awakening breaks the series’ mold in every other sense.

In leaving Zelda behind, Link’s Awakening replaces her role with Marin, a character with far more depth than Zelda herself ever had. Marin has a proper arc, desiring to leave her sealocked island, her freedom symbolized by the seagull imagery that frequently appears throughout Link’s adventure. Link himself interacts with Marin far more than he ever did with Zelda. Although Link is a silent protagonist, the two have a legitimate relationship that grows over the course of the game, with both interacting multiple times before journey’s end. Marin, in general, is a character with more depth than the series had yet seen, which is a philosophy that extends directly to the other inhabitants of Koholint Island.

A Link to the Past featured its fair share of memorable NPCs, but not to the point where each one had a name or memorable personality. Link’s Awakening takes its time to ensure that even the most minor of NPCs end the game as their own defined character. Each character has a distinct voice, and a distinct look. Koholint Island is not the Hyrule fans had come to know, but, in one game, it already came to life more than Hyrule ever did.

By leaving both the Triforce and Ganon behind, Link’s Awakening is also able to expand the lore of the franchise beyond Hyrule. Ganon is not the only threat and the Triforce is not the only solution, both ideas that Zelda II toyed with. Link’s Awakening brings both these ideas directly to life, abandoning the Triforce entirely and only referencing Ganon during the final boss fight. The Wind Fish, the Instruments of the Sirens, and the Shadow Nightmares take center stage, adding a fresh dose of variety to the Zelda canon.

In many respects, Link’s Awakening set the foundation that the next set of games would follow. Ocarina of Time was set back in Hyrule and featured Zelda, Ganon, and the Triforce at the center stage of the narrative, but this was to be expected from the franchise’s first foray into 3D and Ocarina of Time very clearly takes cues from Koholint Island’s NPCs when it comes to crafting a world with defined characters. If nothing else, Majora’s Mask immediately showed audiences that Zelda would not be falling into routine, once again abandoning Zelda, Ganon, the Triforce, and Hyrule in favor of the incredibly novel Termina.

Of all the post-Ocarina of Time entries, Majora’s Mask is the closest to a Link’s Awakening analog, abandoning Hyrule for Termina, Ganon for Majora, Zelda for nobody, and the Triforce for Termina’s own rich lore. Although Capcom left Hyrule behind in favor of Holodrum and Labrynna in Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages respectively, both titles featured Zelda, the Triforce, and Ganon in some capacity while both countries made use of quite a number of Majora’s Mask based NPCs, almost diminishing the idea that these were separate countries in the Zelda mythos. All the while, the Oracle duology still manages to come off as fairly unique in the context of the series by sheer virtue of not taking place in Hyrule.

It is truly incredible what a Zelda game can pull off just by relegating Hyrule to the sidelines. Holodrum and Labrynna aren’t anywhere near as successful as Koholint Island or Termina in regards to making use of their worlds, but Seasons and Ages both closely follow the foundation Link’s Awakening set and are ultimately better for it. Although Zelda appears, Din and Nayru serve as Marin-esque figures who Link has some semblance of a connection with; although Ganon serves as the true final boss, Onox and Veran are the true antagonists; although most NPCs are lifted from the N64 titles, they still have personalities and a place in the world.

This is a structure that just about every major Legend of Zelda has followed, but few have been as successful as Link’s Awakening. The Wind Waker might very well be the last entry in the series to follow Link’s Awakening’s formula successfully, deliberately playing around the series’ established concepts as part of its core theme. As a result, while Zelda, Ganon, the Triforce, and Hyrule are all present, they’re only present as a means of commentary on their potential stagnation. From there, Nintendo’s attempts at straying from tradition slowly began to stray themselves.

Where The Minish Cap builds off of Four Swords’ unique mythology, it brings the series back to Hyrule and not in a particularly interesting manner outside of the Picori. Four Swords Adventures pushes the lore even further, but centers itself so heavily around A Link to the Past’s general aesthetic that it can’t quite carve out an identity of its own. Twilight Princess is perhaps the most egregious example of The Legend of Zelda sticking to tradition, almost serving as The Wind Waker’s antithesis (and by extension Link’s Awakening,) embracing virtually every recognizable piece of Zelda iconography.

While Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks do attempt to follow in Link’s Awakening’s footsteps more overtly, they do so rather sloppily. The former comes off like a shallow retread of the Game Boy classic at times, robbing a unique premise and executing it nowhere near as well. The latter lacks several classic Zelda staples, but sabotages itself by christening its brand new nation “Hyrule,” refusing to commit to its own concept and firmly solidifying the series as one inexplicably afraid to move away from tradition.

This is a notion that can be seen quite clearly in both Skyward Sword and A Link Between Worlds. The former serving as an origin point for virtually every single core tenet, the latter using A Link to the Past’s foundation to experiment with gameplay. This is not to say that either games are poor (or that The Minish Cap and Twilight Princess are lesser for failing to experiment as much as their predecessors,) but such a safe approach to game and world design seems counter-intuitive considering just how much Link’s Awakening managed to influence the series.

With Breath of the Wild breaking several of the series’ standard gameplay and pacing conventions, and Nintendo choosing to remake Link’s Awakening, The Legend of Zelda could very well be moving back towards an era where the series was comfortable experimenting considerably with every single new entry. Of course, the very notion of remaking Link’s Awakening might be proof that Nintendo doesn’t want to experiment too much, but the 2019 rendition’s unique art style does inspire some hope, if only on a surface level.

It also speaks volumes that Nintendo is choosing to remake Link’s Awakening, at all, and in earnest. It isn’t an upscaled remaster that keeps the spirit of the original intact ala Ocarina of Time 3D, but a proper reimagining of an important entry in the Zelda canon. Whether or not said reimagining is actually necessary is another topic entirely, but, if nothing else, Nintendo is acknowledging a title independent of the series’ traditions with quite a lot of fanfare. In an era where The Legend of Zelda needs to continue moving past its own traditions, Link’s Awakening has never been more relevant.

Considering just how many entries in the series can be tied back to Link’s Awakening on a structural level, it can be argued that Link’s adventure on the dreaming island established some traditions of its own. Traditions that ultimately serve to better the series on every level. The Legend of Zelda is not Princess Zelda, or inevitably fighting Ganon, or traversing Hyrule, or being chosen by the Triforce. The Legend of Zelda is Link’s Awakening; an adventure in a living world with heart, charm, and a desire to be bold no matter the risk.

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