Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on GamesIndustry.biz intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This entry was contributed by Felix Schwerz, whose one-man development studio DosoSoft released its first game, Snake Man's Adventure, on Steam this week.
It's not an overstatement to say that my lifelong passion for video games began with The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening on the original Game Boy. I suppose it's not unusual to fall in love with a game you play as a child, but what is unusual -- for me at least -- is to replay a game several times throughout my life and find that I appreciate it even more with age.
As a child, Link's Awakening contained everything I could ever want from a video game. Cool monsters? Check! Fun puzzles to solve? Check! An enchanting fantasy world to explore? Check! Link's Awakening was my first Zelda game, so I'm a bit biased from nostalgia, but Nintendo really nailed a sense of dream-like enchantment that awakened (no pun intended) my imagination in a way that ignited my lifelong love of gaming.
Link's Awakening isn't the biggest game out there, but it felt absolutely enormous to me at the time. It was chock full of secrets around every corner. Slice through grass and you might find a rupee if you're lucky, or a pit if you're not. Talk to a person in one part of the world and they'll give you a clue about an item across the island. Gain a new power-up and suddenly you'll find yourself able to access the lair of a colossal frog prince who teaches you a song that has yet another mysterious, magical application. This wasn't an obstacle course to be trounced through but a living, breathing world to explore, with untold mysteries to unearth. Link's Awakening must have been under a megabyte, but to me as a child, it seemed utterly endless.
Of course I'm older now, and developing my own game, which allows me to look at Link's Awakening under a new lens, appreciating its craftsmanship all the more. One thing that really stood out to me is its feedback. One thing you learn quickly when developing a game is that a mechanic can be fun in theory, but if the audio and animation isn't right, the impact of what you're doing falls completely flat. Link's Awakening absolutely did not have this problem, as each interaction and tool felt forceful and heavy. Hit an enemy with your sword and it'll create a juicy squelch sound with a subtle flash and bounce. I don't know what on earth sounds like that, or who decided to make these sprites flash, but the end result is this pitch-perfect juicy, impactful thud that's forever burnt into my brain. Special mention must be made for the Pegasus boots, which make Link kick off a couple plumes of dust as he revs up to sprint in a straight line, cutting through anything in his way (or violently slamming against a wall or tree). So satisfying!
Another thing that stands out about Link's Awakening now is just how moving it is. Most characters are limited to only a handful of lines, yet Nintendo made each interaction count. Marin, the little girl who finds Link awash on the beach at the game's opening, only has a couple of scenes with our avatar, yet Nintendo develops their relationship so beautifully. In among the game's most moving scenes, Link and her sit on the beach and she gives a brief soliloquy pondering what the world is like outside this island. As the pair watches seagulls chirping away to fitting chiptunes sound effects, she imagines herself as a bird flying across the world, sharing her song with others. It's not a long scene, but it adds so much to the game's feeling of childlike wonder. Like everything in Link's Awakening, this scene uses shorthand to convey something powerful using so little.
I think one reason Link's Awakening is so astute at tugging on the heartstrings is due to its incredible music. It has a wide variety of leitmotifs that are tied to specific characters and moments. Marin has her own theme, of course, but there are other memorable tracks too. An owl, who guides Link throughout his quest, has his own eerie tune upon each of his quiet, haunting visits. One of my favorite moments in the game has Link venturing into a shrine where he learns the secret of Koholint Island, and it's set to a haunting track that's never repeated anywhere else. I love that the developers went to so much work to create this one piece of music that only plays for a few minutes.
And of course, there's the Ballad of the Windfish. Throughout the whole game you're collecting instruments to play a song that will hatch the mysterious egg atop the island's peak, so we hear snippets of the tune along the way. But when it's finally played in its full glory it feels truly epic, as it's not just incorporating a lot of instruments, but also serves as a reminder of all the work you had to go through to collect this ensemble. The sense of accomplishment at Link's Awakening's climax remains unparalleled to me.
Revisiting Link's Awakening I was struck by its sense of pacing. Zelda games have always had players go back and forth between an overworld and various dungeons, which could fall into a slog of predictable routine, yet Link's Awakening sidesteps this through the sheer precision of its design. Dungeons are short enough to not wear out their welcome, and the items you find within the dungeons open up whole new paths that are genuinely exciting to uncover.
By now the Zelda standards of fins and the hookshot seem old hat, but at the time they were a revelation. Even now they feel great to use. And more than that, there were fun one-of-a-kind sequences between dungeons to keep the plot moving. There's a heartfelt beach scene with Marin, the aforementioned shrine revelation, and there's even a part where you get to walk a dog (which is actually a chomp chomp from Mario) who cathartically munches on your enemies for you. Link's Awakening is jam packed with great tricks.
And like the greatest magic tricks, it hides its secrets. It's so meticulously crafted, so clean, that it appears effortless. Link's Awakening didn't have one central gimmick to its name, nor did it revolutionize the medium in any significant way. But it did tick all the boxes of what I love about video games, fantasy, adventure, and escapism and manage to perfect every one of its assets -- from music, to dialogue, to audio visual effects -- so well that it's still every bit as charming to me now as it was when I first played it as a child.
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