Blasphemy, they would have said.
The story of handhelds is the secret story of the video game industry. Always overlooked in conversations about “bit eras” and “hardware cycles” and “console generations”, the handheld side of the medium has from the start been relegated to the kiddie table of the master narrative of history. This is in spite, or perhaps because, of the fact that until quite recently handhelds were the best selling consoles on the market, and even today the “casual gamer” epithet is applied almost exclusively to those who are in possession of smartphones and tablets (that is, roughly 100% of the populace).
It is perhaps not altogether difficult to see why: Accessibility was always going to be a sticking point for a culture fundamentally built around the exclusivity of privilege necessary to have the latest up-to-date technology at any given time, and handhelds are built to be accessible, using older, established kit in inventive new form factors to keep costs down and ergonomics up. And there’s nothing gamers fear and despise more than low cost and ergonomic, for to them such things comprise the mark of the weak-willed and the infidel. So shunned was the Game Boy and its house for receiving allegedly pared-down ports of superior home console titles, and mocked were those who dared besmirch themselves by owning one. Why would you waste money on inferiority when you can get the same game but better for the NES and Super Nintendo for almost the same price, the gamers derided? Never mind that not everyone can afford a home console, or has room for one, or needs or wants one, and never mind that not everyone wants to spend their entire life slack-jawed and complacent in front of the reassuring glow of the TV screen.
And never mind that Nintendo has always built their name in the video game industry on the back of hardware like the Game Boy. Nintendo’s first real breakout in games aside from its early arcade cabinets was the Game & Watch, a series of simple handheld LCD games that doubled as watches and could fit in one’s pocket, marketed towards the average person on the go. In those days, and still to this day to an extent, Tokyo was a city of foot traffic, and something as simple and elegant as the Game & Watch was a surefire success. And if it wasn’t for the Game & Watch, we wouldn’t have the NES controller, and by extension every home console controller ever made. Or at least, it would have looked dramatically different: It was the unique cross-shaped input on the Game & Watch version of Donkey Kong that inspired the now-ubiquitous control pad. And it was that same Donkey Kong Game & Watch which also featured a unique dual-screen clamshell layout (also seen, curiously enough, on the Game & Watch version of the original Zelda no Densetsu alongside the same control pad), that gave rise to another influential Nintendo handheld.
And so, it was to fall to The Legend of Zelda, biblical canon of the gamers, to legitimize the Game Boy in the eyes of anointed. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is the game that famously proved that the Game Boy was capable of offering experiences on par with those on home consoles. Of course, by 1993, the Game Boy had already seen a legitimate pop culture phenomenon in the form of Tetris, timed exclusives like Star Trek: The Next Generation, entirely capable iterations of big-name series like Super Mario Land, Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, Metroid II: The Return of Samus and Seiken Densetsu, as well as ports and adaptations of entire Capcom catalog, but none of those would likely have appealed to the Zelda faithful for one reason or another.
The Candy Crush or Clash of Clans of its day, Tetris was proclaimed “casual gamer fare” and ignored, a fate which also affected the Super Mario Land games to a degree: Somehow, they weren’t “real” Mario and didn’t count (being developed by Gunpei Yokoi’s R&D1 team instead of Shigeru Miyamoto’s EAD would have contributed to this feeling, though its doubtful that was well known at the time), Metroid was and is too niche, Star Trek: The Next Generation would have been conversely too populist, Seiken Densetsu would have been unknown outside of Japan and while Capcom was well loved by the hardcore gatekeepers, the Game Boy Mega Man games would have been dismissed as inferior ports, as would Capcom’s Disney games. This is in spite of the fact the Mega Man games were different games entirely, and the Disney ones were near-1:1 translations from their home console counterparts. DuckTales 2, a sequel to one of the most famously beloved NES games ever, came out first on the Game Boy and that version remains much easier to find to this day. Although that said, it is extremely unlikely hardcore gamers were lining up to play The Little Mermaid no matter which console it showed up on.
No, it was always going to have to be Zelda. And yet The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is as oddly paradoxical as the platform it graced: An almost textbook example of the creative culture that surrounded the Game Boy, it originated as a wholly unauthorized tech demo side project worked on after hours by Kazuaki Morita and assorted Nintendo EAD staffers before it became an official game under the guidance of Takashi Tezuka. At first it was to be a Game Boy port of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, no surprises there, and had this been the case its legacy would assuredly have been far different. Regardless of how skilled or proficient the final product would have been, a Game Boy port of A Link to the Past was always predestined to be overshadowed by its monolithic Super Nintendo counterpart. A version of the fans’ favourite myth-cycle that at once legitimized the Game Boy as a “hardcore” gaming platform while also reinforcing the strength of their belief in their own persecution of it.
But instead, Link’s Awakening was to become its own game, and thus its own iterative spin on the wheel of The Legend of Zelda. The new story, helmed by Yoshio Koizumi and Kensuke Tanabe, involved a small town of eccentric characters living on an island in the shadow of a mountain, atop which sat an egg. And when the egg hatches, the world ends (an idea originally conceived of for A Link to the Past, but discarded for its lack of orthodoxy: Heretical remnants of refuse cast off from the master narrative). And, as suggested by Tezuka himself, for the first time a Zelda game would take place outside Hyrule: The game opens with Link driven to search for enlightenment in lands beyond Hyrule, but caught in a vicious storm on the open ocean causing his raft to splinter and crash. And Hyrule is not the the only hallmark of the canon Myth of the Hero cast aside by Link’s Awakening: With it goes any mention of Ganondorf, the Triforce and Princess Zelda herself.
But though the ephemeral princess does not manifest in a form we immediately recognise, Zelda makes her presence known and tells her story in other ways. When Link washes up on the shores of Koholint Island, the isle in question, he is rescued by a beguiling young woman named Marin whom he initially mistakes for Zelda. This seems strange, as Marin, who is tall with flowing, unkempt red hair adorned with a hibiscus flower and who dresses in a light blue skirt looks really nothing like even the immediately preceding incarnation of Princess Zelda, who is for one thing blonde. But the original Zelda from Zelda no Densetsu, forever lost to history since the Legend’s first draft, wasn’t blonde either (nor even was Zelda II: The Adventure of Link‘s cosmic retcon Myth-Zelda), and the similarities don’t quite end there. Marin too dreams of a life outside of the world she knows and, because she is a kind and gentle soul, wishes to travel and sing for people. For a time, Marin will even accompany Link on his journeys around Koholint Island, and should Link put off advancing the quest Marin can theoretically stay with him indefinitely.
The unspoken implication of the original Zelda no Densetsu was always that Link and Zelda had a kind of partnership. Metaphysically speaking this is obvious, but as it manifests upon the narrative plane, one is reminded of children’s fantasy heroes featuring chaste protagonists who go on adventures together. So with The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, this is elevated to text status in the form of Marin and her quest which is, as most critics uniformly praise, marks the first time The Legend of Zelda series has a kind of structured character arc by experimenting with moving beyond this. Gazing further back into Zelda’s deep time, Marin’s father Tarin is an incarnation of none other than Mario himself (technically making Marin Mario’s daughter, so think about that), Luigi appears as a Cucco farmer in Tal Tal Heights, Princess Peach’s picture is used by a slightly deceptive goat as part of a pen pal correspondence, Madame MeowMeow keeps a Chain Chomp as a pet and there are a slew of enemies from the Super Mario Bros. series running around Koholint Island. And Super Mario Bros. is far from the only world thus invoked, with cameo appearances by characters from a number of other Nintendo works, ranging from the Kirby series to NIntendo’s version of SimCity to the obscure Game Boy game For The Frog The Bell Tolls, with which The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening shares an engine.
After it canonized itself, The Legend of Zelda is disabused of its God Trick by being reminded of the Nintendo family it’s a part of, and of the lineage that is its real birthright. Which is really only fitting, as the entire game is a rite of passage. All video games are (at least the good ones), but Link’s Awakening is explicitly so on a textual level: The requisite stock plot point about meaningful dreams and visions in A Link to the Past becomes in Link’s Awakening an entire allegorical dreamworld that explodes outward the soul of Link, and thus of the entire Legend of Zelda. Neoplatonic readings are possible here, but Takashi Tezuka, Yoshio Koizumi and Kensuke Tanabe are not neoplatnonists. Rather, Link receives vision and guidance from beings which at once are and are not parts of himself, which is the thing that separates Real Shamanism from all the ritualistic pretenders. The Heretical Song of Zelda is reified in the Body and metaphor of Marin, and the Wind Fish’s domain is code for enlightenment through magickal mastery. And what is the Egg of Mystery but new life and new potentialities yearning to be born anew? Where The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past tried to turn itself into a Master Narrative about spiritual journeys, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is the act of creation-becoming for Link and Zelda in praxis, a metaphor for itself, and thus the hidden truths it even now is only beginning to comprehend.
But the orthodoxy does not go quietly. As is the risk in all things, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is eventually Remembered, itself Becoming The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX for the Game Boy Color. This updated re-release features a full colour palate as well as an additional dungeon to take advantage of the superior hardware on the newer console. It also connected to the Game Boy Printer, the hot new accessory at the time which significantly fleshed out the photography feature that was already in the original game. The re-release is effectively superior in every conceivable way, although there are a handful of minor design decisions that are different from the original that fundamentally make it Not Quite The Same Thing.
And because the power of the given moment is always important, it is worth considering the context. While the original Link’s Awakening in 1993 was a bold creative risk with nothing to prove except justifying its own existence and that of the Game Boy, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX came out in 1998, long after the original had already been universally heralded as a masterpiece by The Sorts Of People Who Care About These Things. Furthermore, Link’s Awakening DX came out right alongside The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64, a game which perversely draws a great deal of influence from the original Link’s Awakening. Marin, Tarin and the Cucco Keeper, already expies and riffs on other divine archetypes, themselves get expies in Ocarina of Time in the form of Malon, Talon and Ingo, who go on to be series regulars. The Owl in Link’s Awakening, an aspect of the Wind Fish’s Oversoul just as Link and Zelda and Link and Marin and Marin and Zelda are, becomes Kaepora Gaebora in Ocarina of Time. Indeed, the iconic titular instrument of that game made its first appearance in Link’s Awakening, and the idea of “eccentric” or “suspicious” characters, originally wholly unique to Link’s Awakening, goes on to become a series mainstay.
(Amusingly, this dual release led The Legend of Zelda series to famously sweep almost every single category in the 1998 Nintendo Power Awards, only being stopped from taking the whole chessboard by that year’s equally blockbuster western localization of Pokémon Red and Blue.)
There is thus the sense that for all its radicalism, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening has been in some sense absorbed into the Legend’s master narrative. It, as well as its spiritual successor The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons (which is also a rather transparent response to Pokémon) have always been the church’s Acceptable Blasphemes: Those Gnostics, poets and weird theologians we tolerate, if not exactly embrace, if for no other reason then that they are historical curiosities. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time can of course be read as the second draft of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past‘s attempt at transmuting itself into a canon, and the way it seemingly assimilates Link’s Awakening in order to do this is worth taking stock of (and even Ocarina of Time‘s direct sequel makes a reference to “The Ballad of the Wind Fish”, the climactic scene from Link’s Awakening).
But perhaps all is not what it seems. References abound and will abound, yes, but Malon does supplant Marin. And Marin…Well, Marin’s took to the sky. The trappings and setpieces of Link’s Awakening have been appropriated, but its central truth and underlying message may not be. Perhaps it’s still out there, waiting to be dreamed and rediscovered again. And when we gaze back into the primordial deep time of our own existential realities, we might not see the things we expect we’re going to see there.