Happy 30th birthday to The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening! This fantastic game brought the adventure-fun of the Zelda series to the monochrome Game Boy! It's such a strong game that it arguably surpassed the original as the best 8-bit Zelda title, and it's the only Zelda game to be remade for two different systems: Game Boy Color in 1998 and Switch in 2019!
Link's Awakening adapts many of the conventions, items, and monsters from the Super Nintendo game, A Link to the Past. Link explores an overworld with eight dungeons. He collects numerous special items and weapons, such as the bow, bombs, hookshot, Pegasus Boots, flippers, and Mirror Shield. One nice thing is that you can set the A and B buttons to whichever two items you want. You don't need to keep the sword on A all the time or even have it equipped. Unfortunately, two buttons aren't enough; it gets tedious constantly changing items, but the Game Boy doesn't have X, Y, L, or R buttons.
Dungeons require both combat and puzzle-solving skills. You must collect keys to open doors and navigate labyrinthine stairways and passages. Each dungeon contains a Nightmare Key to unlock the boss room. Defeating the boss rewards Link with an extra heart container (health bar). As you acquires more items, such as the Power Bracelet that lets Link lift rocks, new paths become available. The dungeons, bosses, puzzles, and overworld are all masterfully designed. As with all Zelda games, they are why the game shines so bright.
Link's Awakening unexpectedly mixes up the Zelda formula by incorporating elements from the Super Mario series. The dungeons even contain side-scrolling platforming sections, where Link encounters Goombas, Thwomps, and Cheep Cheeps (no Koopa Troopas, though). Link can use the Roc's Feather to jump. Stomping on a Goomba always yields a healing heart. Spinies show up in some overhead sections; they can be bumped onto their shells with the shield. At one point Link borrows a Chain Chomp named BowWow, who eats the plants blocking a dungeon entrance.
The game is notable for its lighthearted, dreamworld plot. An opening cinematic depicts Link lost at sea, washing up on the mysterious Koholint Island. It contains a mountain topped by a giant egg. The main story requires him to collect eight musical instruments, then play them in front of the egg to awaken the Wind Fish. This is the only way he can leave the dreamworld island. A girl named Marin falls in love with him in the process (it's her song that can crack the egg).
A handful of other silly characters appear, such as Papahl, who announces at the beginning that Link will later on need to rescue him from the mountains! This is one of several fourth-wall-breaking bits of dialogue. Wart from Super Mario Bros. 2, using his Japanese name Mamu, teaches Link a song on the ocarina needed to access two dungeons. There's also a bizarre appearance from Mr. Write, SimCity's green-haired, toothbrush-moustachioed advisor.
Throughout the game, Link is guided by a mysterious owl, who gives him clues about where to go next. These clues can be reread at any time by opening the map and selecting the square where the owl appeared. Every house and dungeon is labeled on the map, which is handy!
A change to the formula that I don't like is the inclusion of two combat power-ups: the Guardian Acorn and Piece of Power. These temporarily increase Link's defense and attack, respectively. They have been included to make the game a little easier (not that it's hard), but they are unnecessary. My main complaint against them is you have to click through the same pop-up dialogue box every time Link gets one. The three or four seconds this wastes don't feel worth it when the power-up's effect lasts only about thirty seconds!
The game is rounded out with a few mini-games (such as fishing) and an item-trading sequence. First Link must win the Yoshi doll from the crane game. When he talks to a certain villager, she takes it in exchange for a ribbon. Each item must be exchanged with the right person to receive the next in the sequence. In the end, Link is rewarded with the boomerang. The boomerang is stupidly powerful, rendering the sword almost superfluous.
The game also includes collectible seashells. When you get twenty, Link's sword's power is doubled. Here's a tip: go to the seashell hut when you have exactly five and ten seashells to get two bonus shells! There are also twelve pieces of heart to find (a mechanic introduced in A Link to the Past): every four give Link another heart container. Getting all of these without using a strategy guide takes time and effort.
Link's Awakening uses a cutesy graphical style that works well on the Game Boy's small screen. The music, though technically limited by the Game Boy's sound system, is catchy and enjoyable.
This is a full-length action RPG. It's so well crafted and large that it's amazing it was able to exist on the Game Boy. It didn't merely surpass other Game Boy games, it blew them out of the water. It is the best game for the system and was never surpassed. One need only compare it to Final Fantasy Adventure, another strong action RPG by Game Boy standards, to see how much better it is.
If you haven't played this game, you're missing out. Nowadays you can play both the Game Boy Color version and the remake on Switch.
"The developers at Nintendo were able to squeeze an extremely lengthy quest into the package, and were able to push just about every facet of the Game Boy's hardware to its limit."
— Corbie Dillard, Nintendo Life, 10/10