Link’s Awakening has hidden depths.
Ask any Zelda fan which Zelda game is the “darkest” and they’ll immediately tell you Majora’s Mask. It’s an obvious choice, of course, and a seemingly correct one. Majora’s Mask is a game about a world drenched in shadows, centered on an increasingly paranoid town full of obtuse characters, all dealing with the oncoming apocalypse in their own ways. Warbled, strange, music drifts in the background and a gigantic, nightmarish moon slowly descends over the land, threatening to obliterate everything in it. Even the box art itself is dark, ditching the usual triumphant gold foil or heroic Link pose in favor of the titular Majora’s Mask itself; a terrifying, threatening thing with bug-eyes and spikes. And it’s only one of several horrible veils you can wear during the game’s seemingly hopeless story. Yes, Majora’s Mask is a grim story right down to its overworld named “Terminus” which is a title that just reeks of death and despair.
But sometimes the darkest stories come from the places that seem the most utopian, the small town horrors that lie under the surface of otherwise peaceful, serene settings. Since 1993, the darkest Zelda story has actually been quietly hiding in plain sight in a little Game Boy game called The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, a game about a hero that gets shipwrecked on a beautiful island paradise. To be completely honest, Link’s Awakening was always my favorite Zelda game. As the years have passed since I’ve played it (and replayed it, and replayed it, and replayed it again) it’s become my favorite video game of all time. With a brand new remake recently announced for Nintendo Switch, a whole new generation will have the chance to play it for the first time. Tons of Zelda games have come and gone since the game originally released, all grander, technically superior, more vast, and more ambitious than Link’s Awakening. But Link’s Awakening remains – and will always remain – my personal favorite.
To understand why it’s so dark, I’m going to have to spoil the story a bit, so there’s your warning if you’ve never played this game on the original Game Boy, or its fully colored Game Boy color “DX” version, or when it was ported to the 3DS a few years ago, or you’re waiting for the remake to come out this year. Strangely, this classic Zelda game hasn’t appeared on many Nintendo consoles despite being so beloved, so don’t feel too bad if you’ve somehow missed it through all these years. But yeah, story spoilers ahead!
Link’s Awakening begins with an old ship at night, wrestling through giant waves, thunder, and lightning. The ship is capsized, the night fades, and our hero Link washes ashore to a bright beach on Koholint Island dotted with palm trees and set before a colossal, distant mountain. Atop the mountain sits an egg. Yes, an egg. A giant, cartoon egg. A young girl named Marin approaches Link and brings him home to safety where he wakes up in a bed and meets her father, Tarin – a squat, rosy-nosed man that bears a more than a striking resemblance to Super Mario. Tarin gives Link a shield, Link walks to the beach and finds his sword and a talking owl, and the owl tells Link he must awaken the giant egg to leave the island and return to Hyrule to star in dozens of other Zelda games. Link doesn’t think much of this quest and neither does the player. It feels different than your standard Zelda fare, though. No princess to save? No wretched pig man or ghastly wizard to kill? No kingdom to return to glory? You just… wake up an egg and go home? It feels peculiar and different, but it’s a Zelda game, so it should be pretty straightforward, right?
As Link travels the island, meeting characters, solving puzzles and conquering dungeons, a very strange thing begins to happen: the inhabitants of the world start to warn him that he’s disrupting their serenity and order. They don’t thank him for “helping” them because secretly, he isn’t helping them. He’s an outsider disturbing them, and for each boss he defeats – bosses who scream in agony as they vanish, begging him to stop “awakening” them – he gets one step closer to cracking open the giant egg and freeing himself from the island. In doing so, he rarely stops to think about what he’s doing to the world around him. He doesn’t seem to care. His usual quiet, stoic, speechless persona carries a new meaning here. Link’s quest is selfish and egoistic. Despite the world’s cries for Link to halt his journey, despite the friends he meets and increasingly strong connection he develops with Marin, Link pushes on until he reaches the final conflict against the last guardian of the island. Upon death, the guardian warns Link that awakening the island will actually destroy it, making it evaporate.
In a flash, the island and everyone on it disappear forever. Flashes of its peoples and places appear and fade away for good. Every person on it ceases to exist. The children playing in the field. The villages of friends. Lovers. Shopkeepers. Fishermen. Pets. Families. Babbling streams. Grassy hills. Rustic homes. And even Marin, your friend, savior and budding partner. All vanish for eternity. Gone. Link’s “Awakening” was actually about Link’s pillage and devastating eradication of a gorgeous picturesque world that existed for ages before he arrived but will never exist again now that he’s left it. It’s all gone forever, all because Link woke it up from a dream. All that is left is Link in the middle of the sea, floating on the debris of Koholint Island while the gentle, haunting ballads of Marin and the Wind Fish flutter off in the distance, never to be heard again.
Majora’s Mask is right in your face with its grisly themes. The Adventures of Link begins with Zelda in a coma, cheered on by a cackling Ganon every time Link perishes. Twilight Princess’ umbral subworld drags its faint, miserable nightmares to the surface. But the next time somebody asks you about the darkest Zelda game, consider Link’s Awakening, a game that despite is saccharine aesthetic is a about a boy who arrives on an island and single-handedly drags it from tranquility to destruction, completely and permanently annihilating it – and everyone in it – forever. It’s hard to imagine anything more tragic than that.
Brian Altano is a host and producer at IGN. Link’s Awakening is his favorite game of all time. Follow him on Twitter at @agentbizzle and tell him what your favorite Zelda game of all time is. There are basically no wrong answers. Well, maybe Crossbow Training. That’d be a weird one.