DISCLAIMER: The following contains SPOILERIFIC information regarding "The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening," a video game released over 20 years ago. Please do not read on if you wish to experience the game at its fullest.
As someone with the Hylian Crest tattooed on his arm, I get asked a lot of questions. "What does it mean to you?" "Why did you get it?" "A video game tattoo? Really?" My favorite question, and most discussion-worthy, is "Which is your favorite game in the series?" People are usually very surprised with my answer. Hands down, it has to be Link's Awakening.
My preferences in the games go against the grain in many ways. I thoroughly enjoyed The Adventure of Link, I wasn't nearly as impressed with the rest of the world when it came to The Wind Waker, the time travel mechanic in Majora's Mask was straight up annoying, etc. Most of the time, my views on each entry make for great talks with other fans as we are able to give each other different views/experiences that we might not have otherwise considered.
Link's Awakening, initially released for the Game Boy in 1993, was a huge story packed into a tiny cartridge. My older brother received a copy for his birthday, and the both of us were hooked. I could have spent hours just looking at the manual, myself. It was filled with item descriptions, tips and tricks, and artwork that really brought the (already) compelling story to life.
Before Link's Awakening, I had limited exposure to the series through the original titles on the NES. I had not yet played A Link to the Past, but I don't feel like that was detrimental to the experience. Link's Awakening was miles ahead in terms of graphics, music, gameplay, and, in terms of dialogue, story. This was even more surprising given that it was a Game Boy release. Even as a kid, I could not believe the amount of content that I was experiencing. This little cartridge had everything: mini games, item trading and upgrading, "easter eggs," essentially open world, dialogue changes based on the current in-game happenings, you name it.
As the story goes, caught in a storm in the middle of the sea, Link became shipwrecked on the isle of Koholint and was discovered by Marin, a local girl with a beautiful voice and a kind heart. Link comes to in the company of Marin and her father, Tarin. At first, she is mistaken for Zelda by our hero, still suffering a slight daze from the oceanic ordeal, but Marin and Tarin quickly give him the gist of who they are, where he is, and how they found him. At the advice of his rescuers, he travels to the nearby beach to collect his sword so he may work toward finding away off of Koholint and back to Hyrule.
Guided only by a mysterious owl, Link discovers that he must awaken the Wind Fish, a sort of deity to the people of Koholint, who has the power to grant wishes. As far as we know, this is the only option for getting off of this island, and the only way to get the job done is to collect the instruments of the Sirens hidden within dungeons scattered across the land. Each instrument, however, is guarded by a Nightmare at the end of each dungeon. What would a Zelda title be without a few boss fights, anyway? But the whole game isn't just about fighting. There are all sorts of things to do and people to meet. Go exploring!
I feel that Marin is one of the greatest characters to ever grace the Zelda series. The dynamic between her and Link is much closer to a love story than any other relationship conveyed between Link and Zelda, with the exception of Skyward Sword. For the most part, Marin loves singing "The Ballad of the Wind Fish," which is a continuing theme throughout the game. The more she gets to know Link, the more she shares with him about her dreams and wishes. In fact, she even wants to wake the Wind Fish herself so she can wish to become a seagull so that she can fly all over the world and sing to everyone everywhere. Such a sweet girl.
Using the instruments, Link could wake the Wind Fish and wish his way home. Heck, maybe he can do it for Marin, too! She could have her wish and be home in time for dinner! Oh, but there is just one thing about that...
You read that correctly. A little over halfway through the game, after meeting all of these nice people, exploring this beautiful island, and falling in love with Marin (as far as I'm concerned), the owl guides you to a shrine, saying "...ancient ruins speak of the Wind Fish... You will learn much there." Within the shrine is a relief on the wall which, essentially, rips your heart out, explaining that Koholint is little more than the dreams of Link and the Wind Fish, and once he is awoken, the island will vanish.
Reading that inscription for the first time... I don't think I could fully comprehend what was going on, but I knew it was something very sad. It wasn't until I was older and on one of many playthroughs that the idea of everything you had come to know and love would be disappearing really sank in. That's some heavy plot, Nintendo. Heavy, but damn good storytelling. At this point, you didn't really have a choice but to keep soldiering on through the remaining dungeons. I mean, you could stop progressing then and there, living forever in paradise, but nothing would change. You would be leaving Link trapped on a non-existent island.
When you think about it, this adds even more depth to the story. Here you have a hero already in anguish, being shipwrecked in a place he knows nothing about. Factor in the relationships he has formed with the people he has met. Consider Koholint itself, a gorgeous island teeming with all manner of majestic flora and fauna. All of this will become dust if Link wakes the Wind Fish. That is a mental strain few people would be able to tolerate. The souls of these people wouldn't really be lost if they don't exist, right? Certainly that wouldn't fall on your conscience. They aren't real... are they? This right here is why Link's Awakening deserves so much credit. No one could have expected these circumstances, and even if they did, it still warrants a good amount of thought regarding the consequences.
Once you stop crying and decide to finish the game, you come to the Wind Fish's egg nestled on top of Mount Tamaranch. Upon playing the instruments, Link can enter the labyrinth and navigate his way to the final boss(es), the Shadow Nightmares. Prior to the battle, they unveil the grand scheme to keep the Wind Fish sleeping so that the island may never disappear, and Link was simply an unforeseen variable. Once they have been defeated, they chastise Link for his actions. "This island is going to disappear... Our world is going to disappear... Our world... Our... world..." It almost makes you feel like YOU are the bad guy at this point.
Meeting the Wind Fish is a very surreal experience. He confirms what you've feared for some time and tells you Koholint is nothing but a dream. Nevertheless, he requests that you play the instruments and wake up to your own world, leaving nothing behind but memories. As you play The Ballad of the Wind Fish for the last time, you are treated to a tear-jerking cutscene of characters all over the island (and the island itself) slowly fading away. Link is then blown sky-high by a geyser and awakens drifting in the sea, clinging to the wreckage of his ship. He collects enough strength to crawl onto some wreckage when a shadow falls across him. He looks up to see what appears to be the Wind Fish sailing across the sky! Also, depending on how you beat the game, you will hear The Ballad of the Wind Fish being sung among the seagulls and Marin's face will appear in the sky! Was it all real after all...? The ending is totally open to interpretation by the player, and that is just another thing that contributes to the greatness that is Link's Awakening.
If it isn't apparent already, I could go on for days about this game. It truly is a fantastic journey and I am always entertained just as much whenever I give it another go. What do you think of Link's Awakening? I'd love to hear your own Zelda stories, even if it doesn't involve my favorite.