While we get excited for the Switch remake of Link’s Awakening, let’s gaze at the origins of the Game Boy original.
The Legend of Zelda series has always been weird, but even more than 25 years since its debut, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening might just be the weirdest. Now, the stone cold Game Boy classic is coming to Nintendo Switch in remade form in 2019. The jury’s still out, however, and in the wilds of the internet debates are raging about the distinctive graphical look and the perils of fixing something that isn’t broken. I, for one, am optimistic. It appears to be the same team behind the phenomenal A Link Between Worlds and that art style is spectacular.
However, I think at this stage of the hype cycle, when all we have is a gorgeous animated intro and less than a minute of smattered gameplay footage, maybe it’s better to focus on the origins of Link’s Awakening and why the return of this venerable portable masterpiece is a big deal, for both the Switch and the Zelda series as a whole.
Link’s Awakening started as a lark, as Nintendo developers messed around on Game Boy dev kits in their downtime surrounding the creation of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. At the forefront of this was Kazuaki Morita, a relatively unsung but prominent programmer that had a hand in nearly every single Mario and Zelda game from 1985 to 1995. In the early ‘90s, he was hard at work with Link to the Past, and that’s when his Game Boy tinkering began. Morita also really likes fishing, which explains the fishing mini-game in Link’s Awakening. By the time Link to the Past came out in 1991, the game’s director, the inimitable Takashi Tezuka pushed to make a handheld Zelda game. It would be the series’ first appearance on the Game Boy following a pair of NES games and the landmark SNES adventure.
Tezuka’s goals initially were to create a straight miniature remake of Link to the Past, almost making the future Link’s Awakening remake on a home console a bizarre through-the-looking-glass scenario. However, once the staff got together, primarily made up of the team from Link to the Past, they settled on making a brand new game. It’s more interesting that they did, and the Zelda series would lack a lot of what makes it special if we all played a scaled-back Link to the Past on Game Boy in 1993.
Over the next year and a half, a bizarre and wacky Zelda game unspooled, unburdened by Ganon, Princess Zelda, and the Triforce. It was a spinoff, focusing on Link’s shipwrecked journey on Koholint Island and his quest to wake the Wind Fish. Tezuka recalled the development in an Iwata Asks interview: “We made Link’s Awakening in a really peculiar frame of mind. We began in the free spirit of an afterschool club, so the contents were quite unrestrained.”
And unrestrained they were, with Mario, Luigi, Kirby, Wart, Chain Chomps, Goomba, Shy Guys, and more making appearances with their sprites more or less unchanged. Wart, under the assumed alias Mamu, legitimately plays an important role. Since Game Boy development was still early and more experimental, the developers just basically did what they wanted, ostensibly creating a parody of Zelda. When talking with the late Nintendo President Satoru Iwata in an Iwata Asks, Tezuka can’t even recall if they asked for permission for any of these characters. It’s extremely likely they just did used them without any clearance.
The world of Koholint was colored in by a vibrant cast of characters that, at Tezuka’s behest, was inspired by the TV show Twin Peaks. In a way, Zelda’s towns over the past 25 years seem to just be a bunch of Nintendo developers geeking out over David Lynch. The core writers for the story were two current Nintendo mainstays: Kensuke Tanabe and Yoshiaki Koizumi. Koizumi actually introduced the Link’s Awakening remake during the Nintendo Direct, and he’s also the general producer for the Switch. He has had his hand in all of the EPD Tokyo games, ranging from Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat to Super Mario Odyssey. His first role at Nintendo was working on the instruction manual for Link to the Past, which segued into his role crafting the story of Link’s Awakening.
Tanabe is another familiar face at Nintendo. He’s the shepherd of the Metroid Prime series, in addition to all of Retro Studios’ other games and a whole lot more. His first role at Nintendo was directing Super Mario Bros. 2, but he quickly transitioned to writing stories on Zelda. One of his core contributions was the trading sequence, which was inspired by the Japanese legend of the Straw Millionaire. Much like Morita’s fishing mini-game, it became a long-running Zelda series trope.
As Link’s Awakening carved its own path away from the initially proposed SNES remake, Tezuka laid some ground rules: no Hyrule, no Triforce, no Zelda. This was going to be a spin-off. Tanabe started to shape the world, coming up with the idea of an island dominated by the vision of an egg resting on top of a mountain. Koizumi’s contribution was the dream-like ideas and bizarre villagers, stemming from Tezuka’s desire to evoke Twin Peaks. The goal was to make villagers simple and easy to understand—especially given the limited graphics—but also deeper and more interesting. Much like the vibrant and memorable cast of Twin Peaks, Tezuka instructed Koizumi and Tanabe to make a town filled with “suspicious types.”
Link’s Awakening is the bridge that connects the ambition and scope of Link to the Past to Ocarina of Time, providing the colorful characters that make Ocarina of Time so memorable. The current guiding hand of the Zelda series Eiju Aonuma has said that a lot of the Ocarina of Time staff was inspired by Link’s Awakening’s personality when crafting that game. There’s a good chance we don’t see Ruto, Tingle, Dampe, Agitha, and so many more without the “suspicious types” of Link’s Awakening. And honestly, if, as Tezuka recalled, Shigeru Miyamoto wasn’t “busy with something and didn’t pay us much attention,” there’s a chance this quirky game never gets made.
On Nintendo Switch, Link’s Awakening follows a tough act. It’s the first main Zelda game following Breath of the Wild, which might play to its benefit. The more compact Game Boy-influenced design might serve the same role as it did back in 1993. Following a masterpiece in Zelda history, it might recall clever world building and familiar puzzles while refilling the minds of the series creators to get ready to unleash the next original mainline Zelda game. It’s also the first time 2D Zelda has found its way onto a TV in about 15 years, which might be one of the Switch’s most enduring legacies as primarily portable series are making it to the theoretical big leagues.
The reinvention of the entire series found in Breath of the Wild and the success it found likely means the Zelda franchise will never be the same again. It’s encouraging that, as we await whatever twist or bold design choice carries the series forward in its next original 3D or 2D adventure, we can still experience the fun and charm of a remake based on the Zelda series’ most memorable and heartfelt lark of a game.