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So, then, here it is: the best Game Boy adventure ever released, and a serious contender for the title of greatest hand-held game of them all. Released in late 1993, when the console was already firmly established in the market, it redefined expectations of what the humble Game Boy should be able to achieve. It managed enormous scores in the games magazines of the day, even by their usually inflated standards, and its near-universal acclaim was entirely justified. In 1998 a DX version was released for the Game Boy Color, which added colour (amazingly) as well as a couple of gameplay tweaks and one extra dungeon.
This game is a little cut off from the previous instalments in the Zelda series, taking place as it does on an island far from Hyrule and with Zelda herself making no more than a brief cameo appearance. Actually there are quite a number of cameos from characters such as Yoshi and Mr Write, and these are cleverly done so that series aficionados will raise a smile but those new to Zelda will not be unduly punished for their ignorance. When I bought my cartridge I knew almost nothing about the Zelda universe as such, and I still enjoyed the game hugely.
Link's Awakening is an action adventure RPG, in which
you take the part of Link and explore the island of Koholint, with the ultimate aim of waking the mysterious Wind Fish. This you are told by the owl who swoops down to you near the start of the game, and again at intervals thereafter. There is actually quite a lot of help and useful hints to be gleaned by listening carefully to as many characters as possible - some children in the village where you start will even help you learn the controls! Along your way you will need to explore a number of dungeons, set in caves, where all manner of nasty creatures lurk.
The difficulty is nicely judged, scaling up gradually but noticeably as you progress through the game. For example, the first significant problem you have to solve - locating your lost sword - is very easy provided you have been paying attention. That's a good job, because you're not going to get very far without it! The island's geography is cleverly arranged so that many areas are simply out of bounds until you have acquired certain pieces of equipment: this assists you both in making it clear that you have not yet explored your current area adequately and in preventing your straying into too deadly a location before you have built up the ability to cope with it. By the time you get to the higher levels, you get very little leeway to make mistakes.
The island feels very large, despite the map proving that it is not enormous; it also gives the impression of being a living, organic space, as all the best RPG worlds do. Characters refer to each other as well as just to you, some of them act differently according to what you are carrying or who you have met, and some can be both friend and foe depending on the circumstances. In some cases visiting A and then B will have different consequences from doing it the other way around. This can be frustrating, but for the most part it simply adds to the interest and extends the game's already impressive lifespan.
Considering the limitations of the monochrome palette (in the original version) the graphics are not bad at all. Characters are reasonably easily distinguished from one another, and the designs are cute and humorous without becoming sickly sweet. It does occasionally become a little hard to see what is going on when there is a lot of fast-moving action, such as in some of the dungeons, but it's not impossible to cope. As you would expect, the introduction of colour in the DX version makes everything a lot easier to see, and gives the world itself a brighter feel.
The sound is excellent, given the console's technical limitations. There is a very wide variety of music, and even the blips and bloops when you collect items and suchlike are nicely varied. The sound also plays an important role in the game, in that a change in background music can often alert you to the fact that you are walking into danger or that there is an opportunity to collect treasure. (Koholint's currency is the rupee, and a bit of slashing away at the cabbage fields can often turn up some coins. These are not for bribing monsters: they have a much more obvious use.)
If I had to restrict myself to one Game Boy game, then in all probability it would be Link's Awakening, even ahead of such all-time classics as Lemmings and Tetris. It is an absolute triumph, and transcends the modest capabilities of its hardware to earn a place as one of the finest of all such action adventures. Even with a complete solution and map in front of you (you cheat!) it still holds the interest, partly because there is just so much freedom to try new things. If you're feeling violent, try attacking the chickens in the village... but do save your game first!
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