I beat Link's Awakening for the first time since I was a kid, via the lovely Switch port. It's consistently been one of my favorite Zelda games, with only Ocarina of Time and maybe Breath of the Wild edging it out. Suffice to say, I have a lot of feelings about it. I was gonna do this as a Twitter thread, but it ended up being too long, so I might as well necropost on this blog.
I also don't feel like adding screenshots to this post, it'd be a lot of work getting them off the Switch.
Finally, spoilers throughout.
I have a lot of feelings about this game. I adore it for a lot of reasons, but one of the foremost is how it frames your actions in a morally ambiguous light. You are constantly told to wake the Wind Fish, this is the central axis upon which the game turns, but you learn later that it will cause the island to disappear. The island, and everyone on it, are part of the Wind Fish's dream, and will go away once the dream ends.
It's a fascinating concept for a fantasy story, but all the more so because it asks the question if you want to finish the quest at all. If this is as 'good' as you've been led to believe this is. You can't leave the island without waking the Wind Fish! Plus it's having a nightmare and that's why all the monsters are here, but... you still have the two villages and all the other people. They go away when the Wind Fish wakes. Is it worth their disappearance for Link to return to Hyrule? The nightmares only care to conquer this little island of the dream, and don't seem to affect the wider world.
Now, I'm pretty sure these villagers aren't meant to be 'real' people, they're impressions created by the Wind Fish, and all repeat a few simple lines of dialogue to you. I don't know if this is meant to tell you Link recognizes these are all dreamlike analogies of people, or it’s the simple necessity of running a game on the original Game Boy.
But... Marin. This is why I love the secret ending, and restarted to make sure I got it. She has so much character and vibrancy, it's clear she's... real in a way the rest of the NPCs aren't. It's heavily implied she knows the secret of Koholint, and therefore dreams to be like a seagull to see the world outside the dream. Her character arc is surprisingly touching and poignant, and reinforces just how meaningful this cutesy handheld game can be.
It’s the nature of dreams to end, as the game says. Perhaps it was always fated Koholint would disappear, but it’s your quest to ensure it does so as it ‘should,’ rather than the nightmare destroying it. These people should fade away peacefully, not be slaughtered by monsters.
Zelda is not a series with much moral ambiguity. You're always a prophesied hero, and you're (usually) going up against literal reincarnations of evil. Your actions are never really called into question. There are a few questlines across the games which make you wonder, but the core conceit of the games are always meant to be morally just and ‘good.’
Link's Awakening, in many ways, tries to do something different, and I have always hailed it as one of the best Zeldas for that. It astonishes me they managed this on the GB, for how complex and intricate it is. Even the dialogue, sparse as it is, does so much for adding character. The game stays with you after you're done, and makes you wonder if what you did was right.
I love questions of moral perspective and relativity like this, perhaps why I'm so enamored with Yoko Taro's work. I don't believe Link's Awakening sets out to push this question as a central theme to the game; none of the villager dialogue changes after you learn they'll disappear when the Wind Fish wakes up. It's only mentioned in the Ancient Ruins, by the owl, by a couple bosses before and after you fight them. It adds a bit of narrative depth which the rest of the game doesn't really engage with. I don't believe it needs to, I think this works much better for the player to muse about as they finish the game.
As an aside, I do feel modern games, and modern media in general, spend far too much effort telling you what to think, what messages to take away, rather than letting you figure it out yourself or with your friends. Ambiguity is a good thing, and makes media so much more interesting and engaging vs. having you turn your brain off for however long and being told what you should think about it. I have so much more of a personal relationship with Link's Awakening because of these questions, and these personal relationships with media are a good thing. They're what media consumption are all about, I think.
Later, when you return to Marin at the end of the game, she says she's been praying to the Wind Fish for... what? The game never says. Does she just want Link to kiss her? Does she want him to succeed on his quest? Or, like she said earlier, does she want to be like a seagull, and does she want to explore the outer world with him?
I personally think it's the last one, she's praying not to disappear when the Wind Fish wakes. And, like the benevolent-if-absent god it is, it grants this wish because Marin was the only person on the island who knew she was a dream, and didn't want to remain one.
Marin might be one of my favorite characters in Zelda, now that I think about it.
People always say Majora's Mask is the darkest game in the series, and yeah it still probably earns that title, but the connotations of Link's Awakening's core quest is IMO far more interesting than 'stop creepy moon from falling.'
I’m not very knowledgeable in literary analysis, it’s something I squandered in my college education and I’m trying to pick up what I can nowadays. You could write essays picking this game's themes apart, and I’m absolutely sure they exist by now. These are just my thoughts about a game I’ve loved since I was a kid.
After teaching you the Ballad of the Wind Fish on your ocarina, Marin says,
Please, don't ever forget this song…or me…
Later, one of the last things she says is,
Link, someday you will leave this island… I just know it in my heart…
…Don't ever forget me… If you do, I'll never forgive you!
I never have, and I don't think I ever will.