I’d like to say that this is another video game review, but that isn’t exactly true.
I first heard about Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening back when I used to get Nintendo Power Magazine. I remember that day. It was the summer time and the bus dropped me off from camp in front of my old elementary school. My Mom was there with Issue 50 of Nintendo Power that I’d been waiting impatiently for. This is what I saw:
This mysterious owl sat near the sword. Originally I was annoyed that my copy of this issue got tattered, but it and the faded tan-bronze cover only added to the mystique that Nintendo no doubt wanted to build around this issue and the game they were featuring in particular. Well, for me, it worked.
It didn’t work in getting me to get the game however. Not initially. And when I did get it I didn’t really have as good a head for puzzles and video game combat strategy back then. By that point, my friend who’d gotten the game before me proudly spoiled the ending: or maybe I asked him. I don’t actually remember. So I don’t know why I picked up the game again years later, but I did. By that point I had a little more common sense and I’d played a few more games. Also, I’d read some philosophy: a lot more philosophy.
You are Link. You are on a ship in a storm that leaves you marooned on a strange Island. You figure out that the only way to get off of the Island is to awaken the Wind Fish in its egg on the top of the highest mountain.
There are puzzles and mysteries and secrets. You have many moments: most of them fun, a lot of them dangerous and you get to know the mysteries of Koholint Island. There are strange people, weird creatures, a talking owl that periodically advises you in riddles, a man who eats things he shouldn’t … and a girl who likes to sing and just spend some time on the beach with you.
I’m going to go into Spoiler Territory right now. Unlike Super Mario Brothers 2 where the “it is all just a dream surprise ending” just seems like a cop-out, in Link’s Awakening it is a gradual realization that comes with some sadness at the end of the game. In fact, the spirit of this game is perhaps even more emblematic of mono no aware–of understanding and having empathy towards the impermanent beauty in life–than even Terrangima.
Then you take the chronology that Nintendo claims the Zelda games all have into account. Personally, I liked the idea that each game in the series was a “legend”: a story with some elements of history but each being an account that has ultimately been changed over time as memory fades. However, in this case, I like that Link’s Awakening apparently happened after A Link to the Past as I’ve understood it.
Let me explain my take on Link’s Awakening and what I feel is really significant about it. From my North American understanding, there were three games before this one–the two Nintendo and the Super Nintendo ones–and all of them involved Link rescuing Zelda and dealing with the Triforce.
Here is how I see Link in this game. He has done all of these heroic things, but after he has completed them, he’s tired. In Hyrule, he is known as the rescuer of Zelda and the hero of the Triforce. If he had a normal life before this, it is gone. Maybe he just wants to get away. Maybe he lost much of what matters to him. Maybe he just doesn’t know who he is anymore.
The fact is, before this point Link didn’t seem to have an identity outside of being Zelda’s hero and the gatherer of the Triforce. Link’s Awakening, despite the franchise title, is Link’s story. It is not only a hero’s story, but the story of a man who journeys into his own subconscious. The owl that he finds on the Island is that part of him–the wise being or animal archetype–guiding him through this inner journey. Every creature and obstacle is his unconscious mind trying to keep him in a state of ignorance. Every time Link reclaims or gains a new item, he starts to remember more of who he is: or begin that process of knowing who he is.
You can get even more Jungian and say that Marin–the girl he meets–is his anima: the feminine aspect of his mind that reveals things through subtle intuition and actually has him pay attention to the things he has taken for granted in the other games. He plays around, he laughs and he learns to enjoy the sunset and the sentiment that can feel when watching it. He also has to face Eight Nightmares that could represent emotions or attachments: seals of power that keep the Wind Fish–or Link–from waking up, while the ultimate Shadow Nightmare at the very end of the game symbolize the essence of his greatest personal fears and then ultimate universal horror.
He has to gather eight instruments to create music from a tune that Marin sings him to get into the egg that the Wind Fish sleeps in. And when the Wind Fish wakes up … it can fly. And it does.
It is a symbol of awakening: of enlightenment. It is a symbol you would find in some Eastern thought or even in a very mythological way. I know you can easily say that the Wind Fish dreamed Marin, the Owl, the Nightmares and the entire Island: that they were all aspects of its dreaming mind. Link might even be a part of its mind and it has awakened to another reality. It is a valid interpretation given how Link physically wakes up on a floating rafter in the ocean. Does a man dream of being a pebble or does a pebble dream about being a man? Does Link dream about the sleeping Wind Fish and its Island, or does the Wind Fish dream about a sleeping Link?
The thing is, when I talk about all this, I believe I’m actually talking about Link as a symbol and not necessarily with regards to the ambiguous continuity that Nintendo is trying to make between games. I think, that at that moment above when Link destroys the last Nightmare and wakes up the Wind Fish, he is really awakening himself. At that moment, in that moment, Link is more than just a silent hero that goes around fulfilling tasks and doing what Zelda cannot or will not.
When Link wakes up the Wind Fish, when the illusion of maya that is the Island disappears, when Link regains consciousness: he actually gains consciousness. He expresses emotion through his interactions with everyone on the Island: each one of them aspects of himself. He realizes he has a whole world in himself that is a part of a reality outside of him as well. He experiences mono no aware: that sorrow and acceptance with regards to the passing of beauty in life. In one tiny hand-held 8-bit console with grey graphics or crayon-colours, Link is depicted as having achieved enlightenment and self-knowledge. For the first time, the hero of Hyrule knows who he is. He someone who dreams and is dreamed of. He is an archetype.
For the resources of the time that made this game, isn’t that just … beautiful? I’d really like to think so. I know many of you might think that I am reading too much into this and that it is just a game. Certainly I would not say that Link’s Awakening is a tool for personal enlightenment, though it is tempting to say in a creative sense, but it does depict some cultural depictions of it well. It is a beautiful artifact and I’m glad I knew it. Obviously, if this were an official review it would be getting five out of five.
I would like to leave you with just one more thought. When Link wakes up, it’s as though it was all a dream. When we finish playing a video game, the game is over. We put down the console or turn off the computer and go do something else. Our interactive electronic dream is over. Yet do all of those challenges and experiences: and those touching moments all fade away and mean nothing because they were not physically real? Did they not happen? Somehow, I don’t think so because, even when we finish sleeping, our dreams never really go away.
They continue stay with us. Because dreams are memories too.