The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX (3DS Virtual Console edition)
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Released: Summer 1993 (GB) / December 1998 (GBC) / June 2011 (3DS VC)
Played: story complete in 15h:28min
Washed up and trapped on a mysterious island, Link must collect eight magical instruments to awaken the mythical Wind Fish and return home. But there's more to Koholint Island than meets the eye...
Link's Awakening received average review scores of 90%. Some critics found the control scheme awkward and the black-and-white graphics difficult to interpret, but the game was widely hailed as one of the greatest Game Boy games ever made due to its music, story, and depth.
Released five years later for the Game Boy Color, the DX edition added colour graphics and some minor content additions. Reviewers found the game much more clear and less confusing in colour, resulting in fewer frustrating deaths.
The 3DS Virtual Console release added save-anywhere Restore Point functionality, an improvement over the original save system.
Given how much some gamers lament the hand-holding of modern games, I was surprised to be given such clear instructions and so many hints in a game originally released in 1993. As soon as I completed an objective I was immediately sent to the next thing without any subtlety. Bosses frequently told me exactly how to kill them by saying things like "I'm invulnerable unless you exploit my only weakness which is _____".
In contrast, many of the puzzles and secrets were incredibly unintuitive - for example, at one point you're told that bombable walls make different sounds than normal walls if you hit them with your sword, and apparently that's supposed to be enough information to find a mandatory-to-progress hidden room two dungeons later without a reminder. A clue you find at the very beginning of the game is meant to solve a dungeon fourteen hours later on, again with no reminder.
Fortunately most of the puzzles fit into a delightfully clever and/or subtle middle ground (though I did get annoyed at some of the secrets that gave zero indication of their existence). One dungeon room had a number of breakable stones, and once broken you can see that the pattern on the floor is an arrow pointing to a previously unremarkable wall. And the final boss had many different forms, requiring me to quickly adapt and find its new weakness.
The controls kind of suck and I'm disappointed that they weren't updated for the Virtual Console release. Since the original Game Boy only had two useable buttons and a D-pad, all Link's equipment must work off the A and B buttons. You choose which two pieces of gear to assign to the buttons and can swap out as necessary. But it turns out that it's necessary almost every time you change screens (rooms/areas), and reassigning is pretty disruptive when you have to pause every time. Though it would've required re-coding a lot of functionality, it's too bad the 3DS release doesn't allow you to use the L, R, X, or Y buttons, or to use the D-pad as a selection tool instead of just being interchangeable with the circle pad.
Other than the control issues, I was pretty impressed with the gameplay. Enemies are diverse and require a lot of different tactics and weapons, including a lot of directional elements (ex. some enemies deflect attacks from the front; others must be fed bombs from the right angle). Unfortunately the enemy cameos from other Nintendo games felt odd and out of place, almost parody-like. But having several weapons and utility items available meant that I could choose how to approach combat and didn't have to default to sword and shield every time - I could use a bow while jumping over enemies instead of blocking.
There's a good amount of exploration and side activities to mess around with. The most prominent is the trading side quest to earn the magnifying glass and boomerang, which are neat optional items. It always feels good to go back and overcome obstacles that blocked you later in the game and explore the new areas.
I feel like the ending would have been very different had this game been made more recently. Or had it not been a Zelda game. It turns out that Koholint is a dream and awakening causes the island to vanish. It might have been more interesting for Link to have to choose to stay (with Marin, who's obviously into him) or wake up and end the island. But the actual ending still worked, and felt kind of bittersweet even though the game provides no context for why Link should awaken the Wind Fish and leave the island. "It was all a dream" is usually a lame cop-out but I wasn't even mad here - the hints and (relatively) early reveal give you time to realize what's going on and think about the implications before you awaken the Wind Fish, and that buildup is what got me thinking about that alternate ending in the first place.
Recommendation: play it.
The Virtual Console's restore point functionality, as well as the 3DS' sleep function, make it very easy to play Link's Awakening at your own pace. I played the entire game on transit to and from work over the course of a week. Even though it's twenty years old, much of the gameplay is still quite clever. And as always, I enjoy exploration and secrets. Link's Awakening is a solid portable game.