As a kid, my parents had a no TV policy, and by proxy, no video games. Some of my friends had the big gaming consoles with which they introduced me to Mario and Sonic on the occasional sleepover. But when it came to the world of games, I felt mostly left out.
My first exposure to gaming as a hobby — and to the fantasy genre in general — came from Link. My parents got me a Game Boy for Christmas in 1993, and it came with The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. When I asked them recently about it, they said I’d pestered them so incessantly that they couldn’t help but lift their parental restrictions.
I was smitten from the start. I distinctly remember my eight-year-old self playing it on long car rides and under the trees at my house. I was utterly sucked into the world, finding hidden rooms, testing my sword against little pixelated enemies. I still have that original Game Boy, now yellowed and battered. It still works, but it’s more artifact than usable handheld at this point.
With hype for the Nintendo Switch and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild taking over my Twitter steam, I felt motivated to procure a used Game Boy (with a fully working screen) and play through the one game that had defined a particular moment of my childhood.
The game is viewed from above Link, the frame covering a large plot of land. The view encourages exploration, inviting you to inspect the enemies, mysteries, and paths at the edge of the screen. In my childhood, I spent dozens of hours across many years exploring every single inch of that island, cutting down every bush, breaking every pot, and digging a hole in every single available space, looking for treasure and clues. Finally beating the game after playing for so long was an emotional experience. I hadn’t played many games, which I suspect made this journey all the more precious. The conclusion felt like saying goodbye to a friend and a secret world that was all mine.
Revisiting brought back the remnants of that excitement and sorrow. I’m a bit surprised to say Link’s Awakening holds up extremely well all these years later. The game lays out a simple yet compelling story of a dream world, and the hero’s attempts to escape. A quarter century after release, I was struck at how clever the design remains. I peeked more than once at a walkthrough when I got stuck on a particular puzzle or dungeon.
While I had a handful of other games for that device — a tie-in to Return of the Jedi, Tetris, a couple other staples — I was never lost in them like I was in Link’s Awakening. And yet, I never got around to playing the other Zelda games. It wasn’t until college and adulthood that I began playing other video games with any regularity.
Now I know a little more about the medium, about its language, about what makes a game special, but playing Link’s Awakening again after all these years hasn’t been a critically taxing affair. No, it’s been a visit to a childhood home that hasn’t changed.