Often some of the most exciting tools and powers in Zelda titles are the ones that enable you to move around the world in interesting ways. Consider Majora’s Mask and the way the Goron Mask enables you to roll through environments at high speeds, leaving destruction in your wake. Breath of the Wild revolutionized the open world by allowing you to climb nearly everything and giving you the power to glide through the sky to reach distant destinations. And who can forget the rush from launching from point to point in Twilight Princess using the Double Clawshot? So much of a Zelda title is spent exploring the fields or navigating the treacherous halls of dungeons – it’s important that the deceptively simple act of movement is exciting enough to keep us wanting to do it over and over again.
Link’s Awakening is a game that does this quite well. I’m five dungeons in now, much further than I was when I wrapped up my first impressions of the game. During that time I’ve gained all sorts of compelling tools for movement in the game world. In fact, so many of the key dungeon items in Link’s Awakening expand your forms of movement that I would consider it to be a primary focus of the game. This is evident not just in the sheer number of items that expand your movement options, but also in the way that those items are incorporated into their dungeons as well as the game world at large.
So let’s talk about movement in Link’s Awakening. First I want to discuss the key tools for movement that I’ve discovered in the game so far and the interesting options that they open up. Second, I’ll focus on how those tools interact with one another and how the game’s design cleverly incorporates the need for movement into the overworld and dungeons.
The roc’s feather is an item that is not unique to Link’s Awakening, but it is implemented in this game in a more compelling way than I have seen in other titles in the series. Jumping is a pretty straightforward action – you leave the ground briefly and land back upon it. If you’ve ever played a platformer you know exactly what’s going on here. What makes the roc’s feather special is how it combines with your other tools. In other Zelda titles that prominently feature the roc’s feather, you can’t really do anything while you’re in the air. In Four Sword Adventures you can perform a diving stab from the peak of your jump that causes you to plummet straight down, but that’s about it. In Link’s Awakening you can use many tools in the air, the most important of which is your sword.
I’ve never been a huge fan of the Zelda series iconic spin attack. It’s slow and leaves you vulnerable. You have to charge up the attack and then have a limited range of motion when trying to navigate to the right position. Enemies can interrupt it, and the situation where it is most ideal – when you’re surrounded – is also the situation where the baddies have the most opportunities to interfere. But the attack does more damage so there are plenty of times when you want to try to break it out. The roc’s feather makes that easier by allowing you to jump while holding a sword spin charge. You can leap sideways to dodge attacks and then strike the now-vulnerable enemy with a sword spin, dealing more damage than you would if you just slashed normally. The feeling of satisfaction that comes from narrowly leaping out of the way of a charging monster to smack them with a sword spin is pretty great.
The third dungeon introduces the pegasus boots, a staple of the series which allow you to run like the wind. Link pitter-patters his tiny feet as he charges up a run, then takes off across the screen in a straight line with his sword pointed firmly in the direction of whatever he’s charging at. This is great for quickly and safely crossing open areas in the overworld or charging through an enemy-filled chamber that you’ve already visited in a dungeon. I also love to use it to quickly charge through blade traps – when that pair of grinning guillotines come hurtling towards me while I approach an open doorway, the pegasus boots let me charge through just before the blades slam together and deal damage to me.
A big part of the satisfaction of the pegasus boots is that using them speeds up your ability to get places. Moving slowly through a big space can feel frustrating, particularly if there’s nothing really interesting that you want to do along the way. Or if there are lots of monsters blocking your path when all you want to do is cross through without incident, you can find yourself not wanting a way out. The pegasus boots solve both of those problems and reduce the time it takes to get to the places you really want to be. They also combine in an interesting way with the roc’s feather, which we’ll address in just a bit.
The flippers add water to your list of traversable terrain in Link’s Awakening, enabling you to enter the water and swim without taking damage and appearing back on land. This applies in two different ways depending on the area you are moving through. In the overworld or on floors of the dungeon, you can’t attack while swimming but can hide underwater from attacks and use A to swim in faster bursts. Just like stairs change Link’s perspective when moving on land, going fully underwater moves from a top-down to a side view and allow Link to swim in all four directions as well as enabling use of his sword. These swimming sequences are used for battles against enemies when moving from one floor to the other via water and even for boss battles.
Swimming is an interesting way to move because it forces you to change your approach. Moving about on land, you can defend yourself against threats. In the water you have to move more carefully, diving when monsters approach to duck below their attacks and then quickly pushing through while you have an opening. For the fully submerged areas, swimming allows you to move freely in all directions but you have to manage your pace when there are enemies or obstacles to deal with. And since you still can’t use your shield underwater, careful dodging is the only way to avoid damage from attacks.
These items are interesting enough on their own when you consider the fun movement options that they create. But when you combine them together or look at how they influence the overworld, you see how key these items were to the overall design of the game. Each dungeon and every area of the overworld uses obstacles that can only be circumvented by these items – or a combination of them – in order to pace the game and to provide secrets to explore. This to me is a big part of why Link’s Awakening feels so great to play and move through – all your stuff is important throughout the game because it never becomes irrelevant.
One of the guiltiest Zelda games for this problem was Twilight Princess. Dungeons would feature unique items and show you lots of cool way to apply them, but then future dungeons would never require that item again. There really is only one great opportunity to see what the spinner can do. The dominion rod has almost no value outside of the Temple of Time. And forget about busting out the ball and chain after you leave Yeto’s house. The game gave you great items but limited opportunities to experience them.
In Link’s Awakening, that’s not the case at all. I have jumped in every dungeon since getting the roc’s feather. If the roc’s feather somehow disappeared from my inventory, it would be impossible to finish the game. There are multiple places in the world where the pegasus boot long jump – a huge leap powered by the combination of the pegasus boots and the roc’s feather – is the only way to cross a gap or to get to an area where a secret is hidden. Swimming connected parts of the overworld in interesting new ways that made traveling a lot faster than before. Link’s Awakening doesn’t give you cool tools and then forget about them. Each dungeon builds upon the last and requires you to remember the tricks and techniques you learned while also adding new challenges to master.
Even the areas in the game which just have little secrets like seashells or pieces of heart have challenges that require you to visit multiple times as you get more and more resources to tackle them. Look at the above picture. It seems like this would be an area you can pretty much clean up once you get the pegasus boots. The rubbery tents there can be popped using a pegasus boot charge, and you can clear the gap to the treasure chest with a long jump. Or can you? Turns out that gap is way too big for a jump except for one spot – that little edge of the platform that is covered by the rock. If only you had some way to get that rock down.
Turns out you can pass through this area with the pegasus boots, but to get that chest, you’ll have to come back here later and explore it again with the hookshot. By hooking the chest you can cross the gap that’s too big for a long jump and get the treasure, and then you can push the rock down to long jump back since there’s nothing for you to hook to on the left side. The world is full of stuff like this – areas you explore become more nuanced and interesting as you get the tools you need to realize just how many interesting secrets are truly hidden there. And the satisfaction of launching across the gap with the hookshot and then leaping back with the boots and feather – that exhilarating movement is as satisfying as the “aha” moment where you figure out how to get the treasure in the first place.
Five dungeons in and Link’s Awakening is quickly becoming a Zelda game that I can see ranking towards the top of my list. Exploring this world is so exciting because there are so many fun ways to move around, and combining those methods with clever design has created an overworld saturated with secrets to find along with dungeons that put all of your skills and smarts to the test. It has been a blast running, jumping, and swimming through Koholint Island, and I’m excited to continue my journey and put the finishing touches on this excellent game.