My pal Teri Mae over on Sheikah Plate recently asked me why I find challenge runs of video games to be so fascinating. Last Friday I wrapped up the sixteen-chapter story of my Pokemon Let’s Go Eevee Nuzlocke challenge, and on Monday I shared that I’m right around halfway through my Ladies Only challenge run of Fire Emblem: Three Houses. I always seem to be doing challenges, so what gives? For me, these types of challenges are a fun way to engage with a game I deeply enjoyed but have already played. They add replayability to a title that I might not have any other incentive to revisit. In tabletop roleplaying games my friends refer to me as a min-maxer, someone who pushes the game’s mechanisms to try and manipulate the system for the maximum output in key stats. That’s how I approach challenge runs, too – if I limit or restrict myself in a certain way, how can I push what remains to still have a successful experience with the game?
While the other games I’ve been playing recently required me to add in the challenge elements myself, Link’s Awakening conveniently includes its challenge run in the package. That challenge is called Hero Mode, and it’s a game mode with two primary added difficulties. The first is that enemy attacks deal twice as much damage as they ordinarily would; an attack that would take half a heart takes a full heart, and an attack that would take two hearts takes four hearts. This immediately makes enemy attacks a lot more dangerous, but it’s the second element of the challenge that really makes the double damage problematic. Healing hearts do not drop in Hero Mode. No smashed pots, no cut bushes, no floating medals with hearts to grab up out of the air with the roc’s feather – the only way you are healing is through fairy bottles, special medicine, or through leaving the dungeon and walking to a place where you can heal in the overworld.
These two elements when working hand in hand compliment each other well. Not being able to heal would be tough enough on its own, but adding additional damage on top of that means that one wrong move could put you at critical health. Every misstep that puts you at the bottom of chasm is an entire heart lost. Every accidental bump into those aggravating wall-following spark monsters means you are a dramatic step closer to death than you were before. It’s much easier to get a game over in Hero Mode, and of course the file select screen has a little grave marker specifically placed there to remind you of how many times you kicked the bucket while trying to power your way through the game.
Link’s Awakening starts out pretty simple in the beginning. Once you pick up the sword off of the beach at Toronbo Shores you immediately have all the tools you need to scoop up four heart pieces and immediately give yourself a fourth heart before even making your way to the first dungeon. There’s also a fairy bottle at the bottom of the lake in the first town, giving you immediate access to one of your main methods of healing. After the second dungeon – accessible almost immediately after finishing the first – you can get the secret medicine from Crazy Tracy in order to have an automatic revive whenever you are defeated in battle. It’s pretty simple to get all of these tools in only a couple of hours, so you would think that these would offer a quick answer to the problems of Hero Mode.
As it turns out, that’s not quite the case. One of the first adjustments I’ve had to make in approaching Hero Mode is just the switch to being careful. Coming off of the end game of Link’s Awakening where I had 18 hearts and plenty of tools for zipping around the world at a moment’s notice, I didn’t have to worry too much about going out of my way to avoid obstacles or waiting patiently for a clear path between enemies so I could move forward. If I had an accident it didn’t cost me much at all, and a quick swipe at some tall grass or a purple crystal would be all that was needed to address the problem. Hero Mode asks you to be more measured, to approach a room thoughtfully rather than aggressively, and to not take unnecessary risks. Failing to shift into that gameplay philosophy quickly enough was the cause of many of my early deaths.
Game knowledge has gone a long way towards mitigating some of the challenges of Hero Mode. Having just played through Link’s Awakening in normal mode, I know where to look for a lot of the game’s secrets as well as knowing what order to address certain challenges or when to get upgrades. You need 40 secret seashells to unlock the Koholint Sword, increasing your attack power as well as enabling sword beams when at full health. Three dungeons in I already have 21 seashells, primarily because I remembered the locations of enough of them to get me the shell sensor quite early into my run. Additionally, you can gain access to the color dungeon after finishing the Key Dungeon, and I took advantage of that knowledge to grab the Blue Mail as soon as possible. The Blue Mail halves the damage you take, which in Hero Mode means that I now take the normal amount of damage that I would take from enemies if I was playing on normal. The thing is, since I didn’t get the Blue Mail at all during my first run, that means that from this point forward I’m taking as much damage as I am accustomed to taking. At this point, Hero Mode is reduced only to the challenge of not being able to heal with heart drops.
The thing is, heart drops aren’t the only healing opportunity that Hero Mode restricts. It turns out that any enemies who would normally drop fairies do not do so anymore. I anticipated that the trick to hero mode would be conserving health between minibosses, using their fairy drops to restore yourself halfway through a dungeon and then conserving health again until you faced the boss. As it turns out, minibosses don’t drop fairies in Hero Mode. You also can’t farm fairies by throwing magic powder on the fiery skull enemies, and ghosts don’t drop fairies anymore either. In short, there is no method of healing in dungeons except for whatever you bring in from outside. That’s tricky business because it means that if you get into a situation where you’re out of fairy bottles and secret medicine, you have to choose between risking the rest of the dungeon with no resources or leaving the dungeon and having to trek to it and through it all over again.
Of course, death in Link’s Awakening is a bit more limited of a punishment than you might expect. When you game over in the overworld you essentially respawn in the exact spot where you died – maybe a few feet away from it, but not a significant enough distance to be a serious barrier. Gaming over in a dungeon is a lot more inconvenient because you return to the entrance of the dungeon – but you still retain any resources that you obtained before your death. This means that if you die after picking up a key, you still have the key. In the early dungeons of the game that’s essentially how I progressed – each time I died, I’d gathered enough stuff that I could push forward just a bit more with the new resources I’d gained, and eventually I’d make it to the boss and finish the dungeon. Sure, I was starting with reduced health, but until I had reliable access to fairies and secret medicine there really was no practical difference between starting a dungeon before dying and starting a dungeon after dying.
Compare this to the Hero Mode in other Zelda games, or even just the dying penalty in other Zelda games. In A Link Between World, death meant losing any items you had rented from Ravio. Until late game when the ability to purchase items is unlocked, dying leads to an inconvenience that costs you a number of valuable rupees as well as time spent backtracking. In Breath of the Wild, dying requires you to reload the last save state, which may be an autosave if you didn’t actively safe your file before the circumstances which led to your demise. Any items you picked up since that save point won’t be kept, and any physical progress you made through the environment is lost too – and in Breath of the Wild, progress in the form of territory traveled is a much bigger deal than it is in Link’s Awakening.
I say all this to say that while Hero Mode certainly does add some challenge to Link’s Awakening, it doesn’t do so in a way that is particularly dramatic. While it is essentially the same mechanically as Hero Mode in other Zelda titles, the mechanism of dying in Link’s Awakening doesn’t have quite the same teeth. It’s easier to die, but since dying has limited impact on your overall progress the actual degree of challenge added is somewhat minimal. And while right now I’ve just wrapped up the color dungeon after doing the first three main dungeons, I anticipate the difficulty curve to reflect my experience with the hard mode of past Zelda titles: hard to push through in the beginning, but essentially the same as the standard mode by the time you’ve made some progress and start to obtain the tools that make Link significantly more powerful. And since I now have the game knowledge needed to reach those tools much earlier than I did in my first playthrough, I anticipate Hero Mode not to challenge me much at all by the time everything is said and done.
So if you want to play a challenge run of Link’s Awakening – a truly challenging one – what would you need to do? My recommendation would be to make a personal rule that your death counter on the save file cannot rise above zero. That would require you not to retry or save and quit after dying, but instead to turn off the game from the home menu and then restart from your most recent save. It’ll probably only take one or two significant losses of progress to remind you to save more frequently, but playing in this way stops you from incrementally beating dungeons in between deaths. Each time you reset the game you’re losing any keys or other important items you picked up, so you actually have to finish the dungeon in one go.
To up the ante even more, I’d recommend limiting how often you save the game where dungeons are concerned. Maybe only once when you start the dungeon and once after the miniboss – this would significantly increase the amount of content you’d have to repeat and learn to survive if you end up dying. These sorts of self-imposed limitations aren’t going to be reinforced by the game itself, so you’ll have to maintain the rules yourself, but this approach is more likely to increase the challenge for you if Hero Mode isn’t doing the trick. Of course, just because Hero Mode isn’t too tough for me doesn’t mean that you are having the same experience – if Hero Mode as-is provides just the right degree of challenge for you, then awesome! These are simply suggestions for anyone who wants to push themselves a little further.
I’m having fun with my Hero Mode run despite the challenge not being quite challenging enough. After all, at the end of the day I’m getting to do the thing I love to do: apply my knowledge of the game to mitigate restrictions that prevent me from playing it optimally. Using my understanding of Link’s Awakening to get useful boons faster in order to cancel out the challenge of Hero Mode still feels good for me, and it’s allowing me to experience the game again when otherwise I might have put it down after the first time I awoke the Wind Fish. For that reason alone, Hero Mode has been worthwhile.