Happy 25th anniversary to The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. Originally released on the Game Boy in 1993, Link's Awakening quickly proved it deserves to be measured against the best entries in the beloved series. It's a small Moblin with a very significant bite, to use a Zelda-specific metaphor.
Link's Awakening is perfectly-tailored for the Game Boy's tiny resolution. Every screen of the mysterious Koholint Island is packed with significance; like an expert decorator gussying up a tiny New York shoebox apartment, Nintendo uses up every inch of space available to it. Outside of Pokémon Red and Blue, no other Game Boy game offers the player such a sense of sprawling adventure.
Link's Awakening deserves the accolades and celebrations it's received across the last two decades, but not enough has been said about one of the reasons the game's steeped neck-deep in atmosphere despite its simple graphics: It has a powerful soundtrack that's unrivalled on the Game Boy.
The three music-makers behind the tunes in Link's Awakening are Metroid series composer Minako Hamano, Earthbound composer Kozue Ishikawa, and Kazumi "K.K. Slider" Totaka. Three composers for a single Game Boy game is impressive, given most developers for Nintendo's brick-shaped handheld were content to put one musician—if any—on the job. The payout is undeniable, however, and the quality of the soundtrack for Link's Awakening set a standard for Zelda games that came afterwards.
There are over 70 individual pieces of music accompanying Link on his journey, including a new theme for every dungeon Link explores. Even The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for the SNES only has two dungeon themes to speak of, and Ganon's Tower utilizes the same generic dungeon theme as the rest of the Dark World's vaults.
Nintendo didn't put so much work into the soundtrack for Link's Awakening because it wanted to give its composers something to do, however. Music plays a key part in the game's story, as Link must wrangle a set of instruments necessary to awaken the sleeping giant whose dream holds him hostage on Koholint. One such instrument is an ocarina, a flute that went on to have a not-small part in the next Zelda game.
While some of the pieces in Link's Awakening's sizeable repertoire are only a few seconds long, some of the game's best scores are fully-composed works that must've taken a lot of thought but are only heard at specific points in the game's narrative. One example is the tune accompanying Link while he searches for his sword on the shores of Koholint. You hear it exclusively for a few moments in the game's opening scenario, and it evokes feelings of wistful wandering. It's your first clue something's not quite right on this alien island, even though everything seems pleasant on the surface (prickly beach urchins aside).
Once Link retrieves his instrument of stabbing, the main theme for Link's Awakening cues up and we're offered another auditory clue we're in for something a little different from A Link to the Past. Link's Awakening could get away with giving us a Game Boy rendition of A Link to the Past's overworld theme, but instead, we're treated to a whole new version of the Zelda series' iconic overworld music. The music that travels along with Link is miles away from the ten-second loop most Game Boy games substitute for soundtracks, too: At 40 seconds long, it starts familiar before going in its own direction at the halfway mark.
The Tal Tal mountain range looms across Koholint's northern border, and it's also where you cast eyes upon the egg of the slumbering Wind Fish early in the game. Link's Awakening is a curiosity, narrative-wise: It doesn't offer you an immediate antagonist like most Zelda games do. Link is told he needs to wake up the Wind Fish if he wants to get off the Island, but we don't learn how those two objectives connect to each other until the end of the game. Moreover, the longer you hang around Koholint, the more you're assured waking up the Island's sleeping guardian will spell disaster for everyone down-mountain. The Wind Fish is a threat, but you're not told why. Ganon, this fish is not.
That might be why the theme for Tal Tal Heights is more unsettling than sinister. It exudes nervous energy. It reminds me of the Pink Rabbit theme from A Link to the Past, though it's not as dangerous-sounding (understandable, as Link is disarmed when he becomes a rabbit). Tal Tal Heights' music issues a challenge—not just to scale the dangerous peak, but to get to the bottom of its mysteries.
Finally, there's the Ballad of the Wind Fish. Though the song technically belongs to Marin—the music-loving woman who finds Link half-drowned by the Koholint seaside—it's also a leitmotif for the Wind Fish and all its mysteries. It's the song Link plays to wake up the guardian, and it's the song that plays in the game's last moments. The emotional weight behind Ballad of the Wind Fish makes it a subject for music remixers and entire symphonies. Not bad for a song born of a tinny Game Boy sound chip.
Not bad for a follow-up adventure born on the Game Boy, either. The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening was originally intended to be a handheld conversion of A Link to the Past, but Nintendo gave it its own soul, and its own voice. And that's why it's still well-worth looking back on 25 years after its release.