This article contains major story spoilers for The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.
Nothing dates a work of art faster than monochrome. At least on the superficial level. It is not uncommon for the public to dismiss a lack of color as outdated or aesthetically inferior to modern day colorful offerings. This mostly applies to black-and-white movies, but hits games just as hard. Who wants to play a Game Boy game in black and white or pea soup green when the Super Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, and Simple Emulation all offer a “better” alternative? Between its Game Boy Color reissue and a full remake for Switch, play The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening in its original black and white looks particularly redundant – but that’s the wrong way to look at art. Monochrome is a limitation that evolved into a style for a reason. There’s artistry to be enjoyed in black and white and pea soup green.
Monochrome forces designers to get creative. How do you get around the limitation of no color? For older films, it was through careful lighting, cinematography, and camerawork. For Link’s Awakening, it’s thanks to thoughtful art direction that leans into the story’s strange premise – an adventurer trapped in a dream. Zelda’s traditional fantasy aesthetic is replaced with palpable surrealism. Link’s AwakeningWriter Yoshiaki Koizumi once described the game as follows: “Being in a dream that can be yours or someone else’s.” (Legend of Zelda Encyclopedia Pg 235) It is easy to see where it comes from. The identity of the franchise is still very much intact in Link’s Awakening, but complemented by external franchise quirks that create a natural disconnect between what you expect from a Zelda game and what you actually get. It’s almost like play a parody.
“Maybe that’s why we had so much fun doing it. It was like we were doing a parody of The Legend of Zelda.”
-Takashi Tezuka Link’s Awakening Director
A raccoon keeps trapping you in the woods until you spray magic mushroom powder on it. You must help a character from a completely different video game to find his gold leaves. A walrus won’t budge unless the girl you have a crush on sings to it. A goat grabs Dr. Wright from SimCity pretending to be Princess Peach. You trade a Yoshi doll for a ribbon for a banana for a stick for a honeycomb for a hibiscus for a letter for a broom for a fish hook for a necklace (originally a bra) for a mermaid scale against a magnifying glass so you can read the secret path to the final boss in your local library.
There’s an inherent absurdity at play that naturally lends itself to grayscale. The monochrome adds a dreamlike layer to the game’s already ethereal atmosphere, where the lack of color complements the surreal qualities of the setting. Many of the game’s settings feel like they’ve been plucked out of a dream, just too bizarre for your average Zelda set in Hyrule but perfectly at home on the island of Koholint.
The whole setting has a surreal feel to it. Mabe Village seems almost anchored when Marin first wakes Link, but quickly unravels as you explore. Koholint is a tropical island where animals and humans coexist in peace. Super Mario enemies roam the land, juxtaposed with your typical Zelda villains. Frogs and fish compose magical songs while always thinking of monetizing their work. A blocked sanctuary with a single bed allows you to dream in a dream. A huge Egg stands on top of a large and high mountain range and ancient ruins prophesy the end of this world,
“TO THE FINDER… THE ISLAND OF KOHOLINT IS JUST AN ILLUSION… HUMAN, MONSTER, SEA, SKY… A SCENE ON THE EYELID OF A SLEEPER’S EYE… WAKE THE DREAMER, AND KOHOLINT WILL DISAPPEAR LIKE A BUBBLE ON A NEEDLE…CASTAWAY, YOU SHOULD KNOW THE TRUTH!”
Stylistically, black and white suits the dreamy flow and weirder tendencies of the story. This gives the game a unique flavor. It’s as if you were dreaming, which is perhaps appropriate given the twin peaks inspiration.
“I was talking about shaping The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening with a feel that’s a bit like Twin Peaks. At the time, Twin Peaks was quite popular. The drama was about a small number of characters in a small town. . . So when it came to The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, I wanted to do something that, while small enough to be easily understood, would have deep and distinctive characteristics.”
– Takashi Tezuka
Link’s Awakening is deeper and thematically richer than it suggests. The script is full of weird dialogue that makes it seem too self-awareness and alludes to the true nature of the island. “Dude! You ask me when we started living on this island? What do you mean by “when?” Wow! The concept just makes my head hurt!“The game changes your name to THIEF if you steal from the shop, permanently overwriting your file and putting you to shame forever”, “Guess what? You got it for free. Are you proud of yourself?– like the guilt that seeps into a dream.
Owl statues offer off-putting omens and muse about the nature of dreams. “SEA BEAR MOSS, SLEEPING BEARS DREAMS. BOTH END THE SAME WAY / CRASSSH!“represents the jolt of waking up from a dream – the sudden end of everything around you.”THE WIND FISH SLEEPED A LONG… THE HERO’S LIFE IS OVER…is an ominous message that suggests Link may have died in his sinking, but doubles as a potential warning against escape. As long as Link remains in the dream, the waking world has no heroes. If you never stop playing the game, you will never live your life.
In some ways, black and white is more appropriate given Link’s Awakeningtone and themes. It puts more emphasis on surrealism and makes you think more deeply about the messages of the story. Link’s Awakening can be really provocative at times. Marin has a surprisingly poignant bow. She is the fruit of a fish’s dream, but she nevertheless has her own dreams and desires.
“If I was a seagull, I would fly as far as I could! I would fly to faraway places and sing for many people! …If I wish on the Wind Fish, I wonder if my dream will come true… … …”
The concept of sharing your dreams is expressed figuratively and literally. Link and the Wind Fish both influence the dream they are in. Marin resembles Zelda while the owl acts as a sort of subconscious of the Wind Fish. Most of Koholint’s weirdness can be attributed to the Wind Fish, but Link’s personality seeps through in other ways. Sailor seeing the world could reflect his own wanderlust and thirst for adventure. The final battle represents Link’s deepest fears manifested: Agahnim, Ganon, endless darkness – a “Dark World”, if you will. Our dreams are ultimately reflections of ourselves. What we want, what we fear, what we think we are and are not.
Much of the game and the story is designed to simply capture the experience of being in a dream. Nothing ever feels quite real, but everything makes sense in the moment. It’s only on reflection that the nonsense really comes out. The most shocking Link’s Awakening gets is when the game’s bosses, Nightmares, abruptly start tackling the dream ending about halfway through the story,
“TSSSK, TSSSK! You don’t seem to know what kind of island it is… KEEE-HEEE-HEEE! What a fool… KEE-HEE-HEH!!”
– Fifth Boss
Escalate the conversation with every fight,
“Okay, listen! If the Wind Fish wakes up, everything on this island will be gone forever! And I mean… EVERYTHING!”
– Sixth boss
Nightmares want you to feel better about the dream and the game.”My energy…gone…I…lost! But you will be lost too, if the Wind Fish wakes up! Like me… you… are… in… his… dream…” Link’s AwakeningThe aesthetic and atmosphere of never ceases to be lighthearted either, which makes the sudden change in tone all the more unsettling. It’s as if the game itself doesn’t want to end.
But everything must end, good games like dreams. Koholint’s disappearance when all is said and done seems symbolic of the impermanence of dreams. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. This idea comes to life in the last act of the story. The dream ends when the game ends. You decide when your time on Koholint Island is over. You have to wake up the Wind Fish yourself and watch the world slowly disappear screen by screen. It makes the finale more powerful and surreal. The Legend of Zelda is meant to save the world, not end it. Almost as a solace against that fact, the game offers a warm reminder of what you’ve been craving.
“BUT, REALLY, IT IS THE NATURE OF DREAMS TO END! WHEN I WAKE UP, KOHOLINT WILL BE GONE… ONLY THE MEMORY OF THIS DREAM LAND WILL EXIST IN THE WAKING WORLD… ONE DAY YOU MAY REMEMBER THIS ISLAND AND… THIS MEMORY MUST BE THE TRUE DREAM WORLD…”
Link’s Awakening DX and HD illustrate that the color takes nothing away from Koholint’s atmosphere or sense of style. Both titles respectively modernize the art style of the original while remaining true to its direction. That said, there’s just something so natural and sometimes amazing about Link’s Awakening in black and white or shades of green. It’s not shiny or vibrant, but it does have a unique, moody soul and atmosphere. The limited color just makes sense for a game so surreal, eerie, ethereal, and out of place and time – as charming as it is funny and dark. the original Link’s Awakening is truly a monochrome dream.