The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening was originally released in 1993 on the Game Boy. It started development as an after-hours Game Boy hardware experiment and then a GB port of A Link to the Past before finally going into full-fledged development as an original Zelda game for the Game Boy. That's probably why it shares so many similarities with A Link to the Past. It was re-released as The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX in 1998 for the Game Boy Color with enhanced color graphics, Game Boy Printer support, and a new color dungeon. Link's Awakening DX is also available on the 3DS Virtual Console.
If there's one Zelda game I would call the Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA) of Zelda games, it's definitely The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. It's not the black sheep of the series (that's Zelda II), but it does take place in a dream, and it's more influential within the series than it gets credit for. It was the first Zelda game to break away from the usual Zelda, Ganon, and Triforce stuff. It doesn't even take place in Hyrule. It also had the first fishing minigame in the series, the first item trading quest chain, it introduced the hint (Owl/Sheikah) stones, and it introduced characters like the Owl, Tarin, Marin, and the Luigi counterpart, all who were later reimagined as Kaepora Gaebora, Talon, Malon, and Ingo in OoT, and have become recurring characters in the series. Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask in particular would have probably been very different if Link's Awakening wasn't made before them.
According to the latest Zelda timeline revision, Link's Awakening takes place in the “Hero is Defeated” (best) timeline, after LttP and before the Oracle games. It was placed after the Oracle games in Hyrule Hystoria, but was put back after LttP in the Legend of Zelda Encyclopedia. Some time after Link’s adventures in A Link to the Past, Link leaves Hyrule on a sailboat to go train somewhere. I guess Link is like Goku or something, always looking to get stronger. Link gets caught in a thunderstorm at sea, his boat is hit by lightning, and the next thing we see is Marin finding Link washed ashore on Koholint Island. As you play through the game, you find out that you're in the dream of a being called the Wind Fish, and the only way to leave the island is to collect the “Instruments of the Sirens”, play the “Ballad of the Wind Fish”, and wake the Wind Fish.
Link’s Awakening plays like a downgraded LttP, so for me, it’s the setting and characters that make it stand out. Koholint Island is like LttP's Hyrule as imagined by someone who has heard of it, but never actually been there. It’s almost like a parody of Hyrule. The Mysterious Woods are located right above Mabe Village, like the Lost Woods North of Kakariko Village, there's a Death Mountain-like mountain range to the North, and a castle that looks a lot like Hyrule Castle near the center of the map. The similarities probably go right over the heads of people who have not played LttP, but they make LA the perfect follow up to it because it feels so familiar.
The exploration and quests you do in between dungeons are my favorite part of the game, and the inhabitants of Koholint Island play a big role in that. You always have to find a key or get some item to open a dungeon, and this usually involves doing something for an NPC. You have to get the mushroom from the Mysterious Woods and take it to the Witch’s hut to get her to make the magic powder so you can sprinkle it on the racoon in the woods to get the key to the first dungeon, for example. Another pre-dungeon quest involves taking a Chain Chomp out for a walk, like a dog, so it can clear the plants blocking the 2nd dungeon’s entrance. These quests take you all over the map, have you playing through mini dungeons, and lots of colorful characters show up in them, like Marin and Tarin, a chicken farmer who looks like Luigi, Wart from SMB2, and Prince Richard from the Japan only GB game, For the Frog the Bell Tolls. You can see how these quests influenced design elements in future games, like Majora's Mask, Minish Cap, Skyward Sword, and Breath of the Wild.
Link's Awakening plays a lot like LttP, but I feel like it’s trying to do too much with the few buttons available on the Game Boy. You’d think they’d want to make the controls simpler, but they actually tried to make things more complex instead. While LttP gave you dedicated buttons for the sword and items, Link’s Awakening lets you put any item on either A or B, including the sword and shield. Instead of having an automatic shield block available at all times, you actually have to equip the shield and press the button to block attacks. The shield is much more powerful in this game; though, since it blocks pretty much anything and enemies bounce off it. You also have to equip items like the Power Bracelet to lift things, and the Pegasus Boots to dash, both of which were context sensitive and mapped to the same button in LttP. At least you don't have to equip the flippers to swim. This 2 custom button system allows you to do things like use the Roc’s Feather and Pegasus Boots together to jump farther, or keep your shield up while shooting arrows.
Combining different items is cool, but you need your sword to fight off enemies, and there’s a different item specific obstacle in every other screen, so what you end up doing is going to the inventory screen to switch items like every 30 seconds. The inventory screen pops up quickly enough, but maybe they could have let you switch loadouts with Select or something. I know other Zelda games put all the inventory, save, and map screens on different tabs in the start menu. I wish they would have done something like that here to free up the Select button.
I like how Koholint Island's overworld is jam packed with stuff in every screen. There's something interesting in nearly every screen. There is very little wasted space, or space only used to make the world bigger. Navigating this overworld is more complicated than it should be, though. It’s even worse than LttP’s Dark World in that regard because it’s not just item specific obstacles blocking your way, there’s mountains, dirt walls, and trees blocking the border around a lot of areas. There are 4 warp points around the island, but they aren't enough to avoid all this running around. I hate the feeling of having to go around the long way when you know your destination is just on the other side of some trees.
Even though all the item switching gets annoying, I really like the dungeons in Link’s Awakening. There's a lot of new types of puzzles, obstacles, and minibosses, and they're harder than LttP's dungeons, for the most part. Their design feels like a mix of Zelda I and LttP dungeons. The multiple floor element from LttP is mostly gone, aside from 1 dungeon, but now there's sidescrolling underground tunnels that connect different parts of the dungeon, which look like the underground item rooms in Zelda 1. This is where all the Goombas and Piranha Plants hang out. There are hint stones all over the dungeons, but you don't have to talk to them. I think it's more fun to figure things out on your own. I don't mind checking every wall and pushing every block. Not all the bosses make you use a specific item, but the ones that do are cleverly done. LA does that even better than LttP.
I don't mind that the color dungeon is in the game, but it just doesn't live up to the standard set by the others. It's by far the worst dungeon in the game. The graphics don't set it apart, since the whole game is in color, it's really small, and the color puzzles are very easy. The last boss is also super annoying to fight. At least the tunic reward is nice, and it has a good remix of the Zelda I dungeon theme.
Link's Awakening is one of the nicest looking Game Boy games. Most GB games looked like NES games, but LA looks closer to a Super NES game. It doesn’t have as many cute animations as LttP, and even with the GBC color palette, it can’t match LttP’s colors, but the line art does a great job of translating LttP's style into 8-bit. Strangely enough, the framerate is much better than in LttP. LttP struggles with too many enemies (and too much grass cutting) on screen, but LA is smooth all the way through.
Link's Awakening has a fantastic soundtrack despite the GB's hardware. It kind of had to with the musical theme, I guess. The final version of the Ballad of the Wind Fish is one of the most beautiful and memorable songs in the series. There's just so much effort put into it from you as the player by the end if the game. How can it not mean something to you by then? It's like a grand musical recipe or magic spell. The new version of the Hyrule overworld theme and the Tal Tal Heights theme are also really good. There are a lot of great remixes and original songs in the game.
I wanted to do a review for Link's Awakening for 2 reasons; I wanted to replay it before the upcoming Switch remake came out, and I wanted to replay it with LttP fresh in my mind to compare. LA does a lot of great things with the story, setting, characters, bosses, and the in between dungeon questing, but the restrictive design of the overworld and the limitations of the Game Boy really hold it back. It's a great game, one of the best on the GB, but LttP is clearly the better game. I doubt that the remake is going to mess too much with the design of the overworld, but it will surely allow you to map more items to the buttons and cut down on all the trips to inventory screen. Maybe they'll add a few more warp points, too.