“It was all a dream!” is usually the time-wasting rug-pull found at the unsatisfying end of a poor story, a twist designed to lazily excuse a tale that’s gone off the rails or allow a writer to scratch a “what if” itch without causing any permanent damage to an established setting. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is a rare example of a dream-adventure that gets things right, unapologetically embracing the concept and using it to create a whole island fleetingly filled with wonderful people and magical places, as real and tangible one moment as they are definitively gone by the morning light. Link’s dream works so well as a setting because it isn’t a flimsy justification for a bunch of never-gonna-happen narrative dead-ends nor a late-game revelation pulled out of thin air but something made reasonably obvious the moment you look at the front of the game’s box: The Japanese subtitle – Dreaming Island – couldn’t be any clearer unless it slapped you across the face with a wet Wind Fish, while elsewhere the slightly more subtle “Link’s Awakening” doesn’t exactly make any effort to hide the fact that to be awakened in any sense, someone must have to be at least metaphorically asleep first. To further underline the message and get players on board this unusual tale from the beginning one of the very first things the owl says to Link at Toronbo Shores after picking up his sword (it must be his, it has his name on it) is that he cannot leave the island until he wakes the Wind Fish, and then on their next encounter at the entrance to the Mysterious Forest the owl again emphasises that Link can’t leave while the Wind Fish sleeps, and also that he is on a quest not to rescue or release this enigmatic creature, but to wake the dreamer.
This early explanation of Link’s heroic goal is especially helpful here as there’s none of the usual Zelda lore-baggage lying around to orientate any recently shipwrecked adventurers – no Ganon, sages, Triforce, Master Sword and so on to chase after – and also lays down the unambiguous foundations that every major event and more than a few cryptic pieces of dialogue build upon, from the presence of the nightmares themselves to offhand villager comments expressing puzzlement when asked about the world beyond the island. Thanks to this constant layering of information all pointing towards one very specific conclusion when Link sees the mural on the wall of the Southern Face Shrine and you’re told everything around him is nothing more than “…a scene on the lid of a sleeper’s eye” it only feels like you’ve gained a newfound sense of clarity in a world made quite literally of dreams… and that everything you do from this point on is more than likely going to make everyone and everything you’ve grown so fond of disappear. Thankfully you’re spared the cynical tang of a story forcing you towards the only ending available and then asking if your “choices” made you the real monster in this tale – the end result is more a bittersweet journey that gives you the time and space to treasure everything you experience, but never quite allows you to forget this wonderful dream will never come again.
And what a beautiful dream it is: There’s Ulrira, the old man who can’t drum up the courage to speak to anyone face to face but won’t stop chatting if you call him on a phone. Phones full stop – Zelda games shouldn’t have phones, cute rotary dials or otherwise. An entire village of animal people, from dedicated chefs to talented artists. Jolly old Tarin, Marin’s father as well as occasional tanuki and mushroom connoisseur. BowWow the… “Dog”. The “dog” that looks like a Chain Chomp. And acts like a Chain Chomp. Because he is a Chain Chomp. But somehow you still end up taking BowWow for walkies and listening to his owner talk with pride about his fur. Then there’s the frog chorus. Not-Kirby as a dungeon enemy. Stubborn stone platforms that grimace when stood on and won’t move unless they’re weighed down. A giant whale that sings in the skies.
Just like a real dream it all makes perfect sense while you’re caught up in the middle of it and only starts to sound ridiculous when you start to replay events in your mind afterwards, once you’re awake – Remember that time you went to sleep in a dream and found an ocarina in a treasure chest? Remember giving a talking crocodile a can of dog food? It all seemed so logical at the time… – although there’s no rush to get out of bed here. The Wind Fish may be trapped but you’re never given the impression they’re suffering as they dream of Trendy Games or even graveyards filled with ghosts, there is no danger to Link if he lingers on Koholint for longer than is strictly necessary, and you’re not in a race against time to grab the instruments of awakening before the nightmares or anyone else does. This lack of immediate pressure gives the story enough leeway for your casual wanderings and time spent fishing/digging/getting caught up in amusing photos taken by a purple mouse to feel as much a legitimate part of life on the island as all the times you’re bombing dungeon walls, whacking Moblins with a sword, and doing other Official Hero Business – and that helps to give your time with the people you speak to meaning; as best seen in your interactions with Marin, the popular singer with an insatiable longing to see the world beyond the shores of her imaginary home. She’s a free-spirited individual (Marin’s actual personality – the young woman who loves to see you dig, who comedically falls on top of Link if he leaps down a well with her in tow, the young woman who so very nearly mentions like liking Link – often seems to be pushed aside in favour of her sweet singing when discussed outside the game) as well as your personal connection to the island: She’s not someone you’re supposed to mourn the loss of – seeing as she never really existed in the first place – but an ephemeral someone to become attached to and remember fondly when the dream ends.
And so when the time finally comes to play the Song of Awakening it doesn’t feel like a destructive act or a tearful goodbye, it feels like release. It’s a triumphant tune that’s only played after overcoming the darkness and meeting the Wind Fish face to face in an impossible space within an impossible egg, and while your heart can only ache as the villagers fade away as they go about living lives that never were, the game has given you plenty of reasons to be cheerful: By this point it’s not just the Song of Awakening, is it? It’s The Ballad of the Wind Fish – it’s Marin’s song, the one she taught you, and you’re playing her tune one last time.
The Wind Fish hears your song, Marin, and it grants you your wish.
Link awakens on what little remains of his damaged ship as the Wind Fish takes to the air and a seagull soars on newly-formed wings in clear blue skies, singing a familiar tune as it goes. His adventure on Koholint and the people in it are now nothing more than the treasured memory of a fading dream: It’s the greatest adventure this Hylian hero never set out on, and one fans will never want to forget.