The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening and the Reverse-Engineering Nature of Parodies
The off-beat and tongue-in-cheek nature of The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening may actually make it one of the purest Zelda experiences.
When observing with a long-running and venerable series such as The Legend of Zelda, it isn’t difficult to see how it becomes slavish to a formula that has slowly developed over time. For that reason, entries like Majora’s Mask and Breath of the Wild instantly stand out for their incongruent and formula-breaking nature. Yet one of the more unusual and off-kilter entries in the Zelda canon is The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, a game that was developed with that very formula in mind.
Link’s Awakening contains all of the usual puzzles, dungeons, and explorations that classic Zelda games have, but features cameos from characters expatriated from other Nintendo franchises such as Mario and Kirby. Koholint Island, where Link is stranded, is a Twin Peaks-inspired place both wonderful and strange, featuring a cast of oddball supporting characters and bizarre labyrinths.
When speaking about the production and conception of Link’s Awakening, developers and producers often called the game a “parody” of Zelda games, which led me to ask a fundamental question: what exactly does a parody entail?
There was an era in popular culture in which whenever the word “parody” arose in conversation, the first piece of media that would be recalled was Scary Movie, and the bastardized Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer-helmed follow-ups like Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, and Vampires Suck—nothing more than crude and sophomoric reference-fests. Those wiser to the history of the cinematic genre of parody would instead hearken back to the works of Mel Brooks or Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, the latter team responsible for Airplane! and The Naked Gun trilogy.
Little explanation is needed for why disaster film parody Airplane! is an exemplary comedic film, but I found myself extracting a greater deal of humor once I started working backward from the film’s point of origin. The 1980 film is nearly a word-for-word remake of the 1957 straight disaster film Zero Hour!, with Airplane! peppering in a number of verbal and visual gags to mock the heightened melodrama and the dire stakes often seen in those usual disaster movies. It became a perfect parody not by pointing out the absurdities, but by inhabiting its tropes and amplifying them for comedic purposes.
Parodies in visual media are not so much for pure mockery and cheap gags; they are meant to highlight tropes and leverage our familiarity with them for comedy. They can bring light to elements of the original source material and inspiration; it’s why the producers of James Bond had a hard time returning to the series after Austin Powers successfully dissected the formula of those films. Other times, it can lead to inspired creative decisions: directors Anthony and Joe Russo, then known for their pointed genre parodies on Community, i.e. the action parody episode “A Fistful of Paintballs,” would successfully reverse-engineer their knowledge of the genre to create the straight action film Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
So who better to parody the Zelda series than Nintendo themselves?
“Self-parody” would probably be the more apt descriptor for Link’s Awakening, but even still, it might be best to use the term loosely. The “parody” elements didn’t come so much from the conceptualization of the game—the developers might say that there wasn’t much of a conceptualization process in the first place, with the off-beat nature of the game coming from a more free form development workflow. Director Takashi Tezuka would say in a 2009 edition of Iwata Asks:
Tezuka: … We moved along at quite a good speed in a relatively freewheeling manner. Maybe that’s why we had so much fun making it. It was like we were making a parody of Zelda.
Iwata: A parody of your own game? (laughs)
Tezuka: Yeah. (laughs)
Iwata: Today, if you just barged ahead using characters resembling Mario and Luigi—even if it were for a Nintendo game—it would be quite a problem.
Indeed, seeing Goombas and Shy Guys and fake Kirbys roaming the overworld of a Zelda title was enough to signal to players that something unusual was afoot. At its core, the story premise of Link’s Awakening is that he is a stranger in a strange land, and having characters that blatantly do not belong in the familiar world of Zelda is a near-fourth-wall-breaking wink to the player for the strangeness to fully register to them—Link’s Awakening depends on the player’s familiarity with Zelda and plays with those preconceptions to drive the weirdness home.
And those pseudo-crossovers are far from the only elements needed to convey this strangeness. As someone who has digested a fair amount of Zelda in the past several years, I found myself amused by some of the methods Link’s Awakening used to guide and give hints to players through my playthrough of the Switch remake. I guffawed the first time I received a hint through a telephone, a completely out-of-place modern device in a high fantasy world.
Puzzles in the Zelda series are usually complex with some vague clues laid about, so imagine my joy when one key puzzle was simply an open area with signposts that very simply and explicitly shouted: “GO THIS WAY” with an arrow pointed in a direction. And then there are the four children in the village, each giving Link button prompts and directions in typical Zelda NPC fashion, while also demonstrating an unusual amount of sentience by following with a variation of the dialogue: “Don’t ask me what that means, I’m just a kid!” Not the most groundbreaking self-aware joke, but let’s say that this was probably good enough for a video game in the early 1990s.
That being said, I would love to see what game developers and writers could come up with in making a modern-day video game that is designed as a parody from its conception. You can say that a handful have tried and failed— the most prolific example might be Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, a 2009 third-person shooter that attempted to be a meta fourth-wall-breaking parody of games like Max Payne and Metal Gear Solid, making not-so-subtle jokes about in-game glitches, instructional text, tutorial missions, and characters that vaguely resembled Mario, Master Chief, and others. And then you see games like Duke Nukem Forever and the Borderlands series, lazily inserting “remember this?” references through brief dialogue or environmental decoration without having any commentary on their targets.
While Link’s Awakening may not be a straight parody of Zelda, the devil may care attitude towards development led to a lot of moments that poked at brains trained to the standard Zelda conventions and created a unique experience out of it. With Link’s Awakening as a starting point, I yearn for more comedic games that deconstruct and reverse-engineer some of our favorite games and move past silly winks and nudges for cheap, unearned, lukewarm chuckles. Video gaming may be a younger medium than film, the latter being much more susceptible to parody, but in the decades since the original Link’s Awakening, game developers and enthusiasts are familiar enough with the tropes to have a large enough palette to create comedy with.
And as for the Legend of Zelda series, I would hope that the Link’s Awakening remake has had enough people revisit the material for them to realize that this unusual game has a special place in the series. If anyone wants to play the “definitive” and “purest” Zelda game, the fairly obvious choices would be something along the lines of Ocarina of Time, A Link to the Past, or perhaps just the original The Legend of Zelda. But out of all of the games in the franchise, no other Zelda title “gets” Zelda more than Link’s Awakening.