For me, the defining Zelda experience was Link’s Awakening. It was the first Zelda title I played and the most challenging. It took me longer to clear than any other game (I was pretty young). That said, it’s clear why this has bothered me so much.
A few months ago I was helping a friend of a friend move. After a few hours of heavy lifting we took a break. I saw a box of old game boy cartridges and my eyes lit up. I like the new systems, but I still dig busting out that little 8-bit handheld. Or at least, I did.
The guy we were helping saw me and asked if I felt like buying any. I picked out a couple and then spotted it: Link’s Awakening. I lost mine (The non-DX one) and was looking to replace it. He looked confused when I asked him how much he wanted for it, like he forgot he owned it. I paid him, pocketed the games and went back to work.
I should stress this: There was nothing wrong with the cartridge. The label was fine, the cartridge wasn’t cracked, nothing. I probably wouldn’t have bought it otherwise. The game started off normally. There was nothing off about the music, color or animation. I was stoked to play it again. Then I went to start a file.
Something was wrong. First off, there was no music; there was only this barely audible thumping noise every other second. Next was the top right of the screen. The knight statues had been replaced with two Stalfos. Different from what I remembered. The thing that convinced me it was a defect was that there was only one (empty) file. The other two were gone. At this point the thumping noise was starting to annoy me, so I started the file and entered “Link.” The game was faulty, but I was curious to see how.
It started off with Link tossing and turning while Marin watches. There was no music, but the thumping noise was gone. When I woke up Marin says the wait is over. She then said she’d “make preparations” and left the room. I tried to leave only to be stopped at the door by a dialogue box that read “…” prompting me to speak with Tarin.
His friendly tone was gone. He was pleading with me, offering my shield and asking to go. He begged, saying he’d tell me where the sword was. The usual sound effect for text was replaced by something duller and strangely paced. His wording and tone made it sound like Tarin was crying. He then insisted that I must be hungry, promising to make me mushroom stew before rushing out of the room.
It wasn’t defective; it was hacked. Realizing that made the sequence with Tarin kind of interesting. I started exploring the village. The physical layout of everything was the same as I remembered except for two things. All the human characters that lived outside of the village were now in it (Except for the witch). Richard and the Cucco Keeper were standing near the Cucco statue, Crazy Tracy was at the center of the field of bushes, the second Fisherman was beneath the first and Mr. Write was beside the library. The music was the same track used for the village in the original, but slower and a bit scratchy. Second, the crane-game was gone. In its place was an area fenced off by lit torches. Inside was a large collection of bone piles, the same ones used in the caves and dungeons. In this area there was no music. Just a low pitch broken up by sharp, awkward breaks.
Every villager laughed and said that I couldn’t be “him” because I had no sword. The one exception was Ulrira. His sprite changed to show that his eyebrows were lowered angrily. The sword comment was an obvious hint, so I headed toward the beach.
I made my way down, the music fading to silence. Oddly, there were no monsters. I was more confused than bothered by it and went for the sword. The owl flew down when I got near it. He cackled and talked about how glad he was to fulfill his role. He ordered me to take the sword and go to the Mysterious Forest before flying off. I grabbed the sword (not that there were enemies to fight with it) and headed back toward the village/forest.
Near the village the owl appeared again. Walking toward it caused him to scream about how you can’t go; that they can’t know and that they don’t deserve to. The game was forcing me into the forest, the layout of which had been changed.
From the first screen I could only go right, where I found the witch’s hut. The dull thumping noise started again. When I entered it became faster. Speaking with the witch made it louder and even faster. She insisted that there were “other ways to make it” and offered power for “a way out.” The game shot out this brief, high pitched screeching noise. Syrup’s sprite stopped moving and no further text could be prompted. I left the hut and headed right.
The next screen was more familiar. It was Tarin in his raccoon form. The crying sound from earlier began looping, louder this time. He charged and began doing damage, crying as he did. The shield kept him off of me, letting me pull up my inventory. The magic powder had been added. I threw some onto him, thinking it would cure him.
His sprite movements became faster, and text appeared as he screamed about how his skin was burning. A new animation played, the game releasing another of those high-pitched screeches. This one lasted for the whole animation, mixing different sound effects. Lines of darkness began to cover Tarin’s sprite until he was covered. The arms fell off, his eyes disappearing as the ground was stained with his blood. The game was making sure I heard Tarin’s suffering. I was horrified.
He hit the ground, a pile of blood and guts. The crying sound looped softly. The owl flew in and marked how excellent it was. I had done it almost to the letter. He screamed at me to put the thing out of its misery. I had no idea what to do. A new dialogue box popped up, Tarin whimpering about the sword. I turned the game off.
A few minutes later I turned it back on, annoyed at the idea of the hacker getting one over on me. The file name had changed from “Link” to “Black.” I was intimidated, but determined. It brought me to the point I had just left. The fact that I hadn’t saved made me nervous. Everything was the same except Link’s clothing. I couldn’t tell if it was meant to be red or black, but the file name gave me a hint.
I cut at the Tarin sprite. The panels above and below Tarin became dark and the game made that horrible screeching noise. The owl flapped its wings and laughed, complimenting me. He ordered me deeper into the forest before saying “two down.” Hearing that, I went to the previous screen, into Syrup’s hut.
There was crudely drawn blood everywhere. Syrup’s head was on her table. The rat was hopping up and down beside it, feasting. I searched around and found nothing until I reached her cauldron. Text appeared. “Still a few bones in here. What’d you think magic powder was made of?”
I saw it as a taunt and resolved to keep going. No enemies, no music. Screen after screen of forest, with a soft high-pitched screech in the background. Eventually I had to go north, traveling a few more screens before finding it. At the center of the screen was a black sword. To either side were two treasure chests. The right contained the fire wand, the left the ocarina.
Taking the sword summoned the owl, who proceeded to teach me “the Lullaby of Longslumber.” It didn’t sound like music, just hisses and scratches like a series of audio errors. He then asked me to try the wand. Trying to leave caused “…Afraid?” to pop up. I used the wand, trying to defy it. The screen flashed white for a second, followed by every tree on fire. The owl giggled, flapping his wings and screaming about how they can be given no quarter.
Everything in the forest was on fire, including some floor panels. Eventually I was out, the high-pitched noise ringing the entire time with the sound of burning. I decided to talk to the villagers to see if there had been a change in their dialogue. I started with Madame Meowmeow. The thumping noise started again as soon as I entered her screen.
It was similar to the witch. Meowmeow starts pleading and the audio for her text sounded like crying. She apologized, saying that they were just too hungry. The same screeching noise before her sprite stops. When I left her house Bow-wow was gone. I went back inside to see what had happened. Meowmeow was in pieces, blood all over. Bow-wow was moving from piece to piece. Interacting with him brought up a box that talked about how happy he seemed. How hungry.
Leaving the house I saw the owl again. He was eager he was to keep going. He told me to play the Lullaby It would speed things along. The prospect bothered me, but getting through this insult to my childhood faster sounded good.
Playing the lullaby led me to a room like the ones you found at the end of each dungeon. There was a treasure chest and two full heart pieces. A plaque on the wall read that for every “one you carry out” you’d receive new treasures. I took the items (the first was the roc’s feather) and left through an exit at the rear of the room, which brought me back to Marin’s house.
Trees blocked off the plains and beach, the forest by fire. The select glitch brought me into a black screen that forced a reset. There was no way out of the village.
It was a weird, cruel cycle. I approached a villager, they said something, that horrible screeching noise sounded out and I came back to see something horrific and disturbing. I’ll post their dialogue and how I found them here:
Crazy Tracy: “Before you do it, tell me I’m pretty.” / A bloody pile with skin to the right.
Richard: “You silence only a symptom. I was merely the first.” / His hands and tongue formed a triangle around him. He was in a pool of blood.
Ulrira: “You actually let me think I’d go to old age. How unkind.” / He was lying sideways with the telephone where his head would have been. The blood scattered all over the floor made it look like his head had been smashed apart with the phone
Ulrira’s wife: “I won’t hide. Won’t give you the pleasure.” / I never saw her, but when I tried to interact with one of the cabinets it read, “She’s finished bleeding out. Leave her in there.”
Cucco Keeper: “Ha ha, I’ll find a way out!” / Impaled on the Cucco statue.
The Fishermen: “The funniest part? I don’t regret it.” “Me either.”/ Their fishing poles are by the pond. If you interact with them it reads, “No more bubbles. You’d reel them up, but it would just tear it off”
Papahl, Wife, and Child: “Anything! Name it, it’s yours! I can get it! I can get anything!” “Mercy. The one thing I couldn’t get my hands on.” “Why?” / Found them hung by what appears to be the hookshot chain.
Shopkeeper: “Everything I’ve got, here and back home. Information, powders, weapons. Just lemme sail away. You’ll never hear from me again.” / Found him in pieces with arrows in his torso. The fact that the bombs and bow are missing from his stock suggests that that’s what was used.
Mr. Write: “I never stopped, you know. Here’s the key. You’ll need a magnifying lens.” / He was sitting at his desk, black pixels around where his mouth was and his hands cut off. I didn’t catch on to what the black pixels were about until later.
When I killed the last victim the owl appeared. He thanked me for helping him to fulfill his role. He said I’d find Marin in front of the library.
I found Marin, who said it was almost time to go. She gave me the magnifying lens and told me to take my time. Inside there were more books out than in the original, with one blank bookstand near the entrance. Each was a profile organized by crime and sentence. From top left to bottom right:
Richard staged a coup against the Hyrule royal family. He was left to bleed to death publicly after having his hands cut off and tongue removed as punishment.
Ulrira, a former advisor, betrayed the throne as Richard’s informant. His skull was caved in with the medium that represented communication.
Ulrira’s wife hid criminals and rebels in support of her husband and Richard. She was given a small but mortal wound and bound before being left to die in a small, confined space similar to the ones she used to hide others.
Mr. Write wrote slander during the coup. His hands were cut off to rob him of his favorite pastime before being force-fed enough ink to burst his stomach.
Papahl and his family where thieves. They were hung facing one another so the last thing they could steal was a look at their suffering loved ones.
Crazy Tracy was a man who skinned women and wore their flesh. He would wear the face as a mask and hide within what looked like a seat, the body stuffed to appear as though it was sitting. That is why the body seems so much smaller. Skinned alive.
Syrup kidnapped and sacrificed a child to the black arts. She was forced to watch the bones from her arms and legs be used in making magic powder before being beheaded.
Cucco Keeper was a felon who escaped every prison in Hyrule. Impaled on a statue that represented freedom.
The fishermen were pedophiles. Drowned with their genitals attached to fishing hooks.
Madame Meowmeow killed her children and fed them to her pets. Diced into pieces and served to animals.
The shopkeeper was a powerful criminal drugs and arms dealer. Killed with his wares, magic powder forced down his throat.
Tarin was a serial rapist. He was transformed into a literal beast and then executed.
At this point I felt sick. That low thumping in place of music wasn’t helping. It grew slower and duller, as if the sound were trudging along. I spoke with Marin and she explained the rest of it.
Koholint is a prison island. The worst of Hyrule’s criminals are sent there before receiving their death sentence from the judge: The owl. He had been waiting for an executioner, someone to carry out his will. I was sent by Hyrule to enact the wishes of the throne, leaving their carcasses as a warning to the next group.
Marin was innocent. She had been wrongfully sentenced for a gruesome crime she had no part in. She accepted that she would be killed by the executioner, but refused to give Hyrule the satisfaction of fearing it. Nor would she let her name be passed around in horror stories. She saved me so that you could tell them they had failed to break her.
She asked if I was ready to end it. I was given the option of “yes” or “no,” but choosing “no” just let me explore the village again. When I said “yes,” the screen faded to white.
It came back up to an animation of Link, or Black, sailing away. He looked satisfied. Happy, even. It then cut to a drawing of the library. Marin was lying propped up against it with her eyes rolled back. Her throat and stomach had been cut open, with a huge slash across her face. A lot of care was given to the blood and guts. It was disturbing, and the picture has stuck with me long after I turned off the game.
Bold font appeared in front of her reading “CONGRATULATIONS.” Beneath it in smaller black print was “You’re the hero of Hyrule!” It fades to black, before white text appears at the center of the screen.
“And no one will ever know you volunteered for it.”