For me, the defining Zelda experience was Link's Awakening. It was the first Zelda title I played and definitely the most challenging. It took me longer to clear than any other game (I was pretty young, however). 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 noticed a box of old Game Boy cartridges and my eyes lit up. I like the new systems out these days, but I still dig busting out that little 8-bit handheld. At least I used to.
The guy we were helping saw me and asked if I felt like buying any. I picked out a couple before noticing it: Link's Awakening. I lost mine (the original, not the DX version) and was looking to replace it. He looked confused when I asked 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 itself. The label was fine. The cartridge wasn't cracked. I probably wouldn't have bought it otherwise. The game started normally, too. There was nothing off about the music, color, or animation. I was really stoked to play it again...then I went to start a new game.
Something was wrong. First off, there was no music, just this barely audible thumping noise every other second. Next was the top right screen: the knight statues had been replaced by two Stalfos. It was different from what I remembered.
The thing that convinced me it was a defect (or glitch, actually) was that there was only one empty file. The other two files were gone. Non existent. At this point, the thumping noise was starting to annoy me, so I started a new file and entered the name "Link." The game was faulty, sure, but I was curious to see how.
The game started with Link tossing and turning while Marin watched. There was no music, but the thumping noise was gone. When Link awoke, Marin said, "The wait is over." She then mentioned something about "making preparations" and left. I tried to leave, only to be stopped at the door by a dialogue box that read, "...", which prompted me to speak with Tarin.
His friendly tone was gone. He was pleading with me, offering my shield and asking me to leave. 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, too. He insisted I must be hungry, promising to make mushroom stew before rushing out as well.
The game wasn't defective; it was hacked! Realizing that made the sequence with Tarin kind of interesting. I started exploring the village. The physical layout was the same as I remembered, except for one thing: all the human characters that lived outside of the village were now in it, save 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. Mr. Write was beside the library.
The music was the same track used for the village in the original game, 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 used in caves and dungeons). In that area, there was no music. Just a low pitch broken up by sharp, awkward breaks.
Every villager laughed and said I couldn't be "him" because I had no sword. The one except was Ulrira. His sprite changed to show 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, then flew 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 him caused him to scream about how you can't go...that they can't know and 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.
The witch insisted 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 the one with Tarin in his raccoon form. The crying sound from earlier began looping, louder this time. Tarin charged at me 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 and the game released 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 what appeared to be 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. I was 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 ws the same except Link's clothing. I couldn't tell if it was meant to be red or black, but the filename 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 and 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, probably 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. There were still no enemies or music, just screen after screen of forest, with a soft, high-pitched screech in the background. Eventually, I had to go north and traveled 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 along 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.
It was similar to the witch. The thumping noise started again as soon as I entered the screen she was on. Meowmeow starts pleading and the audio for her text sounded like crying. She apologized, saying they were just too hungry. The same screeching noise plays before her sprite freezes.
When I left her house, Bow-wow was gone. I went back inside to see what happened. Madame Meowmeow was in pieces with 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 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'd find 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, one of which was the Roc's Feather, and left through an exit at the rear of the room that brought me back to Marin's house.
Trees blocked off the plains and beach, the forest by fire. The select glitch brought me to a black screen and I was forced to reset. There was no way out of the village.
It was an odd, cruel cycle. I approached a villager, they said something, that horrible screeching noise played, and I came back to see something horrific and disturbing. I'll post the dialogue and how I found them here.
- Crazy Tracy: "Before you do it, tell me I'm pretty." || A bloody pile with what looked like 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 on the floor made it look like his head had been smashed apart with the phone.
- Ulrira's Wife: "I won't hide. I won't give you the pleasure." || I never saw her, but when I tried to interact with one of the cabinets, it said, "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 were missing suggests 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 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 were 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's why the body seemed so much smaller. He was 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. He was impaled on a statue that represented freedom.
- The Fishermen were pedophiles. They were drowned with their genitals attached to fishing hooks.
- Madame Meowmeow killed her children and fed them to her pets. She was diced into pieces and served to animals.
- The Shopkeeper was a powerful criminal drugs and arms dealer. He was killed with his own wares, with magic powder forced down his throat.
- Tarin was a serial rapist. He was transformed into a literal beast and 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. Link was sent from 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 Link so he 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 rather, Black) sailing away. He looked satisfied. Happy, even. It cut to a drawing of the library. Marin was lying propped up against the wall with her eyes rolled back. Her throat and stomach had been cut open and a huge slash was across her face. A lot of care was given to the blood and guts. It was disturbing. The picture stuck with me long after I turned off the game.
Bold text appeared in front of her that read, "CONGRATULATIONS." Beneath that, in smaller print, was "You're the hero of Hyrule!" It faded to black and white text appeared on the screen.
"And no one will ever know you volunteered for it."