There is an inimitable charm to The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening that we're likely never to see again. It came at the right time and landed on the right platform, allowing it to be a smaller, sillier title with some themes many would consider "too strange" for a traditional Zelda game (though Majora's Mask would push that envelope further in a more bleaker, crushing direction). It remains my favorite Zelda entry—though I wouldn't argue for it being the best—and the quaint simplicity of it makes Link's Awakening possibly the best title on the Game Boy.
Having the game be on a handheld complements its themes extremely well. In a nutshell, Link's Awakening is about bliss found in ignorance as well as the bittersweet sadness of letting go. The goal of the journey is to venture off of Koholint Island, but to do so Link must wake the Wind Fish and end its dream (and thereby terminating the island and all of its denizens). Curiously however, none of the inhabitants outside of the Owl are cognizant of the dream, or the rise of the Nightmares intending to keep the island from vanishing. Everyone lives in a perpetual state of naivete, trapped within the dictation of their desires, and even the ever-curious Marin is bound by the dream in her human form.
These are important themes because nearly every other Zelda reverses this progression—Hyrule is in a state of disarray and it's up to Link to fix the problems of the people, climaxing with the defeat of the ultimate baddie. In Link's Awakening, the people have no overarching problem as the plot revolves around Link freeing himself from this ethereal prison, whereby he erases them. Sure, some island dwellers would like eclectic items (dog food or pen pal letter) and Madam MeowMeow gets her chain chomp stolen, but the issues of the islanders are relatively sedate compared to Agahnim's police state or Ganondorf's vile transformation of Hyrule. Link's adventure revolves solely around himself on Koholint Island, the island folk resulting in nothing more than passing memories by the time the curtains close.
Link's Awakening a lonely, ephemeral experience. It's the quintessential Game Boy entry because it embodies the transitory state of "mobile games" in the 90s, existing to tide you over until the next big (console) experience. The game is simple but astonishingly pithy with its story, prodding the player to grapple with the nature of reality without ever forcing it upon them (the Nightmares are the only creatures that explicitly criticize you for your actions). "Ballad of the Wind Fish" deserves a special mention here as well for perfectly capturing the mood in the game, conveying it in a way words are incapable of expressing. The slow wash of all the characters along with entire island while the ending theme plays is still one of the most striking things I've experienced on a handheld; parting is indeed such sweet sorrow, especially when you know you'll never see one another again.
With my melancholy reflections out of the way, I should take a couple sentences to at least talk about the gameplay. For the most part it works as intended, being a more bite-sized version of Link to the Past with a larger emphasis on puzzles. It's not too difficult of a game—there were a couple spots that gave me trouble as a kid that I could now breeze through—and it lasts a comfortable amount of time (not too long, not too short). The biggest con I can think of is that switching out items on the menu becomes a major drag on the game, but most Zelda games suffer from this dilemma so it's not a unique gripe. Oh, and there's a ton of text you have to mash through every time you pick up the compass (or bump against a rock or crystal). These are minor blemishes on an otherwise joyous experience. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the design is that—along with Ocarina of Time—it works perfectly as an introduction to the Zelda style of gameplay.
All things go through a process of change—some of which are irrevocable. Before venturing into the game's fifth dungeon, Catfish's Maw, you have to escort a gloomy ghost back to the house he used to live in. It's a brief but heartfelt moment as he looks upon the decrepit cottage, feeling intense nostalgia for the tiny box that had once been his home. In some ways I feel like the ghost when gazing upon this game, looking back upon the hours & hours I spent playing it as a kid and using the screen warp to clip my way into places I shouldn't have been. It didn't age nearly as much as the cottage had, but it still ekes a tear out of me when visiting familiar areas or watching Tarun get chased by bees.
Truly a poignant masterpiece for its time.
Images obtained from: addictedgamewise.com