Nintendo's Game Boy is remembered a simplistic handheld gaming system, but its real legacy is that it could accomplish so many amazing technical feats despite being so simple. The platform came a long way from the basics of 1989's Super Mario Land. Even by 1993, for instance, the hardware was running games far more complex than even Nintendo itself imagined. While a traditional-for-the-time Legend of Zelda adventure was at one time considered off the table, eventually the developers were able to coax such an experience from the Game Boy which led to The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. The game would be updated for the Game Boy Color in 1998 which is where we join this interesting technical analysis behind the game's special effects. How did the developers squeeze so much out of so little?
The original Game Boy was first released in 1989, and has quite basic capabilities. The graphic primitives are based on tiles, background and sprites. Tiles are 8x8 bitmaps, arranged into the grid of a large scrollable background. This grid is very rigid: that’s 8x8 for you, and nothing else. Fortunately, sprites are objects that can move with smaller increments, positioned over the background. Note that there is no “direct drawing” mode of some sort: you can’t draw individual pixels on the Game Boy screen, it has to be part of a 8x8 tile. This severely limits the drawing possibilities. Any advanced effects will have to use complex workarounds. To understand, let’s have a look at the introduction sea sequence. We’re going to strip it of all special effects, and only use background scrolling, tiles and sprites.
It's always fascinating to get a look "under the hood" of a video game, especially one as beloved as Link's Awakening. What we took for granted as fluidly moving a character around a screen or watching a ship crash against stormy waves at sea actually has a lot of work behind it to make it function properly. There will be more installments in this series at the KZONE website and I encourage you to continue reading along as more are published. I know I will.