The direct influence of Twin Peaks on Zelda

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening has been a Nintendo classic for so long that it’s easy to forget how weird it felt when it dropped for the Game Boy in 1993. Originally conceived as a straightforward port of the Super Nintendo’s A Link to the Past — which itself had been a return to the mean after 1987’s divisive sidescroller Zelda II: The Adventure of LinkLink’s Awakening could have been a safe, solid extension of a proven Nintendo brand, like the Game Boy versions of Mega Man, Metroid, or Castlevania that preceded it.

While its gameplay closely resembles A Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening is something stranger. The journey is set not in the kingdom of Hyrule like the rest of the games, but on a mysterious island whose most prominent landmark is a mountain with a giant spotted egg on it. Apart from Link, no major characters — including series villain Ganon and the eponymous Princess Zelda — appear in this Zelda game. 

They’ve been replaced by, well, a bunch of weirdos: there’s an old man who is too socially awkward for an in-person conversation but endlessly chatty whenever you call him on the phone, a friendly shopkeeper who turns homicidal if you steal anything, and a whole family of fourth-wall breakers — including a dad who warns you he’ll get lost in the mountains later in the game (he does) and a gaggle of identical kids who give straightforward gameplay tips and then admit they have no idea what they’ve just said. Also there’s a guy who calls himself Tarin but is clearly just a barely disguised riff on Mario; by the end of the game, you’ve helped him track down a mushroom and seen him turn into a raccoon.

In a 2010 interview, Link’s Awakening director Takashi Tezuka revealed the inspiration for this memorably bizarre cast of characters. “At the time, Twin Peaks was rather popular. The drama was all about a small number of characters in a small town,” Tezuka said. “So I wanted to make something like that, while it would be small enough in scope to easily understand, it would have deep and distinctive characteristics.”

Developed at a time when Twin Peaks was so popular in Japan that The New York Times ran a lengthy story about it, it’s easy to imagine how that legendary TV drama, co-created by Mark Frost and David Lynch — which begins as a mystery about the murder of a high school girl before spiraling into a surreal drama packed with eccentric characters and detours into the supernatural — might have bled into the Zelda franchise as well.

And that was the end of the story until a couple of months ago, when Mark Frost logged onto X and casually dropped a bombshell that lit up two totally different but equally passionate fandoms. “Anybody ever play this?” he tweeted in response to a story about how Nintendo’s Game Boy classic The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening was inspired by Twin Peaks. “I met with them about it and gave them some ideas, never tried it myself.”

Until that tweet, the Link’s Awakening / Twin Peaks connection has been understood as one of indirect influence. Now, Frost reveals in an interview with The Verge, he actually spoke with Nintendo about the Zelda franchise. “I don’t want to overstate it. It was a single conversation. But it was fun,” he tells me. 

That conversation took place between Twin Peaks’ first and second seasons, when Twin Peaks fever was arguably at its hottest. “I remember meeting someone who was kind of their resident engineering genius,” Frost says. “He had hyperhidrosis, so his hands were really sweaty, and he was continually wiping his palms all through the meeting.”

The team at Nintendo were clearly big fans.

“They were talking to me about a Twin Peaks game, and they mentioned Zelda at the time,” says Frost. “They said, ‘One of the things we love about your show is how there’s all sorts of sideways associations that can drive the story forward.’ They asked me about that as they were thinking about expanding the Zelda universe.”

Though he’d never played a Zelda game, Frost had enough experience with fantasy storytelling that he had some suggestions. “I’d played lots of Dungeons & Dragons when I was young, so I was familiar with the kind of story they were thinking about,” he says. “I think I said, ‘Don’t be afraid to use dreamlike, Jungian symbolism. Things can connect thematically without having to connect concretely.’ It was things like that that I was urging them [to consider].”

Nintendo veteran Yoshiaki Koizumi has previously taken credit for Link’s Awakening’s story, including the climactic revelation — 30-year-old spoiler alert — that the entire game has been a dream. But it’s not hard to draw connections between the murder mystery and the then-weirdest Zelda game, with its bizarre characters, dreams full of hidden messages, and an owl that’s not what he seems.

As for the Twin Peaks game Frost mentioned — despite write-ups in several video game magazines at the time, it never materialized, though what little information came out sounded awfully ambitious for an NES game. A blurb in Nintendo Power said it would be “role playing in style” with a plot based on the show’s second season, complete with multiple playable characters and endings. Last year, Time Extension’s Jack Yarwood tracked down a former producer at license holder Hi Tech Expressions, who confirmed that an ambitious-sounding Twin Peaks game inspired by Maniac Mansion was discussed but never went into production.

But even if a Twin Peaks game never happened, its influence spread far beyond Zelda to games like Alan Wake and Life is Strange. Most notorious is Deadly Premonition, originally announced as Rainy Woods with a trailer so obviously inspired by Frost and Lynch’s show that it feels closer to remake than homage.

When I ask Frost if he’s ever seen the Rainy Woods trailer, he pulled it up on the spot. “Featuring grisly murders, skull-shaped gas masks, and strange little men sitting in vibrating chairs,” he reads, clearly bemused. But the trailer itself didn’t bother him. “I’ve never complained about that sort of homage. You can’t copyright a mood, after all,” Frost says.

I’ve thought a lot about the “Twin Peaks mood” since that conversation. Much has been made, correctly, of Twin Peaks’ outsized impact on television. You can see echoes of it in everything from Tony Soprano’s cryptic, revelatory dreams to blatant knockoffs like AMC’s The Killing, with its ubiquitous “Who Killed Rosie Larsen?” campaign.

But if Deadly Premonition is basically the video game equivalent of a Twin Peaks cover band, Zelda, over the years, has evolved into the video game franchise that channels an essential quality Twin Peaks has at its core. The best Zelda games, including Link’s Awakening, Majora’s Mask, and Breath of the Wild, balance their offbeat humor and characters with something darker. There’s an undercurrent of menace under those colorful fantasy trappings, and a sense that even the most courageous and determined hero can only hope, at best, to hold back the darkness for a little while.

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