As the world waits with bated breath for the release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in 2017, it’s fun to reflect and reminisce on the amount of progress that Nintendo’s protagonist Link has made throughout the years of his development. What once was a 2D top-view game for the Nintendo Entertainment System has evoked some of the greatest games of Nintendo’s wheelhouse. Although reflecting on the change of Link is exciting (the internet can’t seem to handle how he will be wearing a swimsuit in Breath of the Wild) it brings to question the character development of the series titular character: Princess Zelda. The following years, and different reincarnations, can help us further understand Zelda as a character and what she means for future Legend of Zelda games.
The Legend of Zelda (1986)
In the Nintendo classic, our hero Link starts as a young boy and progresses on his journey to be a man. He has to save Hyrule after the dark forces of Ganon decide to take over the Triforce. Princess Zelda is the Princess of Hyrule and the holder of the Triforce. We know that Zelda is a wise ruler—she knew it was important to split up the triforce into fragments to hide across Hyrule. However, aside from her appearance at the end of the game after Ganon is defeated, Zelda really isn’t seen in the game. Just like Princess Toadstool/Peach in the Mario games, Zelda serves a singular purpose: The kind-hearted princess who needs to be rescued. This was a norm for games in 1984, but what else does Princess Zelda have to offer? Unfortunately, with a lack of overall depth to the game, character development wasn’t crucial. At this point in Nintendo’s history, there weren’t any other female protagonists. Metroid wouldn’t come until later that year in February.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1987)
In the direct sequel to the successful breakout game, Link has returned. This time, an evil Prince, Zelda’s brother, is in search of the Triforce pieces for his own power. As such, he had a powerful magician cast a spell on Zelda, that put her into a deep sleep. Sounds like something directly out of an old Disney movie, doesn’t it? Well it is. As you can probably guess, Zelda is asleep and needs to be awoken from the help of our hero Link. Zelda II also lacked in-depth character development, but it was the only Zelda game where a romantic interest was actually confirmed between Zelda and Link, as shown in the ending where the two share a kiss behind a curtain. Pretty spicy stuff for the ’80s, but also very cliché in the princess department.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991)
A Link to the Past was the first Zelda game for Nintendo’s new Super Nintendo Console. In A Link to the Past, Zelda and the kingdom of Hyrule are held under siege by Agahnim. Zelda is sacrificed by Agahnim in true old-fashioned style, and sent to the dark world. For part of this game, Princess Zelda follows Link through the castle (which she lives in, right?) and doesn’t try to help out by fighting at all: Typical damsel in distress style. A Link to the Past is considered one of the best Zelda games in the series, and Zelda is unfortunately pretty helpless.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993)
Princess Zelda is mentioned in this game once, and then never appears. Isn’t this game called “The Legend of Zelda?!”
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
Ocarina of Time was a big hit for Nintendo’s new console, the Nintendo 64. It is still considered to be one of the best video games of all time and sits at #1 with a 99/100 rating on Meta Critic. This evolution of the Zelda series not only showcased new and improved graphics, but also shared new and evolved character development and storyline. In Ocarina of Time, we are first introduced to a young Princess Zelda, who experiences prophetic dreams. After Ganondorf arrives to the castle of Hyrule to try to take over, she tells a young Link that she will need his help in the future and escapes with her maid Impa.
Then she tells Link to lock himself up for seven years because, you know, time and prophecies and such. When Link emerges after seven years, he is told by a mysterious man named Sheik (or an individual most assume is a man) of Ganondorf’s reign over the land. Sheik helps guide and train Link, preparing him in his quest against Ganondorf. As it turns out, Sheik is actually Zelda in disguise. Which is totally badass. This is the first game in the entire series where Zelda plays an active part in the progression of the story. Sheik plays an important role in helping our hero along his way. Of course, Ganondorf soon realizes that Sheik is actually Zelda and kidnaps Zelda. Ugh. Why does this keep happening?
Although the admittedly predictable fate of Zelda is tedious, Sheik is a great character, and Zelda’s new role in Ocarina was greatly needed. But Zelda still had to masquerade as a man in order to get anything done and to stay safe from her foe Ganondorf. This also sparked a great debate among Nintendo fans—was Sheik actually a female? Or did Zelda just use magic to physically transform to male? Nintendo did in fact confirm that Sheik is just Zelda, female form and all, just in a slightly different outfit. In the end, Link saves the day again and becomes the hero of time. As iconic as the new Zelda character design was at the time, there was also this cool moment when Sheik became her own character, and we all know she is one of the best Super Smash Brothers characters of all time. And yes, she is a woman. A woman that kicks ass and takes the names of other Nintendo characters.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000)
Another Zelda game where Princess Zelda is mentioned once in passing, but does not make an appearance in the actual game. And people wonder why sometimes Link is accidentally called Zelda by nonplayers.
Windwaker, much like other Zelda games, occurs in an alternate timeline. In Windwaker, the hero meets a young pirate named Tetra. Tetra is spunky, seemingly merciless, and the only (and youngest overall) female member of a crew of pirates. After Link helps Tetra escape from a large bird on his home island, she has her crew help him rescue his sister from the same giant bird called the Helmaroc King. Later, Tetra’s crew comes to Link’s aid again when he is attacked by Ganondorf in the Forsake Fortress. After Link’s attack on Ganondorf is unsuccessful, Tetra steps in to help by attacking Ganondorf to try to rescue Link.
During the struggle, it is revealed that Tetra is actually Princess Zelda, known by her glowing Triforce of power necklace. After they are rescued, she receives the rest of the Triforce from King Daphnes Hohansen Hyrule and helps Link in his final battle against Ganondorf by shooting light arrows. This is the first game where Zelda does not realize that she is a princess. This is also the first Zelda where she helps fight with Link against Ganondorf. In Windwaker, the relationship between Link and Tetra, although stifled at first, turns into a true balanced friendship where each party seems equally necessary. This is the most equal relationship that Zelda and Link have had to date in the series.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006)
In Twilight Princess, Princess Zelda is trapped in the dark Twilight, and Link is the hero chosen by the gods to bring Hyrule out of Twilight and into the light again. It just so happens he is also a wolf. Although Zelda is once again relying on Link for help, there is a moment where Zelda sacrifices her soul to save Midna, Link’s sidekick, from her death. Midna, on the other hand, is a cursed Princess of her own world, but is in Hyrule on a mission. Midna and Link share nearly equal screen time in Twilight Princess, and, as such, is the first Zelda game to feature a female character so prominently. Midna’s relationship with Link is much more akin to a partnership. She helps him with his transformations in and out of wolf form, and he helps her discover the way back to the twilight realm. The game is titled Twilight Princess, and while I would like to see more action from our girl Zelda, the other strong female character is appreciated.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011)
In Skyward Sword, Link and Zelda are childhood friends living in a cloud-like city called Skyloft, without any knowledge of the world below. A dark tornado whisks Zelda off of Skyloft to a place below the clouds. Link is lead to land by awakening the spirit of the Goddess Sword Fi who resides inside a statue on Skyloft. It is soon revealed the Zelda is the reincarnation of Hylia, a goddess who could not defeat the evil Demise and so created a goddess sword to help protect the world. As a reincarnated human, Hylia could find a human that could help her complete the Triforce and defeat Demise. Zelda seals herself into a crystal to help Fi fully evolve into the master sword and sacrifices herself adding to the plot development instead of just needing to be rescued.
Chronologically, Skyward Sword is meant to be before any other Zelda game in the franchise and introduces characters differently. Skyward Sword does not directly involve Ganondorf as the antagonist, but it is implied that he will return as a reincarnated rage of the defeated Demise. At the end of the game, Zelda and Link remain on the surface together to start the kingdom of Hyrule. Although this Zelda game occurs first, as the most recent game in the series, Zelda’s character development could have been more substantial. Although her sacrifice was important for the development of the story, it was almost negated by the typical rescuing that occurred shortly after when she was kidnapped (again).
What we can hope for in Breath of the Wild (2017)?
As we reflect on the history of Zelda games and Zelda’s development as a female character, it’s important to note the overall success and story of each iteration. Ocarina of Time and Windwaker hold two of the highest ratings for the entire Legend of Zelda Series. These two stories offer interesting character development along with a new and more expansive role for Zelda as a female protagonist. With the re-release of Twilight Princess HD in 2016, there was the familiarity of Midna as a strong female protagonist, as well in a Zelda series, but there is still much to be done. Nintendo’s demographic is a great entry gaming point for young female gamers and, as such, can influence gaming culture as it is evolving. Women of all ages would surely love to see some more action from Nintendo’s favorite Princess of Hyrule. Maybe in the not-so-distant future, Zelda will be the main protagonist on a journey to save all of Hyrule–and Link.