Spoilers for The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, Breath of the Wild, and A Link Between Worlds
After a four-year wait, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom (2023) has finally been released, to both commercial and critical success; inviting players into a second adventure in the expansive open world vision of Hyrule that was introduced in Breath of the Wild (2017). However, this also means that fans have once again had their hopes dashed about the possibility of a new game where Princess Zelda—the character whose name is front and center in every game’s title—is finally a fully playable character. Leading up to Tears of the Kingdom’s release, many fans of the franchise held out hope that perhaps this game would be the one to break the franchise’s cycle of Link being the only playable character. But, unfortunately, this was not the case. While the series sticking to the status quo in this way is unsurprising, it is still frustrating, especially when considering the franchise’s long history and the fact that there is no real reason for Zelda to be shunted to the side while Link gets to solely take center stage again and again.
The Legend of Zelda is an action-adventure video game franchise primarily developed by Nintendo, considered to be one of the company’s core game series alongside Super Mario and Pokémon. The series began as a 2D action-adventure title released on the Famicom in Japan and the Nintendo Entertainment System internationally in 1986 and 1987 respectively. Since then, the franchise has breached the divide between 2D and 3D games, with the genre-redefining Ocarina of Time (1998), and has had major releases on every major piece of hardware Nintendo has created.
Zelda titles hold a unique place among Nintendo fans as they tend to be the games that truly showcase what the company’s newest hardware is fully capable of, through large expansive game worlds, dynamic graphics, and unique gameplay mechanics that cannot be easily replicated on competing consoles. When a new piece of Nintendo hardware is announced, many fans will almost immediately begin speculating on what the next adventure will be and what the tone, gameplay, or art style will entail.
The games are set in Hyrule, a fantastical kingdom designed with many of the visual cues of Western European cultures and fantasy works alongside a hodgepodge of unique creatures the game developers have created. While the majority of the games offer a unique interpretation of the world, with few direct sequels, three key figures commonly reappear who serve as the forces that move the narrative forward. These characters are Link, the player character who wields the legendary Master Sword and fights on the frontlines to save his kingdom; Ganon, or Ganondorf if he is in human form, an evil sorcerer who typically serves as the primary antagonist wishing to conquer the world; and Zelda, the kingdom’s princess, known for her great magical abilities to seal away the forces of evil and protect her kingdom.
Their roles in the game are further symbolized by the Triforce, a magical artifact comprised of three golden triangles, with each one being synonymous with each character (Wisdom for Zelda, Power for Ganon(dorf), Courage for Link). By all accounts, these three characters should be of equal importance to the wider narrative of the games, but unfortunately, the reality is much different.
Despite the games insisting that Princess Zelda is just as powerful and capable as Link and Ganon(dorf), Zelda is typically a side character to her male counterpart’s eternal conflict. At her most proactive, she is seen supporting Link from the sidelines during the final boss fight until she is typically kicked out of the battle partway through, while Link lands the finishing blow, as seen in The Wind Waker (2002) and Twilight Princess (2006). Elsewhere, she acts, but it is almost always off camera or through an alternative persona—Tetra in The Wind Waker and Sheik in Ocarina of Time—and her actions are always to serve Link so that he can vanquish the forces of evil, rather than proactively working together to take down their shared enemy. At her most passive, Zelda is a damsel-in-distress who Link has to rescue from sinister forces who would either use her powers for nefarious purposes—such as in the original game and A Link to the Past (1991)—or have sealed her away to prevent her from using her magic against them—as seen in The Minish Cap (2004) and Phantom Hourglass (2007).
There have admittedly been a few instances where Zelda has been a playable character, but they have been highly conditional. Zelda is a fully playable character in both of the Hyrule Warriors titles (2014 & 2020), two Zelda-flavored twists on the hack-and-slash gameplay of Dynasty Warriors; and in Cadence of Hyrule (2019), a crossover between The Legend of Zelda and the indie game Crypt of the NecroDancer (2015). While these three games have been positively received by fans and critics, they are still spin-off titles produced by third-party studios rather than “canon” entries, and Zelda is just one of many possible playable characters. Two of the three infamous Zelda titles developed for the Philips CD-i (1993-94) featured Zelda as the sole player character, whose goal is rescuing Link for a change, but these games are generally considered a blight on the series’ history whose only redeeming quality is the numerous internet memes they inspired.
The only instance where Zelda is playable in a mainline game is in Spirit Tracks (2009), where she journeys with Link across New Hyrule to help vanquish an evil force… that has kidnapped and possessed her body. While she accompanies Link throughout the game, she is only playable in the Tower of Spirits segments, where she can possess suits of armor to help Link fight enemies and solve puzzles… but she is deathly afraid of rats and cannot do anything unless Link kills them first. These snags in the gameplay make it frustrating and difficult to fully enjoy seeing Zelda as a playable character, as we are shown a character who not only falls victim to one of the oldest sexist stereotypes in the book but whose capabilities are solely tied to how helpful she can be to a male hero.
This continued portrayal of Zelda as a character who is only conditionally active has gradually become a source of frustration for long-time fans of the franchise. Many wish they could see her portrayed in a role that reflects her powers and capabilities, rather than a magical cheerleader, and would like to see that wish fulfilled in the form of a game where she is a fully playable character. It isn’t as though the folks working at Nintendo are unaware of this request; as far back as 2013, Eiji Aonuma, the current producer of The Legend of Zelda series who has overseen every title for roughly 25 years, has been asked by interviewers whether he and Nintendo would consider creating a game where Zelda is playable. And while his responses have always been generally receptive to the idea, after a decade and several publications asking the question, there does not seem to be a significant push within Nintendo to make those ideas a reality.
In asking these questions, fans have also found that perhaps Aonuma is not the best person to even consider a playable Zelda title. When asked in a 2016 interview with Stephen Totilo at Kotaku about the possibility of players choosing their gender when playing as Link, as opposed to having him always be male, Aonuma responded “The Triforce is made up of Princess Zelda, Ganon and Link. Princess Zelda is obviously female. If we made Link a female we thought that would mess with the balance of the Triforce. That’s why we decided not to do it.” And in a separate interview with Peter Brown at GameSpot that raised a similar question, Aonuma replied, “[I]f we have princess Zelda as the main character who fights, then what is Link going to do?”
Both of these responses are equally frustrating as they showcase the kind of gender-essentialist mindset that is still present in many creatives and companies. They’re also contradictory: the idea that a magical artifact, canonically created by three goddesses, would become “unbalanced” by two women handling its power at once is as baffling and laughable as it is insulting. These comments make it clear that one of the barriers to a playable Zelda is the lack of imagination, and willingness to shake off tired gender roles, on the side of the current developers at Nintendo.
A decade of “maybes” and casual sexism has come to a head with the release of Tears of the Kingdom. Despite being a seemingly perfect opportunity to evolve the character and role of Princess Zelda, the duology of Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom instead reinforces her role as a supporting character to Link and Ganon(dorf)’s conflict, with the added complication of Zelda sacrificing herself to protect Link so that he can once again be the hero. In both games, Zelda spends centuries of her time, and risks her life, to help save Link while either sealing away evil with her magic or re-empowering a magical artifact for Link.
Aside from reinforcing long-standing sexist narrative tropes of women sacrificing themselves for the benefit of men, this also begs the question as to why Zelda couldn’t use her immense power to stop the forces of evil on her own. Even if Zelda is nominally holding Ganon(dorf) at bay by herself during Link’s stasis, this is once again something the player is robbed of seeing or being part of, and in practice it’s another excuse why Zelda isn’t allowed to be part of the game plot proper.
Rather than taking the chance to evolve Zelda’s role, Tears of the Kingdom adds to this problem. In the game’s big twist, it is revealed that Zelda was sent to Hyrule’s ancient past and, after witnessing the tragic events there, transformed herself into the Light Dragon the player sees throughout the game. This act gave her immortal life and greatly amplified her magical powers, but it came at the cost of eliminating her memories and sense of selfhood. She did this to heal the broken Master Sword, strengthen it so that it can harm Ganondorf, and return it to Link several millennia later at the beginning of the game. In other words, Zelda is sacrificing her existence as a sentient being for Link’s sake, to power up his magical weapon so that he can once again defeat the villain.
Alongside the narrative implications of this, there are also the additional complications that come from gameplay mechanics associated with the Light Dragon. First, there is the fact that Link has to remove the sword from where it is embedded in the dragon’s forehead, an act that is shown to be very painful for her as she roars and tries to aggressively shake Link off of her body. Second, the Light Dragon, like the other three dragons in the game, can be attacked by Link to gather Dragon Parts: items that can be used to imbue his weapons with elemental power, boost the healing properties of food, and upgrade his armor. Finally, there is her role during the final boss battle against Ganondorf, which amounts to flying around the demon king-turned-dragon so that Link can springboard off of her and attack his enemy’s weak points.
In all these instances, the body of the Light Dragon, and by extension Zelda, is merely a tool for Link to use to fulfill his own goals, her agency and feelings unremarked on and pushed aside for the “greater good.” I cannot help but feel disturbed the more I think of the implications of this characterization for Zelda, where such extreme forms of self-sacrifice are lauded as admirable and Link’s treatment of her body throughout the game is never questioned. To say this is not how I wished to see Zelda portrayed in the newest game would be an understatement.
The stagnation of Zelda’s character and role in Tears of the Kingdom stands out because a different Nintendo franchise has slowly begun to shake off some of its more persistent sexist tropes: the Super Mario games. During the most recent Nintendo Direct, the company showed off two forthcoming games where players could control the princesses, whose sole role has typically been that of the damsel in need of rescuing. Super Mario Bros. Wonder (2023, forthcoming) will allow the player to choose to play as either Princess Peach or Daisy alongside franchise staples Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Yoshi, to platform across the delightful world of the Mushroom Kingdom. Even more surprising was the announcement of a forthcoming game where Princess Peach is the sole protagonist, her first solo outing in nearly 20 years.
These two dramatic reveals were an unexpected source of joy for fans who had long been hoping that we would see female characters in a more active role in the franchise, myself included. The idea that Nintendo, a company known even to its biggest fans for its conservative attitude and reluctance towards changing their long-existing game formulas, was willing to try something different on one of its most well-known and beloved video game series, is nothing short of shocking. While this shift is definitely exciting, it raises the question: why Princess Peach and not (also) Princess Zelda?
Furthermore, Nintendo is a company that has been angling to become an even larger international powerhouse in the entertainment industry, not merely video games, which has become increasingly evident in recent years. Be it through animated films, theme parks, or toys, the company is doing their best to ensure more people see their beloved properties as household names to the extent of Disney’s media empire. Creating more games where characters of all genders can be represented is one such way to ensure that new players are hooked into the games, and thus the worlds they are associated with, so that they can spend more time with them and invest in future merchandise.
This may explain why Princess Peach has become a more prevalent character in recent games, or why the Metroid franchise has been given a pleasantly surprising second chance to shine. More games with playable female characters, or at least the option to choose the player character’s gender, are appealing to gamers of marginalized genders as seeing characters like us represented in-game makes us more likely to play, as was the case in my childhood experiences playing Nintendo games.
Creating a game where Zelda is playable only opens the doors for more opportunities not just in terms of the stories that can be told in the game’s universe, but in bringing in new players. Despite Aonuma’s reservations, the only real barrier to creating a playable Zelda title is an unwillingness to let go of the tired gender roles and mythology they created. It’s not as though it is impossible to break or even change the cycle: A Link Between Worlds (2013), my favorite Zelda title, offers its own unique twist on previously established storylines. In this game, we meet Zelda’s alternative world counterpart, Princess Hilda, who seems to be an ally but in reality, she orchestrated the events of the game so she could trick Link into giving her the Triforce.
While her intentions were noble, as she wished to use its power to save her kingdom, Hilda deceiving Link to achieve her own goals was a fun twist on the series’ typical formula and refuelled my desire to see unique reinventions of familiar franchise elements. In changing the formula so dramatically, we can see fresh sides to previously established characters, which opens up numerous possibilities, like perhaps a more nuanced characterization of Ganondorf where he isn’t just an inherently evil villain. One cannot help but wonder what new possibilities a playable Zelda game could bring as her story can offer a new perspective to a world so many people already love.
Overall the major feeling I have when considering a playable Zelda title is one of frustration. Seeing a video game world I love so much still be mired by numerous instances of casual sexism makes it difficult to fully enjoy the overall positives therein. The Legend of Zelda games are fun and exciting adventures where the player can traverse beautiful landscapes, fight and befriend fantastical creatures, and wield magical items like a baton that conducts the winds like a conductor does their orchestra. And yet, despite all of this wonder and creativity, the developers cannot push past the barriers they have set for themselves. Zelda games can be a great deal of fun, but their strict adherence to a stale and increasingly unsatisfying status quo is becoming more of a hindrance to the games than a boon. Perhaps one day the developers will be able to break the cycle and open the door to fresh and fun possibilities, but I sadly doubt it will be anytime soon.