Last Train To Hyrule
The last article in our weeklong celebration of all things Zelda was an examination of the princess herself from Zack Handlen. He argued that her character has come a long way since being a lifeless prize during the series’ formative years, but her evolution hasn’t been consistent or graceful. Down in the comments, Jakeoti filled us in on a great, often-overlooked Zelda incarnation:
Spirit Tracks Zelda is my favorite Zelda. Part of why I love her so much is that I didn’t like her at the start of the game. And not in the sense of thinking, “Ugh, she’s not a good character.” It was more that she flat-out annoyed me. Especially compared to the Zeldas that I had gotten to see (ninja-skilled in Ocarina, strong but absent in Twilight Princess, fearless Tetra in Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass), this Zelda was a bit ditsy. She comes up with the plan to investigate the Tower Of Spirits herself, but that backfires and leaves her dead(ish). She then, upon learning about the plan to possess her body, starts screaming and crying about what horrors they plan to do. And then, as you traverse the Tower Of Spirits—with Zelda’s spirit inhabiting a suit of armor at your side—she gets terrified at the sight of a rat, and the game literally needs you to kill a stupid little rat enemy so that your giant hulking suit of armor companion can move forward. At this point, I was frustrated with Zelda. I had been hoping for a new, headstrong princess to fight alongside, and what I got was a spoiled brat.
But as the game went on, she started to evolve, and I started to get it. Yes, she is a spoiled brat, but she’s also a sheltered princess. Her own guards prevent her from leaving the castle early on, and she knows nothing of how the world works. But as we slowly reassembled the Tower Of Spirits, Zelda started to show her spunk. Her sense of humor and mischief was adorable. As each section of the Tower begins, she makes note of how she’s feeling more and more prepared for the task ahead.
Ultimately, when the villains do succeed in possessing her body with the spirit of the ancient demon king, her response is no longer to be terrified. She worries, sure, but she also speaks with authority. She is intent on recovering her body and saving the day, moving forward with just as much courage as Link. It pays off in a final battle that borrows from Wind Waker, with Link bearing his sword against the final boss while Zelda provides support with the Bow Of Light. But, unlike Wind Waker, where Zelda was absent for everything leading up to the final fight, this is an earned moment. You even get to partially command Zelda. In the end, the two heroes flank Malladus and bring him down, both of them driving the sword into his head together.
Basically, the Zelda of Spirit Tracks goes through some serious, tangible character growth. I guess it comes with the territory. Link’s traveling companions/advisors are often the ones that get the most love and character from the player (see: Midna, Hilda, Tatl), so the one game that gave us Zelda as a partner for the whole journey also gave us the best Zelda. Plus, having Zelda and Link high five on multiple occasions and end on a hand-hold earns some major points in my book.
In the essay, Zack was keen to point out how Wind Waker’s Zelda—the fiery pirate formerly known as Tetra—loses much of what made that character great as soon as she learns of her “true identity” and undergoes the requisite locking away befitting of any Princess Zelda. Venerable Monk expanded on this with Ocarina Of Time’s similar Zelda/Sheik dynamic:
I think a big part of what makes this such a touchy subject is those flashes of independence and hints of a deeper character in Ocarina and beyond. How could we ever knock Zelda, when we know she was such a “badass” in one entry or another? Why pick at Zelda’s flaws when so many other female characters didn’t have any redeeming qualities? Because we can tell that at least some of the folks responsible for making Zelda clearly wanted to do more with the character.
You can definitely see the developers wrestling with the conflicting ideas that “Zelda could be a deep character” and “Zelda must be a princess (with all the associated baggage).” It shows up in Ocarina, where Zelda revealing herself as the woman behind Sheik’s mask necessitates that she loses the ninja suit for the pink gown. How else will we believe it’s her? Sheik spent seven years avoiding detection and capture, but nearly the moment she’s openly feminine again, she’s captured and rendered powerless. It’s impossible to say for sure, but it feels like the developers couldn’t conceive of a woman in a gown being able to defend herself (or at the very least they expected that the player couldn’t). It’s almost like they considered Sheik and Zelda to be two separate people, with all of Sheik’s qualities dropping away with the mask.
This comes up again with Tetra in Wind Waker. As a fierce pirate captain, she’s more competent than Link in all the ways that matter. Then you find out that she’s supposed to inherit the mantle of Zelda. Again, they can’t just tell the player this is the case, so Tetra is given the pink gown, the task too important to risk leaving a cave, and the customary impotence. Tetra definitely rejects tradition in the game, but it feels like the developers still weren’t able to convince themselves to break the unwritten princess rules. They showed that they wanted to drop the whole damsel-in-distress routine, but they could have done more than writing some commentary into the game while going through the same motions.
And Fact Robot reminds us that one of the most beloved Zelda games didn’t even have a Zelda:
The best game in the series is the one without more than a token appearance from the princess: Majora’s Mask. Instead of having to grapple with Zelda, the writers got to look at different characters that fill the same role.
Take the Deku Princess, for example. She sounds like an in-over-her-head damsel in distress, until the moment you bring her to her father. The way she aggressively upbraids him and issues furious orders to the guards recontextualizes her failed investigation into the poisoned swamp and temple. She’s not a little girl playing at heroes and quests like Zelda was at her age. She’s the real power in that kingdom because she takes it one step further than furtive meetings in a courtyard.
Then in Snowhead you’ve got the baby goron. The little guy is totally slavishly reliant on other people because he’s a baby. Again, it’s a single aspect of the princess exaggerated, and it’s far from flattering. Honestly, though, he’s a lot more endearing and better at making you feel the human cost of what’s happened to his world than a thousand princesses would be because he, unlike Zelda, can feel privation without being heroic.
Lulu is pretty obvious. She takes the Zelda archetype further is in terms of her possible amorous connection to Link. She and her Link-equivalent have already had kids, or at least that’s the implication. It’s something the core series will never follow through on, but again, it makes for a better illustration of the chaos and jeopardy we mostly just hear about through narration.
If The Tunic Fits
Earlier in the week, Derrick Sanskrit brought us an article about the changing role and symbolism of Link’s iconic outfit. Sandler’s List had another interpretation:
When Zelda is at its best, the design of the games reflects the three elements of the Triforce: power, wisdom, and courage. To succeed, Link needs the wisdom to navigate the traps and puzzles of Hyrule’s dungeons, and the power to defeat the monsters that live there. But most of all, he needs courage—courage to plunge into the unknown, to charge into battle with colossi, to bet the fate of the world on his own resolve. To wear that damn tunic.
The tunic is an outfit for an explorer, not a warrior. It conveys versatility and ease of movement rather than a sense of protection. It’s only useful in combat to the extent that it doesn’t impede Link’s agile swordsmanship. By forging ahead in such vulnerable garb, Link conveys that his strength comes from within, that it’s courage first and foremost that empowers him to be a hero.
Beyond that, it’s just not a cool look. In games where an explanation for the tunic is given, it tends to mark him as an outsider, a juvenile, or both—something he wears as a matter of principle. My favorite instance of the tunic is adult Link in Ocarina Of Time. By traveling the land as a grown man in the garb of the forever-young Kokiri, Link simultaneously identifies himself with a marginal group on the fringes of Hyrule society and signals his difference within that group. Not only does the tunic signify Link’s courage to push onward though a gauntlet of monsters and deathtraps, it signifies his courage to be himself.
It’s All Good
And in Anthony John Agnello’s Zelda Week contribution, he told us all about the Link To The Past comic adaptation and how its ending is a better fit than the perfect, happy ending of the original game. DL echoed Anthony’s sentiments:
I feel like the least satisfying narrative endings are like a tattoo; an indelible mark that is attempting to make static a world that is constantly changing. My nephew’s best friend from high school is an excellent swimmer; so good, in fact, he’s on pace to make Olympic Trials and mentioned that should he qualify, he would get a tattoo of the Olympic Rings. I cautioned my nephew about admiring that desire, because a 19-year-old taking a single, fleeting moment in his life and stamping it as “defining” can only lead to disappointment as other, grander moments in life have yet to happen. You see it with so many people in a similar position, working their whole lives to achieve a defined, specific goal, then once that goal is reached (or becomes unreachable) there is only the cliff of an unknown future.
The Link To The Past comic is a perfect example of how life really works; those achievements, while grand and important at the time, are only part of a larger journey, and life moves on. It’s also part of the disappointment some had with the new Star Wars. We were given a moment similar to “Master Sword sleeps again…FOREVER” at the end of Return Of The Jedi, and the fireworks were the tattoo on that story. Then, we’re shown that the tattoo we marked into our hearts was only a fleeting blip in the universe, and we had so much more life to live. Many became disappointed, feeling like the story lied to us. We only lied to ourselves. Again, this is a great illustration of how difficult endings can be, because time never ends (in the scales we’re capable of observing).
ErikPeter offered some in-game evidence to explain the game’s tidy ending:
I’m conflicted. Just because it’s a “Fifty Points for Gryffindor!” ending, doesn’t mean it’s bad. Sure, it’s unrealistically happy and saccharine, but that’s the whole point. Link wishes it into happening. The series has an underlying motif of power corrupting, but Link is pure-hearted and incorruptible. That’s why he’s the destined hero.
When he touches the Triforce, he accesses limitless power and wills into existence a happy ending for everyone—and he stays pure. That’s his power. Nobody else could do that. Does bringing his “uncle” back to life cross some line of “Well, now he’s gone too far” or “Oh, what a selfish asshole”? He still leaves the Master Sword in the woods in case it’s needed again. It just isn’t, because Link’s wish for the world is perfect.
Elsewhere, a conversation about the increasing bleakness in the Zelda games led to an interesting appraisal of Zelda II from SofS:
I think that Zelda II comes closer than most of the other games to actually seeming mythical. The temple dungeons have an ancient Greek feel (fencing skeletons, animal-headed knights, and the temple sealing up and turning to stone when its boss is defeated); the way that you can go and look at a supernaturally-comatose Zelda; the structure of the map, where roads are safe but must eventually be left behind—all of it has this primal monomyth charge to it, in my opinion.
Perhaps one could tie this into a larger point about the early days of video games compared to what they became. At the beginning, video games had to look to other media for their reference points, so early games involved a lot of references to Greek myth and fairy tales, contemporary cinematic science fiction, and riffs on Indiana Jones. After a few consoles and their libraries had built up, designers began to mostly reference other games (though movies have always been in the mix). Zelda II is an example of something that’s more for kids whose heads were full of Theseus than kids whose heads were full of other Zelda games.
And with that, we bring Zelda Week to a close. Hopefully we’ll get a new one this year to inspire a whole new strain of scintillating comments. Thanks for reading and commenting, Gameologidons. We’ll see you next week.