There is a mystery in Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time. After jumping seven years into the future, Link meets Sheik, a badass with a covered face who leaps from the shadows to deliver cryptic messages before vanishing in much the way they came. While you’ve met any number of helpful characters on your journey, Sheik is the first to not immediately explain themselves, and there’s a thrill in meeting a stranger so clearly at or above Link’s skill level. Eventually, the mystery is solved: Sheik is Princess Zelda in disguise. This Zelda isn’t just waiting around for you to save the world. She has her own agenda. She needs your help, but she’s still got shit to do.
This was a significant change in series lore. At the start, Zelda was a victim, the princess-in-another-castle type that defined so many early Nintendo games. She’s the title character, but in the original Legend Of Zelda, she’s a non-entity—a goal, not a person. In Zelda II, she spends the whole game asleep. Narrative was not an early strength of the series.
Things started to change with the arrival of A Link To The Past. The advent of new technology (namely the advanced innards of the Super NES) meant more room to play and enough space to tell tales more advanced than “Walk up to this person, press A, go left.” A Link To The Past offers a brief glimpse of a Link with a home life. It introduces friendly faces to chat with and a journey with depth. Most importantly, it gives us a Zelda who’s more than just a static image on screen. LTTP’s Zelda is, at least initially, proactive, calling Link to Hyrule Castle when her life is endangered. Eventually, she winds up as a prop to be rescued, but those few minutes where she’s a legitimate companion (albeit one without much in the way of firepower) give her more personality than she’d had in the entirety of the previous two games combined.
This gives the game a greater depth and scope. The original Zelda is lonely, full of monsters and secrets and violent death and little else. While its sequel tried to add in thriving towns, the end result was more frustrating and eerie than welcoming. ALTTP has a liveliness that makes for a fuller, richer game, and allowing Zelda actual agency means that Link isn’t simply solving puzzles and killing bosses for the sake of it. The short amount of time you spend escorting Zelda through the sewers of Hyrule Castle isn’t exactly Midnight Run, but it’s better than nothing.
As the Zelda games grew more complex, the need for more complex narrative structures grew with them, and Zelda herself was often at the center of these changes. Link is an everyman, as stubbornly opaque in his way as Samus Aran (at her best) or Mario. But while Zelda has a consistent role to play, there are any number of ways she can fulfill it and any number of personalities she can try on while still remaining fundamentally consistent. If Link is a standard issue Hero, fitted with Chosen One status and an uncanny ability to stab things, Zelda is the symbol of everything good and righteous about the world Link is trying to save. She is, in essence, Hyrule’s soul, and the better the game’s writers are able to represent her, the more we’re going to care about saving it.
This representation reached its pinnacle with Ocarina Of Time, a game that mirrored Zelda’s growth against Link, creating the impression of a young woman with a story just as interesting as our hero’s. It’s entirely possible to imagine a different version of the game with her in the leading role, fleeing from Ganondorf’s clutches and training to become a ninja warrior while Link does his dungeon clearing. Zelda does ultimately get kidnapped before the final battle, but the sense of balance persists. Instead of a formulaic hero’s journey, Ocarina offers a modest epic, one that maintains an essentially simple through line while drawing out clear, memorable characters and making us care about their fates.
Post-Ocarina games have struggled with this balance to varying degrees of success. The problem is that while the simplicity of the original Legend Of Zelda can be built on, there’s only so much mythology the structure can stand before it starts to wobble. Wind Waker brought in an undersea Hyrule and boating accidents, and its version of Zelda, a fiery pirate, was the most adventurous iteration of the princess yet. But, coincidentally, that independence vanishes the second she discovers her true identity. Like a tiara made out of elastic bands, Zelda can only stretch so far before she snaps back into place.
In Twilight Princess, the designers reduced Zelda’s role to focus more on Link’s new sidekick, Midna. It’s an approach that’s evocative but still distractingly off-brand, with Zelda coming off as under-developed and rote. Skyward Sword went aggressively in the other direction, introducing a headstrong, determined Zelda and working hard to build her relationship with Link. Unfortunately, the game’s sluggish pacing and cut-scene indulgence poses a hurdle to ever making a personal connection with that relationship. Instead, it’s held at a constant remove, rendering the development appealing but remote.
Over the years, Zelda’s gone from trophy to icon to something in between. Her evolution hasn’t always been graceful, or consistent, but the struggle to expand on her character while still staying true to the essence of that original is part of what makes the series so vital. That may be why the Zelda of Ocarina Of Time still rings the truest of the bunch: an iteration that stays true to the character’s roots while allowing her to be more like a companion to Link than a prize. The best version of Zelda is one with the freedom to fight her own battles.