Endings are inherently difficult. We don’t want to walk away because doubt is overwhelming. Believing, hoping that we’ll catch up later or that everything’s going to be okay is not enough. In all likelihood, when it’s over, we’re never going to see each other again. We’ll never come back. If we do, it won’t be the same. Hence why ending a story is doubly difficult; if characters are sufficiently burning with life and pathos, capping our view into their lives is almost impossible. It’s got to satisfyingly put an end to the trials we followed them through and also assure us that the life around them will persist. Great endings thrive on the same quality as the middle of a story: the sense that the unseen world is functioning.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past’s ending hangs off the game itself like gorgeous, ill-fitting shoes. It strides out from the game’s final fight with pomp and purpose, but it’s devoid of the life filling up the game preceding it. Despite the aching ballad that tracks its credits—one of the best songs in video game history, capable of ripping your heart out with Samuel Barber-ian precision—A Link To The Past discredits the humanity of Link’s journey by halting full-stop with a happy, sunshine-filled conclusion. “At least no one important got hurt!” says a Link To The Past, horns blaring after you knife Ganon in his skull-belted beer belly. However, Shotaro Ishinomori’s comic book adaptation of A Link To The Past has the ending the game is missing, the fitting final note that ends Link’s adventure while giving us a glimpse of a world that moves on.
Here’s the thing about Hyrule in A Link To The Past, no matter what version it’s in: It’s only as doomed and hopeless as the real world. A sinister, king-deposing wizard in a green muumuu may be going around the countryside kidnapping people so he can free an ancient warlord from a mystical parallel dimension, but the sun still rises. Every day you run around its hills, collecting ancient artifacts and evil-demolishing swords, the sky in Hyrule is cloud free. Animals frolic, the people of Kakariko village serve drinks at the bar and sell fish in the town square, and lumberjacks in the grove beneath Death Mountain fell trees to build new homes. Did your uncle die trying to save Princess Zelda from the wizard Agahnim? Is Kakriko’s elder in hiding? Are folks like the poor flute player trapped and disfigured in the Dark World that Agahnim is trying to crack open for Ganon? Sure they are. But like anywhere people call home, life goes on even as it teeters on the brink of complete, violent collapse.
Ishinomori’s version of Hyrule is largely the same. Link’s journey—first to find the Master Sword and stop Agahnim, and later to save Zelda, defeat Ganon, and free the Dark World from bondage—is truncated on the page but peppered with similar glimpses into every day life. Link doesn’t meet a sick kid who wishes he could just go outside and catch bugs like he does in the game, but he does meet a farmer willing to hide him in a cart while he’s on the lamb from Agahnim’s goons. There’s no kindly old man to give Link a mirror that doubles as an escape route from the Dark World, but there is a wacky inventor happy to make him wings to fly into the desert and a hot air balloon to storm Hyrule castle.
As in the game, Link also shares a connection with Zelda, both psychic and physical. Rough as things get, they always find each other, and their relationship gives the story a soulful layer (one that’s totally absent from their relationship in subsequent games). In the game, Zelda guides Link through his first fights. In the book, she strikes the final blow against Ganon. Life’s significant moments in Hyrule are shared.
Extra characters, like Link’s rival Roam, don’t necessarily make the comic version of Hyrule more multifaceted than the one in the game so much as they reinforce how alive it was in the first place. Every chance meeting or change in the action in Ishinomori’s work on the page feels like something that could have happened on the cartridge when you shut it down. Nintendo painted the countryside in spare but precise strokes to make the place feel like life is chugging where you can’t see it. It makes the game’s perfunctory happy ending feel all the more thin when you reach it.
The Triforce, the omnipotent god-treasure Ganon imprisoned in the Dark World, invites Link to make a wish after you finally put the kibosh on the evil pig monster. After raising it into the air, the screen fades to white and a montage so sweet it could cause diabetes starts. The King returns to health! The elder’s back in town. All the fire-breathing Zora dudes are partying in the waterfall. Link’s uncle isn’t dead at all; he’s right here. The Dark World reverts to its innocent state as the Golden Land, and the Master Sword “sleeps again… FOREVER!” Good. Great. Grand. Let’s all have punch and pie and take a nap forever.
Ishinomori’s Link To The Past, meanwhile, briefly echoes the game’s ending before changing it in vital ways. In seizing the Triforce, the Dark World recedes and peace is restored. We don’t see that peace in the shape of a world tour where everyone’s happy, but it’s represented in more solemn ritual. Link and Zelda find themselves back in Hyrule, and the spirits of Link’s uncle and as his long lost parents appear to praise his “lonely and difficult victory” and remind him to never forget the people who paved the way for him. “Let the memories of their efforts humble you. Never forget!” they say before Zelda is crowned queen in the absence of her departed father, Link is made master of her knights, and a “longed-for peace” returns to the kingdom.
The final scene finds Zelda seeking out Link when he’s finally returning the Master Sword to the Lost Woods. She laments how now that their struggle is over, now that they’re both free to live, their connection has faded. Link has grown distant as he protects the Triforce and Zelda, like all rulers, is isolated. “As long as I live, I shall never forget the time when we were together in our dreams,” she says as she rides off, leaving behind the Master Sword to rest for centuries, “waiting to call a hero to arms.”
Link To The Past doesn’t end better under Ishinomori’s hand because it’s a bummer. The juvenile belief that life is, as Kevin Smith famously wrote on behalf of all juveniles in Clerks, a series of down endings is idiotically shortsighted. Life’s a series of down endings and up endings and weird endings and inexplicable endings—life’s more than one thing, and it goes on.
The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past deserves Ishinomori’s ending because even while it’s a bummer, Hyrule doesn’t just stop because you stabbed Pig Satan and picked up a couple of triangles. The dead stay dead and the living change and shift and move. Zelda and Link shared something powerful. It transformed them, and while they can mourn what’s past, that doesn’t negate the very real, good things they earned in the process. And the Master Sword is waiting because things will inevitably start falling apart again. Someone will need to fight a pig monster or there will be a plague or Death Mountain will erupt. Something will happen in Hyrule after Ishinomori’s ending, for better or ill. That’s the best type of ending, the one that recognizes that it’s always, in some way, the end of the world, and life wouldn’t be worth living otherwise.