I have always found it quite strange that The Legend of Zelda series rarely allows you to play as Zelda. As a kid I used to wonder why it wasn’t called The Legend of Link – it’s even alliterative! – although I can see now why that’s not the case. At its core, Zelda as a concept is obsessed with chivalric heroism against all odds, to the extent that even the title doesn’t refer to its morally unambiguous protagonist. Link naming a game after himself? Not in a million years.
Right from the get-go, I’d like to explicitly state that Link is one of my favourite video game characters of all time, although that doesn’t necessarily mean I think he’s a good character. I like Link primarily because of the ever-present nostalgia I feel for the early Zelda games I played on my GameBoy. I like Link because I remember the tunes to Lost Woods and Saria’s Song, and because the stories he’s at the heart of are stories I hold close to my own heart. I like Link just… because.
That’s something worth interrogating. It is exceptionally strange for me to say that yes, Link is one of my favourite characters in history – but sorry, I have no real idea as to why that is the case. I think my interest in Link is almost lazy. I recognize the blonde locks and am immediately satisfied. I see the Master Sword, a shield emblazoned with the Hylian crest, both wielded by a blue-eyed hero in green – a hero through whom I have vicariously saved the world dozens of times.
But again, Link is not necessarily the most interesting character around town. I actually believe his silence is a powerful factor in ultimately creating three-dimensional characters in Zelda, a series that consistently teems with charm and charisma – I’m thinking of larger-than-life personalities like Hestu, Ezlo, the Happy Mask Salesman, and Urbosa. I haven’t played Twilight Princess in 14 years and I still remember everything about Midna – Nintendo is exceptionally good at designing incredibly memorable casts around a recognizable and intentionally uncomplex protagonist.
That being said, Nintendo has done Zelda herself dirty for over three decades, trapping her between the ever-present emphasis on Link and the simple gimmicks imbued in other characters.
I remember when Spirit Tracks – an excellent Zelda game – came out for the Nintendo DS back in 2009. I had just turned 14, and so I had never really thought about the series from a critical perspective. I liked the swords and I loved the story – that was all there really was to it.
Spirit Tracks was different, though, because Zelda wasn’t just relegated to damsel in distress. She was more than a plotpoint – still not playable, mind, but at least somewhat significant outside of needing to be rescued. This version of Zelda, who had been allowed to stand on her own two feet, proved that she could be just as emotionally resonant as Link, if not more so. It’s worth remembering that Spirit Tracks launched 23 years after the first Zelda game, but was one of the first games in the entire series to actually feature Zelda in a meaningful way.
That’s not to say Zelda was never prominent in other games. The two CD:i Zelda games launched in 1993 and 1994 – Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon and Zelda’s Adventure – actually featured her as the protagonist, although both games were poorly received and aren’t considered canon by Nintendo. Zelda got her game seven years after Link got his, but only had two attempts to impress before she was locked away in her castle for another 15 years.
I also feel obliged to mention that Zelda is playable in spin-offs like Hyrule Warriors and Cadence of Hyrule, as well as being a popular fighter on the Super Smash Bros. roster. She is a beloved Nintendo character, for sure, but is unfortunately only really given room to shine outside of what are supposed to be her own stories. Even in Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker, Zelda’s significance is hidden until the last second by having her masquerade as Sheik and Tetra, respectively. Even when Zelda matters, she’s not allowed to be Zelda.
Now that your history lesson on Zelda as a character is over, let’s bring this back to the modern day. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity recently launched and was received exceptionally well. Interestingly, it completely changed Breath of the Wild’s story, to the extent that imagining how Breath of the Wild 2 intends to proceed is quite difficult – although I reckon I have a pretty good idea of what’s next.
Anyway, something I haven’t seen much chat about is Age of Calamity’s depiction of Zelda. To put it simply, she’s brilliant.
Without going too far into spoiler territory, it’s safe to say that the most recent iteration of Zelda presents her as someone who is far more emotionally complex than Link has ever been. She laughs and cries, and expresses sincere vulnerability before demonstrating extraordinary strength. She is an incredibly believable hero who is remarkably easy to root for, and I think she dramatically supersedes Link in pretty much every single scene they share.
This is primarily important because of what we’ve seen of Breath of the Wild 2 so far – which, admittedly, hasn’t been a lot. The one trailer Nintendo has released shows Link and Zelda on an adventure together, exploring what appears to be ancient, malice-riddled ruins.
I recently rewatched the trailer after finishing Age of Calamity and came away from it feeling far more excited for Breath of the Wild 2 than I had been beforehand. If the trailer is an accurate representation of the overall game experience as opposed to just being a glimpse at a prologue in which Zelda is snatched away by Ganon yet again, then Breath of the Wild 2 could easily boast a narrative not unlike Spirit Tracks. Honestly, I think making Zelda playable would be a much better option, and I’m sure a lot of people who played as her in Age of Calamity will agree. That being said, assigning her as much significance and agency as she had in Spirit Tracks is the bare minimum. Anything less than that will not possibly do her character justice.
Regardless of what happens with Breath of the Wild 2, Age of Calamity has communicated something that has been obvious and yet weirdly ignored for 11 years: Zelda is a fantastic character who is superior to Link in a large number of ways. I’m not saying Link should never appear in a Zelda story again – I like Link! I’m simply arguing that maybe The Legend of Zelda should let Zelda live her own legend for once.
Read next: Here’s How Breath Of The Wild 2 Can Still Work After Age Of Calamity
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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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