Zelda is an interesting entry in Nintendo’s substantial portfolio of beloved characters… because she isn’t just one character.
While some may debate whether or not the convoluted, multi-universe, split-timeline narrative of the Legend of Zelda series as a whole was intentional from the start, it’s certainly true that both series protagonist Link and the titular princess have undergone numerous revisions over the years. And, in the latter case, she’s become some of Nintendo’s most memorable characters. Plural.
Let’s take a look at some of my favourite takes on Zelda — and if your picks differ from mine, feel free to share ’em in the comments.
The Adventure of Link (1987)
Despite spending pretty much the entirety of this adventure asleep, the second incarnation of Zelda we ever saw on our screens was a focal point for the adventure — unlike in its predecessor, where we never even saw her until the very end of the whole game.
In The Adventure of Link, we saw Zelda every time we started a new session or continued after a Game Over… she was always lying there on that altar as a reminder of what was at stake in our quest.
Perhaps more significantly, though, the ending of The Adventure of Link actually saw Link and Zelda share an intimate — possibly romantic — moment together for one of the only times in the series as a whole. Whatever you may think of the idea of gaining the affection of a character as a “reward” in today’s walking-on-eggshells sociopolitical climate, this was almost as big a deal back in the day as Samus revealing that she was actually a hot chick under all that armour.
Assuming you ever actually finished The Adventure of Link, of course. And if you managed that, respect to you.
A Link to the Past (1991)
Although she found herself locked up at the beginning of the game and cast into another dimension for the second act, A Link to the Past’s incarnation of Zelda remains a popular one with fans for numerous reasons.
Firstly, she’s super-cute, a fact that people have recently been reminded of by the fact that this particular version of Zelda is the one that is in the upcoming Super Smash Bros. Ultimate for Switch. And we’re not talking super-sexy cute here, either; she just looks like a lovely person. Kind eyes, a pleasant smile, a graceful posture… yes, A Link to the Past’s Zelda is the quintessential princess.
Secondly, she was the first Zelda we could actually get to know somewhat, because she finally had some dialogue beyond a congratulatory message for clearing the game. From the relatively limited amount of time we get to spend with her, we can understand that she is a brave, determined young woman — perhaps not as strong as she’d like to be, but desperate to do the right thing… and to seek out the hero who could save the land she clearly loves.
The Wind Waker (2002)
It’s not immediately obvious — assuming it hasn’t been spoiled for you yet — but you actually spend a significant portion of this initially divisive installment alongside a character who turns out to be Zelda in disguise. Hell, she’s disguised so well even she doesn’t know it for quite some time.
When she does finally reveal herself as a princess, we’re treated to a delightful take on the character who maintains a pleasing amount of the sass she had in her disguised form, but also understands that she should probably start carrying herself with something of a more regal bearing if she wants people to take her seriously. Old habits die hard and all that, and her struggle to master this makes her a very appealing character.
Wind Waker Zelda is a capable, strong young woman who helps Link out a whole lot over the course of his adventure… and for those with a soft spot for her, she gets explored further in the Nintendo DS title Phantom Hourglass. This latter version of her — along with her initial disguised form — is also seen in Hyrule Warriors.
Twilight Princess (2006)
The Zelda series is, for most people, associated with bright colours and a sort of happy fairy tale adventure feeling. But there have been a couple of installments along the way that were noticeably bleaker and darker: first, the vastly underrated Majora’s Mask from 2000 (in which Zelda herself doesn’t appear) and secondly, Gamecube/Wii crossover title Twilight Princess, subsequently revamped and rereleased for Wii U ten years later.
Twilight Princess is capital-D Dark in more ways than one. And its overwhelmingly bleak feeling is perhaps best exemplified by its take on Zelda: a young woman who, despite being the reigning head of state, initially appears almost to have given up on life, wracked with guilt over her inability to resist the invasion of the Twilight Realm and mourning for what her lands have become.
As Link proves himself through his adventures, however, Zelda comes to trust him — and starts to see the possibility of light returning to Hyrule. Towards the end of the game, she very much finds the courage she had lost, and helps Link in one of the series’ most spectacular climactic showdowns.
Hyrule Warriors (2014)
Although Hyrule Warriors is technically regarded as a non-canonical installment in the franchise, it does take care to fit itself in with the rest of the overall timeline carefully and plausibly. And, as such, it once again gives us a unique take on Zelda — as well as actually making her a playable character.
In Hyrule Warriors, Zelda is depicted as a responsible and benevolent but powerful warrior princess, more than willing to step up to defend her realm when it is threatened. Here, although Link still has his obligatory role as the legendary hero, Zelda stands alongside him as an equal rather than relying on him to do all the dirty work. And during the period in the main narrative where Zelda is separated from her friends and forces, she certainly doesn’t rest on her laurels or lock herself in an emo tower to go and cry. No — she fights, adopting a disguise last seen in 1998’s Ocarina of Time before later revealing herself as the princess she is.
Hyrule Warriors Zelda maintains the graceful femininity of her previous incarnations and combines it with battle-ready practicality and just a hint of Team Ninja sexiness. Her split dress — obviously a lot more practical to move and fight in than the long, flowing gowns she’s typically depicted as wearing in other games — occasionally gives us a tantalising flash of thigh, for example, but this is never overplayed; she’s dressing for a purpose rather than to try and flaunt her womanly charms in any way. Compare and contrast with the busty antagonist Cia, for example — a Team Ninja original, and very obviously so — and you’ll see what I mean.
Hyrule Warriors Zelda is a badass — and she’s also one of my favourite characters to play as, too. So don’t get on the wrong side of her!
This obviously isn’t every incarnation of Zelda there has been over the years, but instead some of my favourites. I’d love to hear from you — who is your best Zelda?
Header art by IsaacNoelIsCutie (Deviantart)
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