All of us Nintendo players have shared that moment. A parent, an ignorant friend, or a well-meaning geriatric interrupts the smooth movement of our joysticks and the exacting strikes of our button-mashed attacks to ask about the hero in green. “So that’s Zelda?”
“No,” we manage in-between annoyance at their intrusion and surprise at their utter lack of basic knowledge. “That’s Link. Zelda’s a Princess.” Link’s a hero. Zelda’s a princess. Link’s a boy. Zelda’s a girl. These are as seemingly established in The Legend of Zelda universe as the quest for the Triforce or the need for wisdom and courage. Their roles are as elemental as the Goddesses.
I was eight when Ocarina of Time came out. After playing at a friend’s house, my mother let us (my two brothers and I) rent it from Blockbuster as a special treat for doing well at piano lessons. While we grew up with computers and the internet before other kids, consoles were something we did not own or have any games for until far after our friends. Even then, they were borrowed games that we always had to return.
My parents divorced when I was young, and I spent half my adolescence at my mother’s house and half at my father’s. That meant borrowed games and a Nintendo 64 at one place and a PlayStation (later PS2), a fully upgraded computer, and seemingly endless PC games at the other. It also meant that I played games with my brothers and our friends on the 64, but lived a solitary gamer’s life at the other house, each of us on our own machines.
Nintendo games have always been a shared experience for me.
I was 13 when my youngest brother was born, and I was just learning what feminism was. At 14, I began reading feminist works, sparking an era where I questioned the representations of gender and assigned roles for woman that were also assigned to me. Thus, at 17, when my brother (then four years old) asked if the character on the screen was a girl, I said yes without thinking about it.
I was belatedly playing Wind Waker on the GameCube. I knew that in acknowledging he had correctly identified the character’s gender (he was just learning why some people were referred to as ‘girls’ and some as ‘boys’), I was making him feel successful and laying down a propagandistic basis for Link’s femininity.
Link was a girl in our house for seven years. This was upheld by his older brothers, his parents, his older sister—all infallible sources. It did not change his excitement for or understanding of the game at all.
Now thirteen, he’s figured out that Link is traditionally defined as a man. In fact, his playthrough of Wind Waker cleared this up pretty quickly; the first part of the game is spent on your home island where you are reminded it is your birthday, and as a man, you have to wear the traditional green garb. But he is still proud that Link was a girl for him for so long.
The Legend of Zelda has a basic mythos that it adheres to and, according to producer Eiji Aonuma, it has no room for revisiting the assumed gender of our hero. At E3 this year, he explained that:
“If we have Princess Zelda as the main character who fights, then what is Link going to do?”
Thus, in the upcoming release Breath of the Wild, Link has again been identified as a man. The option to play a lady Link was also shot down before production.
Link is not a boy for me. Link is androgynous, nonbinary, or genderless. I rarely even think of them as “Link.” The protagonist of The Legend of Zelda series is a person in green whose gender ultimately does not affect the story, except at a personal level for the player. However, in light of Nintendo’s view, I will be referring to Link by masculine pronouns for the remainder of this article.
When reading Aonuma’s comments about Link, I was immediately reminded of the penultimate battle during Twilight Princess when Zelda has been chained to the wall above Ganondorf’s throne. Later, she is used as a puppet to attack Link. What is she doing during her imprisonment? There is more to be said for the use of her body as a symbol and weapon during this battle, but not here.
Ocarina of Time began a trend of increased achievement for Zelda when she became Sheik. In this role, she was more skilled than Link, and acted as a teacher and guiding hand in his quest. In fact, Link does nothing but sleep for seven years during Ocarina of Time. He does not even train—he just grows bigger. In the meantime, Zelda is becoming Sheik under Impa’s guidance.
In Skyward Sword, Zelda is a classmate at the Knight Academy beside other young women. There are also ladies who are former knights, proving that women being in the Academy is not a new development. In Skyward Sword’s world, they have as much status—and perhaps just as much of a chance to become the hero—as Link does. And Skyward Sword is set at the beginning of the chronology.
Much later, we get Wind Waker. Here, pirate Tetra and her gang help Link out immensely, and even leave to found a new Hyrule on an unknown continent. Tetra is the descendant of Zelda, but she makes as much sense as the hero of the game as older and wiser Saria from OoT; perhaps even more so than the young, ignorant Link presented in both Wind Waker and OoT.
It should also be noted that before these two titles, there were two games starring Zelda. These were, unfortunately, not made by Nintendo, and are considered to be pretty bad.
All of this does not mean that Zelda always has something to do. In The Minish Cap, the princess is literally turned to stone. In the Oracle series, she’s a sacrifice. Then there are games where she does not appear at all.
But what, inherently, defines Link as a man? In Wind Waker, it is tradition that on a certain birthday, boys became men and—after donning the green garb of an ancient male hero—they begin training in “the ways of the sword.” Besides this old-fashioned practice, there are no other indicators beyond perceived masculinity and gender casting.
Throughout the series, Link is helped along by women characters. Just like my experience playing Nintendo, Link’s journey is not a solitary one. Some of them are as essentially female as the Goddesses, but others are assumed. For instance, it’s possible that the Great Fairies are gender non-conforming. The LGBTQ Video Game Archive has more examples and discussions about gender non-conforming characters in the series.
Nowhere in the mythos set by Nintendo is it required that Zelda be a princess to save, and it is a massive assumption that Link is—or has to be—a man. Instead, these are tropes upheld by game developers only willing to offer so many new ideas. While there is an argument that the recurrence of these characters in traditionally defined roles of damsel and hero grounds the story in the universe, is that not the role of the search for the Triforce, the Goddesses, and looming evil?
This is all ignoring the fact that Nintendo already created a lady version of Link in Hyrule Warrior Legends. While Linkle is considered non-canon, she is already an established character with a growing following. There should be no reason that she is not an option to play in the newest installment.
Does that mean gender does not matter? No. In fact, I believe it matters a great deal—especially in media where protagonists who are men have been the norm for so long. However, if that gender definition is based on old-fashioned ideas of ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles in a hero/princess dynamic, it is uninteresting. It is boring. And it is irrelevant.