Why Ganondorf Was Wrong in ‘The Wind Waker’

The Wind Waker

Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is that, as the player, it’s not your job to prevent the end the world. Rather, your goal is to ensure an apocalypse that has already occurred is not reversed. In an ironic role-reversal, it’s the villain of the game, Ganondorf, who wants to save the world by correcting a cataclysmic ecological disaster. He is not wrong to do so. Why, then, is he the villain?

The Wind Waker encourages the player to understand that the natural world must be allowed to transform itself at its own pace without drastic human intervention. Ganondorf is not wrong for wanting to save the world, but the deeper message of The Wind Waker is that the world does not, in fact, need to be saved.

The Wind Waker has a backstory that is surprisingly dark and complicated for a game with such cute graphics. It’s difficult to explain how the apocalypse that proceeds the game happened, but suffice it to say that, because of an environmental apocalypse, the once-flourishing land of Hyrule lies beneath a seemingly endless body of water referred to only as “the Great Sea.” No one remembers the ancient kingdom, and people live on small islands rising from the waves.

Link’s journey begins on one such island, appropriately named Outset Island. A giant bird suddenly appears and kidnaps his sister Aryll, so he hitches a ride with a passing gang of pirates who deliver him to another island called “the Forsaken Fortress,” which is rumored to serve as the base of operations of someone searching for girls with pointed ears — a marker of the ethnic heritage of the royal Hylian race.

The master of the Forsaken Fortress is Ganondorf, and he is in fact searching for the descendent of Princess Zelda. Before Hyrule was flooded, the Hylian kings and queens guarded a magical artifact called the Triforce, which was said to have the power to grant the wishes of anyone who touched it. Knowing that Zelda’s descendent will be able to lead him to the Triforce, Ganondorf scours the Great Sea for her, hoping to use the Triforce to make the waters of the Great Sea vanish. Link’s sister turns out to not be Zelda’s descendent, but this has nothing to do with the boy’s desire to rescue her, and so his quest begins.

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Beyond Damsels & Villains in ‘A Tale of Two Rulers’

A Tale Of Two Rulers

[Editor’s Note: This piece was inspired by “We Could Be Heroes: Revisionist Gaming & Representation.” It’s recommended that you read it first!]

In March 2013, media critic Anita Sarkeesian launched the video webseries Tropes vs. Women in Video Games where she argues that games are subject to gendered biases. The Legend of Zelda is one of the gaming franchises Sarkeesian critiques in the first episode of Tropes vs. Women, as many of the Zelda titles contain classic examples of a trope that she refers to as “damseling.”

Damseling, in its purest form, is the process by which a woman is rendered inert and thereby positioned as an object that will motivate the player character—a man—to complete his quest. The point of the game is therefore to rescue the damsel in distress, who is subordinate to the hero and is not allowed to rescue herself, generally because she is, as Sarkeesian puts it, “Stranded in a hostile area, trapped, desperately ill, or suffering any number of terrible fates where she needs help to survive.”

In the Zelda series, Princess Zelda is frequently such a damsel, as she is variously kidnapped, imprisoned, placed into an enchanted sleep, crystalized, zombified, and turned to stone. The player’s job, as a young man named Link, is to acquire a weapon powerful enough to defeat the villainous Ganondorf and save Zelda, a narrative that forms the core of the eponymous “Legend of Zelda.”

What do players who are women make of Zelda’s role in this story? Is it necessary to take the plot elements of the series at face value, or are other interpretations possible? How do the games look from Zelda’s perspective?

And what about Ganondorf? What does it mean to be cast as the villain, unable to argue your own side of the story? Are the motivations of “the bad guys” ever so clear cut that we, as players, should feel justified in murdering them? Are there other ways to resolve the conflicts they represent?

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Japanese Environmentalism, Shinto, & ‘The Legend of Zelda’

The Legend of Zelda

I recently read an article on Kill Screen titled “The Unmistakable Influence of Shintoism on Videogame History.” The writer, Jack Flanagan, is primarily concerned with the emotional affect of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which makes the player feel good about being out and about in nature. Flanagan posits that, “The ‘Legend’ of The Legend of Zelda is set up to look like a medieval folklore, but in truth it is a Japanese folktale composed of Shintoist elements, which has been respun by Miyamoto.” In fact, he continues, no small number of Japanese games “are tied the teachings of Shintoism.”

What are “the teachings of Shintoism,” exactly? And what do they have to do with Japanese video games? I’d like to demonstrate that Shinto—as a broad amalgamation of local folk religions in Japan—is not particularly well-defined as a cultural influence on video games. Moreover, Shinto is only one of the contributing factors in Japanese attitudes regarding the environment.

Although it would certainly be interesting and productive to identify the specifically Shinto elements in The Legend of Zelda series, I think it also makes sense to place the games within the context of ecological conservation movements in the 1980s and 1990s. In addition, it’s worthwhile to consider the more universal elements of international fantasy storytelling that appealed to people in the nascent console gaming industry.

This essay is less about The Legend of Zelda than it is about social and political currents in contemporary Japan, but I hope it can add nuance to our understanding of cultural background of the series, as well Japanese video games more broadly.

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‘Yoshi’s Woolly World’ & Mellow Mode: Validating All Skill Levels

Yoshis Woolly World

I have a confession to make: I have more than two decades of experience with platforming games, and I play Yoshi’s Woolly World in Mellow Mode.

Yoshi’s Woolly World is the latest Nintendo platformer centered around the company’s cynosure Mario franchise. Unlike the Mario platformers, the emphasis in the Yoshi games is not speed or precision, but rather on thoroughness of exploration. After completing a level, the player is presented with a scorecard that tallies how collectibles were located. There is no tangible reward for 100% completion, but the gold star next to the title of a level on the overworld map sure looks nice, as do all of the unlockable skins for the playable Yoshi character.

Aside from its collection elements, the game doesn’t offer much additional challenge as a platformer. In fact, it’s rather laid-back and seems to be intended for less experienced gamers.

Because Yoshi’s Woolly World is still a traditional platform game, however, the player can succumb to all manner of sudden deaths. These environmental hazards are easy enough to avoid; but, should the player slip up, all progress since the start of the level or the midlevel checkpoint will be lost. What this means is that the results of the player’s careful exploration and collection will be lost, and all of the time in the process spent will have been for nothing.

As an adult, the time I spend playing video games is limited. Twenty minutes of lost time that might be a “challenge” to another play feels like something approaching an insult to me, as it demonstrates a lack of respect for my resources. Instead of helping Yoshi collect balls of yarn, I could have spent my precious free time doing any number of other things with more tangible benefits. In other words, games that require a significant and unrewarded investment of my time have become less accessible as I’ve grown older.

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