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Empowered Editorials: A Look At Zelda’s Romance (Or Lack Of)

In the weeks leading to its release, Nintendo went on an all-out media spree with Skyward Sword, showing off dozens of video previews, trailers, and interviews that arguably gave away too much, causing several gamers to go on a media blackout.

I decided to do the same, but only after watching just one of the released trailers, titled “Romance”:

This single teaser was all I needed to get fully hyped about the latest Zelda adventure. It featured no gameplay or dialog, but there was enough shown here to convince me that Skyward Sword would feature one of the biggest innovations in Zelda’s history: a budding romance between Link and Zelda.

Truth be told, many fans take for granted that despite usually being the primary goal of the hero for most of the games, the relationship between Link and Zelda is usually underplayed to the point that it’s virtually nonexistent.

It isn’t a stretch to see why so many gamers have considered the two as romantically involved; after all, it’s all part of the typical male gamer’s fantasy to be a young hero that singlehandedly saves the princess and her kingdom from a horde of evil monsters….indeed, the very outcome of “Happily Ever After” is about the hero and princess getting hitched and riding off into the sunset.

In the Mario games, the most we ever get is Princess Peach giving Mario a kiss on the cheek, but that’s all that’s needed to suggest a romance between the two. We hardly get as much during the endings to each Zelda game. In fact, the much-hated animated series was actually the strongest indication we had to a relationship between the two iconic characters.

But does this mean there was never any hints of romance in the previous games? It’s this question that has inspired me to make my last Zelda post of the month (and my last blog post of the year).

Let’s take a look at each game, starting from the beginning:

The Legend of Zelda:

As the first game in what would become one of Nintendo’s longest lasting series, the titular princess doesn’t actually show up until the very end of the game, moments after defeating the dark wizard Ganon and reclaiming the Triforce of Power.

In fact, this moment in the game is also the first time Link actually meets the princess; according to the first game’s story, Link was a vagabond who volunteered to rescue Zelda after learning about her plight from her elderly caretaker Impa. Inspired by the tale of her ongoing struggle against Ganon (and hence the real meaning behind the game’s title “The Legend of Zelda”…a name that lost contextual meaning in the following games just like the Final Fantasy series), Link set out to obtain the eight pieces of the Triforce, defeat Ganon, and rescue Zelda.

As one of Nintendo’s earliest 8-bit endeavors, there isn’t any animated interactions between the two sprite figures, other then showing an equal expression of triumph for saving the day. Similarly, Zelda’s dialogue is limited to a couple of congratulatory words for Link, which is about as neutral as it gets.

The original Super Mario Bros. ended in a similar manner, although the difference there was in the ending music. This slow rendition could be interpreted as a romantic melody, and that argument soon became official in the preceding Mario titles (and even retconned in the Super Mario All-Stars remake). By comparison, the music during Zelda I’s ending is more celebratory in nature, more to reward the player for his efforts rather then the fictional hero being controlled.

Status: First Date

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link:

Now, it’s always been debatable whether the second Zelda game is actually a direct sequel to the original storyline. Nintendo’s wording in the manual makes it difficult to interpret, and no doubt sparked the “Timeline” theory for many young gamers.

Regardless of whether this is the same Link and/or Zelda from the first game, the ending is much more clear cut; as the two figures stand close together as the curtain rolls, we can see their feet leaning toward one another in what is undoubtedly a romantic kiss. Considering the Snow White-inspired premise of Zelda II, such a classic ending is only natural.

Having Zelda’s comatose figure visible to the players every time they start/restart the game was also an effective concept, creating a sense of emotional incentive to push through the game’s difficulty. No doubt this also served as inspiration for Shadow of the Colossus, which practically emulated this concept wholesale.

For a game that was criticized for featuring several changes to the original game’s formula, it’s ironic that it also featured the strongest romantic outcome between the two characters for nearly two decades.

Status: Happily Ever After

A Link to the Past:

It’s clear enough that the third Zelda title features a brand new story that has no bearing on the first two games (or it takes place centuries before….or it’s an alternate timeline….I don’t know, I don’t have that timeline chart memorized); in LttP, Link is contacted by Zelda in his dreams….which in of itself sounds pretty romantic, but done with a more Star Wars Episode IV tone.

For a good portion of the game, Zelda is harbored inside a church, offering little but exposition to Link whenever you talk to her. There is a moment of excitement when you collect the necessary components to unlock the Master Sword, but immediately after that she is taken by Aghanim and thus out of commission for the rest of the game.

Interestingly, this was the first game to feature the melody that would become Zelda’s Lullaby, which, like Princess Peach’s theme could be interpreted as romantic. Aside from that, there is little interaction beyond the occasional “destiny brought us together” message.

However, this doesn’t make LttP completely devoid of romantic involvement; the official manga adaption (of which there are in fact four, though this one is the most recognized as it was serialized in Nintendo Power) features one sequence where Zelda, having sensed that Link was in severe pain from attempting to cross the Dark World (in this version, the consequences are much worse than turning into a pink bunny), comforts Link in a dream that has both of them resting in a field of flowers.

This brief moment between the two comes up again during the manga’s epilogue, in which Zelda meets Link in private after returning the Master Sword to its resting place. Here, Zelda laments that she and Link cannot reciprocate their feelings for one another, due to his lack of royal upbringing (which is a bit of a lame excuse given that she is now queen of Hyrule following her father’s death, and Link had been recently knighted), but that she would forever cherish the brief dream they shared together.

Plot holes aside, it’s a rather somber end then you would normally expect from a Zelda game.

Status: Fan Fiction

Link’s Awakening:

Not only was this the first portable Zelda title, it was also the first game to not feature the princess herself in any capacity, other then a case of mistaken identity with the game’s featured heroine Marin (later renamed to Malon).

Despite that, there are a few tender moments between Link and Marin, which would potentially cement his relationship with Zelda as “just friends”, assuming this is the same Link from LttP (which Nintendo has alluded to more than once). While you could argue that since the entirety of the game takes place in a dream, Marin’s very existence is based around Link’s inner desires for Zelda, but considering the character making a return appearance in future games as her own individual self, it serves better to think of her as a unique counterpart to Zelda.

It’s an interesting premise that introduces the idea that Link may not always be bound romantically to Zelda, and no doubt served as inspiration for a couple of the games preceding it.

Status: I’m with Team Marink

Ocarina of Time:

Some fans have referred to OoT as “Link’s Harem”, and it’s pretty obvious why; while the princess is prominently featured in the beginning as a young girl enlisting in the aid of the similarly aged Link, there are a crop of new female characters that all share the potential to be romantically paired with the blond Casanova.

There’s his childhood friend Saria, who is arguably the strongest contender for a relationship, minus the fact that she cannot age (resulting in a somewhat awkward reunion when Link rescues her as an adult); Zora princess Ruto states her childish admiration for Link by insisting that they be married when they grow older (though she eventually relinquishes the idea by stating that she can see that his feelings lie with Zelda); there’s even the Gerudo leader Nabooru, who offers Young Link a rather suggestive reward for helping her, and then laments her missed opportunity upon meeting him again as an adult.

As for the titular princess, there is a more meaningful bond between the two that carries across the game, where they first meet as children determined to put a stop to Ganondorf’s plans, and later grow up determined to follow through with their resolve.

But what makes OoT really unique is the way players can interact with most of the heroines, particularly Saria and Zelda; during the beginning portion of the game (officially coined the “Child Era” by Nintendo), players can choose to revisit the girls at their selective locations to show off each of the collected masks they earned. Each mask elicits a different response, but most of them are of enthusiasm.

This mechanic is similar to Final Fantasy VII’s dating system, though these actions do not affect the story or open any additional outcomes in any way. Rather, it serves as a quiet study on which of the lovely ladies you choose to spend the most time with. In my case, I found myself visiting Malon during the evenings to partake in her lovely singing while also interacting with trusty steed Epona.

Regardless of your preference, the story ultimately ends with Link and Zelda working together to seal Ganon’s evil once and for all…..or at least until his next appearance. There’s a rather tender moment where Zelda appears saddened about sending Adult Link back to the past in order to reclaim his lost youth, and the final image in the game has the two lovebirds meeting once again as children.

Outcome: Subtle

Majora’s Mask:

The second N64 title is unmistakably a direct sequel to Ocarina. In this game, Zelda’s sole appearance takes place in a flashback where she gives Young Link her ocarina as a parting gift. The ocarina serves a far bigger purpose then sentimental value, however, as it ended up being the one instrument able to delay the impending destruction of the entire village of Termina.

Though this flashback was the only sequence in the game featuring the two characters together, there is a sense of sadness present throughout, like a lone cowboy slowly trotting into the distance while his love silently waits for his return.

Status: Memento

The Wind Waker:

Not only did Wind Waker feature the most drastic change for the character of Link (as well as the very aesthetic of the world around him), it created a unique variation of Zelda as well.

Specifically, it was pirate leader Tetra who turned out to be the next incarnation of the princess. Unaware of her heritage, however, the Zelda in WW spends most of the game as a haughty tomboy pirate who finds herself unable to shake the destiny of her bloodline. Rather then renounce her fate, Tetra assists Link even after her transformation, fighting alongside him during the pivotal battle against Ganondorf (still widely considered the best showdown in Zelda history).

Beyond that, there really isn’t any romantic implications between the two characters, though Link does choose to set sail with her pirate crew at the end of the game. Phantom Hourglass continues the story that began with Wind Waker, though I haven’t actually played that one.

Status: Women and Seamen Don’t Mix

Twilight Princess:

Even though she has a physical presence in the game, Zelda’s role in Twilight Princess remains the most minimal in the entire console series. In fact, the game’s subtitle does not even refer to her, but to the diminutive Midna. Whereas the relationship between Link and Midna can be seen as progressing throughout the game, Link’s meetups with Zelda (of which there are only three) are much more distant compared to previous games. Frankly, this is the most neutral depiction of the two characters since the original Zelda, with Link showing far more interest in Midna once she regains her true form (though who could blame him?).

Status: Link is a Furry

Spirit Tracks:

For the first time in series history, Zelda is given a constant presence in the game as Link’s sidekick, following the footsteps of nonhuman partners like Midna and Navi. Despite stuck in a ghostly form, this version of Zelda has far more dialog and character development then any other version seen before, and witnessing her occasionally nonchalant reactions to her situation tie in nicely with the game’s cute visuals.

As of this writing, I have yet to finish the game, though I have been told that there is undoubtedly a romance that builds between her and Link. I’ll have to see for myself, but I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt in light of this entertaining DS adventure.

Status: Pending

The Minish Cap:

Similarly, I had not played The Minish Cap until Nintendo had provided me the game for free courtesy of their 3DS Ambassador Program (I’ll refrain from commenting whether the free games served as adequate compensation for the price drop). I only sampled a few minutes of this GBA title, but was interested to learn that the game had actually beaten Skyward Sword to the punch in the premise of making Zelda and Link childhood friends.

While it does seem odd that she could freely leave her castle in full princess garb to mingle with a blacksmith boy (then again, it’s not like Hyrule’s knights have ever been shown to be competent in any of the games), it’s a unique enough spin to their relationship. As for whether the game advances this relationship any further, well that also remains to be seen.

Status: Also Pending

Skyward Sword:

As of this writing, I have only played up to the end of Skyward Sword’s second dungeon. While there is still much of the game that I have yet to experience, one thing was made clear: this game would feature the most fleshed-out romance between the two iconic characters in series history.

With each new console release, the Zelda series has grown more cinematic with its story and presentation. If the gorgeously detailed visuals (which, lack of high definition aside, would impress on any console) and use of orchestral music hadn’t tipped you off, then the lengthy introduction to Link and Zelda’s relationship (to both each other and the  world around them) should be proof enough that Nintendo isn’t pulling any story punches this time around.

In this setting, Link is a young knight-in-training who is often accused of being a daydreamer and slacker (which is a rather clever excuse to justify the existence of the stamina gauge, a series first); Zelda, meanwhile, is a seemingly normal girl with no royal heritage to speak of, which is the most radical change for the character since Wind Waker’s amnesic pirate stint. It becomes clear from the start that fate has bigger plans for both characters, but it’s even clearer that the two share a strong bond for one another (which has also spurred one character’s jealousy toward Link, in what is undoubtedly another homage to a classic Disney film…).

The game deserves particular kudos for its take on the titular princess herself; while not as drastic a character change as Wind Waker’s Tetra, Skyward Sword’s version of Zelda is quite possibly the most fleshed-out iteration yet. Perhaps its due to the fact that we get to see her in a homelier light, not tied down by royalty or destiny, and all the exposition that they carry. In this version, she is simply a likeable, adorable character who isn’t afraid to speak her mind or stand up for herself or Link when necessary. You could almost argue that she shares a few similarities with her animated series counterpart, though that’s a can of worms not worth opening. Regardless where they got the inspiration from, there’s no doubt in my mind that this is my favorite version of Zelda by far.

Like most of Nintendo’s stories, it’s a very basic premise. And while the company stubbornly chooses not to include voice acting, even with the extra amount of text, the game also makes a strong case against it thanks to its wonderful character animations and facial expressions. Despite being a silent protagonist, there’s never a moment where you don’t know what’s going on in Link’s head…you only need to look at the nervous expression on his face when Zelda sheepishly moves her face closer to his, the  happiness he feels when the two share a flight together, or the amount of pain and worry he expresses once the game moves along its predictable path. The excellent orchestral score also helps to stir your emotions along.

When the game first launched in November, several people criticized the lengthy introduction sequence, serving as a tutorial players were forced to endure before the game opened up properly (even though in truth it wasn’t nearly as long as Twilight Princess’ hours-long sequence of fetch quests, mini-games and target practice). I, on the other hand, played through it twice just to relive those wonderfully produced moments between Link and Zelda. Not only did Nintendo succeed in creating the most adorable and bittersweet relationship between the series most iconic characters, they also succeeded in making Link’s quest in Skyward Sword the most personal adventure yet.

While there is no doubt our beloved hero will be tasked to save the world as destiny foretells, there is no doubt that rescuing his precious Zelda takes priority over anything else. If Shadow of the Colossus drew inspiration from the Zelda series in its depiction of a young hero overcoming mythical forces in order to rescue a lost love, then perhaps Nintendo too has taken inspiration from the cult classic in order to create a simpler but more emotionally engaging adventure for its beloved hero to endure.

It’s unclear if this game will end as happily as previous titles, based on the gravity of its early-yet-ominous exposition, but regardless of how it ends, you’ll likely want to have a tissue or two ready.

Status: D’awwww

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This entry was posted on January 3, 2012 by in Empowered Editorials and tagged , .
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