Barring the occasional grunt, Link remains one of the few silent protagonists in gaming. In a climate where even games like Sonic and Gears of War attempt to integrate character arcs and love interests, Link remains more of an observer than a participant in the world. As a character, he is a sponge, soaking up information from others while offering very little insight into his own motivations.
Skyward Sword looks to deviate very little from this influential, yet well-worn formula. This puts it in stark contrast with franchises like Mario, a series that continually reinvents its dynamics, and games like Darksiders that modernize the Zelda formula. In most respects, Zelda is a remarkably cautious series. Its gameplay and plot have been repeating the same basic narratives for years.
Seeing as how I was already pondering the franchise’s oddities, I decided to venture all the way down the rabbit hole and watch some of the old Legend of Zelda cartoons.
For those of you in the U.S., Hulu is currently hosting the entire run. Those outside the U.S. might have to do some more scrounging, but I have found the first episode on YouTube.
Could this obnoxious, hilariously inappropriate relic be any further from the sterile, high-fantasy adventure we have come to expect from the franchise?
Instead of a stoic hero, Link has embraced the late 1980s ethos and become a whiny rebel with attitude and badditude. Zelda, the target to his annoying affection, is an officious nag who seems to simply tolerate her subjects.
The two of them, along with “Spryte” (who, interestingly, shares quite a few traits with Navi, as well as Tinkerbell), share a surprisingly sexually-charged relationship. As a kid, I failed to recognize Link as the creeper he is: Instead of the basically asexual character from the games, Link is cat calling Zelda, staring down her blouse and angling for a kiss just minutes after opening title. All the while, Spryte vies for Link’s attention, despite the obvious physical complications that would arise.
Rather than the ultimate evil incarnate, Gannon is a bumbling fool whose plans of world domination rely on convoluted schemes and incompetent goons. More than anything, his antics serve as an excuse for Link and Zelda to awkwardly bicker and nag their way towards the episode’s resolution.
The cartoon can easily be written off as a strange evolutionary dead end for the franchise. However, when viewed in the context of what has happened to Zelda in the years since 1989 (when the series first aired), perhaps this Link is not as divorced from the one we play in the games.
What has happened to Zelda since 1989? Very little, actually. In terms of their plot and gameplay, the Zelda games have always been about the journey rather than the goal. Like Link, the player starts off bereft of skills and equipment. Through exploration, combat, and puzzle solving, the player and Link trudge to their ultimate goal. Saving Zelda and vanquishing Gannon is usually a bitter-sweet affair, as it means that Link’s mission has been fulfilled and he must lay his sword down. Because the game defines Link as a warrior in both a ludic and narrative sense, a major part of his life’s purpose disappears when peace returns.
Link goes so far as to seek out new quests during his downtime: Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask are both the result of Link embarking on new adventures. The player partakes in these journeys, relearning old skills and mastering new ones all the whole.
In the first episode of the cartoon, Link’s goes so far as to bemoan his victory. As he wakes up in a peaceful Hyrule, he pines for the good old days:
Yuck. Another beautiful day in the magical kingdom of Hyrule...boring place. I used to roam the world, fighting monsters and sleeping in mud. A hero’s life! Now look at me, living in a castle, sleeping in a bed, aren’t I sweet? Yuck!
Instead of the courageous underdog the legends speak of, he is a glorified body guard who is just as much a prisoner of his success as his a beneficiary. In light of this, is it surprising that Nintendo is reluctant to remove Link from his life of perpetual adventuring? Link has been doing the same thing for such a long time that it has become more than what he does; it is his identity. I don’t know what a Zelda game would look like if it didn’t follow the proven tradition, and I wager that Nintendo doesn’t either.
Skyward Sword looks to be more of the same in terms of gameplay and plot, but is this necessarily a bad thing? What would be worse: a familiar, yet cleverly designed dungeon with polished combat dynamics, or a new, yet poorly acted dialogue tree in which one of the options is always “Excuuuuuuse me, Princess!”