The Legend of Zelda: The Hero in All of Us

Zelda Link Wii U

With news breaking that there will be a new open-world The Legend of Zelda game released on the Wii U, now seems to be the appropriate time to look back at what can be considered Nintendo’s premier franchise and one of the more influential games of all time. There are a great many reasons that The Legend of Zelda is considered by gaming fans worldwide as being in the pantheon of revolutionary and exceptional video games. The franchise has helped define the last four generations of video games spanning from the original Nintendo Entertainment System to today’s Wii U. The story of Hyrule’s battle between good and evil demonstrates the pinnacle of story-telling and action. It has reimagined how the video game hero should be portrayed by creating a mute vessel that can be occupied by the player. The franchise forces the player to evolve and grow throughout their games, presenting new challenges that constantly force their players to actively adapt.

Legend of Zelda Wii U Hero
A new Hero?

The upcoming entry to The Legend of Zelda franchise is scheduled to arrive in 2015 for the Wii U, and will feature an open world to explore similar to Wind Waker’s Great Sea. Using cel-shading graphics that look like a cross between Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, this newest adventure looks both vibrant and aesthetically pleasing. The demo released prior to and during this year’s E3 conference gave players a look into the Wii U’s graphical abilities. Rumors have abounded that the newest incarnation of The Hero will not even be Link at all, as images from the game’s demo have led some to believe that this Hero will be a girl – perhaps Zelda herself. During an interview with Jason Schreier of Kotaku at E3, series producer Eiji Aonuma hinted that the upcoming game will be different from its predecessors in that The Hero will have to make choices that will impact the world around him one way or the other, “As a player progresses through any game, they’re making choices. They’re making hopefully logical choices to progress them in the game…But I feel like making those logical choices and taking information that you received previously and making decisions based on that can also be problem-solving.” As long as players do not have to carry a Zora through a giant fish’s belly, it will be interesting to see the changes the franchise makes with their ambitious new project.

Link vs Ganondorf
The battle of good and evil personified.

The Legend of Zelda has always been praised for its ability to create an epic fantasy world where the player takes the role of the classic archetype of The Hero, a lone character who must save the world from some unspeakable disaster. The Heroes of these games are known as Link, generally portrayed as a young man who is charged by fate to defeat an embodiment of evil. Furthermore, these responsibilities are thrust upon Link without his choice; they represent every young person’s personal responsibilities as they get older. It is easy to associate with Link’s dilemma; in many of the franchise’s titles, including the critically-acclaimed Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker, and Link’s Awakening, the dire situations around The Hero are forced upon him. Outside forces, even the forces of gods and fate, conspire against Link and place him in a position where he is required to grow and gain strength to restore order to Hyrule.

The Hero himself is a silent protagonist, which allows players to place themselves in Link’s position. His lack of a voice forces the players to think of how they would answer a question or a request for help, with simple yes-or-no prompts as available answers. This is not simply a lazy ploy by writers of voice actors, as the silence of The Hero causes the player to relate to Link on a deeper level, giving Link a voice and a personality that reflects the player’s own. The player becomes The Hero, providing their own personal answers and making simple choices that impact the world of The Legend of Zelda. The silent protagonist allows the game developers to transmit Link across multiple ages and universes; most games feature different Links, but are all a mixture of the character and the player’s personality.[1] Although the silent protagonist is not an invention of The Legend of Zelda franchise, it certainly helped popularize the idea that a game’s central character can interact with their surrounding environment without a script.

Midna – Link’s companion in Twilight Princess

Link acts alone through most of his travels, but he is often accompanied by a helpful guide. Whether it is the Minish Cap in the eponymous franchise entry, Navi in Ocarina of Time, Midna in Twilight Princess, The King of Red Lions in Wind Waker, or Fi from Skyward Sword, The Hero always has a helpful companion to point the way for him. The importance of Link’s companions is demonstrated in the direct sequel to Ocarina of Time – Majora’s Mask. Link embarks on a dangerous quest to recover his lost companion Navi after she vanishes following the events of Ocarina of Time.  This enforces a key lesson in life that was taught in The Legend of Zelda – it’s too dangerous to go alone, bring someone with you for strength and guidance.[2] Although the hero acts alone, his actions extend far beyond his personal existence. Throughout the franchise, Link has saved not only the Princess Zelda, but also the realms of Hyrule, Ordona, and the Great Sea, as well as entire parallel dimensions in the Twilight realm. The life of Link extends existentially beyond himself, reaching out to soothe the world around him.[3] Some would claim that this is human nature, to try and reach out to make the world a better place, which highlights the ability for Link’s journey to connect with fans so deeply. Link is who the player would be if they were a Hero.

The story-telling of The Legend of Zelda is unique for the early Nintendo franchise to which Zelda is compared. Although a convoluted history of parallel storylines and generational gaps, Link and Zelda’s tale can be viewed as a massive story. They represent the battle between good and evil, and the ability for good to always triumph. The story forced the player to follow a story, where other titles at the time such as Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong were far shallower. Shingeru Miyamoto, one of the leaders of Nintendo at the time of Zelda’s development, spoke on the game’s origin, “The Legend of Zelda was our first game that forced the players to think about what they should do next…It was these elements that made the game so popular.”[4] The history of gamers shows that newer and harder challenges will always be craved, and The Legend of Zelda has often succeeded in offering a fulfilling and enriching challenge with a deep backstory.

Link and SheikAnother characteristic that distinguishes The Legend of Zelda franchise from the vast majority of gaming is the incorporation of music into the game’s central mechanics.[5] Prior to games like Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker, music was simply a background that accompanied the mood of the game. These titles, however, and their subsequent sequels added music as a means of controlling the environment around Link as far as offering the ability to change the direction of the wind and alternating between day and night. Many of the melodies throughout the franchise’s history have become some of the more recognizable tunes in the industry. Modern games such as Journey and Child of Eden have taken this to new levels, integrating music into the very DNA of the games themselves to the point where the music is almost a constant companion.

Link the HeroThe challenges within the franchise’s titles also offer the player a series of obstacles that require thought and adaptability to overcome. Massive sprawling worlds like Hyrule and the Great Sea offer an opportunity to explore an open universe full of items, dungeons, and enemies to experience. In an era where most games had a linear world, and only supplied items randomly like the Question Boxes in Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda forces the player to switch items on the fly as a means of overcoming dungeons and monsters. Weapons such as a Boomerang, Grappling Hook, Bow and Arrows, Hookshot, and Roc’s Feather allow the player to reach new areas of the world that were previously inaccessible. This is seen prominently in games like Link’s Awakening and Wind Waker, where dungeons and islands respectively need a specific item found in the world in order to be explored. Rather than monotonously plow through levels to simply move on to the next one, The Legend of Zelda makes players feel as if Link is evolving as a character as he works through the game.

Hylian Goddesses
The Hylian Goddesses – Nayru, Din, and Farore

Link’s actions can be seen as serving a deeper and more existential purpose. Link exists in a world where God (or in the Hyrulian universe, gods) has abandoned the world after the start of Creation. Throughout the game, The Hero acquires the power of these gods and uses them to combat the forces of evil. Din, Farore, and Nayru serve as the creators of the Triforce, the ultimate embodiment of wisdom, power, and courage that are the three key traits of the Zelda universe. The absence of the gods is made apparent to the player, which can be understood as true freedom for the Hylians. Their creators have long since left their world behind, allowing them to grow and act on their own terms.[6] Link’s aforementioned lack of freedom as he’s thrown into conflict by fate, along with the rest of Hyrule’s free will and known separation from their deities, further cement Link as a unique individual who the player can relate to.

The Legend of Zelda has long served as the benchmark for not only Nintendo but for the video game industry as a whole. With 67 million copies sold since 1986, Link’s tale has touched the lives of gamers across the world. Link stands alongside names like Gordon Freeman, Chell, Jack Ryan, and Samus Aran as characters who embody the player’s characteristics and traits. Complex gameplay, immersive storytelling, as well as pioneering in graphics and its willingness to experiment place The Legend of Zelda at the forefront of gaming over 25 years since its inception. Link is the Hero we wish we could be in our own lives, and serves as the conduit for our own desire of making the world a better place.

Master Sword

Works Cited

[1] Cuddy, Luke, ed. The Legend of Zelda: I Link Therefore I Am (Open Court, 2008) Chicago and LaSalle, Illinois. Chapter 4, pg 3.

[2] Lindquist, Joshua. “Defining the Legend of Zelda: Examining the Basics”April 12, 2012

[3] Cuddy, Luke, ed. The Legend of Zelda: I Link Therefore I Am (Open Court, 2008) Chicago and LaSalle, Illinois. Chapter 4, pg 5.

[4] Barczak, Gloria and David Wesley, Innovation and Marketing in the Video Games Industry: Avoiding The Performance Trap (Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010) Burlington, Vermont. pg 17

[5] Wolf, Mark J. P., ed. Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming Vol. 1 (ABC-CLIO, 2012) Santa Barbara, California. 363

[6] Zeldapedia “Golden Goddesses” Accessed June 13, 2014

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Bachelor of Arts, St. John's University - Class of 2013 Master of Fine Arts, Fairfield University - Class of 2016

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  1. Sunni Rashad

    Can’t say a very unique interpretation, but definitely a warranted position. LOZ draws parallels to Metroid with its dedication to immersing the player in the environment. I would assess the emotions of the hero however. Even though Link can’t speak, as seen in WW, he’s able to emote and through his emotions he does craft his own persona. This is not unique to WW either as he is shown in many games in the series post-ocarina of time, to have a spectrum of emotions. His role as a silent protagonist doesn’t necessarily make him an avatar for the player a la the warden of Dragon Age or the Dragon Born of Skyrim. I look forward to this title for the Wii U as it will be interesting to see how they incorporate the decision making mechanic.

    • Sean Buckley

      He can definitely emote his actions, but I think what sets Link apart from the vast majority of heroes like Commander Shepard, The Witcher, even totally custom characters like the Dragonborn or the Grey Warden, is that whenever I play as Link, I’m consider what I would do instead of what the characters would do. LoZ is one of the few games where I can place myself in the character’s position, instead of someone like Shep, where I consider what HE would do. I’ve also always felt that Link is a far simpler hero and one that could be related to deeply.
      The aforementioned characters all have one thing in common: even though their actions are perceived as being up to the choices of the player (such as Commander Shepherd having to choose between the lives of two squad mates), they are still subject to their game’s script whether it’s verbal (Mass Effect) or written (Skyrim). When i play as Link, there is no script, and I can at least insert my own voice and responses into the game.
      But then again, I grew up a huge LoZ fanboy

      • Sunni Rashad

        I think you may have contradicted yourself friend. Just from my interpretation it seems you may have conflicting positions. Also, my comment wasn’t meant to be insulting my apologies if it came off as such.

        • Sean Buckley

          No no not at all insulting. I absolitely see where you’re coming from. My thought process was that LoZ lets us be the hero we would want to be if we could make an ideal hero. Although there are games that let the player get way more in-depth with the kind of person their hero is, like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, Link has always represented the ideal hero. At least for me. And yeah I did get a little convoluted back there.

    • stephen barwell

      Was that a proper thing to say? Haven’t you heard the saying ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything’?

      We get it – you play video games all day and you think your opinion is ever so great master yoda. I thought this essay sums up the franchise in a UNIQUE way and your unfavourable comment just makes you look like a manky dick.

      • Sunni Rashad

        Am I not supposed to critique a fellow writer?

        • He didn’t say it quite that elegantly, but I think what he means is not to open with an attack on the poor boy’s uniqueness, especially if you are the first to comment. Cheers!

          • Sunni Rashad

            It wasn’t intended as an attack and the author didn’t take it as such so, I’m not sure what to tell you. I was sharing an opinion and politely critiquing a fellow writer.


  2. Chance Shah

    I wana see a Zelda game where ZELDA IS THE MAIN PROTAGONIST!!! ”

    • Sean Buckley

      There was much noise following the demo’s release that this new Hero was indeed a post-Ocarina of Time Zelda, but nothing has been confirmed yet

  3. I’d love to see a Zelda that describes how the Great Sea became Hyrule again (if this ever happens) and also some very special chests that give you two items instead of one. Just wishful thinking.

  4. The art style and shading of Twighlight is gorgeous. They should build upon that.

    • Sean Buckley

      The upcoming Wii U game, as well as Hyrule Heroes, is supposed to draw heavily from the graphics of Twilight Princess

  5. I wished they would do a Remaster of Twilight Princess and Skyward Swords in HD with Antialiasing. Twilight Princess on a HDTV is a completely mess. I just cant enjoy the grafics of game anymore. As same as Skyward Swords is a total case of staircase effect. For these games I would like to demand nintendo to bring them out as HD Versions with Antialiasing for the WiiU. Or an Antialiasing Option for Wii Games for WiiU to iron out the staircase effect on HDTVs.

    • If you have a WiiU you can run them at a lower resolution instead of 1080p which helps. You can run skyward in 1080p but its hit or miss. So yes while the WiiU can run wii games in 1080p those wii games that are more stylized like Skyward Sword etc. seem to suffer from aliasing issues.

      However I have found it does help if you scale back the resolution on the WiiU when playing Wii games on an HDTV. Or…here is the other possible solution. With the latest hardware update for the WiiU you can now run wii games on the gamepad. Use the gamepad’s screen as a supplementary screen to your HDTV. I have to tell you games like Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, Skyward Sword look gorgeous on the gamepad. So if you have a WiiU set your gamepad in its stand and use that as your ‘TV’ screen. Sure its a smaller screen but I guess its a small price to pay for a sharper image.

  6. Kay Hanson

    Wished they made a majoras mask HD WiiU remake.

    Majora Mask, Ocarina of time and Twilight Princess were my favorites because I just think Zelda games looks better in a darker tone.

  7. Dean Lane

    Ocarina of Time was my favorite game while Skyward Sword was my favorite art style.

  8. ScorpiusNox

    Mmmhmmm, Zelda. It wasn’t until now that I realized how mixed my feelings on the series are. I remember Ocarina of Time being the first really epic game that I ever owned. It came out when I was around ten, and being the same age as the protagonist formed an instant point of connection. He did and does represent my ultimate fantasy: that of the misplaced outsider who finds out that everything that made him a pariah before is everything that will make him a hero going forward.

    But, I don’t quite agree that he’s the hero we ALL wish we could be. Even I, having become somewhat more cynical since those days, would not likely follow his course, and I don’t think most would. Throughout his adventures, Link ends up a glorified errand boy, the Intern of Destiny. In between slaying beasts and saving lives, he runs about performing menial tasks for any number of citizens, seldom receiving any real recognition for even his greatest acts. The reason that the series is The Legend of Zelda rather than the Legend of Link is because, in the conflict of good vs. evil, Link is the instrument of fate, not a true actor. Zelda, the deities, or the sages are always the ones to make the plans and set things in motion. Link just does as he’s told.

    I don’t think that’s “wrong,” per se, particularly if it ends in the greatest good for the most people; however, if recurring themes in modern media are any indication, people frequently balk at the idea of living life at anyone’s beck and call. There are many who might do so happily and willingly fade into obscurity after the fact as Link does, but there are perhaps many more who would rather pursue a more proactive and, yes, more rewarding heroism.

    I hope that wasn’t too disjointed =P . I enjoyed reading this article!

    • Sean Buckley

      That’s definitely one way of looking at his journeys, but I think what makes him the ideal hero is that even though he is forced by fate to take up such responsibilities, he not only accepts the burden but succeeds. He is able to set aside the inconveniences that are brought about by fate and make the world a better place.

  9. Adnan Bey

    In all honesty, I did feel like what I was reading was a given but that’s just me. Regardless, you portrayed the game series well and I really liked how you spoke of projecting ourselves and our companions into the world of Hyrule. The most interesting part was what you said about the new upcoming Zelda game. A girl? Interesting.

    • Sean Buckley

      Unfortunately for gamers hoping for a playable Zelda, a recent Eiji Aonuma interview with an Australian media outlet has confirmed the hero of this particular game is indeed Link. However, he did state that in future installments he hoped that the players will soon be able to base the hero after their own characteristics. He also stated that he has “reconsidered the conventions for Zelda” to provide more for Zelda’s fanbase.

  10. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    In a misty orange music box-type shack somewhere out in Flushing, a hooded mystic relayed this to me: The Legend of Zelda was the actual religious event, and A Link to the Past was the religious text.

    I’ve always wondered what that made Ocarina of Time…I dunno, maybe I’ll write something about it…

  11. I was one of the naysayers when Wind Waker’s cel shaded art style debuted. After I played it though, I changed my tune. It’s so amazing to look at today, even the GCN version. Now it’s second only to Ocarina of Time in my book.

  12. im waiting for the Zelda WII U

  13. 1991 – 2000 were Zelda’s golden years the series fell off significantly after that.

  14. Fun fact: Wind Waker is the only Zelda game that has Link talk…even if its two words lol

  15. I think one of the strongest testaments to the Zelda series is just how different each looks from one another. In a industry where certain franchises look so similar title after title with their annualized releases; the Zelda games always feel distinctly unique.

    For the sake of comparison… Put some screenshots from various Angry birds games side by side. See how similar they are. Now granted the recent or soon to be released Angry Birds Star Wars looks a bit different obviously. But not as different or as unique as the Zelda games are from each installment. Ocarina looks vastly different than Twilight, and Twilight looks vastly different than Windwaker or Skyward Sword. Each game has its own unique identity besides the common reoccuring elements that give the franchise its identity; Green hat, Triforce, etc.

    • Sean Buckley

      The artwork I definitely a huge draw for all ages of gamers. The artwork even helps set the mood of each game. Wind Waker has a bright and vibrant color scheme, highlighting the child-like adventure and exploratory nature of the game; Twilight Princess and Majora’s Mask have far darker and gothic artwork which relates to their more serious and sinister undertones. It’s something that isn’t seen very often in many franchises.

  16. Great article! I’d never considered how deep Zelda goes with Link as a player-surrogate (interesting fact – he’s called Link because he’s a link between the player and the game!).

    Zelda’s themes are universal, and so it makes sense that Link is a protagonist any player can project themselves onto. I really hope they never make him talk. If I had to give one complaint of the more recent games (Skyward Sword, A Link Between Worlds, Spirit Tracks etc.), it’s that they don’t seem to be as poetic (for want of a better word) with these themes. Some of the musings on the nature of time, death and memory from games like Link’s Awakening, Majora’s Mask and Ocarina of Time are my favourite quotes in gaming.

  17. Bernardo Etheridge

    For me, A Link To The Past on snes cannot be beaten.

  18. I’ve only played Ocarina of Time, because a friend of mine had a N64 and lend it to me. It was one of the best games i’ve ever played.Too bad all Zelda games are exclusives. It would be good to have them on PC.

  19. KevenLarose

    it would be awesome if they brought the world of zelda/hyrule into a more modern approach. As the Zelda games do show different incarnations of Link, why not go all the way up to the now or near future? maybe a steampunk style? that would be awesome

  20. DoriElder

    Twilight Princess. Man. Out of every game in the series, for some reason that one still makes me feel excited when I think about it. Amazing soundtrack and my favorite story of the franchise. So great.

  21. Jemarc Axinto

    Not sure if it says so in the comments or not, but the protagonist is still Link. Unfortunately Zelda won’t have a huge spotlight here but I very much hope she gets a stronger role to play than “the girl who waits”.

    I love the games but as I’ve gotten older I’ve always been bothered by Zelda’s false attempt at being more heroic as a character. In Windwaker she was an awesome pirate that is then forced to wait in Hyrule until Link saves the world, in Twilight Princess she seems so awesome but she’s still possessed by Ganon, even the Zelda in Skyward Sword has to wait.

    • Sean Buckley

      It’s hidden up there somewhere, and I’m sure a lot of Zelda fans will be disappointed that they have to wait for a Zelda-centric game.
      My biggest gripe with Wind Waker was just that point; they took a potentially iconic and strong female lead in Tetra and just made her another damsel in distress. Seeing as how Wind Waker is a parallel yet different timeline, it would’ve been awesome if Tetra didn’t have to change into the “classic” image of Zelda.

      • Jemarc Axinto

        I agree, or at least if she did change into the “classic” image she could have at least taken the same proactive role. I’m actually writing an article now about feminism in the Zelda games (your article inspired it ha) but I’m glad you agree!

  22. It seems I have much to catch up on at least for LOZ. I barely played Orcina of Time but this piece actually makes me want to play a LOZ game, right now! Nintendo games especially the older ones seem to have more depth then some newer titles. Extra Credits (a vlog on video gaming you should check out) always points an Nintendo game as good examples of characterization through gameplay or risk=rewards.

  23. I love them ALL! Each version of Legend of Zelda brings its own charm and personality to the series. I’m so glad Nintendo never stopped evolving the look.

  24. Link to the Past = best.

  25. kbarak

    I am in the middle of playing The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks on the DS for the first time. By no means am I a vg expert, but I love Zelda. Anyway, a few of your thoughts resonated with me. Part of the game play here is actually blowing toward the mic to play the Spirit Flute. As I’ve struggled to blow in the right place for the right duration (I know, I’m over-thinking it…but I just want to play the four notes right! Why is this so hard?!), I frequently think – this is incredible. I know I’m not playing any instrument but the fact that the game continues to make music such a key part to solving puzzles or getting certain treasures or swaying a taciturn village person is amazing. Music, as you’ve pointed out here, really does become central to the game: not creating tone in the background or just another element to the overall feel of the game.

    Also, this is the first game where you can play as Zelda (that I’ve experienced – remember, not an expert). With her body stolen, she becomes your companion. I have to say, she has less information or cues than Navi, Fi, or Midna. Initially, I was excited because I’ve always wanted her to be more present in the action, but, due to her body-less form, she can only inhabit these Phantom guards in the Dungeons. The movements are blocky and she frequently panics or chastises Link/me when she can’t keep up. I’ve found myself muttering at her and frequently getting annoyed. It still feels like a passive existence despite getting to direct her or have her participate in some of the action (those qualities I described are necessary to get through the dungeon – you certainly could not do it without her inhabiting these Phantom guards). It would be great to have her as a real character, though!

  26. Helen Parshall

    This is one franchise I’ve always been intrigued by but not known much about. Thanks for your article! Great work.

  27. darknuts!!!

    hold it right there eiji… if we have options that have a lasting effect throughout the game the entire timeline will be screwed over how many changes are we talking here 3? 5? 20!?
    huh? oh sorry there but after wii u whatever u do make sequence of events that byild to a climax for the final portion of the game. first make it start by attacking or retaking the kingdom from evil forces. then attack the enemy base then retake hyrule castle do hyrule castle as a dungeon then take on ganon in a few forms. see! it breaks the final battle into chunks and elongates it alot.

  28. cdenomme96

    It’s disappointing to hear that the new Zelda game will be delayed even further due to the shortcomings of the WiiU. While I have always loved the Zelda games, I find the franchise itself needs to push itself even further. I always feel like I’m doing the same thing when it comes to Zelda games. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since the Mario franchise is always the same – yet I love it. However it would be nice to see the Zelda world take bolder steps, such as the “player’s choice” mentioned in this article. I think it would be interesting to entertain the thought of making it similar to the Karmic system from the Infamous games. I’d love to have the option to take Link down a villainous path.

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