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Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages have just been re-released for the 3DS eShop, giving them a second chance to shine. Those games were pretty much ignored by the audience when they originally appeared, most likely because they were released mere weeks before the Game Boy Advance hit the stores, which made them look outdated upon release despite the tight gameplay, great visuals (for a Game Boy game, that is), and the innovative link system that allowed players to combine both games into a greater story.
Now that I mention story, these two games added their own contributions to the overall Zelda mythos. Ages in particular was the first (and currently only) game where we see both kinds of Zoras: the hostile Zoras from early games – dubbed River Zoras – and the friendly Zoras introduced in Ocarina of Time – here called Sea Zoras – and established that the two races don’t get along very well. The Sea Zoras in particular seem to be slightly resentful of the River variety – they refer to the latter as 'savage [and] vulgar.' But why? What is the true relationship between the two races?
Before I postulate my theory, please let me give a little insight on the race's history. The Zora debuted along with the series in the original NES game as water enemies; the English manual described them as "half fish, half woman," implying they might be somewhat humanoid; yet they looked completely animalistic. A Link to the Past was the first game in the series to expand their role. They were still enemies to Link, but they had a leader, King Zora, who lived behind Zora's Waterfall, implying that, at least at this point in the timeline (A Link to the Past takes place before the NES games) they were somewhat civilized and had a social hierarchy. In this game King Zora sells Link the Zora Flippers and is, unlike the rest of his kin, a friendly character.
Link's Awakening gave us another friendly Zora: in Animal Village, there is a lone Zora who resides in secret and helps Link in his quest by giving him the location of a Goriya who has the Boomerang. Apart from him, the Zoras are still enemies.
The 3D era started with Ocarina of Time, which reimagined the Zoras and pretty much retooled the race entirely. Now they were friendly people who had established their own village, called Zora's Domain, where they had a fully functional society. Not only did they have a king, but they also hosted minigames, ran shops, and manufactured tunics that allowed people to breathe underwater. These Zoras were loyal to Hyrule's Royal Family, being the guardians of one of the keys to the Sacred Realm, Zora's Sapphire. Additionally, they looked nothing like the Zoras from previous games; these friendly Zoras looked much more human-like, featuring sleek, tall bodies and bluish white skin as opposed to the stout, short Zoras with monster faces and green skin that were a staple of the series.
After Ocarina of Time, the original incarnation of Hyrule’s merfolk race was banished from the series, even in 2D games. Oracle of Ages is the sole exception, which is why that game stands out in the Zelda series.
At the time of Ocarina, the most natural assumption was to believe the friendly Zora simply evolved into the hostile Zora, as they seem to share a similar background. In the N64 game, Zora’s Domain is located behind a waterfall, which happens to be the source of a river that flows though all Hyrule and ends in Lake Hylia; in A Link to the Past Zora’s Waterfall plays the exact same role. Finally, in both games the race is led by a king who is much larger in size than his brethren. Despite their different appearances, it could be said that they were the same race, with the same social structure, living in the same place, supporting the theory that the Sea Zoras evolved into the River Zoras. Sometime between both games they switched sides and became enemies to the Royal Family, while still retaining their traditions and customs.
But then came Oracle of Ages where the two races co-exist, enough to completely debunk the evolution theory. Or does it?
For years the question boggled my mind. How come the two different races co-existed in one game, but one race replaced the other in another game? It made no sense at all. Not even Hyrule Historia provides the true relationship between the two races. All that the encyclopedia has to say on the topic is: "The tribe of the Sea Zora dwell in the ocean, constantly at odds with the River Zora, who take the forms of demons" (Dark Horse official translation).
Fortunately, I came to learn about a concept called 'divergent evolution.' Usually, evolution works the following way: an individual from certain species develops a new or different feature, a mutation; if said mutation benefits the species, the individual will pass on the new feature to its offspring and over time, by the means of natural selection, the newer variety, being better adapted to survive, will replace the original species.
Sometimes, however, the newer species won’t replace the old one, instead they will co-exist; other times, different mutations pave the way to different varieties. In the end, where there was one single species now there are many different ones. This is called divergent evolution.
Now what does that have to do with the Zelda canon, and specifically, with the Zora race? Well, for a start, Ocarina of Time gave us only one type of Zora, but later in the timeline, Oracle of Ages had two different Zora. See the connection?
What I propose of is that the Zoras from Ocarina of Time underwent divergent evolution which gave us the two different races. But what else?
My theory is that due to the Imprisoning War, the Zoras needed to evolve into warriors in order to survive the violence that Hyrule suffered at that time. However, because of how evolution works, the original non-fighting Zoras had to still be around for a while, and because of this the two races shared a home in Zora’s Domain for some time. That is, until natural selection and/or the aggressive nature of the fighting Zoras kicked in. Since there were now two races with similar needs sharing a home, it meant that the two had to fight each other for food and resources, and with one of them being capable of fighting and the other not, guess which one had the advantage?
With this situation in motion the peaceful Zoras had two options: leave Zora's Domain and look for a new home, or fight against their counterparts and die trying. Therefore they chose the safer bet and left Hyrule for good, settling down in the neighbouring land of Labrynna, where they underwent their own evolution into totally aquatic people who are capable of surviving in salty water (unlike their ancestors, who were amphibian and lived in fresh water), even if said evolution was mostly internal and kept their original external appearance intact. Meanwhile, the fighting Zoras mostly stayed in Zora’s Domain and inherited the Zora's traditions and social structure, but due to their stronger build were capable of adventuring outside their realm – hence their appearance in most sources of water in Hyrule, and even outside the kingdom (justifying their appearance in the Oracle games). This would explain why the Sea Zoras hold a grudge towards the River Zoras in Oracle of Ages.
Also of note is the fact that River Zoras mostly appear only in the Decline Timeline (they appear in Four Swords Adventures too, but that seems to come only from a gameplay perspective because of the game heavily relying on A Link to the Past elements rather than to serve a story purpose), the one that suffered the most from Ganon’s invasions, whereas in the more peaceful timelines the Zoras didn’t need to evolve into a fighting race (the adult-era timeline gave us its own twist on Zora evolution). Furthermore, the Decline Timeline also lacks Gorons (who, again, only show up in the Oracle games, set outside of Hyrule) and most of the races that were present in Hyrule prior to the Imprisoning War, further reinforcing my theory that the Imprisoning War caused most of Hyrule’s inhabitants to either adapt somehow to the new hostile environment or flee the kingdom.
Now the question is, what led the River Zoras to be enemies of the Royal Family of Hyrule? I don’t know, but I don’t neglect the possibility that the mere fact of leading the peaceful Zoras to flee the realm was enough for the Royal Family to feel betrayed, as the original Zora tribe was their ally, and thus the Royals outlawed the River Zoras.
Previously I mentioned that the only gripe my theory has is that River Zoras also appear in Four Swords Adventures, which takes place in the child timeline, but I don't see that as a threat to my point, as there is a long gap between Twilight Princess (the penultimate game in that timeline and the last to feature friendly Zoras) and Adventures; there is nothing to prevent the possibility that between those games a different event triggered the Zora evolution in that timeline.
The Rito from The Wind Waker evolved from the Zora too, proving that this race is indeed prone to evolution. Contrast for example, the Gorons, who have stayed the same throughout the chronology, or the Kokiri, who didn’t evolve naturally into the Koroks but instead were magically transformed by the Deku Tree. And there’s also the much-regarded theory that the Zora are already an evolution of another race, the Parella, so that only adds to the mix.
All in all, the Zora are one is the most versatile yet mysterious races in the Zelda franchise due to their many faces and changeability from game to game. Do you agree?