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Among the most essential elements of the Legend of Zelda seems to be the past. Almost every game in the franchise has some aspect of the game grounded in the past, some even more so than the present. Events prefiguring those of the game are constantly emphasized more than the storyline they presage. There are some exceptions to this trend, but they are the games like the original Legend of Zelda or the Oracle games (individually, of course), where little happens story-wise, anyway.
As an example, lets take the black cat of the franchise: Majora’s Mask. The story Majora’s Mask is about the game’s ancient namesake, of Skull Kid’s loneliness, and of the two combined turning his kindness into mischief. Then Link comes and wakes the Giants, who go on to stop the moon while Link kicks Majora’s ass. Link’s part in the story of Skull Kid himself, however, is actually quite small. In that story and in each sidequest of the game, Link only serves a small but concluding role.
But what about more traditional Zelda titles? Let’s take a look at A Link to the Past. Link saves the Princess, collects the pendants and the Master Sword, kills the wizard Agahnim, frees the captured maidens, and slays Ganon. All along, more and more is revealed as to why these events occur in the first place. We are told of the Imprisonment War, Ganondorf’s transformation into the beastly Ganon, the Triforce, and the Sages. What has happened is paid closer attention to more than what happens—and no wonder, since events in the one game are but a small selection of a much grander tale.
What the Legend of Zelda is not is the story of a Link. Link is always there, but when all is said and done, the Hero is in no way the vital element of the plot. The series’ many Links act as catalysts, serving to end each story and allow a new one begin. They arrive in the last minute to kill the beast—they banish Ganondorf to the Sacred Realm, they seal Vaati away in the Four Sword, they awaken the Giants to stop the Moon. Links accomplish indiscernible things with great consequences, and in being such, shall fade from history. Even their larger exploits are only the final action, such as the definitive slaying of Ganon. Their significance lies only in the culmination of events that have been transpiring independent from the Hero.
There’s an important substance in the etymology of the series’s name: The Legend of Zelda. The franchise is about a lineage of Princess Zeldas, the decisions they make, and the consequences of such actions. It begins with Skyward Sword introducing the goddess Hylia, who takes on a corporeal form to save her people, and how that form—the first Zelda—uses her chosen hero to enkindle Demise’s demise. In The Minish Cap, Zelda holds the Light Force, and thus serves as a motivation for Vaati’s grand design. In Ocarina of Time, Zelda tries to use the Triforce to deal with Ganondorf, resulting disaster. Even in Majora’s Mask, she plays the important role of sending Link back in time after his heroic quest, which sparks the entire plot of the game.
Two other major and recurring elements of the story are Ganon and the Triforce. It’s said that Castlevania is essentially the tale of its antagonist Dracula, and in a way, Zelda is no different. In Zelda, we are told of Ganon’s origin, why and how he ruled the Dark World, and how he met his fate in the hands of the three different incarnations of the Hero of Prophecy. Another plot element, often tying itself closely to the fate of Ganon, is the Triforce. This is likely because of the Prophecy mentioned earlier. In A Link to the Past, we are told that if the Triforce is touched by an evil person, it will cause the Great Cataclysm, and a hero will appear to challenge that person only after the Great Cataclysm has begun.
So in essence, the Legend of Zelda is a story of coping with the mistakes made. It’s not about undoing mistakes, but rather taking action to prevent them from sending the world into terrible fragmentation, stagnancy, and despair. It’s a story of a hallowed Princess, it’s a legend of the Relic of the Gods, and it’s a tale of a man whose lust for power foments his own end.