One thing that’s been much neglected over the years, by the fans and Nintendo alike, is the importance of the valuable relationship dynamics between our heroes, Link and Zelda.
Though we very rarely get a concise confirmation that they did, in fact, get married and ride off into the sunset together, we do get a pretty clear idea of what must have happened behind the scenes; in the grand majority of the games, we at least receive a hint that Link and Zelda end up together, even when this makes for something incredibly dumb and sexist, which really is inexcusable for, basically, any games made after the NES era, when romance was justified by a male and female sprite standing next to each other, congratulating you on your victory. It really is shameful to see such deep, emotional games fail to deliver on what I believe to be such a crucial aspect. By no means do I expect each and every game to deliver a charming, whimsical Zelda, that really loves Link and grows with him on- and off-screen throughout the experience, as in Skyward Sword and Spirit Tracks (games that were, to me, defined by Zelda’s character), but I do expect Nintendo to give the fans something meaningful, and if it doesn’t fit the experience, I hope they don’t even bother trying.
The series has always gotten a lot of negative criticism over the years for what outsiders see as “failing to innovate”, and some people say (I cringe every time I hear this) “Once you’ve played one Zelda game, you’ve played them all”. A common (and, may I add, completely unwarranted complaint) from laymen outside of the fan base is that each and every Zelda follows the same basic plot of “kill-the-bad-guy, save-the-girl," and I feel this is, in part, because a good number of Zelda games have Link follow the ever-so-tiresome role of the hero in a story of a damsel in distress, as in Cinderella or Snow White, where the prince had pretty much no personality. And this pisses me off to no end because, in a small part, they are right: as for the romance in a Zelda game, that seemed to be the standard until like 2009 (with the exception of Wind Waker and maybe Minish Cap), when we saw the glorious masterpiece that was Spirit Tracks.
In Skyward Sword, Zelda takes the form of Link’s childhood friend and life-long crush, a girl that he’s known since he was a kid. She’s almost the funniest, most charming Zelda in the entire series; she’s completely adorable and extremely humorous, and her makeshift romantic comedy with our hero makes for a driving force unprecedented in the series. The entire game, all of Link’s adventures, and consequently every single adventure Link and his reincarnations ever had, were caused by their undying love. And yes, I know how cheesy that sounds, but it is so cute and meaningful while playing the game, to the point that the romance in these two characters becomes the central focus of the game, and to me, the one thing that keeps you going, unrelenting, wishing nothing more than to save your loved one.
For only the second time in the series, we actually see the adorable couple together, starting their lives together and, more to the point, starting their own kingdom and their own world. To think that this silly romance is the reason for the existence of the kingdom of Hyrule, the entire legacy of the Zelda universe and all of its lore, and the future of the world and its entire people is, honestly, beautiful. For the first time, I begin to see the expansive marvel that is my favorite video game series.
And as wonderful as that is, personally, it’s not even the greatest iteration of Zelda we’ve seen so far. That title would most definitely pertain to The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. I don’t care what you say, this game is incredible, and easily one of the best I’ve ever played. The game, as a whole, takes on a very different concept from what we’d seen before, and to me, marked a new era for the series, taking daring experiments with trains and touch controls (regardless, this game sold terribly).
This time, Zelda embodies a hilariously unwound princess, one that, at the very beginning of the game, pretty much dies (I thought she was completely dead on my first time playing, apparently I misinterpreted this). Her dead spirit becomes your companion for the game, offering hilarious insights and great interactions, and the two of you grow together throughout the experience. She becomes a crucial part of the gameplay, as the majority of the game is loomed over by the pseudo-cooperative Tower of Spirits, where the two of you are joined for thirty floors of insanely puzzling fun. As badly as I’ve just described it, Zelda and Link grow together, braving the horrors of the world, and by the end of the game, are hopelessly (and may I add, adorably) in love, and the entirety of the experience is filled with cheesy romantic scenes and continuous hints that the two of them are just too happy together, and at some points, even fearing the return to normality, where Zelda would have to go back to her royal duties, away from her beloved Link.
And not only do we, once again, find out that the two of them do end up together at the end of the game, it’s all we want at the end of the experience; genuinely, we want them to be together, because they’re adorable, because they're just two kids, in love, that were forced to brave the horrors of the world to save their kingdom.
This sense of comradery becomes so intensified that the final battle is based on controlling the two characters, fighting together to defeat Malladus. When Zelda is possessed, you feel wrong attacking her, mad at Cole for possessing her, and most importantly, terrified of what they’ll do to her. The fact that a game like Spirit Tracks could have struck up such feelings inside of me is remarkable.
And not only is the very end of the game adorable and romantic, the very beginning is too, with my favorite title screen in the series. Link and Zelda ride on the train together, immeasurably happy, and though the music is a big factor to the awesomeness of this scene, it mostly is a sense of friendship, adventure, and freedom that is completely unparalleled and absolutely wonderful. From the very first moment, you fall in love with the game and its characters, and it's just a glimpse of what's to come.
Romance in the games doesn't have to be a strict constitution between Link and Zelda, the everlasting couple; it can basically be anything, any driving force, both romantic and platonic. Link's connection to his little sister, Aryll, is the reason he ventures out to the wonderful and terrible world we find in the forgotten sea of Hyrule. In Twilight Princess, Link seeks nothing more than to save his friend, Illia, and see her alive and well once again. And once he finds her, lost in her thoughts, with no memory of him or anything in her life; that is when Link truly decides that he must defeat the evil Ganondorf, when he finally feel that vengeful force inside of him, driven by love and anger.
And as we see again and again, it is love that gives Link the force to, time and time again, leave his loved ones behind to save the world. Love for his people, for the land of Hyrule, a search for both meaning and a special person to share his time with.
It seems that nearly every Zelda game in recent memory starts with the same thing: Link asleep and dreaming in his house, lazy and comfortable as can be. That's because we need that contrast, that feeling of belonging, to be able to see Link's ultimate departure. And, as always, we're tempted to go back. In Wind Waker, your lovely grandmother becomes depressed, abandoned by her only remaining family, left at home, too old and poor to follow them into the world, separated by the immovable and uncrossable ocean that has flooded Hyrule.
In Majora's Mask, we see Link following the only friend he has left, the only person that has survived the horrors he's seen, the only other living thing that remember the post-apocalyptic land that Hyrule had become. Navi remembered what he did for the world, and it was her departure—for once in the series, a voluntary one—that drives him to the land of Termina. And once there, Link is once again inspired by the people he sees, the families whose death he is forced to witness again and again.
Zelda matters, not only as a driving, inspiring force, but as a show of originality and beauty, adding a layer of depth to the series that could make for a new era of Zelda games. We need something past a simple quest to save the damsel in distress. This isn't Mario, after all, where the plot is thrown aside so much that the games even poke fun at themselves. Past games have had such disastrous representations of the character that, a few years back, there was a theory circling Zelda Informer that Link was actually gay, which is why he so ignored her romantic appeals to him continuously throughout the series. And while I'm not opposed to the idea in any way, I do think it's very tragic that the poor institutions of romance we've experienced are so distant and forced that we've resorted to theorizing that Link doesn't even like girls like Zelda in the first place. Not that any of this is meant to downgrade the meaning of that article, which is, in fact, absolutely hilarious.
These games are examples, examples to follow. The Zelda series, of course doesn’t have to constitute a romance—I don’t expect another game like Skyward Sword or Spirit Tracks for ages—but it does need a real Zelda. A thinking, feeling, altogether likable and relatable person that we can grow to love. Her involvement in the story doesn’t have to be too strong, either: in A Link Between Worlds, we still get a fairly decent and involved Zelda, one with a real personality and charm, and her meaning and drive in the story is practically nil.
I personally hope that Nintendo realizes that sometimes, it’s better not to try. Zelda doesn't need to be in a game if she isn’t necessary, and for her to constitute a living, breathing human is more important than anything. I hope we never get another Zelda that's a simple, stereotypical princess, and I don’t think we ever will. But a series as old as Zelda needs to sand its rough edges as the years progress, and it’s time the romantic bonds between Link and Zelda evolved. Thankfully, it seems they are.