Posted on December 19 2014 by Theodore Homdrom
Zelda games come in many shapes and sizes. They appear on both handhelds and home consoles. They span massive 3D adventures, dense top-down quests, and even a side-scrolling action RPG. Each new installment in the storied series can be very different from the last, and yet there is one thread that is a constant throughout all of the main games (excluding spin-offs and the CDi games).
Is it the Triforce? No, that hasn’t appeared in every game. Princess Zelda? Nope; despite her influence as the series’ namesake, there are several games she has not appeared in. Even Ganon has been swapped out for other major villains, like Vaati and Majora.
No, the one thread that is constant throughout the entire Zelda series is its protagonist, Link. He is the hero of every game, the player character in each installment. And it is he who makes The Legend of Zelda my favorite series of video games.
But what is it about Link that makes him such an icon? He rarely utters a word, and only ever has the slightest bit of backstory about him. Why is he such a beloved character? Why is he the most popular amiibo in the first wave of Nintendo’s figurines?
I believe it is because Link is the quintessential hero. So let’s dive in, see what it is that defines a hero, and explore the reason behind Link’s iconic status as a video game character.
I believe that there are three major categories that define a hero: courage/duty, compassion, and ability to inspire others. Let’s break them down one-by-one.
Courage and Duty
Duty is a sense of responsibility. Soldiers swear an oath; more than a contract, they are duty-bound to keep that oath. Taking duty and responsibility seriously often reflects itself in an attitude of just doing what needs to be done. No questions asked.
Link has a knack for this; speaking barely a single word, he acts quickly and doesn’t shy away from big responsibilities. In Ocarina of Time, the Great Deku Tree calls, and Link comes right away. No Kokiri bully or Deku Babas will make him so much as flinch. And when the Deku Tree sends Link far away, out of the forest to meet Princess Zelda, Link goes without any argument.
Look at Twilight Princess. As the oldest of the children in Ordon Village, Link serves as a role model and protector for them. When monsters attack and take the other children, Link races off to rescue them. This journey takes him through Twilight and even has him turn into a wolf. His quest to save the children is pulled off course at times by a sassy imp bossing him around, but Link never forgets, taking every opportunity possible to continue searching for the kidnapped children.
Less obvious examples are in practically every Zelda game. Look at the original game, A Link to the Past, A Link Between Worlds, and many other Zelda titles that are lighter on the story. Link sets off on his journey without a second thought. Monsters abounding, princess in danger, great peril at every turn? No problem – Link forges ahead.
Courage ties strongly into duty. Fear is likely to be present when duty calls, especially for the hero. Monsters, danger, and peril await every step of the way and the greatest evil in the land may need to be slain by his hand.
Fear is a very real thing, often an involuntary reflex. Courage is overcoming that, rejecting its hold on your mind and heart. Link is the bearer of the Triforce of Courage in many games, but by itself that’s just a gaming construct; it doesn’t mean anything if its bearer doesn’t earn it. Link displays that courage and earns that right. He shows clear examples of overcoming fear, rather than being simply devoid of it.
(Spoiler Warning if you haven’t played A Link Between Worlds) A great contrast to Link is in A Link Between Worlds, with the character of Ravio. Meant to be the hero of Lorule, Ravio let his fear of the giant challenge before him scare him away. He faced the same terrors Link does, but he was unable to overcome them. This doesn’t make Ravio less of a character, but it is the defining factor in why he was unable to be a hero before he met Link. (End of Spoilers)
As gaming technology advanced, Link was able to be made more expressive. From Wind Waker to Twilight Princess to Skyward Sword, we can see all manner of emotions displayed on Link’s face. He doesn’t have to speak a word to show when he’s frightened.
Even when we can’t see it on Link’s face, it’s easy to believe he could be scared at times. The odds are constantly stacked against him in staggering amounts. Gigantic monsters that can fell him in only a few blows, traps that instantly kill him, powerful magic beyond his own abilities are everywhere he looks. But Link doesn’t cower away from a terrifying challenge, instead he fights through it, no matter the personal cost in time, health, energy, or resources.
He doesn’t do this in a macho way, he doesn’t flaunt his accomplishments. He just does it. Courage and duty aren’t about bragging rights. They’re about doing what’s right.
Courage and duty are all well and good, but alone they are virtues every quality soldier possesses. It takes more than that to make a hero. A hero embraces his humanity, and it shows in his compassion for others.
Heroes frequently save the world, but what good is that if the world isn’t worth saving? I don’t mean “worth” in terms of material goods or treasure to be gained, but rather its
worth in terms of the people in it. If you aren’t saving the people, why save the world?
The Zelda series is abounding with examples of Link’s compassion for others. In Wind Waker, his quest is started because his sister is kidnapped. Link’s relentless determination to do anything to save Aryll is evident from the moment she is snatched by the Helmaroc King, as Link very nearly falls to his death from a cliff as he races after her. Twilight Princess is similar; Link’s quest is started not just by a responsibility to the children, but compassion and care for them, including Link’s implied love interest, Ilia.
Along the way, in almost every Zelda game, Link will be helping out many of the people that he meets, both strangers and long-time friends. Majora’s Mask is one of the most well-regarded examples of this. For many people, it’s the side quests and the stories of the people of Termina that make this game the classic that it is, and it’s not hard to see why. Link helps these people in all sorts of ways, from reuniting lovers for a last-minute wedding, to stopping a robbery, to showing a couple of dancers some new moves. From the most emotional of tasks, to the simplest and most mundane of assistance, Link helps just about everyone he meets in one way or another. How easy would it be, knowing that the world will end in three days, to just ignore the plights of regular people and focus on the world-saving bit? Link doesn’t take that easy road. He steps aside to aid those in need at every chance he gets.
In Skyward Sword, Link is well-regarded by many of the residents of Skyloft, and helps them in all manner of ways. His compassion also shows in a less likely way: his interactions with Groose. Groose is a constant bully to Link, even stealing and imprisoning his Loftwing early in the game. Yet Link doesn’t deal with Groose harshly, or return the favor. He takes it in stride, and when Groose plummets to the world of the surface, Link helps explain it to him and watches as Groose transforms into a bit of a hero in his own right.
Compassion is a strength. By caring for those in the world Link is trying to save, he has an extra motivation to save it. If courage should fail, Link’s compassion gives him an extra foundation for his continued struggle. Link knows what he is fighting for, and his obvious care for those around him shows he’ll keep fighting for them, no matter what.
Ability to Inspire Others
One defining trait of heroes is that they inspire others. How often have you been given the essay question: “name some of your heroes”? Heroes are those we look up to, people we aspire to be like. Link is a clear inspiration to those around him.
My favorite example of this is in Twilight Princess. The children of Ordon Village all look up to Link, but one looks up to him more than any other: Colin. Colin aspires to be like Link, but he’s afraid of swords and doesn’t like to fight.
As the game’s story goes on, Colin eventually has a defining moment where he saves Beth from the King Bulblin in Kakariko Village, putting himself in harm’s way for her safety. After Link saves Colin, there’s a truly touching moment where Colin talks about courage, and how he doesn’t have to swing a sword like Link to be strong and help those he cares about.
Age Is No Barrier
Beyond the defining characteristics of heroes is an aspect that applies specifically to Link: he is always young. Even the “adult Link” seen in games such as Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword, only ever is as old as 17. Sometimes he is as young as 9 years old.
Link isn’t chosen to be a hero because he is strong or particularly skilled. In some games it seems he has zero combat experience at all when he starts off. He is picked not because of strength, age, or experience, but because of his courage, compassion, and sense of duty.
The Zelda games almost always serve as coming of age stories. In a game like Ocarina of Time, this is quite literal. Link has to physically grow up to be able to wield the Master Sword. But in many games, Link grows from a boy to a man without aging beyond a few days. Especially in the more recent Zelda games, with improved facial animation and expressiveness, we can see Link grow more confident and determined in the later stages of the game. His moments of shock and fear are less common. He also displays more skill and ability, whether this is from a lengthened health bar or magic meter, or, like in Twilight Princess (and to a lesser degree in Wind Waker), learning new combat abilities.
To me, and I’m sure to many others, this is in many ways a fulfillment of a childhood fantasy. You never want to be told you’re too young to do something. Seeing Link, even as a child, rise to the most frightening of challenges, is inspiring and sends a message that age doesn’t matter. The traits of a hero are courage and duty, compassion for others, and an ability to inspire. These things aren’t dependent on age.
The Zelda series has stood the test of time as one of the most iconic franchises in gaming. Link, the hero, is the common thread that runs through every single one of the main games. To me, he is what makes the games.
Being a hero has become overrated in today’s culture. There’s a big push for “dark” and “mature” stories, for “anti-heroes” instead of heroes, for defining morality in a bunch of shades of grey. The Zelda series has always had a hero defeating an evil villain. Good vs. evil. Black and white. I guess I’m just old-fashioned, but that’s part of what makes Zelda the greatest bunch of games I’ve ever played.
And maybe that’s why they’re such popular and critically-acclaimed games, and why Link is still a mainstay in Nintendo’s library and games like Super Smash Bros. Maybe there’s a part of us that wants things to be simple, wants to have heroes to look up to.
Or maybe that’s just me.
What do you think about Link as a hero? What are some of your gaming heroes that you look up to? Let me know in the comments below!