When Christian monks and missionaries first reached Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, they brought their gods, language, writing and canon with them. And with these tools, they set about the process of assimilating the indigenous gods, culture, history and tradition they found there. One problem they had was what to do with the in-depth genealogies the locals in Ireland had that told tales of a series of invasions and resettlement of the island by successive groups of immigrants, some of which seemed to have a decidedly divine and magickal air about them. As this clearly did not mesh with what their own mythologies told them about the origins of humanity, they put these stories to the pen and retconned them as the supporting cast, ungods and demons of what they interpreted as the definitive Christian canon.
Although The Legend of Zelda is typically read as being largely based on Celtic mythology and mythological archetypes, there is actually a fair amount of Christian influence in the series, particularly in these first three games. Link’s sword in Zelda no Densetsu and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link bears a very prominent cross, and in the first game he wields a book of magic that is explicitly called a Bible (this was changed to be less overt in later localizations, but the influence is still there). The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past opens with an elabourate creation myth that seems very evocative of the one in Genesis, with the three “Golden Goddesses” of Power, Wisdom and Courage descending from the heavens to create Hyrule (and notably, bringing “order to nature”) before retreating the world to observe in silence from afar. Rather than filling the role goddesses traditionally seem to fill in our world, Hyrule’s “Golden Goddesses” seem to be more reminiscent of gender-swapped Abrahamic creator gods.
In this version of the Legend, the Triforce is the physical embodiment of their divine essence, and in fact the game’s title in Japan is The Legend of Zelda: Triforce of the Gods, but it was changed to A Link to the Past by the Nintendo of America in order to downplay the game’s connection to religion. This same attitude led NOA to change the name of the holy building Link and Zelda seek shelter in early in the game from “Church” to “Sanctuary” and the title of the injured man they rescue from “Priest” to “Sage”. Agahnim himself, the game’s antagonist, was once a priest too, though he was masquerading as one.
Yet there are undercurrents to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past‘s cosmology, many of which do in fact seem to come from non-Christian sources. There is a female nature spirit Link can contact for help at various points in the game explicitly called a Goddess in the Japanese game, but who gets renamed with the somewhat indelicate moniker of “Fat Fairy” in the Western localization. There are other fairies too, including an actual Fairy Queen (who is named Venus, an appellate with a storied etymology). The role they play however, tending to involve giving Link assorted blessings and powering up this or that item in reward for visiting their sacred wells, actually makes them closer to the Western conception of saints or guardian angels then Celtic tutelary deities. The solar well iconography is Celtic, yet it also invokes the Arthurian (and thus Christian) figure of the Lady of the Lake. Zelda first appears to Link in a spiritual vision, a concept which is nigh universal, and even the Triforce is said to reside “In a realm beyond sight” where “the Sky shines gold, not blue”. Many sages and spiritual travellers are said to search for this “Golden Land”, but to little avail, which calls to mind the mythical Otherworld-The Land of Eternal Summer where the blessed gods, spirits and ancestors are said to reside.
Surely though, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is not pushing a Christian agenda. This is a Japanese game, and like much of Japanese culture, it is intensely syncretic. And yet, befitting The Legend of Zelda’s status as a series that sells markedly better and is significantly more popular in Western markets than in Japan, it is syncretic from a firmly Western perspective: The cosmology of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past draws exclusively on mythological concepts and archetypes from Western cultures and traditions, or those that were co-opted by and absorbed into Westernism. The Celtic overtones prove as revealing as the Christian ones, because the heart of Western spirituality has been cobbled together from the dismembered corpses of Celtic, Germanic, Nordic, Buddhist and Hindu symbols and archetypes lying on the examination table fixed with an Abrahamic gaze. As is the Indo-European Way.
As a prequel, the ultimate goal of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is the effacing and rewriting of history. We are told in so many words that this is the “true” story of Hyrule: The game’s story adopts a very authoritative and learned voice, its implied narrator assuming the role of a dispassionate historian or anthropologist, telling us “it will be informative to delve into the Triforce myth” before our adventure, because “Every culture has such myths and theories about the creation of their world, and it can be beneficial and informative to examine them in detail”. This is not the fault of the game itself, for its very status as a prequel presumes this attitude from the beginning. A prequel is, by definition, a later work making the claim that it exists in a prior state of being to the works that it is chronologically the successor to. Every Legend of Zelda is a retelling of the same story, but this one explicitly declares that it is an in-universe example of narrative context. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is, in other words, the point at which Zelda begins to compile a canon.
And it’s a history that succeeds in its aims, because The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past establishes the template that is visibly, willfully and knowingly adopted and invoked by every mainline Legend of Zelda game from here in 1991 until The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in 2017 (which invokes Zelda no Densetsu instead). No doubt in part to the fact The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is and always has been the “connoisseur’s choice” for greatest Zelda game amongst the elder statesmen of video game journalism and critique (it is not the highest selling game in the series and thus not the mainstream breakout hit, but that is almost precisely why it remains so beloved). The next home console entry, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, is even straightforwardly and transparently a remake of A Link to the Past. The story of the Golden Goddesses and the creation of Hyrule establishes the Official Backstory every Zelda game henceforth uses.
This game is a series of plot beats that are so iconic and recognisable they have become stock. The Triforce sealed away in a Golden Land but stolen by Ganondorf Drogmire, Prince of Thieves to conquer and corrupt the land. Ganondorf thereafter being imprisoned by the power of seven magicians to prevent his corruption from spreading, but eventually returning in disguise to plunge Hyrule into darkness. Link having to traverse Hyrule twice in two different worlds on two different quests, the first being a false flag involving collecting a succession of mystical artefacts. A climactic event midway through the game where Link finds the Master Sword ushering in a shocking (though foreshadowed and alluded to) plot twist that reveals the game is twice as long as players had been led to believe.
Even the concept of the “Dark World”, which is what becomes of the Golden Land under Ganondorf’s influence and in which visitors from the surface world are forcibly transformed into baleful polymorphs, is an idea that returns time and time again. Sometimes not even in Zelda games-Metroid Prime 2: Echoes is built entirely out of this conceit from the ground up, involving Light and Dark weapons that are more effective in the opposite realms and whole civilizations born of either Light or Dark Matter.
It is on one level understandable why The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past would be so frequently invoked. It is a popular myth, and it’s only natural that others would make allusions to in order to associate themselves with it. That’s just good business sense. And yet as a consequence of this, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past becomes through this process the *only* Legend of Zelda. A Legend of Zelda fixed with the gaze of a Single Vision. The game succeeds in retroactively establishing itself as the canonical origin point for The Legend of Zelda, and thus turns itself and the whole series into its own Master Narrative. We can even see this in the gameplay, which countless people have described as “A return to the style of the original Zelda, but just so much better”, (which is as widely accepted as it is inaccrate, A Link to the Past being far more regimented and structured then Zelda no Densetsu ever was): A technological and historical teleology. But while its impact on the rest of the series and culture remains clear and unmistakable (its shadow looms very large in Zelda’s collective consciousness), there have been comparatively very few attempts to actively engage with the text of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past itself. One such example is the aforementioned The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. But there are others.
In 2002, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was remade, along with a suite of other first party Super NES titles, for the Game Boy Advance. For the first time, the Ur-Zelda was to be subjected to the same forces of revisionist history it itself imposed on the rest of the series: The Game Boy Advance version of A Link to the Past was entirely re-localized, and while its translation is on the whole far more loyal to The Legend of Zelda: Triforce of the Gods then the original A Link to the Past, it also makes numerous alterations to fit the game’s story more squarely into the myth-possipoint established in the wake of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. This Link is now fully voiced, and, interestingly, his voice samples were taken from those of the Hero of Time. The Seven Maidens of A Link to the Past are connected more strongly to the Seven Sages, a concept introduced in Ocarina of Time. It’s only fitting that A Link to the Past, canonized in part due to Ocarina of Time, would be be retroactively transmuted in turn. The myth always adapts.
More distressingly, however, the Game Boy Advance version also removes the single most oversignified moment in the series: The scene in which Link’s uncle famously declares “Zelda is your…”. And so, Zelda’s true nature is yet further silenced and repressed. But then again, Link now speaks with the voice of the Hero of Time.
The Game Boy Advance re-release of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past also includes a second game. Another story. Entitled Four Swords, this was the first multiplayer game in the series: Four players, each controlling a different coloured Link (to be more precise, a different manifestation of the same Link, who has been split into four due to the influence of the titular Sword), would have to work together to save Hyrule from a petulantly evil magician named Vaati who is going around kidnapping young girls and keeping them prisoner in his personal harem. Male privilege and misogyny incarnate, Vaati is a dark mirror of a magician who has control over the wind, a power often coded as metaphor for mystic enlightenment. This also makes Vaati an echo of the next iteration of the Zelda myth cycle, which would be released the year after A Link to the Past & Four Swords. By thus creating Vaati and imbuing him with the symbolism it does, Zelda begins in this moment a process of self-exorcism that will ultimately end in the unmaking of its very reality.
In 2004 Four Swords received a sequel and a remake both of its own in the form of The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures for the Nintendo GameCube. This date is significant: One year after The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. It is in many ways an attempt to distill all of what A Link to the Past & Four Swords had been, and to serve as a coda to the mythological landscape it had given birth to that had dominated the Legend up to that point. Tellingly, while Four Swords Adventures uses the art style of The Wind Waker and the gameplay of Four Swords, the rest of the game is very much a commentary on A Link to the Past. Hyrule is very reminiscent of its incarnation in that game down to its basic geography, with numerous familiar locations playing important roles in the plots of both games. And while Vaati and the titular Four Sword return, the story echoes that of A Link to the Past, with prominent roles for the Seven Maidens and Ganondorf Drogmire. Even the soundtrack uses familiar riffs and melodies.
A Link to the Past‘s connection to Four Swords, through which it is transmuted in the form of Four Swords Adventures, would seem to be an attempt to unravel the single vision the original game would have imposed on the series. Indeed, the link to The Wind Waker is especially notable in this regard. And yet it is a transmutation that seems to not have been permanent-The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures holds the title of the single worst selling game in the Zelda franchise to date, in spite of being a perfectly enjoyable outing and a very serviceable way to spend an afternoon with friends. And A Link to the Past returns fully formed like clockwork in every successive main series game until The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, visible most obviously in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. And in 2013, the ur-Zelda was once more transparently remade for a new hardware generation, this time in the guise of The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds for the Nintendo 3DS. The fans, predictably, adored it.
Much like Ocarina of Time before it, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is a thinly-veiled remake of A Link to the Past within a new historical context in all but name, but A Link Between Worlds hews much closer to its source material than Ocarina of Time ever did, and that’s apparent straight from the title. This game even returns to the art style and design of A Link to the Past, and the canon would tell us it takes place within the same “Era” of Hyrule, something even Four Swords Adventures didn’t. Once again Zelda and Link’s dreams and visions play an integral role to the plot (they both wake up in the middle of a stormy night, just like Link did in A Link to the Past), and an early mission involves visiting Hyrule Castle. And, just as before, there’s a climactic plot twist that literally changes the game with the introduction of a second world, this time “Lorule”, a kind of Mirror Universe version of Hyrule complete with its own version of Zelda and Link: Hilda and Ravio. When advising Link in Hyrule, Ravio wears a rabbit suit, which is reminiscent of how Link is transformed into a rabbit upon entering the Dark World in A Link to the Past. Most revealing of all, the map of Hyrule in A Link Between Worlds is bit by bit *identical* to that of A Link to the Past, instead of merely being a remix inspired by A Link to the Past, as previous efforts had been.
Shigeru Miyamoto explains his rationale for the project was to return to what he saw as the defining feature of A Link to the Past, its terraced level design, and reconceptualize that using the stereoscopic 3D screen of the Nintendo 3DS. And indeed, the derivation on A Link to the Past was the guiding design philosophy from the start. And in doing so The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds does indeed achieve its goal of updating A Link to the Past for its context-The 3D effects do enhance the game in a multitude of ways, from drawing attention to aspects of the original game that had been overlooked and giving new avenues for exploration, such as Link’s ability to turn into a two-dimensional painting to slink across flat surfaces. It does not, however, change or revise the underlying *assumptions* of A Link to the Past: Neither the linear, mission-based progression that game introduced and codified nor the centrality of the game’s cosmology are ever critically rexamined. It is an “update” that does very little on the level of themes or aesthetics.
And as always, the real Zelda remains ephemeral. There is a ROM hack entitled Zelda starring Zelda 2 which swaps the roles of the two central figures of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, but it can’t undo the structural dogma the game imposes on its mythos.
Yet mythology always finds a way. Those silenced voices will make themselves heard in one form or another. Though banished to the table of heresy, The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures have received their own reimagining in the guise of 2015’s The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes. Unlike its predecessor, Tri Force Heroes is expressly radical, and it is radical purely through its return to forgotten ideas and abandoned potentialities. Instead of Link bearing a Triforce, we instead have a “Tri Force” of Links: Like Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures, this is a multiplayer game, but unlike those games these Links are explicitly three different people all working together in one brigade instead of shattered aspects of the same oversoul.
Indeed, there is vanishingly little in Tri Force Heroes that actually ties into the “Zelda Mythos” that has been constructed since A Link to the Past. This game doesn’t even take place in Hyrule, but in Hytopia, a fantasy world that revolves around cute and trendy fashion. A bitter witch from the Drablands named Lady Maud hated the cute fashion of the young people of Hytopia, particularly the beloved Princes Styla, so she cursed the princess to wear an ugly jumpsuit. King Tuft puts out a bounty on Lady Maud, and three Links join his Witch-Hunting Brigade to fulfill the prophecy of the Tri Force Heroes and bless Hytopia with “everlasting peace and style”. Suddenly, there are no more pre-ordained heroes of destiny. Anyone can become a hero and fulfill a prophecy who chooses to pick up a sword and rise to the challenge.
There is even a character called the “Faux Hero” who wants to become revered as the Hero of Hytopia, but lacks the necessary strength of character. He bears a striking resemblance to the Link from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.
The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes is a game about the exploration and discovery of identity through aesthetics. Fashion and style are obviously major themes, and expressing ourselves through the image we project to others becomes a gameplay mechanic: Each member of the Tri Force Brigade can equip a myriad of different costumes and outfits, each of which grants a different buff or ability. The challenge is in mixing and matching them all to get the best effect. And for the first time, Link is rarely, if ever, referred to using gender-specific pronouns. Zelda herself does not appear physically, but the Links can present as her by equipping the Legendary Dress, an outfit modelled on the dress Zelda wears in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. And so she remains as always intangible and omnipresent-We can invoke and mantle her by rising to and overcoming our personal challenges to fulfill the destiny we choose to live and discovering our own true selves. Zelda lives within each of us.
The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes was a success, selling over a million copies, but you wouldn’t know that looking at the fandom. It is to this day one of the most underdocumented games in the franchise, with stub articles and dead links for all its related topics on all of the Zelda wikis. But clearly people played it and resonated with it. A certain segment of the fandom remains very passionate about it. The true story of Tri Force Heroes may be that it is the vanguard of The Legend of Zelda finally breaking free of its shackles not by bringing the myth to a definitive end, but by exploding it outward.
September 7, 2016 @ 12:40 pm
I disagree with your statement that Ocarina of Time is a remake of Link to the Past. In many ways it is its own unique, although very similar, game. There is a reason why most complaints about Zelda games are couched in terms not of Link to the Past, but of Ocarina of Time (Wind Waker was originally disliked for the way it diverged from Ocarina of Time, while Twilight Princess was originally dismissed as too much like Ocarina of Time).The main difference, I feel, between the first three games and Ocarina of Time and most of its successors (Skyward Sword, Minish Cap and, obviously, Link Between Worlds being the exceptions) is one of focus. The first three games, and the exceptions I just noted, focus on rescuing the princess, with saving the land being a prerequisite for doing so. The other games, however, focus on saving the land, with rescuing the princess being a consequence of doing so. In the NES games, Link to the Past, Skyward Sword, Minish Cap and Link Between Worlds, you are explicitly given the task of rescuing Zelda from Ganon, Demise, Vaati or Yuga and the journey to do so ends up saving the land from the villain’s influence. The other games have the explicit goal be to save Hyrule, Termina, Holodrum Labrynna, Koholint, the Great Sea or the Twilight Realm, and in the process, with the exception of Majora’s Mask, you rescue the princess on the way. Two princesses in the case of Twilight Princess. The focus, however is firmly on the land itself and the princess is often not in any form of immediate danger until near the end of the game. This might seem like a small change, but it alters the nature of Hyrule, Zelda and, most importantly, Link. In the early games and the games I listed as exceptions, Link is Zelda’s personal hero, doing everything for her. Ocarina of Time changes that, leading to Link finally earning the title he was given all the way back in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, At the end of Ocarina Of Time, Link truly is the Hero of Hyrule. Ocarina of Time is the point at which the title ‘The Legend of Zelda’ becomes even more of a misnomer than it was to begin with. From that point onwards, the series is really ‘The Legend of Hyrule’.
September 7, 2016 @ 4:31 pm
The phrase “Zelda is your…” appears to be a mistranslation. In Japanese the phrase is “You’re the princess’…”