There are few names as synonymous with gaming as Zelda. A powerhouse Nintendo franchise, a forerunner of both the adventure genre and 3D action, and pioneer in open world design across seven generations of consoles. Zelda (and the series’ oft-misnamed protagonist) are an icon of the very medium.
Despite their ubiquity in the genre, the Zelda games have always been shy to dig too deeply into their characters. The characters usually have vague traits bundled together for us to project meaning onto in games far more about the player experience, worlds and mechanics.
There have, however, been a few characters with markedly less ambiguity and none more than Zelda herself, Princess of Hyrule. From enigmatic princess to pirate captain to wilful scholar, she often has the most character in the game.
I thought it might be fun to dig in to the way Nintendo have managed to portray this archetypal character. So here it is: The life (lives) and times of Princess Zelda.
Lightning round: Princess Zelda in each game.
Zelda herself has appeared in 16 of the 19 mainline Zelda titles. So, let’s just get up to speed with a rundown of each of those 16 versions in chronological order. I’ll skip over the three games she doesn’t really feature in, those being Link’s Awakening, Majora’s Mask and Tri Force Heroes. My slight warning: you may notice a trend.
- The Legend of Zelda: Not in the actual game, but saved by defeating Ganon at the end.
- Zelda II: The Adventure of Link: Technically the ancestor of TLoZ princess, this Zelda is doing the whole ‘sleeping beauty’ thing until awoken at the end by Link.
- A Link to the Past: Zelda is a descendant of those who locked Ganon away. She telepathically summons Link, who rescues her from the castle dungeon. The villain immediately captures her and she remains captive for most of the game.
- Ocarina of Time: This Zelda is much more involved, a prophetic young girl who directs Link’s quest, first openly and then in secret. Seven years after they first meet, she disguises herself as the mysterious Sheik to further aid Link.
- Oracle of Ages/Seasons: Princess Zelda appears at the end of this quest, and is promptly almost sacrificed.
- Four Swords: Zelda features again as a prophetic young girl who asks Link to help her with some bad vibes. The wind mage Vaati kidnaps her, until the end.
- The Wind Waker: Tetra, a pirate captain, assists you for the first half of the game. She’s later revealed to be Zelda reborn. She then hides away for the back half of the game, until Ganon abducts her at the end. This is the first time Zelda fights in the series.
- Four Swords Adventures: Much like in Four Swords, Zelda calls Link early on to check out some evil energy. She gets captured until near the end, but then works with Link to seal away Ganon.
- The Minish Cap: She is this time a childhood friend of Link’s. Again, she’s around for the prologue but is then turned to stone.
- Twilight Princess: Zelda is the reigning monarch in TP. She surrenders to the Twilight invasion, getting confined as a result. She sacrifices herself to save Midna (your companion) until the end, where you fight a possessed version before she helps you fight Ganon.
- The Phantom Hourglass: She appears as Tetra (a direct sequel to TWW) but is turned to stone early on.
- Spirit Tracks: The only time Zelda is playable in a mainline title. She asks for Link to help her in a secret investigation but they get discovered. She gets separated from her body, and spends much of the remaining game as your spirit companion.
- Skyward Sword: A childhood friend of Link’s (and not a princess). This is the most overtly romantic Zelda/Link relationship. She falls to the surface world and then whisked away to her ‘destiny’ as a goddess reborn. Link’s quest is largely for her rather than the world in this game.
- A Link Between Worlds: Again, a true monarch. She comes in and out of the story. Yuga captures her later, but she also helps resolve the plot.
- Breath of the Wild: Zelda is arguably the main character, with the most development and personality in the entire game. This is visible through flashbacks, as she spends the game locked in the castle holding back Ganon.
Personalities of a princess.
Whoo! We got there! As you may have noticed, there’s a bit of a theme. I’d attribute much of that to Zelda’s classic ‘hero saves princess’ narrative. Someone captures, traps or curses her in every title after all. Still, she’s the second most recurrent character in the series. As such, we can see the benefits of how they choose to develop her in subtle ways.
First, the most obvious. She is often the holder of the Triforce of Wisdom, denoting her as the wisest in the land. She is often the first to recognise Link’s potential as a hero, and the voice of reason in a situation. Her Twilight Princess incarnation even saves Midna at the cost of her own life and against Midna’s wishes, knowing it is necessary to save Hyrule.
Her inexperience or naivety often offsets this wisdom, which leads her to make crucial mistakes. Ocarina of Time Zelda plays entirely into Ganondorf’s hands as a youth, and reveals herself too early as an adult. Four Swords Zelda brings about Vaati’s release.
She is often one of the most powerful magicians in the series too. Blessed often with prophecy, light magic, and other various skills. She’s a skilled archer (TWW, TP, PH) and consistently brave in the face of danger.
However, her most consistent trait is no doubt her compassion. Even at her coldest (TP), she considers the good of others above herself.
Princess Zelda of the Wild
Of course, Zelda’s character development in the past pales when compared to Breath of the Wild‘s iteration. Fully voiced for the first time, this Zelda lives in the shadow of her ancestors and father. She is dignified, dutiful and graceful when needed, but craves freedom from the life designated for her.
In flashbacks throughout the game, we see her in a different light. She is a scholar craving knowledge and understanding of ancient technologies. She thrives as an intellectual, and resents the obligations required of her. While never actively shirking duty, she struggles with the notion that her intellect is less valuable than her birthright.
This is also one of the most expressive Zeldas, rivalled only by TWW, ST and SS incarnations. The voice acting lets us really feel Zelda’s joys, anxieties and frustrations. The slow-build relationship between her and Link plays out in believable moments, culminating in the climactic remembrance of Link’s own fall.
Zelda in BotW works as the voice of the past/Hyrule, as someone who mirrors the player’s inability to stop the fall of Hyrule, and as the representative of what Link is fighting for. Crucially, she is also the only person Link has a nuanced connection to. As such, this Zelda with more agency than every before is perhaps the one a player most wants to save.
Across the rest of the multiverse.
Of course, there have been other versions of Zelda which draw on this inferred characterisation outside the main series.
The Smash Bros Series has featured her since its second entry, using a specific version in each entry. (OoT, TP, TP and ALBW respectively).
The Phillips CD-i had three Zelda titles following on from The Adventure of Link. The only Zelda games on non-Nintendo systems, they are hardly considered canon and are rough by modern standards. Notably they offer Zelda (from the original TLoZ) as a playable protagonist of two games. They are also the only Zelda games outside BotW to feature voice acted characters.
Cadence of Hyrule (Brace Yourself Games) is a Crypt of the Necrodancer crossover game. Zelda is playable, with magic as her special ability. There’s no narrative to add, though this Zelda does seem more spirited akin to her ‘Tetra’ incarnation.
The Hyrule Warriors (Omega Force) series has the most developed versions of the character thanks to their “musou” style. In Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, all characters including Zelda are their BotW versions. Omega Force did a great job in writing that version of Zelda to be a warrior alongside Link, but it was not a new characteristic.
The original Hyrule Warriors features an original, Nintendo-endorsed Queen Zelda, as well as Link, Impa and Ganondorf (sort of). This version was far more proactive and martially skilled than usual as befits the genre. She’s skilled with a rapier, and leads her troops from the front.
Hyrule Warriors also gives each character (except for the still silent Link) a chance to interact, something that doesn’t happen often in Zelda games. As such, the characters could shine through in conversations. Zelda comes across as quite affable in this game, yet her wisdom shines through in her planning and tactical decisions.
With Breath of the Wild 2 (as yet unnamed) coming out at some point, my thoughts go to what I would like to see. Zelda has been an integral character to the series, but only a sporadically interesting one. More recent interpretations have made me curious to see her further developed, particularly in her BotW incarnation.
Firstly, it would be interesting to see her develop as a monarch further. She is effectively a queen in TP, ST and ALBW (officially so in the Japanese ALBW), but also quite removed from Link. This current version of Link is a close friend of Zelda and her personal knight – practically nobility. It’d be fascinating to see this expanded upon.
I’d also love to see her be playable again. She has been after a fashion in the past, yes. Yet given that the new game will be using BotW‘s world, it makes sense to have a new protagonist who has not already discovered all its secrets.
On top of that, it could give us a number of new mechanics to play with. She is clearly an accomplished magician, an expert on the Sheikah technology which forms the backbone of BotW‘s item system, and often has martial prowess to boot. I’d find those sorts of gameplay loops fascinating if she’s used as a protagonist.
Ultimately though, I’d love to see her be a much bigger part of the story – as playable, as a companion, or as an ally. She was the focal point of the last game, both in trying to save her future and to understand her past. They did a lot to turn her from archetypal damsel in distress to well developed character. It’d be a shame to waste that.
Do we really remember her?
For one of the most recognisable characters in gaming, Princess Zelda has long been simply a pretty lady in a tower. During this modern era’s focus on reboots and redesigns, Nintendo has taken some great leaps to make her more interesting than that. I look forward to seeing what comes next for this wise young woman.
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If you’d like to see more dives on classic video game characters, let us know in the comments of on the Gamer’s Waypoint Twitter page. Meanwhile, if you’re hyped for the new BotW, why not check out our look at how Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity takes Zelda in new directions?
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