Guess again, Iron Knuckle!

They made Zelda the protagonist of a game.

People can say what they will about how bad the CD-i games are comparatively to the rest of the series.  As much as I’d like to say something as controversial as The Faces of Evil or The Wand of Gamelon being better than, oh, say, Spirit Tracks—and believe me, I would love to pick a fight and say something like that—I really can’t.  It’s not true.  I could write extensive essays about things I’d have done differently with some of the official Zelda games, but none of them are ultimately inferior to the CD-i games.  So really, I’m there with you.

But no matter how bad the CD-i games by comparison, it is impossible to say that the choice to feature Zelda as the primary protagonist in two of their three games was a mistake.  In fact, I’d say it was revolutionary.

So instead of talking about something that’s actually controversial, let’s talk about something that shouldn’t be controversial but somehow has managed to be controversial anyhow.  Let’s talk about Anita Sarkessian and Damsels in Distress.

Let me state upfront that I don’t agree with every last word that Sarkessian has ever said.  However, I do find myself generally in agreement with her major theses, and I do think that female characters in video games can and should be handled in more positive lights.  And in the first of her many videos regarding Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, one of the primary targets that she places the magnifying glass over is The Legend of Zelda’s treatment of Princess Zelda.

Released one decade ago, The Wind Waker is one of my favorite games in the Zelda franchise; it’s easily in my top three.  It features my favorite race of all time (the Rito), it’s got characters that I love intensely (Tetra and Medli), and it also had one of the biggest shockers in the whole franchise that I can remember (the exploration of sunken Hyrule).  Sure, it’s not a perfect game, but it’s beautiful in so many ways.

Yet to this day, one of the most jarring experiences that I’ve ever felt in video games is the sudden change of characterization in and attitude towards Tetra the moment she is transformed into Princess Zelda.  Tetra was one of my favorites because of her spunk, her audacity, and her fearlessness.  She’s not just a pirate for the sake of the plot or plot device; she easily fills the shoes of the role.  I still remember her running in and jabbing at Ganondorf a few times before he picks her up at arm’s distance; I was laughing but also cheering her on!

And then Daphnes Nohansen throws her into the Pink Dress of Helplessness™, tells her that it’s too dangerous for her to be galavanting about Hyrule without ever explaining why, and then tells Link that only he can go out and do what is needed to defeat Ganon.  And here’s the surprising thing; Tetra—I mean—Zelda, at that crucial moment of character transformation, just passively agrees with this!  That’s not the Tetra I remember!  Where was the spunk that you were showing but minutes ago when you were annoyed with Link bringing you here?  Why aren’t you putting up a fight against this, drawing your blade and challenging the big man who has no freaking clue what’s best for you?  (Because he doesn’t.)  I hope there’s some bit of food down here still for you when I leave you behind, Tetra, but I wouldn’t trust it; it’s over 100 years old and probably covered in mold.

Who are you, and what have you done with Tetra?

Sure, Tetra/Zelda regains her spunk in the endgame where she tag-teams with Link against Ganon in one of the most epic boss battles to grace the series, but, no matter how hard I try, I cannot manage to chew and swallow the gristle of that scene where Link just leaves her in the basement of Hyrule Castle, especially considering that Zelda gets kidnapped anyway (thanks King) despite his empty promises and vain attempts to keep her safe and sound and locked up.

There’s a thing or five that’s ridiculously wrong with that scene.  It just doesn’t make sense; it’s the circular peg of the Damsel in Distress trope that’s been pushed and stuffed into the square hole of Wind Waker’s plot.

And as Sarkeesian points out, the other games are only worse:

  • The Legend of Zelda – Zelda is kidnapped and requires rescue
  • The Adventure of Link – she’s in a coma, waiting for a hero to wake her
  • A Link to the Past – she gets kidnapped twice
  • The Ocarina of Time – she evades capture for 7 years and has a bit of sweet magic, but gets kidnapped the moment she reveals herself (and also temporarily while escaping the castle)
  • Oracle of Ages/Seasons – she gets kidnapped, again… twice
  • Four Swords – she’s kidnapped again
  • Four Swords Adventures – she’s kidnapped again (though helps you fight at the end)
  • The Minish Cap – she’s now turned to stone
  • Twilight Princess – though she helps Midna, becomes the final boss, and helps you fight Ganondorf, she ultimately needs rescuing after sacrificing herself for her kingdom
  • Phantom Hourglass – once again, she’s turned to stone
  • Spirit Tracks – though able to help Link as a ghost, she is idiotically betrayed by the minister and needs Link to get her body back
  • Skyward Sword – she gets rescued by Impa twice and by Link once

Is it just me, or is this trend a little repetitive to the point of being boring at best and potentially much worse?

You dare bring Zelda into a Zelda game?  You must die!

But yet, looking back to the Unholy Triforce of the mid-1990s, defying this trope is of the things, however few they might be, that the CD-i games did right.  We’ve already discussed how both The Faces of Evil and The Wand of Gamelon borrowed heavily from the 1989 cartoon The Legend of Zelda and later Captain N: The Game Master.  In the cartoon, Zelda is a protagonist in her own right; she’s constantly sharing center stage with Link in their struggles against the forces of Ganon, sometimes even overshadowing Link given his naïve brashness.  In that vein, the cartoon is actually very reminiscent of He-Man and She-Ra from the Masters of the Universe set of cartoons from the mid-1980s in that there was everything you needed to be relatable to both boys and girls.  We had strong female protagonist presence in the Zelda cartoon, and Philips followed suit by making Zelda playable in The Wand of Gamelon.  And as if to provide a counterpoint to A Link to the Past, they doubled down later in Zelda’s Adventure and made what appears to be Princess Zelda from A Link to the Past as the main protagonist.

I’m going to make a very bold claim here.  It should be to Nintendo’s shame that the only games so far to star Zelda as a protagonist—or dear goddesses, even just not having her kidnapped or turned to stone or whatever—have been in games that Nintendo didn’t publish, and namely in games that Philips made for the CD-i.  In 14 out of the 14 Nintendo-published Zelda games Princess Zelda appears in, she has been the damsel in distress.  A helpful damsel she may be, but she’s a disempowered damsel nonetheless.

And I don’t think that there’s any sort of excuse tall enough to overcome this oversight.

While The Legend of Zelda in its earliest forms does borrow heavily off medieval history and fairy tales, from times when chivalry ruled and women were rarely in positions of power or strength, it might have been okay a few times to draw upon that in order to create a believable medieval world.  But with so many Zelda games since then branching out into genres and “time periods” that clash with that symbolism (The Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword most notably), this isn’t an excuse to do it over and over again.  Not to mention, I don’t think real princesses of those days were kidnapped this much.

See, even she looks surprised.

While Zelda has occasionally exhibited moments of awesomeness and helpfulness (Sheik, Tetra, and Spirit Tracks Zelda most notably), no matter how significant her help actually is, invariably she becomes the object that Link has to save, the invariable MacGuffin that must be pursued.  And as such, those mere moments in the spotlight aren’t enough to overcome the dark specter of her being largely being a side note to the game, almost like Princess Peach in the Mario games.  Link still owns the spotlight, not Zelda.  It’s not enough.

While Zelda does feature some very strong-willed female characters throughout the series (Ruto, Nabooru, Romani, Medli, Ashei, Telma, and Karane, just to name a few), the large majority of them are awesome in characterization alone and generally not in physical action.  Most of the characters mentioned are only there to point Link in the right direction and not actually to do anything of substance, especially anything of substance outside of a cutscene.  And often, Link is saving their sorry behinds as well.  While it is better than nothing, I’ll grant, it’s not anything that truly challenges conventions.  It’s not a bold stab to change the status quo for merely the sake of challenging it.  It’s ultimately still playing the trope far too safe.

One of my friends told me a while ago that every Zelda game these days were either named after “an item that you needed to get or a chick that you needed to save.”  And it’s too true, far too true.

And let’s add insult to injury while we’re on it.  What’s even odder (at least to me) is that every instance of Zelda within the franchise, with the obvious exception of Skyward Sword for obvious reasons, only gives Zelda the title of princess.  Never mind that The Legend of Zelda, The Adventure of Link, Oracle of Ages/Seasons, Four Swords, Four Swords Adventures, Twilight Princess, Phantom Hourglass, and Spirit Tracks make no mention of any king or queen above her; somehow Zelda is always regaled as just a princess.  It’s a real oddity, especially in Twilight Princess and Spirit Tracks when she seems to be the one truly governing the kingdom, that she’s not Queen Zelda in her own right.  Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t roll off the tongue or perhaps it’s to keep that sacred tradition of saving the princess (since saving princesses seems so much more chivalrous than saving queens), but in the end, it just points out that Nintendo seems rather content to lounge in the wave pool instead of making some real splashes.

Nevertheless, the scoreboard doesn’t lie. The Entertainment Software Association reports that 47% of gamers in the United States 2012 were female, and that was up five percent from the year prior.  It’s very possible that, come the end of this year, female gamers will come to represent the majority demographic in the industry, and with that comes a need to change the way we present women in video games.

Proof that women can jump over barrels too.

Add to this the light of two major headlines in the last five months, news stories about fathers who have hacked video games in order to better immerse their daughters into the games they’ve want to play, and you’ve got a sign of the times.  Back in November, a father changed all of the pronouns referring to Link in The Wind Waker from masculine to feminine, and more recently, a father swapped sprite maps and palettes to let Pauline rescue Mario in the original Donkey Kong.  And note what website that last link goes to.  That’s NBC News.  NBC freaking News!  When a mainstream media outlet like that reports on a matter as small as this, it’s easy to see we’re at a cultural and societal tipping point.  I’d argue that we’re ready to start challenging tradition and push the limits a bit.

Gaming is now mainstream, popular culture, and it’s time that we embrace the societal changes within our own hobby and pastime.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t or can’t have Link be the star in any Zelda game going forward; that’s going too much and is far too reactionary.  It’s very Tartuffe.  At the very least, however, if we can’t actually let Zelda have her own game, can we at least play a single dungeon without Link in tow?  Or can she find a way to escape Ganon’s clutches on her own for a change?  Or can we at least allow her to be significantly involved with the plot but just not kidnapped?  For once?  Please?

Because honestly, I think if any of us were offered the opportunity, I think if Nintendo were to tell us that the next Zelda game would be about Zelda leading her pirate crew going across the great sea finding adventure and treasure on the high seas, we’d be ecstatic at the prospect.  If we were to find out tomorrow Zelda Wii U were to be about Link and Zelda journeying together throughout Hyrule, working as a team, to conquer dungeons and slay Ganon, most of us would say, “Nintendo, please kindly shut up and take our money.”

  • Doctor Hunt

    Except they didn't do that right at all.

  • Papipendejo

    Link is the "Spirit of the Hero" reincarnated over and over again. While I do think Zelda should have some cutscenes of kickass dedicated to her from time to time since she was formerly a god and all, I would be severely pissed to play the Legend of Zelda and find myself not playing Link.

  • Hellfire

    The last part was a tad off. I would not be any more excited over a Zelda game starring Zelda than one starring merely Link. I wouldn’t consider it an actual Zelda game if it starred only Zelda, that would be too much.

    Although I do agree with you when it comes to the disempowerment of the princess, it does get old. She doesn’t have to be kidnapped or turned to stone in every game to make a great story for it. I definitely think Zelda should have a bigger role in future Zelda games, perhaps one kidnapping per 5 games and equally, sometime Link should require Zelda’s help to e.g. escape an imprisonment. I wouldn’t consider that odd at all.

  • smcrzgi

    the whole "she is a princess but is the only monarch around" thing is a little silly. we dont know alot about the monarch system in hyrule, but i dont beleive we have ever heard the word "queen" used in a zelda game, aside from queen amb, or the zora queen in twilight princess. but ambi is from a different country completly, and the queen of the zoras is just that, the queen of the zoras. its a theory of mine that as far as the hylian royal family is concerned, if your the sole monarch around, your title gets regulated to prince or princess. AoL i believe never references the prince as a king, (although it is unknown whether the king who is their father is dead yet or not.) i do think though that unless the ruling monarch is married or something, they are still a prince or a princess. and as far as making zelda the protagonist, SS explained why link is the protagonist. he is the hero the goddess chose. the hero zelda herself chose when she was hylia. in other words, link is the legend of zelda. and as far asd im concerned, if you wanna play a game with a female lead, dont force it into a game that hasnt had one ever, either start with a new game, or play one with an existing female lead. like metroid. samus is a girl. no need to change link into a female there, fathers. just get your daughters to play metroid.

  • Mark

    The Zelda CD i games are bad. just like most CD i games.
    They should be completely removed form the Zelda Universe website.
    How can rescuing a Princess be boring. I think it's cool.
    Mario and Luigi rescuing Peach from Bowser.
    Link saving Zelda.
    Metroid games are fun to apart from other M, the Anthony guy was pretty cool.

    I noticed when it's mainly other game consoles that it's always shooting games like the war ones. they often play as the same guy and no one complains I think.
    There just happy as long as they murder someone, there even happier if there from another country. e.g Call of Duty games. I don't like them games.

    • Mark

      you say gaming is popular now.

      Computer, console and handheld gaming is now a mass-market leisure activity, with millions of players throughout Europe. In the UK, at least one in three people played a video game in the last year. And many of these players are adults: in fact, the average age of games players is now over 33.

    • Charalanahzard

      Mark, nobody mentions it in the Call of Duty games because the Call of Duty games don't involve a woman being kidnapped and a man playing the hero…

      It doesn't matter that you 'like' rescuing princesses. It matters that women like me don't have heroes like Link to relate to, we just have girls who repeatedly make fools of themselves and get kidnapped, or get told they can't fight.

      • Mark

        opps my bad when I mentioned Call of Duty I wasn't on about kidnapping.
        I was on about the main character. then again I don't like playing games with shooting people I find it a bit upsetting.

        It does feel a bit like bullying picking on one game character.

        I notied no one mentions Link being left handed in most games.
        I think playing as a female is cool like in Metroid. Samus is a woman that can fight and is strong.
        I know in some Fire Emblem games in some the main characters are either male or female.

        I've mainly played Nintendo games, since the NES and gotten every console since then.

        There was this one game I played I did here this comment once " A womans place belongs in a kitchen" I found the comment horrible and turned the game off right away, it wasn't a game made by Nintendo though. it was a game I borrowed from a friend once with two other games. one other was Banjo-Tooie that game was fun.

        to be honest I don't like games which are M or 15 or 18 what you call them.

  • Dellahmorte

    Because its totally okay to hold a Japanese game up to American cultural standards.

    • If your a company publishing a game to a world market, expect the world to hold your game to their own standards.

    • Dudeman

      Because there's never been any stories out of Japan that had themes of female empowerment.

  • Mandy

    As a female gamer who has been playing the Zelda series for as long as I could grip a controller, I find this article and Anita’s video to be very interesting. What I find even more interesting is the hyper defensive way people react to them. It isn’t fair to hold Japanese games to American standards, a game just wouldn’t be a REAL Zelda game, etc etc.

    I agree, Link is the hero reborn again and again, and in this particular series he should stay the protagonist for legitimate story reasons. Where I disagree, is Zelda doesn’t have to be a damsel in distress for Link to be The Hero. I also LOVED Tetra in Windwaker and Shiek in Ocarina, and the fact she went from strong supporting character to putting on a dress and becoming good for nothing but kidnapping really left a bad taste in my mouth.

    I understand Japanese culture is fundamentally different from American culture, but in any culture the “put on a dress, become less useful” shtick used in OoT and WW is inconsistent character development from any angle. It was an attempt to stick with the formula that made Zelda successful in the first place, even if they had to force it a little bit with a sudden personality change in Tetra’s case or a drop in competency in Shiek’s case.

    I love the games despite what I view as a failing to make Zelda the strong supporting character she sometimes shows she COULD be. Honestly, I will probably continue playing them as long as Nintendo keeps them high quality regardless of Zelda’s characterization because the series is such a part of my gaming history.

    But I will still cringe when Tetra and Shiek put on their dresses simply to become the object that drives the plot

    • Darkly

      I'm from Europe and I like some Japanese games. I love how they make the Zelda games with a bit of differences to them.

      Wasn't Link based of Peter Pan?

      and do Americans really despise Tingle?

  • Echon

    A potentially good spot to have Zelda as the playable character would be in the Link Dies timeline split – the Imprisoning War that is given as the background of "A Link to the Past". It'd be the OoT Zelda too, which could open up a lot of interesting potential to develop her character.

    Otherwise, this feels like people are making a mole hill into a mountain. Mostly because I think it's over-exaggerated at times when I find the circumstances in Zelda's capture to be believable. (This said, the only game that's really stumped me and thrown me for a loop is Wind Waker, because Tetra/Zelda is the worst case of in-game-OoC I've ever seen.) Sure, it's there, but it's nothing to scream bloody murder over either.

    Frankly, it's Hyrule's saving grace that the villains pretty much ignore the peasant kid in green until it's far too late.

    Most of the people that have kidnapped Zelda over the ages are either some sort of eldritch-type horror that no one could do anything against without a lot of preparation first, people who are blessed by magical objects or have extra power, and people who have years and years of experience on Zelda in terms of magic, which would also lend to having more magic (even if they don't have a boost from an all-powerful wishing item) and power.

    And in a lot of games, Zelda's pretty young – all the 'Toon'-styled games definitely – I don't think she's much older than 10-12. That's young…I don't think a child (no matter how mature) have much chance against someone not just decades, but centuries older than her. Even when she's older, she strikes me as inexperienced with still a lot of growing to do. And Skyward Sword…? Due to the fact that she's undergoing purification rituals to awaken her memories as Hylia…she may have her hands tied about what she can and cannot do in order to defend herself and Ghirahim gave her a pretty good knock to the head at the end there – not to mention, she'd just woken up after a millenia or more time spent asleep…. (Would YOU be at YOUR best after a thousand year nap holding a magic seal in place only to get a blow to the back of the head barely ten minutes after waking up?)

    Besides…Link would be far worse off than Zelda if he were ever to be caught first…after being caught, he would likely be killed straight up. As I said…it's sort of Hyrule's saving grace he gets overlooked at first…. CD-i Ganon sort of learned his lesson…and then got his butt kicked because he ignored the Princess (whom he'd kidnapped in Faces of Evil and so, didn't think she'd be much a threat).

  • Scott

    That's why I'm thinking that Princess Zelda should get a major Protagonist Role in Zelda 3DS. Since Spirit tracks was the first step of making Zelda a sidekick like Tails than a damsel like Peach.

  • marin

    why is it that this matters? Since when did we think about what is in between the characters legs that count when it comes to a good game? Gender of the main character has NO baring on story or gameplay. So, if Zelda were the main protagonist it would NOT matter. Link is the holder of the triforce of courage; Zelda in NOT. He is the reincarnation of the hero; Zelda is NOT. Despite her being captured, Zelda is a very strong willed character, but even so doesn’t mean she can’t be captured by the enemy. As you can remember in twilight princess she surrendered willingly to Zant INSTEAD OF FIGHTING. I’m sick of all these articles about making the princess the main character for stupid reasons. Do you ever think to maybe take it into account that it would totally mess up the story of LoZ if Zelda were to be the only hero? Learn to think about how the mythos would be affected if nintendo were to do that before making a stupid article. (Also, on another note SHEIK IS MALE it even states in Hyrule Historia that Zelda disguised herself as a male sheikah which means he is a male persona.) (and another PEACH HAD HER OWN GAME) STOP THINKING GENDER MATTERS. If anything the new female gamers don’t understand that in the end it’s stupid to care about that and yes THIS WHOLE ARTICLE IS WRITTEN BY AN OLD-SCHOOL FEMALE GAMER. Sorry peeps just angry about all of the recent articles on stupidity

    • L.O.G.S

      I think I see what you mean, well a bit.
      I never really think about the sex of the character.

      I've seen before long ago how they make it sound like gaming was only for guy's on TV, and girls were only told to wear pink and lip stick.

      I found that cold and unfair and sexist.

      I like how they place Girl and guys together playing video games the way the world should be playing together have fun. and now I've seen that more and more on TV.

  • Alle

    She forgot Metroid, her argument is invalid

  • Cris

    Woah, chillax everyone. I think it would be cool to have Zelda star in a game. Wonderful idea, honestly. If Nintendo put effort into it I know they would make it great.

  • Darkstar

    it would be good if they Nintendo used Zelda's move set from Brawl, as she had an awesome fighting style which demonstrated strength.

  • JoeHammer79

    How about this – Zelda is busy ruling a monarchy and dealing with the daily problems of politics, while she sends Link out on quests secretly, and they hook up at night in secret to exchange information. She finds out necessary information from rulers of state to give to Link. Link helps Zelda by virtue of his courage, while she's busy helping him by virtue of her wisdom, and so both are helping the kingdom of Hyrule. She's not captured in any way and they help each other. I'm sure the Big N could come up with something like this.

  • Hylian_Knight

    A repetitive trend that borders on boring? Apparently not since Zelda is still one of Nintendo's extremely successful franchises. I wouldn't care if they did give Zelda a game tho, but I'd still prefer link, he's not exactly a man's manly man or an extremely fem man so it's nice for both genders to play…if that really matters…(it shouldn't)

    But if you really want a kick ass girl as a lead, Metroid and Tomb Raider are still out there

  • I have been wanting to play as Zelda since I was a child. It would be awesome.

  • GenoTherafo

    Gender doesn't really bother me with this. Zelda gets captured usually, but really, Link is the only competent good guy in the series so far anyway. In a sense, the NPCs are damsels in distress too. On the note of playing Zelda, if at least for one dungeon, cool.

    But isn't there one other guy we'd all like to play once? You know… as some kind of thief, wield dark magic, commands followers, sometimes carries a trident?

  • CMike

    Is CD-i month over yet? This is dumb.

  • Darkly

    I thought the Video was pretty cool at first when the person was talking I though she was going to say all Mario and Zelda games were bad, but she does like them.
    But further along the person makes some good points about how woman are made to be weak.
    When I saw that N64 Video It looked really amazing, for a game of it's time, I wish Rare had made it. I liked in how some Rare games you would either be female or a male main character.
    I didn't like that fighting game were the woman was punched in the stomach for that goon and then oddly got 999 points for it.

    The person on the video reminds me of a person I knew once, she stuck up for me because i'm very quite at talking.
    at first 2 seats away from me a person she was making fun of this guy because he's really short and gets mistake for a small child ( i'm not kidding) she was also really nasty too because of his height.
    She then tried to speak to me, but I ignored her because of her rudness.
    then she threatened to hit me for being quite, then the other person across the room she said to her to leave him along because he's quite.

    the person that stuck up for me she was a strong great person.

  • heroofmask

    there nshouldnt even be a cdi month thos games atnt licensed by nintendonor did nintendo have anything to do with the development of thos games

  • Link3114

    I've been wandering the same thing. But let's be clear; The target of the videogame industry were male, don't get me wrong, I know womens to this day that won't play a videogame thoroughly, I know womens to this day that won't touch a console controller by her own. So the most probably thing is to make male main characters (However there are female main characters in games as RE4, RE3, RE2, Tomb Raider). Now womens play videogames and ASK and DEMAND for female main characters, isn't it a little bit too late? Again don't get me wrong, women has the right to play videogames, but don't complain about games now, it's too late, women gamers still a minority and if you want changes don't expect them RIGHT NOW

  • Devin Polson

    So has no one even thought about Majora's Mask?? Zelda is featured in that game helping Link remember the Song of Time. She isn't the damsel in distress there. In fact, it's set right after Ganondorf was defeated and peace was returned to the kingdom, allowing Link to go on his doomed quest to find Navi (in which, if you didn't know, this doomed quest turns this Link into the Hero's Shade from Twilight Princess). My point is; for the most part, Zelda is indeed the damsel in distress, but Majora's Mask breaks that cycle. Yes she is but a blip in the game, she is still in it, and Majora's Mask is a fantastic legitimate Zelda title.

  • Zeldanime staff

    That's something I really liked about the Zelda cartoons, how both Link and Zelda have the same objective, to save Hyrule, but are just so different from each other and they need to teamwork to protect the Triforce. The dynamique between the two was just so much more fun, than in the Zelda games. Skyward Sword and Spirit Tracks are actually the last two games, where I can see that dynamique interaction between Zelda and Link back. Especially Spirit Tracks where Zelda realllly doesn't want to go and tells Link it's a tradition for her to be saved.

    A game where Link and Zelda interact more would be a lot of fun, even if you could switch from Link to Zelda. Where puzzles would be magic based and you need Zelda to solve them . Nintendo could come up with great ideas to get Zelda playable.