Some of Hyrule’s mysteries are veritable founts of secret knowledge, partial truths, and manifold quotes that, while they don’t entirely spell out Nintendo’s hidden secrets, at least point in the general direction of the creators’ thought processes. Others are much more subtle and vaguely mentioned, and such conjectures require deep dives into context and some imaginative guesses in order to divine a logical theory to explain it all.
And yet this one… well, it’s so enveloped and enshrouded by darkness that nary a single line of in-game text is used to explain it.
Today, in our continuing series where we explore the many Mysteries of Hyrule, we will hold up the magnifying glass to perhaps one of Link’s more personal nemeses and opponents: the hero’s shadow, Dark Link.
Dark Link, I would argue, is the most mysterious antagonist to ever grace The Legend of Zelda over its 20-plus years of history. I pose this because, in the first place, Dark Link has reprised his role in several titles, but moreover no one ever says anything about him. He always disappears as mysteriously as he appears, in absolute silence and mystery. I honestly thought I must have missed or forgotten something over the years, but checking every quoteFAQ in existence turned up nothing. He’s practically a blank slate.
And I honestly believe that’s something that makes him oddly enchanting to us players; Dark Link works so well as a villain or a mini-boss because of the lack of knowledge about him. I’ve heard a similar argument to the Force in the Star Wars universe. Before the prequel series, the Force was enchanting and alluring, and every kid at heart wanted to pretend to wield it; however, the mere mention of midi-chlorians puts every long-term fan to rage, and suddenly the Force doesn’t hold that magical mystery it once had. The Force lost its fan appeal with one simple explanation.
So with that in mind, I honestly don’t want there to be an official story that tells us of Dark’s origins. Yet the historian ever in me can’t help but wonder and speculate the details that make him tick. So let’s go back in time to when Dark Link first appeared in Hyrule’s chronological timeline, all the way back to Ocarina of Time.
Ganondorf’s Little Toy
Dark Link’s first visit to Hyrule is as the midpoint boss in the infamous Water Temple. As with most of the midpoint bosses in the game, we get absolutely zero direct context about Dark Link; Navi’s the only one to really comment on him, as she does with all enemies, but helpful blurb of advice—no doubt a cutting witticism of one of the developers—merely says, “Conquer yourself!” As such, we’ve no choice but to look at the larger picture and glean details from that.
What we do know about Hyrule in the large is that Ganondorf himself is responsible for all of the bosses within the five adult temples. He resurrected Volvagia in the Fire Temple, he helped Bongo Bongo escape the well to make the Shadow Temple boss, he created Morpha in the Water Temple, and figuring out the origin of Koume and Kotake is, well, remarkably simple. But I want to focus more exactly upon Phantom Ganon, the first of the five Temple bosses, because, really, if there’s a boss that’s anywhere similar to what exactly Dark Link is, it’s probably got to be him.
Thankfully, Ganondorf himself does shed a little light upon his own doppelgänger. After a hollow congratulations, he says, “… [Y]ou have defeated only my phantom. When you fight the real me, it won’t be so easy! What a worthless creation that ghost was! I will banish it to the gap between dimensions!!” From this, we get Phantom Ganon was a conjured being and, specifically, a “phantom” or a “ghost.” Ganondorf created a likeness of himself and summoned some sort of spirit-like creature to Hyrule in order to inhabit his evil phantom. One can reasonably assume that Dark Link had to have been created in a relatively similar fashion. How exactly it was created is a something we can only guess at; whether or not Ganondorf created it on his own or somehow had some way of accessing Link’s unconscious body in the Sacred Realm is anyone’s guess.
Second, Link didn’t so much as kill Phantom Ganon but instead merely defeated it. Some part of that conjuration lived on so that Ganondorf could, as he claims, banish it to some nether realm from whence it came. Presumably, this means that Ganondorf exerted some amount of control over both his phantom and Dark Link, enslaving them to his will and discarding them when they were no longer useful. But furthermore, it also implies that there was something substantial enough to either control or enslave; as such, there must have been some sort of intelligence, will, our soul within that black-cloaked warrior.
A Little Bit of Link
There’s one more detail that we can glean from this, but it will help us to also look at Oracle of Ages at the same time as Ocarina of Time. There, Dark Link appears as part of the final boss fight against Veran, who will conjure a quartet of Dark Links into the battle in order to distract Link from doing battle against her exclusively. (For the life of me, I don’t know why she does it since they tend to drop extra life hearts and don’t really attack, but this isn’t the article to talk about that.)
At any rate, the Dark Links in both Ages and Ocarina exhibit similar characteristics even though they have some distinct differences. Their primary similarity is in the way they react to Link’s own movements. In the fight against Veran, Dark Links behave very similarly to Mimics in that they move precisely in the opposite direction that Link is moving. Back in the Water Temple, Dark Link is able to counter Link’s strikes with the Master Sword with near flawless precision.
These encounters suggest that there’s some sort of tie or bond that links (pun intended) Link to his darker brethren; that these dark warriors can mirror Link so precisely suggests either that they must have an amount of uncanny foresight or, more deviously, that Dark Link somehow knows the deep trappings of Link’s own mind.
Again, we’re left to speculate the exact answer since there’s no true context for us to explore; however, I have to admit that I’m fascinated by the possibility of Dark Link being Link’s perfect opposite. I think the whole color scheme that Dark embodies (even if he is much more translucent in the 3D remake of OoT), not to mention Navi’s trite piece of advice, would be in favor of backing some sort of symbolism or poetic connection between the two. I mean, the thought of there being some piece of Link deep inside his enemy is the stuff that allegory is made of.
But honestly, it makes a lot of sense as well. Link’s mission is to bring about the end of Ganondorf and to return light to the realm of Hyrule, while Dark’s mission is diametrically opposed to it. Link possesses a spirit of gentleness, naïveté, and devotion, while Dark—especially if his eyes are to be believed—seems to be about ruthlessness, arrogance, and destruction.
Dark but Not Evil
However it’s easy to misconstrue Link’s shadow as simply being simply a creature of evil. While Dark Link has, more often than not, been on the side of whatever villain has taken over the land, there is, admittedly, one moment where the line between Light and Dark isn’t quite so clear, and that takes place in Dark Link’s first ever appearance: The Adventure of Link. And oddly enough, it’s here, in Dark Link’s moment of “glory” where we suddenly find some actual Nintendo-provided hints into the true nature of Dark Link.
While the game itself still sheds no light onto Dark Link’s character, there’s a great deal of text that talks, either directly or vaguely, about Dark Link’s role in the game. Hyrule Historia once again takes center stage and gives us a short two-sentence description of the game’s final boss:
Link’s Shadow [is a] black shadow whose shape is identical to Link. Once a traveler reaches the depths of the Great Palace, this creature oozes out of their shadow and attacks, serving as their final trial. Like Link, it fights using a sword and shield, jumping at will. (109)
Well, okay, it doesn’t really say all that much about Dark Link directly. However, when coupled with the actual backstory to Zelda II as provided by the manual, well, everything becomes a little clear. But first, let’s review that backstory for all those who might not have played the game or read either the comprehensive history or the Cliff Notes’ version in Hyrule Historia.
Some time before The Adventure of Link, there was a King of Hyrule was who wise and very caring of his kingdom, but he knew that he couldn’t reign forever. He also knew that it wasn’t looking good that his son the prince was going to be the spitting image of noble kingliness that he was. So instead of allowing him to inherit the Triforce in full, as should have been the prince’s right, the prince simply inherited Power and Wisdom but without Courage. This, of course, caused the prince to fly off in a rage, and his wizard friend then causes Princess Zelda I (odd as it is to call her the first of her name given that there were others before her, but so goes the crazy history) to fall in a deep slumber after she refuses to answer questions concerning the whereabouts of the final Triforce. In the meanwhile, it was Impa’s line of ancestors that guarded a scroll and six crystals that, ultimately, would lead Link to awaken her.
And so, with that covered, here’s a portion of the message the King left for Link:
But the Triforce of Courage I have hidden for a reason.
The Triforce of Courage is hidden in the Great Palace in the Valley of Death on the largest island of Hyrule. However, to enter there you must first fight the guardians and undo the “binding force.” When you have defeated the guardians, which I made to prevent enemies from invading the six palaces in Hyrule, set a crystal in the forehead of the statue you find. When you have set crystals in all of the statues in the six palaces, the “binding force” placed on the Valley of Death will be removed and you will be able to enter the great palace. There, you must fight the last guardian. And you can obtain the Triforce only by defeating that guardian. (Adventure of Link manual 9-11)
So in an amazing twist of events, instead of being the work of Ganon or whatever villainous force is in Hyrule, the temple bosses were created by the King of Hyrule himself. Furthermore, the king specifically mentions the last guardian as the final blockade against the Triforce of Courage. Who’s the last guardian? It isn’t the Thunderbird, believe it or not; Hyrule Historia suggests that it is Link’s own shadow that is the final guardian, a shadow that was created by the king for the good of Hyrule in order to guard the Triforce of Courage…
Which was the very Triforce of Courage that, centuries earlier, Dark Link had been sworn to steal from one certain Hero of Time.
Has your mind exploded yet?
Link’s Equal but Opposite
It’s not entirely that simple, though it is close to the mark. Technically speaking, after you defeat the Thunderbird, before Dark Link actually appears, you meet some long-eared dwarf of a man who actually is guarding the Triforce, and presumably it’s that man who conjures up a figment of Dark Link to go toe-to-toe against this would-be intercessor. And if Hyrule Historia is any indication of things, any other person or creature that managed to steal their way into the Great Palace, get past the Thunderbird, and end up in the final chamber would have to defeat, not Dark Link, but a dark version of his or herself.
And this means that it is technically possible to have dark variations of other characters besides Link. (While it’s by no means canonical, many have designated Zelda’s black-dressed, white-haired skin in Super Smash Bros. Brawl as Dark Zelda, which I can’t help but feel is oddly close to the mark.)
Either way, this final little gremlin creature was created by and tasked by the king for the protection of Hyrule. And the fact that he would use these shadowy creatures as his means of thwarting the forces of evil from taking the Triforce means that the dark creatures aren’t inherently evil. I would argue that, much like the Triforce itself, they are a force that is neither good nor evil but instead aligned with whomever their creator would have them support.
In that sense, Dark Link must then represent the best fighter that Link could ever possibly be, the pinnacle of Link’s own set of skills. And the challenge then is clear: If Link can best his best possible self, then truly he is worthy of inheriting the Triforce for the Kingdom of Hyrule. So if we take this incarnation of Dark Link and juxtapose it with the evil side of Dark Link discussed before, most of it actually shakes out well enough. Dark Link still functions as the perfect foil of Link’s motivation; his mission is to stop Link from being the hero of Hyrule, albeit this time it’s really for him to prove that Link is worthy of being that hero. Link’s persistence and determination is matched ounce for ounce in Dark Link.
And ultimately, if we can take what Ganondorf said about Phantom Ganon with any bit of salt, Link didn’t kill Dark Link here but instead merely defeated him. Dark Link in this instance isn’t so much a failure because of being defeated; instead he has successfully executed his task to be the last obstacle that only the true hero of Hyrule could defeat. And I’d like to imagine, being free from his Hyrulean duties, whatever spirit was pulled out of the ether to possess Dark’s body, can go off and frolic in a patch of tulips somewhere, happy that he did a job well done.
The Secret of the Shadow
I feel as if I’m obligated to mention Shadow Link from Four Swords Adventures in this article lest someone pipe up in the comments asking why I forgot about him. The popular theory in the fandom today is that Shadow Link and Dark Link are two completely separate entities. While I never really considered this to be that way back when I played Adventures for the first time, there is a reasonable amount of evidence to consider this to be the case.
First and foremost, the fact that Dark Link and Shadow Link are deliberately named differently is rather significant, and this isn’t just a Nintendo of America thing either. The Adventure of Link’s Dark Link’s Japanese name is リンクの影 (rinku no kage, literally Link’s shadow) (Japanese Hyrule Historia 109), while FSA’s Shadow Link is dubbed シャドウリンク (shadou rinku, literally Shadow Link) (119). While the name difference isn’t that incredibly staggering, that NCL would use kanji in one instance and katakana in another, even to this day, does say something. Moreover, most have noticed that the two characters act fundamentally differently, although this is largely due to each character’s role in the respective game. Dark Link exists strictly as a boss character in his appearances, and his role has been that of mirroring Link’s maneuvers in combat; Shadow Link on the other hand seems to have a large degree of free will and seems to be running amok on his own without Link’s direct influence.
But perhaps the nail in the coffin is that Shadow Link has a very explicit origin story. The White Maiden in Adventures tells us that, “long ago, a dark tribe invaded Hyrule. They were defeated and imprisoned within the [Dark Mirror]. The tribe’s mirror prison was then secreted away and hidden in the forest temple to sever its connection to this world.” Hyrule Historia then picks up and confirms the maiden’s suspicion:
Shadow Link[s are] demons identical to Link that are born of the Dark Mirror and possess the power of darkness. The resentment and evil thoughts of the defeated Ganondorf travel across time and space, emerging as shadows in the shape of the Hero. The ones that appear in the Elemental Sanctuary set a trap aimed at getting Link to break Ganondorf’s seal. (119)
Given that Dark Link doesn’t have any ounce of backstory and yet Shadow Link’s backstory is so oddly specific given his tie to the Dark Mirror, an object mentioned only in Four Swords Adventures, it seems pretty clear that the two really aren’t the same thing.
Except it never is all that simple.
The Twilight Connection
Hyrule Historia is, many times, a bright beacon to show connections and influences that we often don’t get in game, sprinkling confirmations and denials of crazy connections throughout its many pages. However, sometimes, much like Nintendo’s PR, it can be ever so vague and secretive. And for a connection that seems so otherwise clear, in this instance, the Zelda bible not only remains coy but also throws a monkey wrench into the works. While the distinction between Link’s shadow and Shadow Link seems clear, the clear separation of the Dark Mirror from the rest of the series isn’t so certain.
The Dark Mirror [is] a mirror that reflects the evil heart of its bearer, spawning demons. It was once used to imprison the Dark Tribe, who attempted to invade Hyrule, and thus it was hidden inside a temple with no connection to the Dark World.
Its relation to the Mirror of Twilight that serves as a path to the Twilight Realm, as well as the magic mirrors that exist in other timelines, is unknown. (119)
In case the story the White Maiden told sounds remarkably familiar, well, that’s because it is remarkably familiar. It’s practically the story of Twilight Princess in many ways.
Midna tells us this story as we’re about to obtain the first fragment of the Mirror of Twilight. “What do you think happened to the magic wielders [of the Fused Shadow] who tried to rule the Sacred Realm? …Its denizens became shadows that could not mingle with the light…, flitting in the half-light of dusk, mere shadows of Hyrule.” And of course, they were sent there using the mysterious Mirror of Twilight, the bridge between Hyrule and a much darker realm.
And if there’s even more divine irony to be found in it, the first time we hear a portion of this story, from the words of the Light Spirit Lanayru, we are given a certain cinematic that is one of the most dark and strangest cutscenes within the entire Zelda franchise. And guess who’s kind enough to appear in this story? You guessed it: Dark Link himself.
Now when I started writing this article, I was originally going to be more or less dismissive of Dark Link’s appearance in Twilight Princess. When I first saw this scene, and right up until the point at which I started doing research for this article, I’ve always figured that the visuals of this cutscene were largely metaphorical or the graphical equivalent of purple prose. I mean, why else would Link and Ilia appear in this cutscene when it involves historical events that had nothing to do with them directly?
And then I reread that one quote from Hyrule Historia. Before my eyes, there was the establishment of an ambiguous connection between the Dark Mirror and the Mirror of Twilight. But no, it’s more than that. Once you scratch the surface off of that quote and pore just a little bit deeper, it’s actually a quote that establishes an ambiguous connection between Dark Link and Shadow Link!
So are Shadow Link and Dark Link the same creature? Well, maybe. This little quote is in essence Nintendo’s escape hatch for later on when they want to revisit either of these plot points. You might remember from the previous article in this series where I mentioned that Nintendo seems to have a lot more of the story solidified than they’ve revealed to us? This quote has got to be yet another indication of it. They either have a definitive game plan for this and are just waiting for the right game to put this in, or they’re legitimately undecided and are awaiting the opportunity to do something with it.
But if I were to go so far as to defy the popular fan theory on this and say they were the same, what better cosmic joke to have Ganondorf, all the way back in Ocarina of Time, discover the Mirror of Twilight and use it to pull out Dark Link as his own slave to destroy Link, only to have Link go back in time, accuse Ganondorf of treason, and have him sucked through the very same mirror? Honestly, I cannot come up with one. There’s just this nice, succinct poetic justice about equating the two pieces that I can’t help but secretly hope that they’re the same or at least strongly related to one another.
This leaves only two other games in which Dark Link appears as a character, though there’s not a whole lot I can say about either one. However, so as not to omit anything, I’ll briefly go over them.
The significantly weaker of the two appearances is in Spirit Tracks where Dark Link appears within a mini-game. In the Take ‘Em All On challenge in Castle Town, very similar to the Cave of Ordeals and similar challenges, Link is tasked with conquering several rooms of enemies which ultimately end with one or more boss fights, with Dark Link being the capstone of the most difficult of the challenges.
However, it’s extremely difficult to fit this entire mini-game within the context of the world of New Hyrule. The trouble essentially transpires because the bosses from the game’s five temples are recurring enemies within this challenge (some of which recur multiple times). While its certainly the nature of video games, including Zelda games, to have mini-games and sidequests where monsters are kept as enemies for would-be gladiators, it also makes it extremely difficult to take seriously given their very nature. More than anything else, I would chalk this up to a quick dosage of nostalgic whimsy over anything else.
The bonus content added to A Link to the Past via the Four Swords GBC game, however, is a little trickier to deal with, however. This is because, in part, A Link to the Past was more than significantly modified in this re-release, not just in mechanics but also in dialogue. All of the references to the Seven Wise Men were changed to the Seven Sages in order to strengthen the relationship between Ocarina and Past, which some will therefore say establishes the new variant as the most canonically correct form of the game.
Nevertheless, the addition of the Palace of the Four Sword in Ganondorf’s pyramid really comes with neither importance nor explanation to the game’s plot. One moment it’s not there, and the next moment, after Ganondorf is defeated once, the extra dungeon poofs into existence. And from a consumer perspective, the inclusion of A Link to the Past on Four Swords’ cartridge is to allow some semblance of single-player experience to exist on an otherwise multiplayer-exclusive game while also justifying the cost of what would have been otherwise a ridiculously short play time. Furthermore, this branch of the timeline doesn’t have anything to do with the only other post-Ocarina appearance of the Four Sword (in Four Swords Adventures), so we are left with seemingly few pieces of the puzzle to establish real canonicity or not.
So really, the whole Palace of the Four Sword can be left up as an exercise to each individual player to decide whether it counts or not.
Ultimately, Dark Link is one of the Zelda series’ most epic and remembered bosses. Though extremely mysterious, most of what gives Dark Link his fearsomeness and his street cred is the fact that his entire history is enshrouded by a veil that obscures all. We have so little to work with in order to firmly establish who or what he really is, but that’s what makes his appearances so bedazzling; we never quite know what to do with him when he does show up.
That said Dark Link isn’t so much a threat to Hyrule as he is simply a counterpoint to Link’s own personality. Link’s shadow is there to show us who Link isn’t and to set apart the diametric but equal sides in the battle for Hyrule, the Triforce, and control of the Sacred Realm. In fact, Dark Link is actually there to make a stark points about Link’s characterization, which is important for a game with an all-but silent protagonist. Last but not least, there’s a possible chance that the legend of Dark Link is actually more concrete than most actually care to believe. While we cannot know whether Dark Link and Shadow Link are actually the same incarnation or if they have anything to do with one another, it’s likely that Nintendo has some opinion on this point in the back of their heads, and they’re waiting to bring it into focus at exactly the right time.
No matter what, though, Dark Link is an enemy to be remembered if only because, in real life, on the other side of that familiar game screen, we are all too often trying to conquer ourselves.