Like many people, A Link to the Past is among my favorite Zelda titles of all time. It is a timeless classic, one that perfected the classic top-down style of the original and clearly inspired most of the series handheld iterations. Because of this, it is easy to see why it is beloved by so many Zelda fans. That said, I have always found something strangely unsettling about the early stages of the game, and could never quite put my finger on what that was until now.
I recently started playing through all the Zelda games again, beginning with A Link to the Past. Through replaying the game I’ve finally pieced together why the opening moments are so disturbing for me. It begins with Link hearing the disembodied voice of Zelda, asking him to save her from the current evil Hyrule Castle has come under. As Link awakens, his uncle tells him to stay home as he takes off for the castle. Link again starts hearing voices and also takes off for the castle. Now, this is a little worrying, having a young man following the random voices he hears in his head, but it is easy to chalk this up to cliche SNES-era storytelling.
The next part of the opening is where things take a much darker turn. As Link sneaks into the castle, he finds his uncle mortally wounded. In his final moments, Link’s uncle gives him his sword and shield, asking Link to save the princess from the evil that has taken over. This is a very traumatic thing for a young man to see, but like the hero he is destined to be, Link springs into action without hesitation. This isn’t the part that really disturbs me though.
Think about what we learn about the guards in Hyrule Castle. They are all Hylians, being controlled by the dark wizard Agahnim. These are residents of Hyrule, with friends and family who love them. Link knows this, but doesn’t seem to mind slaying whatever guards come his way. It is fairly safe to assume that Link hasn’t killed before this incident, at least not a fellow Hylian, but seeing his uncle die before him seems to flick a switch within him that allows him to kill his fellow countrymen.
These aren’t enemies that want to kill Link. Many of the guards feel like they are almost fighting against attacking him, slowly trudging along with simple attacks that make them easy to dodge. I know you can choose to avoid attacking the guards, but that only goes so far as the game does eventually force you to kill, with some rooms requiring you to destroy all the enemies before unsealing the doors that have locked you inside. No matter how you play, Link will eventually have to murder multiple Hylian guards.
You can tell this is a hard narrative thread to escape by reading all the attempts at A Link to the Past fiction over the years. From the manga to the comics, the fact Link has been murdering Hylians has been changed to make him seem more heroic. Their origins vary from being manifestations created by Agahnim, to just being straight up non-human beasts in Hylian armour. It is a convenient change that makes Link’s murderous voyage much easier to take.
Link will eventually have to murder Hylian guards. It’s a disturbing thought to think that Link has ended the life of his brethren.
It is a disturbing thought to think that Link has ended the life of his brethren. There’s no wonder the woman in Kakariko Village rats him out to the guards when she sees him. Was one of her loved ones slain by Link? Keep in mind that the game takes place entirely from Link’s perspective. Link, a young man who listens to the voices in his head and slays his fellow Hylians. He may be the hero of legend, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t also a villain.
But what if we try to defend Link’s actions? If we dig deeper and run with the thought that Link is not only a hero, but also a murderer of man, then the story of A Link to the Past becomes even more dark and tragic.
Considering player agency plays into Link’s killing of guards, let us assume that he isn’t just killing these Hylians because he wants to, but only when he is forced to defend himself. The mental anguish Link would be going through in this time would be beyond comprehension. Link is very young in A Link to the Past and has to deal with the loss of his uncle. Not only that, he immediately has to pick up a sword and fight a darkness threatening to destroy Hyrule. That is a lot for anyone to deal with.
And when Link starts exploring the castle for Princess Zelda, the first enemies he encounters are not creatures. They are not beasts, animals or monsters. The ones he must defend himself against are his own countrymen. These are likely people he knows in some way, and he must quickly come to grips with the fact these men are trying to kill him, be it against their will.
How does one come to grips with such horrors? These events would mentally break anyone, let alone someone as young as Link. But Link endures. He plows forth, proving that he is the rightful saviour of Hyrule. Defending himself against his brethren is a burden he shoulders, the burden of a hero, and he must carry the weight of all the lives he is forced to take on those shoulders.