Ahh, do you not feel the grand romance of the wide open skies? The roaring invitation of the wind? The soft call of the clouds? You are a boring, boring creature. --Willi, the Bird-Man in Wind Waker
Why is every new Legend of Zelda my drop-everything game? Why, after 25 years of playing essentially the same game over and over, does my heart race with excitement at the arrival of a new one? And, importantly, why am I so willing to overlook its obvious flaws?
Zelda Blind Spot
Why does my Zelda blind spot extend even to its designers’ stubborn unwillingness to update outmoded systems of character interaction and item discovery? Why must I be endlessly reminded that red rupees are worth twenty? How many times must I be exhorted “Don’t spend it all in one place!” Why must every shop owner deliver the same introductory spiel every time I engage them? The Legend of Zelda is the premier adventure series in the history of video games. Couldn’t somebody at Nintendo knock out a few more animations and lines of dialogue?
My blind spot obscures even more issues. Why, after nearly 15 years of navigating a 3D space, is it still so hard to get Link facing in the right direction to move a block or open a chest? When, after giving us so many cool gadgets and weapons to control, will Mr. Aonuma finally allow the player to control the simple action of making Link jump? And when will I - a grizzled veteran of Zelda games dating back to the original - finally be given the option to skip, or at least condense, the interminable hand-holding series of tutorials at the beginning of every game?
I ask these questions facing a paradoxical reality: I love these games. The latest Zelda release, Skyward Sword, was my favorite game of 2011. Not the best game and certainly not the most innovative, but nevertheless the game that delighted me more than any other.
How to make sense of this? I suppose I could chalk it up to nostalgia, but that word doesn’t quite characterize my experience. It’s easy to find familiar moments that resonate through the franchise. Link waking up at the outset. Link opening a treasure chest. The stirring moment when Link embarks on his adventure.
Despite their formal similarities, it would be a mistake to see these moments as cut-and-pasted from one game to the next. They are purposeful narrative motifs that connect Link to each of his previous incarnations. They resonate because they operate within a ritual storytelling tradition more akin to fairytale than epic poetry.
Critics often describe Legend of Zelda games as classic Hero Journeys in the tradition of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey. While it’s easy to find connections here - the call to adventure, supernatural aid, descent to underworld, etc. - I see more resonance in Zelda’s connections to Japanese folklore and, especially, the series’ deep roots in Shintoism.
Link often enters a “Sacred Realm” (“Silent Realm” in Skyward Sword) where he encounters beings inflicted with suffering caused by Ganon’s corruption of the earth. All beings in nature suffer from this polluting force: spirits, trees, forest creatures, and humans alike. Link must set things right by healing the land, restoring harmony to humans and nature.
In essence, he must embrace the Shinto philosophy of humans and nature as one, and he must accept his pivotal role in Shintoism’s indigenous vision of Japan (Hyrule) as connected to its ancient past. Link is that link.
Zelda games touch me in ways other games simply don’t. They express a lighthearted spirit of adventure, tinged with melancholy. Link’s youthful naiveté gradually gives way to an awakening that can only emerge through trial and discovery. This recurring journey from child to adult requires Link to accept his own mortality. I like Dan Merrill’s description in his terrific essay “Immortal Childhood”:
[Zelda games] express what it means to live bound to the flow of time. They are stories about the beauty of mortality, the journey from childhood to adulthood and from life to death. They are about growing up and leaving behind the immortal playground of childhood, letting go of the familiar to venture out into the world that lies beyond.
My attachment to these games is more than philosophical. Every time I enter the world of a Zelda game, I’m enveloped by a whimsical universe that’s always richer and deeper than it appears. Whimsy gets a bad rap. When games strain for it, the results are painful and embarrassing. The Zelda world is full of delightfully playful, mischievous, idiosyncratic characters, and they are all loved and all welcomed without judgment. Even the “evil” characters have something to tell us about suffering and regret.
My country lay within a vast desert. When the sun rose into the sky, a burning wind punished my lands, searing the world. And when the moon climbed into the dark of night, a frigid gale pierced our homes. No matter when it came, the wind carried the same thing… Death. But the winds that blew across the green fields of Hyrule brought something other than suffering and ruin. I coveted that wind, I suppose. --Ganondorf in Wind Waker
When you visit Beedle’s Airshop in Skyward Sword, Beedle is furiously pedaling a makeshift bicycle which turns the gears that power the propellers which keep his shop aloft. If you leave without buying anything, he stops Link at the door, berates him for adding weight to his vessel, and opens a trapdoor through which Link falls to the ground. It’s a silly surprise, but Beedle’s ridiculous contraption fully belongs in this world.
If you’re more curious (and Zelda games have always rewarded curiosity), you may decide to sleep in Beedle’s shop until night. If you do, Link will wake up on Beedle’s Island where the airship is parked at night. If you find Beedle at his campfire, he will reveal to Link that his shopkeeper persona is not his true identity. I won’t say more than that. Go talk to him yourself. Things are often different at night in Zelda games. Find Rupin the Gear Shop owner at his mother’s house after sunset. Once again, things aren’t always as they seem.
“The rising sun will eventually set, A newborn’s life will fade. From sun to moon, moon to sun… Give peaceful rest to the living dead.” — Inscription on Tomb Door in Ocarina of Time
Zelda games present a broader scope of humanity than other games. We see preschool children playing games, teenagers locked in petty arguments, young adults, middle-aged men and women; elderly figures foolish and wise. It is a world of misfits and eccentrics, and Link must messianically save them all.
At the end of Link’s Awakening, we discover that the idyllic paradise of Koholint Island is only a dream of the Wind Fish. Link must awaken the Wind Fish to complete his mission, but that awakening comes with a cost: Koholint Island and all its inhabitants will vanish, and Link will be cast into the ocean, adrift on a piece of his wrecked ship. “It be the nature of dreams to end,” the Wind Fish explains to Link.
Like another character on another island, we will yearn for the next great adventure.
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.* –Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest