The most recent incarnation of Zelda will not be included in the Smash Bros Ultimate roster, because she is ‘not much of a fighter’. This is a fair estimation of the character, which reflects how Breath of The Wild failed Zelda and representation. Characters in the game are varying in their development, but Zelda really suffered. What we saw of the title character was not up to scratch with any recent portrayal.
Progress for representation through Zelda’s role has had a few miss-steps, but it has improved. Since the Nintendo 64 Zelda has gradually become a stronger and more fleshed out character, often by subverting the princess role. Far from breaking previous traditions of the series, Breath of The Wild reverted Zelda back to her earliest characterisation and ignored all progress since Ocarina of Time. It’s worth revisiting these incarnations to compare.
Representation as a Plot Token and Sheik.
Zelda’s had a weird trajectory. In the original game, she was essentially a prop with no more depth than a shard of the Trifoce. A Link to The Past did marginally better. These roles establish the template for the series. Zelda is the title, and a flimsy motivation for Link. Not a person.
This changed dramatically in Ocarina of Time. Zelda was the driving force behind the plot, masterminding Link’s plan to stop Gannon. The plan didn’t work, of course it didn’t. She’s eleven. Zelda has an actual personality beyond princess and takes an active role in events.
This dynamic continues after the time skip. Sheik guides Link and is just as capable as he is. Ocarina’s Zelda could have saved the kingdom by herself if she had the Master Sword, Link was just the muscle. Link’s lack of agency to Navi and Zelda kind of makes him a pawn in the story. He only acts out instructions from Zelda, who is skipping between dungeons while keeping Hyrule going during Link’s absence.
Sheik is still problematic, there are many problems around the character. However, it’s definitely a step up from A Link to the Past.
Wind Waker continued focusing on Zelda through a different name. This time, she is pirate Captain Tetra. Another character that doesn’t rely on Link. Without her help, Link wouldn’t have made it off Outset Island. Link is propped up by the King of Red Lions while Zelda combs the oceans alone.
This character has some of the same issues as Sheik. She’s a descendent with a different name, not actually Zelda. Writers try to use Zelda as an actual human being, providing more active representation and a better character but only for a separate persona. Tetra has to be sealed away under the sea, put in a traditional Zelda dress, and her skin grows suspiciously lighter…
Tetra goes against the normal template for Zelda, making it a struggle to get the Triforce holders in their normal positions for the climax. Because of this she has to be locked away for the endgame. Zelda’s traditional princess role holds the character back from any serious progress.
Constitutional Monarch and Skyward Sword
Twilight Princes returned to the Ocarina formula, but there been some maturing. Zelda is the only incarnation actively managing Hyrule, even if she doesn’t feature as heavily. It’s the opposite of her action girl depiction in Wind Waker, as a governing monarch she is essentially Queen Zelda this time.
Compared with the default princess portrayal, it’s a natural development. Twilight Princess takes the inanimate princess archetype and makes her an actual head of state rather than a fairy tale character. This sticks to the Zelda formula but it extends it. Reinventing the Princess archetype as positive representation, giving her characterisation and a purpose.
Skyward Sword is different. She’s a kidnapped damsel. Zelda gives Link useful information and some mystic developments. She is still a character that exists to be rescued. This is in keeping with the entire story of Skyward Sword though. It’s a step backwards but in a game that was backward looking.
How Breath of The Wild Failed Zelda’s Representation
Breath of The Wild’s Zelda definitely isn’t a fighter. In the flashbacks sequences we see her organising Hyrule’s defence and working with the champions, but this clearly isn’t a role she’s comfortable with. These flashbacks are good, and provide a well rounded depiction but there isn’t many of them. Zelda is conflicted over fitting into the typical princess role but the flashback format stops this from being particularly effective.
The decision to keep Zelda locked in the castle for the entire game destroyed any chance for making her a positive female character. It’s essentially the same situation as the last third of Wink Waker, but without the first two thirds with Tetra. The majority of the game uses Zelda in about the same way as the first did, a princess locked in a castle without personality or life.
Keeping Zelda prisoner is essential to explaining Hyrule’s condition 100 years later. However, it’s a plot contrivance that could have been replaced to give Zelda a little more to do. Any reason could have been used to have Zelda occupying Hyrule upon Links awakening.
The 3D Zelda titles have used Zelda in interesting ways that subvert the trope of rescuable princess, giving agency and providing female representation in a male heavy series. Breath of the Wild failed in this. Zelda is stuck in a castle. She’s placed into a princess dress and sealed away much like Tetra. This is a backward step for representation in a forward looking game.
In a title that relished abandoning the traditions of the series, BOTW stuck rigidly to the early model of Princess Zelda. Despite main console games for the last twenty years breaking this depiction in nearly every incarnation.
A modern version of Sheik as Zelda would provide a great opportunity to actually play as the title character. Actually using Zelda in game as an active force would have helped BOTW be a more inclusive title. Instead of progressing away from the series traditions, BOTW took one of its worst tropes and stuck more consistently to it than any recent Zelda.
If Nintendo is going to continue to reinvent the conventions of the Zelda series, greater female representation is essential. Mario Odyssey has demonstrated how antiquated the rescue the princess story has become. After years of development, Breath of The Wild has turned the clock back on Zelda.
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