All right, put away your torches and pitchforks. Yes, I realize Zelda is the princess, and therefore a girl; and the hero is Link, a boy. But the question is, why? When the most recent Zelda game, Tri-Force Heroes, was first shown at E3 2015, there was clearly an option to dress Link in Zelda’s clothes. This led to speculation that there may be the option for Link to be a girl. This turned out not to be the case.
Zelda purists have been arguing for months on social media that “Link can’t be a girl!” And to a degree, that sentiment makes sense. Link is one of Nintendo’s most precious characters, almost as old and well-known as Mario himself. Fans would be outraged if Nintendo suddenly decided to change the sexual identity of their mustachioed mascot. His name is Mario, after all, not Maria. But what’s in a name?
First of all, don’t get me started on the bizarre naming conventions of the Big N. They have franchises named after heroes, villains, occupations, and even incidental enemies which may or may not appear in every game. The Legend of Zelda series is particularly perplexing. The first entry was, of course, named after the princess in need of rescuing. Its sequel dropped the “Legend of” moniker and appended a numeral, as well as a subtitle, “The Adventure of Link”. (In Japan, the first game was known as “Hyrule Fantasy”, with “The Legend of Zelda” being its subtitle. For the second game, the Zelda title was omitted altogether.) The third game in the series set the standard for the naming of all following entries: “The Legend of Zelda”, colon or hyphen, subtitle — even when the titular princess doesn’t appear. Except in English-speaking regions, Link’s name is never mentioned in the title again. So it’s little surprise that, among the uninitiated, the name of the playable character could be misconstrued. (I have always argued that “The Adventure of Link” should have been the series’ title anyway, but what do I know?)
Which brings us to exactly why his name is Link in the first place. Creator Shigeru Miyamoto has explained that the name comes from the character originally being a link between different time periods. When that aspect of the first game was dropped, he became simply a link between the player and the game world. In this respect, the hero character of any Zelda adventure is simply an avatar — a visual placeholder for the person holding the controller. This is why, to date, Link has never actually spoken a word of dialog, written or verbal. Furthermore, Miyamoto and Zelda series producer, Eiji Aonuma, have confirmed that the Link character is different in every game, due to them all taking place in different time periods and occasionally different realms. In fact, since every Zelda game gives the player the option to rename the hero character, it doesn’t necessarily even have to be “Link”.
So why can’t Link be a girl? A recent study by the Entertainment Software Association found that 48-52% of gamers are female, while female playable characters vary between 10% and 25%. The gender landscape of gaming is changing, as are the conventions. Video games are no longer just about saving the world and getting the girl; and while preconceived video game heroes are still predominantly male, an increasing percentage of games are giving players the option to choose their avatar’s sex. If the character of Link is intended to draw the player into the experience, shouldn’t female players be allowed to choose a heroine?
Personally, I don’t see any good reason why not, unless it expressly goes against Miyamoto-san’s and Aonuma-san’s creative vision. Nintendo have been opening up to more progressive choices and lifestyles lately, from gender options in Fire Emblem Awakening, to skin-tone options in Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer, to same-sex romances in the upcoming Fire Emblem Fates. While these are secondary, or even tertiary franchises that aren’t leveraged as much on character recognition as, say, a Zelda or Mario game, they are still notable steps in the right direction. I think a female Link, even as just a start-of-game character creation option, would be a big hand out to their female audience.
Finally and quite frankly, the only arguments I have heard/read against a female Link have been from (dare I say) whiny fanboys whose borderline-xenophobic aversion to change have often resulted in stagnation and questionable choices by Nintendo in an attempt to accommodate their unappeasable needs. While equally fan-fueled franchises have made drastic changes to their characters in the name of diversity — I’m particularly referencing Marvel’s recent racial changes to Spider-Man and Captain America, sex swap for Thor, and “outing” of Iceman — to mostly acceptance and acclaim, Nintendo’s attempts to change so much as a timeline or art style have been met with inexplicable backlash and even online petitions.
So I say, try it and see what happens. If the upcoming epic Zelda on Wii U offers a gender option, what’s the worst that can happen? Those who prefer Link to be male can choose a masculine avatar for their Hylian adventures, while those more feminine-minded players can choose a female hero for their Ganon-slaying, princess-rescuing fantasies. No one needs to be left out.
However, I am sure that all this debate is for naught anyway; for if Link is and always will be a young man to his creators, that is their prerogative. With Samus Aran, Impa, Sheik, Tetra, Lucina, Rosalina, and (arguably) Bayonetta, Nintendo are not without strong female characters to base games around. We just need to see more of them if there are to be any signs of social progress in what is often regarded as a very traditional company.