Three traits personify each of the three major players in The Legend of Zelda series. One of them is wisdom. And that trait is always associated with the franchise’s eponymous princess.
We’re starting our retrospective by taking a look at how Zelda has evolved over the years. From humble beginnings as yet another damsel in distress, Princess Zelda has taken many roles in various entries in the series, from wily pirate captain to mysterious ninja, the princess of Hyrule has proven herself as one of the most iconic women in gaming.
The first Legend of Zelda saw our princess trapped in Spectacle Rock at the hands of the evil Ganon. As the game’s opening crawl says — that is, if you wait at the title screen enough — when Zelda is captured by the evil king, she splits the Triforce of Wisdom into eight pieces and scatters them across the kingdom of Hyrule. As a green-clad youngster by the name of Link, players are first given a wooden sword to be wielded in a mission to rescue the young princess.
The princess’ character design, like much of what we saw in the NES days, wasn’t much to write home about. She sported a conservative dress, blonde hair … and that’s about all you can say about the character. Her only spoken word of dialogue throughout the entire ordeal is an expression of gratitude toward Link for his troubles. Maybe Nintendo felt it would leave the ass-kicking to another lady in its employ.
Not much changes in the princess’ second appearance on the Nintendo Entertainment System. She falls into a deep sleep following the events of the first game and it’s up to Link to break the spell. However, this is where we discover this isn’t the first Princess Zelda in Hyrule’s history. Her attendant, Impa, reveals the current incarnation is just the latest in the lineage, giving Nintendo an excuse to use the name repeatedly in the same franchise without fear of raising too many questions (not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
Although the princess’ appearance and role in the story change from game to game, she’s constantly being hunted because of her connection to the Triforce of Wisdom, a trait that is established from the series’ outset.
From damsel in distress to active player
1993’s A Link to the Past is when we see our fair princess take on a more active role in the story. While she begins the tale as the damsel in distress we’ve seen before, it’s revealed she’s one of seven maidens with the power to unlock Ganon’s Tower so Link may face the Evil King and defeat him.
Zelda’s attire in Link to the Past sports some elements present in the series to this day. Bangles, shoulder pads and other gold accessories accentuate her outfit like many that come after. The smock the princess wears over her dress is an element incorporated in future titles as well, although the only portion of the design that remains consistent is the Triforce.
Her lineage in the original Super Nintendo game is referred to as that of the seven wise men. A subsequent release on the GameBoy Advance modifies this to say she’s a descendent of one of the seven sages, an element of the series introduced in 1998’s Ocarina of Time.
Who dat ninja?
It’s in the series’ first appearance on the Nintendo 64 that Zelda — there’s absolutely no other way to put this — kicks ass. After calling Link to Hyrule Castle in a dream as a child, the young princess waits for the fairy boy to return with the three elements necessary to open the Door of Time and, unbeknownst to both of them, the Master Sword. When our young hero gathers the necessary gems and returns to the castle, we’re surprised to see Zelda riding away on horseback, followed by Ganondorf. It appears the Gerudo King’s siege on the castle and Link’s return coincidentally occurred simultaneously.
The princess’ attire in this iteration of the series has more or less set a standard for her. The dress and Triforce-adorned smock are more streamlined than they were in A Link to the Past and, if you take a close look at the pendant young Zelda wears, it bears a striking resemblance to an emblem in Majora’s Mask, an adventure from which she’s largely missing.
While Zelda’s escape from the castle and subsequent exile seem to set up another damsel-in-distress sort of storyline, things take a turn almost immediately. Not only does the princess entrust Link with the titular Ocarina of Time and allow him to retrieve the Master Sword, but she also shows up seven years later in a more ominous role. If you’ve played Super Smash Bros. Melee or Brawl, you know where this is going …
One of the most recognizable characters in recent Zelda history is Sheik, the mysterious ninja who aids Link in the latter part of his quest in Ocarina of Time. The mysterious young Sheikah acts as our hero’s guide whenever he makes it to a new temple. And when each boss is defeated, after a brief conversation outside of each temple, Sheik manages to disappear to Link’s chagrin. When Link defeats the boss of all five temples as an adult, the Sheikah ninja reveals himself to be none other than Princess Zelda — it appears she used this alter ego to hide in Hyrule instead of remain in exile.
It’s also here that the princess entrusts the Hylian hero with an item that has come to be a trademark of sorts for her: The Light Arrows. As the holder of the only item that can stun Ganondorf long enough for Link to finish him off, Zelda cemented herself as an indispensible player in not just the campaign against the King of Evil, but the fight itself; Zelda keeps Ganon at bay so Link may administer the finishing blow. Well, that and there’s no way Link would have ever gotten out of the castle if it weren’t for her.