With the recent announcement of a new Game of Thrones style Legend of Zelda TV series, and the latest installment of the video game series coming out soon, I’d thought it would be worth taking a look at one of the most overlooked aspects of the franchise.
The Legend of Zelda Series has been described as many things; Nintendo’s most successful series. Its most critically acclaimed. All time video-gaming classics.
But there’s one phrase you won’t often hear said about Nintendo’s flagship franchise. It is “The Legend of Zelda games are highly political”. This is because, for the most part, they’re not.
The Games of the Zelda series are set mainly in pseudo-medieval fantasy worlds. You can also argue the politics of anything. And, fundamentally, all art is political. But most of the installments of the Zelda series never tried to make a direct political statement.
There are many reasons for this. The main one being that ‘Politics’ is really not what Zelda is about or has ever been marketed as. The games were traditionally targeted at younger audiences, and youngsters are perceived not to care about politics. Another major reason is that The Legend of Zelda series has always been marketed in both the Western and Eastern regions. So trying to drive home a political message that would be relevant for one region might alienate the other.
Sure there are vague straws you can grasp at, throughout the series, in terms of politics. Ocarina of Time was about a hero of humble origins going on to save the land after the established monarchy was disrupted by a foreign threat. He was predestined by the Gods to do so, apparently. But even though he is successful, he doesn’t actually get to sleep with the princess, and doesn’t even get compensated for his efforts in any financial way. Perhaps suggesting that the working classes exist only to prop up the establishment and, even when they alone save their backsides, the establishment won’t bother to spare them a nickel.
But this is all just shooting in the dark.
The systems of government in Zelda games are usually benign monarchies. You never actually see how they operate, as usually they get overthrown by the Big Bad very early in. The Big Bad is usually of foreign origin, perhaps implying an underlying xenophobia to the Zelda series.
In the oddball of the main series, Majora’s Mask, Link finds himself in what is a small-scale democracy. The main central hub of the world is a town called Clock Town; it is run by a mayor, who was presumably elected by the populace. But the elected government is shown to be ineffectual, its officials constantly squabbling among themselves, and being completely unable to deal with the threat which faces the entire population.
Perhaps all Zelda games do have an underlying royalist theme. What with the series’ only organised democracy being shown to be incompetent, and Link, the protagonist of humble origin, usually doing his bit to ensure the survival of an established monarchy. But this is all very subtle, and I doubt that the representations of government in most Zelda games are due to political activism on part of the designers. Probably the slightly pro-royalist themes are more due to the fantasy clichés from which The Legend of Zelda series originates.
There’s definitely a lot to say about Zelda’s gender politics. What with female figures always playing the damsel in distress roles, or playing the role of assistant for the male hero, but paradoxically usually being leaders in the major organisations of the games. Such as 5 of the 7 sages being female in Ocarina of Time, Midna being the true leader of the twilight realm in Twilight Princess, and all of the God figures and Fairy figures being female in the series as a whole. But I’m talking about gender neutral politics, which seems to be pretty scant overall.
However, there is one Zelda game that makes a huge political statement. There is one game whose entire story is an analogy for its political message. There is one game which is clearly about the never-ceasing struggle of the left against the right.
It’s not Majora’s Mask. It’s not Twilight Princess. It’s not Skyward Sword. It’s not any of the handheld games. It’s not any of the old 2D Zeldas that you’ve never actually played.
It is, of course, Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker.
Wind Waker follows the usual Zelda formula. The main hero of humble origins, Link, gets embroiled in a quest of some personal importance but soon finds out actually he has been predestined by the deities and fate to save the land and defeat the Big Bad yah da yah da yah da.
However the political divergence from the main series starts straight off the bat. Wind Waker is set in a world where there isn’t a monarchy or an overall system of government at all. Various small islands on one vast sea are made up of small separately organised colonies, which either have a tribal hierarchical structure or just a “whoever has the most respect gets the biggest say”.
There used to be an established monarchy. The history in Wind Waker was that – when the Land of Hyrule was threatened and usurped by Gannondorf, The Big Bad – the populace prayed to deities for salvation. The deities decided to initiate what was effectively a ‘Nuclear’ option, and flood Hyrule, trapping the evil establishment under the ocean. A handful of survivors retreated to mountain tops, which became islands in the newly created sea, and they formed their own disparate styles of government.
The Plot of the game itself is that Gannondorf, the ‘Bad King’ of the prior establishment, is trying to resurrect Hyrule and restore his monarchy. The original “Good King” of Hyrule, Daphnes Nohansen Hyrule, is trying to get Link to stop him.
The game is a paper-thin disguise for a political allegory. After a cataclysmic event, the populace is struggling to find its way and progress in the new world. The Bad King is trying to reinstate a monarchic conservative regime because that is the only system of government he knows will be effective. The Good King is trying to give the population the chance to form a better system of government than that which has come before. It’s the ‘right’ versus the ‘left’ in its most basic form.
At the end of the game, before the Bad King can raise Hyrule to the surface and forever destroy any chance of a new, better world, the Good King stops him by asking the Gods to do away with the prior establishment forever. Given that he is the actual leading figure of the prior establishment, he is actually sacrificing his own life and all he represents just for the chance of progression. Conservatism must destroy itself to make way for liberal ideology, or so the game designers of Wind Waker think.
Wind Waker is actually a well-designed game overall. It’s a tad padded with needless fetch quests in part, but not nearly as much as Skyward Sword is. Even if the politics goes over your head, which for a lot of younger gamers it probably did, you should give it a go. And due to its hidden but definitely there polemic, it marks its own unique place in the series’ canon.