Coming of Age With The Legend of Zelda

The franchise’s evolving complexity, its young protagonists, and its accessibility make it a particularly apt reflection of entering adulthood.

Link in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo)

One of the first video games I ever played—if not the first—was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I couldn’t have been more than 10 years old, arguably too young to fully appreciate the game for what it was. But it stuck with me for how tender and real it felt, from the memorable musical score to the detail it paid to even the most minor characters, and I’ve followed the franchise religiously in the years since. The Legend of Zelda games have offered plenty of lessons, from the obvious moral of the importance of kindness to the darker idea of the inevitability of death, but it’s only with the latest installment, Breath of the Wild, that I realized exactly what Zelda has given me.

In each game, the story is roughly the same: A hero named Link (played by you) must be awoken to help the Princess Zelda defeat a great evil. When I was younger, I always assumed these protagonists were adults—they would have to be, I figured, to take on that kind of responsibility. And yet Link and Zelda are always reincarnated as teenagers, if not children. And they’re given the burden of having to save the world before they’re necessarily ready for it, let alone capable of ruling a kingdom or living on their own.

Every installment sees them struggle with decisions and mature (in ways big and small) over the course of the game’s story—they’re stuck in a perpetual, precarious state of “growing up.” They navigate spaces that over time have become more difficult to traverse and more populated, just as the real world expands as one ages. And so, it’s dawned on me: With its young characters, its longevity, its accessibility, and the evolution of its gameplay, The Legend of Zelda is hands-down the best franchise about the joys and frustrations of leaving youth and facing the challenges of adulthood.

This year’s Breath of the Wild features Link and Zelda grappling with their respective roles as knight and princess, much in the way teenagers must take on new, or more demanding, obligations. It’s a daunting task, especially for Zelda, who bears more responsibility because of her royal blood, and constantly expresses doubts about both her assigned path and her competence. She has trouble using the powers that are her birthright and resents the fact that a knight has been assigned to protect her. Still, Zelda lets her guard down with Link, asking whether he believes people would choose the same future for themselves if they were born into different roles. These characters are meant to be saving the world, but the games still take the time to touch on these human concerns.

Breath of the Wild also marks the first time the series has treated the pains of growing up with the same weight as the characters’ larger mission. Earlier games had thrust Link and Zelda into new situations (for instance, 2002’s The Wind Waker sees Zelda essentially lose her memory and become a pirate, while Link must worry after his grandmother and little sister as he travels the vast ocean) rather than allowing them to seek those experiences on their own.

In the years since The Legend of Zelda debuted in 1986, the franchise has enabled increasingly complex gameplay. The earliest installments were relatively linear: The Legend of Zelda, The Adventure of Link (1987), A Link to the Past (1991), and Link’s Awakening (1993) were 2D adventures that sent you (as Link) off on a grid. It was all fairly methodical, and you completed certain steps in order to progress to the next. Ocarina of Time, released in 1998 and the franchise’s first foray into 3D, marked a significant departure from this on-the-rails approach. You could take side quests, helping other characters in their day-to-day lives or looking for items you didn’t necessarily need to finish the game. Still, with the main storyline, things had to be completed in a particular order—a helpful constraint on my own burgeoning freedom that allowed me to experiment without straying too far from my main objective.

The franchise’s move toward greater autonomy culminated in this year’s Breath of the Wild, the first Zelda game to offer a true “open-world” environment, allowing players to go anywhere and do whatever they like, whenever they like. (As The Atlantic’s David Sims has written, this open-world trend in gaming has had plenty of downsides, including lazier storytelling.) In Breath of the Wild, you can go straight to confronting the big bad, travel through the world, or tame horses; the series’ creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, spent his first time playing the game simply climbing trees.

A still of Link from 2017’s Breath of the Wild

There are still dungeons and bosses to defeat. But the choices, once confined to a single path, are now limitless—paralleling the somewhat dizzying experience of having many of the rules of childhood fall away. I think of how I went from being allowed to only play video games for half an hour at a time when I was younger, to eventually being trusted to manage my time on my own. In Zelda, this freedom is both exhilarating and intimidating: Some players will appreciate their newfound independence, while for others it might come with a sense of dread or aimlessness. I didn’t find such a realistic reflection of growth in any of the other games I grew up with. Final Fantasy presents a similar adventure, but its story feels less intimate since each installment comes with new characters; Mario boasts countless versions, including side-scrollers and racing titles and party games, but they’re all less unified.

The Zelda franchise passed on more than a decade’s worth of insight about getting older without my realizing it. In Ocarina of Time, which coincided with the start of my teen years, Link is thrown into adulthood by being put to sleep until he’s old enough to go to battle—his supposed readiness depends on his physical, not emotional, maturity. The world changes drastically while Link slumbers; more monsters and horrors roam the kingdom, but being physically older doesn’t mean Link is any better equipped to deal with them. With each new Zelda game, the tale players must navigate becomes grander and more entrenched in the cyclical mythos of the game (Link and Zelda are reincarnated over and over again), and the ultimately very small-scale story of growing up only becomes sharper and more poignant.

Notably, the first Zelda title was considered a forerunner of the role-playing games that are now an industry norm. The immersive process of identifying with video-game avatars that players now take for granted was in many ways baked into the franchise from the start, making its subtle lessons about empathy more effective. Majora’s Mask (2000) and Twilight Princess (2006) explored identity, with both games forcing Link to assume other bodies and forms and to be treated differently as such (e.g. as the anthropomorphic plant Deku Scrub in Majora’s Mask, and as a wolf in Twilight Princess). Meanwhile, Majora’s Mask delved into loss and grief as ancillary characters come to terms with their deaths in light of a looming natural disaster.

Princess Zelda in Ocarina of Time. (Nintendo)

Link and Zelda are ultimately reflections of the players themselves, and each time we revisit them they’re less archetypes (the hero and the princess), and more characters who experience doubt as much as anyone in the real world. Because Breath of the Wild depends so heavily on players’ personal choices, when Link develops over the course of his adventure, so do you. There are countless chances to wander or to rush to the point, to fight or to avoid conflict. It’s not a parallel that can be replicated in any other medium because no other medium relies so completely on its audience’s immediate decisions—and in Zelda, a world in perpetual adolescent flux, that feels particularly apt.

The evolution of the Zelda franchise over the last 30 years is perhaps inimitable. Yes, plenty of games now feature vast environments (Mass Effect: Andromeda and No Man’s Sky), and other series have young protagonists (the Earthbound and Pokémon franchises), but it’s the combination of these qualities along with Zelda’s longevity and accessibility that make it an especially meaningful portrayal of the delights and anxieties of coming of age. While a few other franchises have been around as long (namely the Super Mario series and Final Fantasy), none has changed alongside its audience in quite the way Zelda has.

Zelda has been there for me at each stage of my life, echoing my own progress over the last decade and a half. That the games are still evolving, and that they still hit home, is a comfort. As a child, I’d watch my mother play Ocarina of Time when some parts got too intense for me; now I dive into Breath of the Wild, arguably much more overwhelming because of its sheer scale, on my own. I wouldn’t say that I’m done growing up—maybe I never will be—but then again, neither is Link.