I was barely ten years old when the Super Nintendo graced our household.
Admittedly, it was a Christmas present for my brother. But my parents counted it as an extra blessing when I picked up the controller and started playing Super Mario World in tandem with my older sibling. The colours were mesmerising, and the clear-cut premise reduced a complicated world to its bare system requirements: move your character forward to achieve victory.
If only life could be so simple…
Back in those days, Super Nintendo titles were notorious for their three-figure price tags, so my brother and I resorted to renting games from our local video store. The months that followed would see us tackle classic fare such as Bubsy the Bobcat, Street Fighter, and even Starwing. For my brother it was a test of skill – for me, an opportunity to see characters fully realised outside of accessible books and television shows.
I was in the minority when it came to popular culture. While my friends were going on about gorgeous teenage heartthrobs, I was harbouring a scandalous crush on Blossom’s Mayim Bialik. I gawked at the concept of Barbie dolls, instead adoring the cuddly antics of my Littlest Pet Shop toys, which included single mother dogs with five puppies to suckle and no paycheck. I was expected like any good ten-year-old girl to keep a diary with all of my secrets to share with my “best friends” – mine was filled with elaborate lies about my feelings for a random boy in our class.
It was clear what was coming, even if I didn’t know what it was.
The day that I walked into the video store and saw Zelda: A Link to the Past on the shelves was the day that I started to figure out why I was different to my friends. It is only today that I can look back and realise why it was happening.
Zelda had a male protagonist, who happened to be the character driven by the video game player. However, it seems as if the reason that the game, and indeed the series, did not take its title from this avatar was because it also had a strong female protagonist. This was the character that I grew to love. She was not another ‘damsel in distress’ being held captive by a reptilian overlord, and a 16-bit home console could not even render her as a piece of eye-candy for our male gaming comrades. She represented a young woman, wise beyond her years. Her interactions with Link did not show the traditional princess who needed saving – instead, she acknowledged Link for his aid in helping her escape. She demonstrated the equal contribution to her escape from Hyrule Castle’s dungeon.
The distinction is an important one, and subverted the traditional power roles between the captive princess and the brave hero who saved her. It has been a distinguishing element of many of the games in the Zelda franchise – a female protagonist who has abilities that equal the skills of her male counterpart.
Princess Zelda is not a character who falls into the trap of a stereotypical character design. Far from Nintendo princesses such as Peach and Daisy, Zelda greets the gamer with an implied complex character history.
Looking closely, this is not the only character in Nintendo’s family that has had the critical treatment. When Metroid was in its late design phases, the designers decided to change their protagonist’s gender entirely from male to female. In an interesting social experiment, they did not even specify the character’s gender in the instruction manual, leaving it as a shock to young gamers who discovered that their avatar was actually a woman. Creators of the original Metroid have noted that this was a deliberate move to silence a cultural requirement that would dictate ‘necessary femininity and sex appeal’ for Samus Aran. The result is a character in her own right – not categorised by traditional signifiers that would elevate her status as female.
In my youth, these were the women who owned my respect and my heart. They demonstrated values that were culturally universal without being stereotypical, in a time when plumbers rescued princesses and anatomically-augmented archaeologists rendered adolescent boys speechless. Princess Zelda and Samus Aran were able to acknowledge their contributions as equal to other video game heroes without making an obvious reference to their gender roles and sexuality. A more recent addition such as Mario Galaxy’s Rosalina can be viewed as a delicate hybrid of damsel and sage – neither powerless to control her destiny nor arrogant to believe that she can save her galaxy without help. However, we do not see Mario as her “rescuer”, or a powerless character. Instead, both he and Rosalina share the responsibilities of their quest equally.
These were characters that defied gender identity and the social requirements tied to that identity. They shared power roles equally with their male counterparts, and also did not approach their roles with an arrogant desire to prove themselves in a man’s world. They were characters that were pioneers of their time, and role models for those who, no matter what the reason, could not fit those standard social requirements.
So when I taped posters of Link in my room and in my locker at school, complete with his femme haircut and skinny tights, it seemed as if the masses were finally at ease. They interpreted my art as an acknowledgement of a man in my life, and that would restore the balance of my confusion over “gender roles”.
Sorry, Mom. The truth is that I actually preferred Zelda all along.