How Zelda Saved Me:
The Inspiration, Feminism, and Empowerment of Hyrule

originally published in Entropy

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My shield glistens in the filmy haze of morning light. I am alone, free to roam this vast expanse. With a whistle my loyal horse appears, armored in steel, teleporting to my side in swirls of blue light. I leap onto his saddle, yank the reins and off we ride, racing as one seamless entity. Today, like so many days before, we’re on the hunt for treasure chests and the last three shrines that have escaped my detection; perhaps they’re hidden deep in a cave or within columns of ice on a snowy mountain peak. Monsters and machines lurk everywhere, guarding the many secrets of this land, and no matter how many times they perish at my hands, the blood moon resurrects them each fortnight. But I am not afraid. An arsenal of weapons is fastened to my back, among them the legendary Master Sword, wielded only by a hero. 

*

I asked my mom to buy me a Nintendo Switch for my birthday…my thirty-fifth birthday. I was old enough to buy the Switch myself, or to ask for a more practical gift, but my generous mom obliged my request, buying me the console along with Zelda: Breath of the Wild (BotW)—the real reason I wanted the latest Nintendo system in the first place. 

 

As a child of the ’80s and ’90s, I grew up on Nintendo, first by watching my father play, then by making my sister watch me. With its narrative saga of mazes, puzzles, and ancient magic, Zelda has always been my favorite Nintendo franchise (sorry, Mario). I fondly remember the anxiety-provoking beeps of a low-hearts Link in the original Legend of Zelda and the swirling portals to the Dark World in A Link to the Past, but it was the N64 version that made the biggest impact. I was in ninth grade when Nintendo released its breathtaking, game-changing Ocarina of Time and the graphics blew my mind. Improving upon previous Zeldas, which followed a more linear, structured gameplay limited by the hardware capabilities of their eras, Ocarina offered an expansive three-dimensional space in which I could lose myself for hours. I can’t begin to estimate how much time I spent in front of the TV, finger curled around the controller to hit that back Z button, my sister, Laura, equally glued to the on-screen action and pretending to be the faithful fairy guiding Link through his quests. 

 

Though I ate up Ocarina’s character-driven storyline, with its time-travel leap that ages Link seven years, I felt even more immersed aimlessly riding Epona through fields, fishing in the pond, chatting up villagers, hook-shotting to high towers, and learning sweet new melodies on that nifty ocarina. The same was true of Super Mario 64; Laura and I would take turns working our way toward Bowser, collecting all the stars in each new level, but we also enjoyed chilling out in Mario’s fancy digs. We invented a crew of made-up characters who “lived” there and we’d pretend to be them while making Mario bounce around his sprawling estate. We often went off-script for games: the minecart levels of Donkey Kong Country became roller coaster rides for our Barbies (who would scream during dips), Mario Paint became a fabric and wallpaper design studio, and the Wave Race 64 Jet Ski riders had their own romantic entanglements—spicy!

 

I’d always been a compulsive storyteller and daydreamer, unashamed to pace the curb talking to myself in full view of the neighbors. Whether at home, in school, or in dance class, I effortlessly escaped reality to pretend I was a completely different person. Almost everything I did in those early years was layered; I wouldn’t just read a book, I’d act it out as an episode of a television show that aired on my imaginary channel. I didn’t just listen to music, I’d picture ballerinas performing an elaborate routine as part of my imaginary dance troupe. My notebooks filled with lists of names for all the dancers, actors, athletes, and students who populated my little universe. 

 

It’s clear to me now that I approached Nintendo for a similar reason: not as a chance to win but as an opportunity to put my Amy spin on pre-existing source material and thus further enrich my inner world. Zelda, however, was immersive enough, and I respected the fantasy of Hyrule without needing to bend it to fit another vision or add a more interactive layer. When I played Zelda, I was Link through and through. And in this I found a different escape—a break from my overactive imagination and incessant need to make things mine. 

 

I had started playing Ocarina from the beginning—young Link in Kokiri Village first meeting his fairy—but the cartridge I’d rented from Blockbuster also contained a saved file for a game some other player had finished; all too tempting for a girl who prioritized open-world exploration over leveling up to kill foes. I loved it so much that Mom agreed to pay the fifty dollar fine for “losing” the cartridge so I could keep the finished game while slowly making my own progress. This lasted until my twenty-two-year-old cousin, Bryan, came to stay with us for a few days. Like most boys I knew, he played video games to beat the scariest boss or achieve the highest score, not to find reprieve in a fantasy world. Bryan didn’t need Hyrule the same way I did. 

 

So when he saw that I’d reaped the benefits of some other player’s hard-earned victory, he claimed that I was cheating. “You didn’t earn it,” he said like a teacher, swiftly erasing the file. I sat there shocked, then flew to my bed in tears, mourning the loss of the wide-open kingdom I had peacefully explored. To this day, I still haven’t been able to beat the Water Temple (which means no unlocking the fishing pond) and still haven’t entirely forgiven my cousin. 

Perhaps this loss kept me from wanting to revisit Zelda on the GameCube or Wii, or perhaps I’d aged out of Nintendo by the time those consoles were released. I did own a PS2 toward the end of college—largely to play a fast-paced music coordination game called Amplitude and to drive the mean streets of Grand Theft Auto while purposefully abiding traffic lights—but no other game recaptured the magic of Hyrule. A kind of magic I didn’t realize I was missing. 

 

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