Link’s certainly come a long way since he was a mere 16 pixels high in his small-screen debut, The Legend Of Zelda. While other videogame heroes have come and gone in the quarter of a century since (where art thou, Alex Kidd? Monty Mole, we hardly knew ye…), Link has remained one of the most recognisable and popular protagonists in gaming.
What’s fascinating about Link is that, set against the rich backdrop of the Zelda universe, he’s perhaps the least three-dimensional character. Over the years, the creators of the Zelda games have constantly introduced new people for Link to meet – many of whom are delightfully eccentric, evil, or just plain sinister. Thinking back over 25 years of Zelda games, characters such as Ganon, Tingle, Linebeck, and of course Zelda herself immediately spring to mind. Compared to those colourful personalities, the largely silent Link may seem like a bit of a nonentity.
Yet Link, the player’s avatar in the Zelda universe (he’s the ‘link’ between player and game, as creator Shigeru Miyamoto once explained), is in many ways the quintessential pop culture hero. In fact, Link could be described as the videogame equivalent of Tintin, the title character in Hergé’s evergreen collection of comic book adventures.
What’s interesting about Tintin is that, compared to the richly drawn faces elsewhere in Hergé’s books, the hero is the least detailed character – where Captain Haddock is recognisable thanks to his beard and aggressively set eyebrows, and the bumbling Thompson Twins are recognisable because of their bowler hats and moustaches, Tintin is little more than a pair of dots for eyes, and a little ginger quiff.
It was a design that Hergé knew would allow readers to imagine themselves as the character. By making Tintin so neutral, Hergé allowed the reader to immerse themselves in the comic books’ world.
Miyamoto achieved precisely the same thing with Link. He’s the archetypal young hero, embodying all the optimism, generosity and spirit of adventure a broad fantasy action game requires. And just as Tintin’s simple design served as a reader’s entry point into Hergé’s stories, Link acts as the player’s eyes and ears in Hyrule, a filter through which audiences can experience the colourful characters, action and perils the world constantly introduces.
Even in his simplest, 8-bit incarnation, Miyamoto managed to introduce little visual cues that added a little depth to Link’s personality. Aside from owning the coolest hat in gaming, Link’s also one of the few left-handed protagonists in the medium (though this was sadly altered in Twilight Princess in order to accommodate the Wiimote-waving, right-handed majority, and it’s still the case in Skyward Sword), and the occasional utterances he does make immediately inform the player of his youth and inexperience.
It’s this youth and inexperience that makes Link such a sympathetic hero; far from the super-human man-mountains that populate other games, he’s less than indestructible, and part of the series’ appeal lies in his vulnerability and courage in the face of apocalyptic evil.
Too often, videogames place us in the skins of muscle-bound brutes with an almost supernatural ability to kill things with guns, fists or swords. While this is entertaining from a wish-fulfilment standpoint (how many adolescent boys have wished they were a mighty warrior of Conan’s calibre, or a trigger-happy colonial marine out of Aliens?), it’s less satisfying from a dramatic, storytelling perspective. However much damage Marcus Fenix takes in his Gears Of War adventures, we know he’ll simply shake the bullets out of his fatigues and get back up again.
With Link, on the other hand, we’re presented with the ultimate videogame underdog. He really is an ordinary yet brave little guy who wants to save the world, in spite of insurmountable odds. Every time he takes a hit from an enemy, we want him to get back up again, because we want to protect him. We want him to win.
Of course, there’s another, extremely important reason why Link has endured: the games in which he’s appeared have seldom been less than captivating. The Zelda series has changed considerably since that first adventure back in 1986, but the names Zelda and Link have become synonymous with a distinctive brand of storytelling magic that other developers have attempted to replicate, but few have bettered.
Whatever form he takes – whether it’s the pixellated 2D sprite of the original Legend Of Zelda, the once sumptuous-looking Ocarina Of Time, or the painterly new look of Skyward Sword, Link remains the constant in the series. He’s the player’s eyes and ears in a series of consistently brilliant adventures, and most of all, an unlikely hero in an ever-changing universe.