When I was a kid, my version of being a hero was a bit different than what was expected. I didn’t want to be Superman or Batman, a firefighter or a cop. No, when I fantasized about being a hero, the only character who came to mind was a little boy in a green tunic who had the courage to stand up to monsters five times his size. The Legend of Zelda has been consistently among my favorite series throughout my life, and over the years its protagonist has had a big impact on me. Link always seemed to be where I was – a child when I was a child, an edgy teenager when I was trying (and failing) to be an edgy teenager, weird and experimental when I was in college, and trying to undo the consequences of his own failures when I was experiencing a quarter-life crisis.
Of course, Link is rarely the same person as in the game before, and with so many incarnations of him out there in the world it’s easy to develop a preference. As technology has evolved, the ability to make Link more than a vehicle for the player to interact with the world has expanded on his personality and history while still leaving the core of who he is – quiet, courageous, a paragon of goodness – very much intact. In response to a question from Livid Lightning as part of my ongoing Charming and Open event, today I’ll be sharing my five favorite versions of Link, all in pursuit of the answer to the question she actually asked: which one is my favorite? This article will have spoilers for various games in the Zelda series, so if you see that I’ll be talking about a Link whose story you haven’t finished yet, feel free to skip to the next one!
#5: The Hero of Dreams
The most recent Zelda game on my list of finished Zelda titles has me thinking a lot about rearranging my various “favorites” lists. I never gave Link’s Awakening the time of day as a kid, but as an adult I’ve been able to appreciate the nuance of this story as well as the excellent gameplay mechanics – and it certainly helps that Nintendo remade the game just for me! This isn’t an article about the game, though, so let’s focus on why this Link makes the top five.
First of all, LOOK AT HOW CUTE HE IS! If you look at this smiling, happy boy and your first instinct is not to protect him with your life, you are the edgiest of lords and honestly I am a little afraid of you. Watching him and Maron develop their childhood crush on one another is adorable, but this puppy love doesn’t lead to a happy ending. For such a cute kid, this particular Link has to make a brutally hard choice: in order to leave Koholint Island and return home, he must wake up the Wind Fish and effectively destroy the island. This Link gets the opportunity to live inside a dream where he finds friendship, beauty, and love, and then with his own hands he has to make that dream end. That takes a courage and maturity that surpasses most grown-ups I know, certainly enough to land him in my top five.
While it’s truly impressive what story the game does manage to get across, technological limitations hold back Link’s Awakening from being able to give us much more about this Link. We know his overarching story but not much about his day-to-day personality. I also played this game the most recently out of all the Zelda series, so he is the freshest on my mind – perhaps with time as things settle he will rise further on the list, but until the new wears off it will be hard to say where he truly lands.
#4: The Hero of the Wild
Breath of the Wild revolutionized what Zelda could be, both from a gameplay perspective and from a character perspective. We see a version of the princess unlike any other, but does that same level of depth apply to the hero of the wild? The Link of Breath of the Wild is a man of mystery in many ways, but we learn much of his backstories through memories and journals discovered throughout the gorgeous overworld of the game.
As the Hylian Champion, this particular Link carried the heavy burden of the Master Sword and all the societal expectations that came with it. He was to protect Zelda and slay Ganondorf, and his conversations with Revali show that not everybody felt he was up to that task. We learn in one of Zelda’s journals that the reason Link rarely speaks is because he is overwhelmed – he remains quiet because he knows the world is watching them, and he is afraid to say anything that makes them question his ability to do what needs to be done. Unfortunately, he does fail, and one hundred years later Link has to face the consequences of his inability to stop Ganondorf and do his best to finish what he started.
Link’s story in Breath of the Wild is certainly compelling, and it’s nice to have some in-game justification for out-of-game choices such as his status as a silent protagonist. What keeps this particular Link lower on the list for me is that so much of his story is learned through flashbacks or books. We rarely get to see anything meaningful about Link from the hero himself, primarily because most of his story happens before the actual gameplay of Breath of the Wild. The next Link on my list is one for whom we get to directly participate in his growth and changes.
#3: The Hero of the Sky
Skyward Sword is a Zelda game that I think a lot of folks sleep on. The reason for this is understandable – folks who deeply enjoy motion controls do exist but are few and far between – but it’s sad to see a game with such a fantastic portrayal of the friendship between Link and Zelda go unappreciated. Skyward Sword does a lot for the series from a story and worldbuilding perspective and has some of my favorite Zelda dungeons of all time. Here I go talking about the game again, though; let’s focus on Link and why this particular one is one of my favorites.
Like the Link in Breath of the Wild, the Link of Skyward Sword carries a burden that some of the significant characters in the world think he cannot possibly live up to. Impa doubts his credentials as a hero. Ghirahim toys with him at every turn, even fighting him barehanded during their first encounter to show Link just how far beyond him the demon lord is. Unlike the Breath of the Wild hero, we don’t see these things in the past – this is the version of Link that we are playing as for the first half of the game, and then Impa challenges him to undergo trials and become the hero he is truly meant to be. Most versions of Link only qualify for the Triforce of Courage. The Link of Skyward Sword develops the wisdom and power needed to wield the whole Triforce and use it against the Imprisoned. He starts out as a lazy, clumsy kid but grows into a man capable of slaying a god.
I went back and forth quite a bit between this Link and the one in second place, a bit unsure of which one I would put in which spot. What finally pushed Skyward Sword down into third place was that while this story is well-executed, it is somewhat typical. Link is a knight-in-training who becomes a hero to slay a dark god who needs the soul of a princess who is actually a goddess. He starts out weak, gets stronger, and has a happy ending. There’s nothing wrong with a classic feel-good story, but for me personally that ultimately makes this Link a bit less interesting than the more nuanced characters in the top two spots.
#2: The Hero of Winds
Many of the Links we have met today were knights or heroes already when their adventure began. The Links of Skyward Sword and Breath of the Wild are trained knights, and the Link of Link’s Awakening had already saved Hyrule and Holodrum by the time he made it to Koholint Island. In Wind Waker, we start with a very different Link – one who lives on a small island with his grandmother and sister. Not an established hero, not a trained warrior, but a child driven to adventure to rescue his kidnapped sister, a girl mistaken for a princess.
Wind Waker’s Link is chock full of personality. His expressive face is the stuff of countless memes now, but at the time it was truly impressive to have the Zelda protagonist emote. It was even incorporated into the mechanisms of the game, with Link looking at interesting locations and using his facial expressions as hints of opportunities nearby. He’s a charming kid who befriends pirates, troublesome schoolchildren, moblins, kings, and everything in-between. The Link of Wind Waker is the beginning of a new generation of Hyrule, one that hopes to move beyond the sins of the past and forward to a glorious future. He doesn’t bring back what used to be, but instead becomes the hope of the future.
The Wind Waker Link is full of personality and charm, and his story is unique one wrought with history and filled with hope. He’s a strong candidate for the number one spot, but for me there is one other Link who holds that honor. I’m a guy who’s a sucker for tragedy, for an ending that doesn’t quite give you everything you want, and for heroes who have to overcome terrible darkness to bring light to the world. And in my mind, no Link in Zelda does it quite like the next one.
#1: The Hero of Time
“A sword wields no strength unless the hand that holds it has courage.” Those are the words spoken to the Link of Twilight Princess by the Hero’s Shade, a mysterious skeletal warrior who teaches the Hero of Twilight to better wield his blade against the forces of darkness. The Hero’s Shade is no monster, though – he is the Hero of Time, the version of Link who has survived some of the grimmest circumstances in the Zelda series.
This Link endured bullying for being the child without a fairy. He watched his guardian, the Deku Tree, die before his eyes after facing down a horrific spider to save him from the curse. He lost seven years of his childhood so he could wield the Master Sword, only to see Ganondorf triumph and the kingdom of Hyrule fall into ruin. After he struggled to overcome every disaster Ganondorf had caused and overthrew him at last, this Link returned to a childhood where no one knew him as a hero – and the fairy companion who finally started his journey left him behind. That’s plenty for a boy of around ten years of age to have to overcome, but as it turns out his journey was just getting started.
The Hero of Time went on to look for his fairy companion only to tumble into a nightmare realm. His horse was stolen, his body transformed, and his time cut short – with only three days left to live, Link had to try and recover all that was taken from him from the treacherous Skull Kid. Every three days, he would reset time and relive the slow, creeping doom of a world about to end. Over and over again he watched Clock Town descend into chaos as the moon loomed ever closer. Even when he undid the damage and brought peace to an area, at the end of the third day he’s have to rewind time and undo his progress in the interest of the greater whole.
The story of the Hero of Time isn’t a happy one, and his ultimate fate is to become a Shade that trains the next hero. It is said that Link held onto this disturbing form because he never had children of his own to pass on his knowledge. This fate seems an appropriate one for a little boy who had to overcome so much, a boy who time and again was forced to bear a burden no child should in the name of saving the world. “A sword wields no strength unless the hand that holds it has courage” – the Hero of Time demonstrated remarkable courage against countless demonstrations of evil, and seeing the sort of person he became as a result of all that is a sad but understandable tale.
A big thank you once again to Livid Lightning for posing this question and giving me some time to geek out about Link and The Legend of Zelda! This post was part of the Charming and Open event here on Adventure Rules, a community event where you ask me a question and get an answer in the form of a blog post. Ellen will be crafting her own post to answer a question I asked her in return, so I’ll be sure to “link” that here when it goes live. If you want to ask me a question and get a question back, you can follow this “link” and leave your question in the comment section!