Having just read Nyren’s well-intentioned argument in favor of Linkle, I’d like to offer a point for consideration. Also, I haven’t written an article for TAY in a million years, so I thought it was time to get back on the horse!
The video game industry is one that is nearly 45 years old, and many of the most beloved characters in the medium have persisted for just as long. However, something about gaming’s oldest surviving characters feels sacred. While modern-day protagonists are reimagined time and again—often as more complex and mature iterations—like the animated icons of the 1920s our 8-bit heritage largely holds firm to its roots. It could be argued that there’s a certain wisdom and brilliance in timeless character design, but then stubborn traditionalism could also be responsible.
If we look closely at Link’s superstar contemporaries from the 1980s, gender doesn’t appear to play as large a role in their identity as it did even in the ‘90s, when characters like Lara Croft, Solid Snake, and Jill Valentine were expressly designed to be representative of a kind of ideal. While Croft and Snake were obviously created with a certain exaggerated sexuality in mind, Shinji Mikami intentionally designed Jill and other female Resident Evil characters to counter stereotypical women in fiction, saying in a 2014 Guardian interview, “I don’t like female characters who are submissive to male characters, or to the situation they’re in. I won’t portray women that way.” That mentality largely didn’t exist in the 1980s gaming scene. Partly due to restrictive technology and the newness of narrative game design, it was easier and simpler to have Mario save a princess than Peach upend well-worn fairy tale tropes.
However, gender was used as a signifier in many different ways—from telling the player that a character was male or female to communicating their social roles. Link, by contrast, defies all convention because he is expressly designed to be androgynous by way of the same practical tricks that his contemporaries used to wear their gender. Thus, he’s a lot more qualified to comfortably “swap” his gender than anyone else!
So, with the simplicity of the 1980s’ adolescent gaming industry in mind, let’s look at the decade’s gaming icons closer and how they’ve grown over the years. We’ll pick Super Mario, Samus Aran, Ms. PacMan, and Link, just for gender parity.
Mario is a curiosity of the ‘80s, to be sure. The NES era popularized colorful cartoon protagonists with the console’s pioneering success of the platformer. From Mario came Kirby and Sonic and Rayman and even Nate Drake. For a solid decade, before the JRPG and the First-Person Shooter dominated the gaming industry, everyone wanted a mascot platformer. It’s why decades-old companies like Nintendo, Capcom, SEGA, and Ubisoft still have icons attached to their brand. It was a cute trend that really could have only existed in a period of fierce competition for the home console market. You had to be recognizable not just as a brand but as a face.
Which makes Mario a really weird starting place. He’s a chubby Italian plumber in overalls with a thick bushy mustache. Due to the limited palette and sprite size of the NES, Shigeru Miyamoto clad Mario in a hat to avoid animating his hair and drew a mustache on him to make his nose more prominent. In the end, that mustache became a defining trait for the character for more than thirty years—but what you may not have realized is that it gendered him significantly. As a character, Mario’s visual design communicates a lot of information to the viewer; his overalls convey him as a working type, the cheerful round shapes that constitute his belly, fists, and face make him look bouncy and agile, and his mustache let’s you know that he’s a man of considerable age. None of these aspects are elaborated on, mind you—have we ever seen Mario take on any contract work?—but they help to define the character not merely as an aesthetic design but as a fictional person with a role and a personality.
For all anyone knew, Samus could have just been a cyborg in 1986's Metroid. The game even famously used male pronouns to refer to the protagonist in the original manual. But speedy players could witness Samus take off “his” helmet at the end of the game to—gasp!—discover that Aran was a woman the whole time! (Unfortunately, the original NES title displayed our favorite intergalactic bounty hunter in various states of undress with each ending, but later games have allowed her to appear more dignified.)
So, does it matter that Samus is a woman? It’s hard to say. She’s in a big metal power suit most of the time and rarely speaks. Recent games like Other M and Fusion have put a greater emphasis on her relationships with other people, specifically Adam Malkovich who obnoxiously calls her “lady” all the time. Her femininity seems to hover in the background of each games’ narrative, but any studious fan of Metroid can tell you that the plots of Super Metroid, Metroid Fusion, and Metroid: Other M are derived more or less from Samus’s “maternal instincts” as exhibited in 1991's Metroid II: Return of Samus. In that title, after massacring the entire species, she can’t bare to kill a little baby Metroid that sees her as a mother. Quite explicitly, that makes Samus’s womanliness—and by extension her gender and how it is portrayed—absolutely central to the narrative of the series. Of all these 1980s gaming icons, gender matters most to Aran’s character.
Even if her version of Pac-Man is far superior to her counterpart’s, Ms. Pac-Man as a character is a hilariously corny genderswap of the titular yellow pill-popper. Midway/Bally just gave Pac-Man a makeover, a bow, and a set of slender legs, which makes the Misses look more like Bugs Bunny in drag than Lola.
Ms. Pac-Man is nearly the exact opposite of Samus in terms of female characters, and lacks much of the charm that makes Mario lovable. Ms. Pac-Man’s femininity is purely cosmetic, informing her character in no way other than serving as a counterpart to “Mr.” Pac-Man. She’s also weirdly sexed-up— her Playboy bunny pose on the arcade cabinet, overdone makeup, and heels absolutely scream, “IT’S A LADY, EVERYONE.” On top of that, we have the weirdly lustful ogling from the ghost in the corner. As silly as it all is, we’re left with a character that looks female but never engages with her gender identity in anything other than appearance (unlike Samus who literally must confront her maternity).
Which brings us to Link. He’s been a subject of light controversy lately because people want to see the character as a girl, while others (such as Nyren) argue that Link’s male-ness is central to his role in The Legend of Zelda. The debut of Linkle in last Friday’s Hyrule Warriors Legends and mounting speculation about Link’s appearance in the newest Legend of Zelda game set for release this year has sparked a lively debate among Zelda fans, and it seems to have convinced some folks that Link is wedded to his gender. However, Link’s gender is beholden to none of the internal logic used to ascribe gender to any of the above three characters, and is in fact deliberately ambiguous.
In Link’s history as a fictional character, he has been referred to multiple times as an “avatar”—a symbolic “link” between the player and the game world. His appearances have supported this, from allowing players to change his name to scrambling his backstory time and again. While his green tunic and cap is as iconic as Mario’s overalls and mustache, Link’s signifying costume isn’t as restrictive as the plumber’s facial hair or Ms. Pac-Man’s stilettos. His tunic is practically a skirt. The guy even wears earrings! And unlike Samus, his gender never informs his role in the narrative (outside of being Princess Ruto’s reluctant husband, which is just hilarious). Other than his adult physique, which is modestly muscular and quite feminine in his facial features, Link’s design never screams, “I’M A DUDE” in the same way that Ms. Pac-Man’s works overtime to convey her womanliness.
In fact, it’s largely more important that Link is a child than he is a boy—and even that isn’t consistent! Link has been a rabbit, a wolf, a painting, a sailor, a train conductor, a Goron, a Zora, a Deku Scrub, and literally four people at once. At this point, would it be all that strange for him to be a woman? Of all the storied characters in gaming history, Link could most successfully swap his gender without disrupting the core of his character. He’s practically built for the task because he’s a blank slate. On top of that, no other reoccurring character in the Zelda universe (in which regular cast members reincarnate over and over across branching timelines) vary in their appearance or social roles as drastically as Link. He’s been a farmhand, a student, a woodland child, and a smithy.
If you’re still unconvinced, ask yourself this: how is Link any different than a Pokémon trainer? In both series, the protagonist can be named and remains mute. In both Zelda and Pokémon, the protagonist has a simple home life and a grand destiny (a traditional Hero’s Journey). In learning, struggling, and overcoming all odds, they prove themselves as a Chosen One who brings justice against the forces of evil—in Link’s case Ganon and his ilk, and in Pokémon’s case Team Fill-in-the-Blank. The only difference is that in Pokémon, you can be a girl.
Personally, while I’d enjoy an iteration (or two!) of female Link, I’ll leave that decision up to Nintendo. But I wanna know what TAY thinks. If you were Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma, would you make Link female this time around? Why or why not? I’m excited to hear your responses! (And thanks for reading!)
ADDENDUM: I would also like to mention that while Linkle seems to be a great character (I had judged her too soon as a “Ms. Pac-Man type” when she was first announced), she’s not Link. So even though I’d love to see her stick around, her whole shtick is that she thinks she’s the Legendary Hero even if she may not be, which sort of defeats the point of a female Link.