The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

The Legend of Zelda A Link to the Past

Title: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Japanese Title: ゼルダの伝説 (Zeruda no densetsu)
Artist: Ishinomori Shōtaro (石ノ森 章太郎)
Translator: Dan Owsen
Publication Year: 2015 (America, new edition); 1993 (America and Japan, original edition)
Publisher: Viz Media
Pages: 196

Full disclosure: I read this manga countless times as a kid, and the game it’s based on is one of the greatest loves of my life. This review is biased, because of course it is.

My own adoration aside, Viz Media’s new publication of manga giant Ishinomori Shintarō‘s adaptation of the 1991 Super Nintendo game The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past has been selling extremely well since it was released a month ago.

A Link to the Past on the NYT Bestseller List

This success makes perfect sense. Not only is The Legend of Zelda a major video game franchise with its own culture cachet, but Viz has also managed to put out a handsome publication, and manga’s story is easy to follow and immediately accessible to readers not familiar with the games.

The teenage orphan Link lives peacefully in a quiet village in “the pristine land of Hyrule” when, one stormy night, his uncle is summoned to the castle. Link is awoken by a voice claiming to be the princess Zelda, who telepathically tells him that she is being held prisoner in her own dungeons. Link, fearing shenanigans, rushes to the castle in the rain only to see his uncle put to death by a powerful wizard named Agahnim (whose dark skin and Orientalist stylings are how you know he’s a bad guy, yikes). Link manages to infiltrate the castle and rescue Zelda, only to have her immediately kidnapped once more by the wizard, who intends to use her to break the seal on an even greater evil. Before she’s spirited off to wherever princesses are stashed away in such situations, Zelda manages to tell Link that it’s his destiny to save Hyrule and that he must locate the legendary Master Sword, which is the only blade capable of defeating the powerful force controlling Agahnim. Off he goes, and adventure ensues.

Video game adaptations into other media tend to be hit or miss, but Ishinomori, genius that he is, pulls off his manga rendering of A Link to the Past flawlessly. Although Link is never really alone in the game (as he is always accompanied by you, the player), his quest is a lonely one, as he bears the sole responsibility for delivering the land from a terrible fate. Ishinomori especially excels at portraying Link’s smallness in a vast world filled with hostile creatures. The action sequences – and there are a lot of them – are nicely choreographed, with a smooth flow facilitated by expert paneling. This flow is so dependable that, when it’s interrupted, the reader is instantly made aware that Link has encountered a true threat, as he does in his final battle with Ganon, the story’s ultimate villain.

A Link to the Past Link vs Ganon

The manga is also populated by friendly characters who aid Link along his journey. The most striking of these fellow wayfarers is a bird-like “mystery knight” named Roam (a classic Ishinomori archetype in both personality and visual characterization). The inhabitants of Ganon’s dark world, a mirror reflection of Hyrule that changes the shape of people based on the truest form of their hearts, are also given small roles that help raise the stakes of Link’s battle. For example, immediately after Link is exiled to the dark world by Agahnim, he encounters a talking tree who explains to him that there are many other people who, for whatever reason, followed Ganon into the dark world only to become trapped there, doomed to wander as beasts or serve an evil master until a hero can purify the land. Such accounts add layers of depth to the story that aren’t to be found in the original game, in which the player progresses from objective to objective simply to experience the next challenge.

Despite the assistance of friends he encounters, Link is still one boy caught up in a legend much larger than his own life, a theme Ishinomori emphasizes with splash panels depicting Link as a faceless dot at one corner of a daunting landscape. In the game on which the manga is based, the enemy the player must engage most frequently is the environment itself, and the artist’s translation of this element into menacing backgrounds and elaborate framing devices is beautiful to behold. Ishinomori’s interpretation of Ganon’s castle, the revelation of which is a climactic moment, is especially awe-inspiring.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are also some fun Easter eggs for Zelda fans scattered throughout the manga. I don’t want to spoil all of them; but, to give an example, Link flies to the Desert Ruins in a winged hang glider. As the villager who provides him with this contraption recounts, “They say these miracle wings belonged to a powerful bird that carried the knights of Hyrule into battle!” In retrospect, this statement seems to refer to the events alluded to in Skyward Sword. And yet, considering that this was written more than ten years ago, one can’t help but wonder how much of the lore explored in more recent games was already in place as the earliest titles were being developed. Or, conversely, was this manga perhaps a guiding influence for subsequent world building?

This manga was originally serialized in the American gaming magazine Nintendo Power from January to December 1992. The following year, it was published as a full-color collected volume by Nintendo of America and in a black-and-white tankōbon by Shōgakukan in Japan. As such, it’s an interesting slice of both manga and video game history. Manga was still relatively unknown in the United States in 1992, and Viz Media only started publishing its groundbreaking Animerica magazine the following year. Meanwhile, Gail Tilden (the marketing manager at Nintendo of America) and the editors of Nintendo Power, the first publication of its kind, were responding to the sudden appearance of a rabid gaming public in the wake of U.S. release of Super Mario Bros. 3 in 1991. (More information about the early years of the magazine can be found in Jon Irwin‘s excellent Super Mario Bros. 2.) It’s extremely interesting that Nintendo was already attempting a manga/game media mix marketing strategy through the burgeoning medium of English-language video game journalism. It’s also interesting that Viz seems to be using a similar strategy – using the popularity of a gaming franchise to promote manga – with this new release.

Even if you don’t usually care for video games or manga, Ishinomori Shōtaro is a force of nature and a credit to the human race. Since it’s difficult to find his work in English translation, Viz’s new edition of A Link to the Past is a fantastic opportunity to see a master artist and storyteller at the top of his game.

A Link to the Past Link's Battle Against Trinexx

Fantasy Races in Japanese Video Games

Part One – On Cultural Difference

Wind Waker Great Wave

Before we begin, I’d like to specify what I mean by “Japanese” video games. Although the term seems obvious enough, there might be some confusion over whether games heavily influenced by Japanese styles or games released by North American or European branch offices of corporations with headquarters in Japan count as “Japanese” video games. Since a debate concerning what is and isn’t “Japanese” according to stylistic conventions could easily become mired in a bog of stereotypes and cultural essentialism, I’d like to clarify that I’m referring to video games produced and developed in Japan.

Between the most recent Wolverine movie, Keanu Reeves’s 47 Ronin, and Katy Perry’s performance as a geisha at the American Music Awards last November, I sometimes feel like I’ve been up to my elbows in arguments over cultural appropriation for the past year or so. Since the related topics of cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism are relevant to a discussion of Japanese culture in Japanese games, I think they’re worth touching upon here at the beginning of the essay. To explain why they’re relevant, let me quote from an essay posted on Tumblr about the portrayal of imperial colonialism in Final Fantasy XIV, which introduces itself with the following caveat:

I remain open on whether Japanese gamers are less likely to find these implications to be controversial/confusing and [Square Enix] is only by coincidence hitting a possible nerve with Western audiences. I don’t think this is a question Westerners like me should attempt to answer. Japanese attitudes towards both culture and religion are so different from Western attitudes that they can hardly be recognized as the same issues. It may be a moot point for [Square Enix]’s intended (i.e. Japanese) audience; the only thing that we can really examine is the impact hitting our own, aka English-speaking, neck of fandom.

In other words, do Japanese and Western audiences pick up on the same types of themes? Will they have the same emotional and intellectual responses to these themes? Will they come to the same hermeneutic conclusions regarding these themes? Furthermore, are we, as English-speaking Americans, unwittingly acting as cultural imperialists by assuming that our readings of Japanese games can or should be the same as those of Japanese gamers?

What I’d like to posit is that is that we should indeed consider ourselves as being on the same page as Japanese gamers. I don’t wish to downplay or marginalize the differences between Japanese and American culture(s), but I also don’t want to position Japan as some sort of mysterious, unknowable Other whose citizens operate on a completely different wavelength than we do here on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Issues such as cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism are most pertinent to situations in which there is a clearly dominant culture and a clearly disadvantaged culture coming into contact with one another; however, with the most profitable video game companies and franchises currently being of Japanese origin, I’m extremely hesitant to characterize Japan as subaltern, at least in the field of electronic media. I therefore don’t think we should consider Japanese gamers as too terribly different from ourselves. Our cultural and educational backgrounds may not be the same, but this may also be said even of gamers from the same country, region, or municipality; and, in any case, we are quite capable of understanding each other’s entertainment media, which is for the most past designed to be accessible to the broadest possible audience.

Still, because most Americans don’t have the same pedestrian awareness of and focused educational exposure to Japanese history and culture that most people raised in Japan have to our history and culture, our appreciation of the stories, themes, and art of Japanese games can be greatly augmented by insight into the culturally specific elements of these texts. For example, regarding the Legend of Zelda games, essayist and game reviewer Tevis Thompson has argued that the main protagonist of the franchise isn’t Link, but rather the land of Hyrule itself:

Building up a world with a past, a believable place with its own logic – that would be enough. Wind Waker’s post-apocalyptic drowned world was enough; Majora’s Mask’s temporal loops and grinning lunar horror were enough. Zelda is a perfect candidate for environmental storytelling. A Hyrule you can dwell in, despite its limitations (perhaps because of them), with gameplay that compels you further in – such a world will produce its own stories.

If the world within a video game can build its own stories, think of how much richer our experience of this world could be if we were able to better understand its allusions, which add layers of depth and meaning to gameplay.

Kenchōji Triforce

Miyamoto Shigeru’s famous comment concerning how he was inspired to create the landscapes of the Zelda games by his childhood experience of exploring the forested mountains of his hometown of Sonobe in northwest of Kyoto is perhaps apocryphal, but the various caves and temples (shinden in Japanese) of Hyrule are indeed reminiscent of Kyoto, which is surrounded by forests, rivers, lakes, and mountains dotted with enormous temples and tiny hidden shrines. The Skulltulas of the series are very clearly a reference to the jorōgumo (golden orb-weaver spiders) that suddenly drop down to the eye level of hikers in the Kyoto mountains, and the Triforce is the crest of the Hōjō, an important historical samurai clan that lent its symbol (known as mitsu uroko, or “three scales”) to the Zen temples its leaders patronized. Moreover, several story arcs of the series, such as the “Hyrule sinks” scenario of The Wind Waker and The Phantom Hourglass, could just have easily come out of Japanese popular media – such as the influential 1973 novel Japan Sinks – as from American disaster films like Waterworld. Although such marginalia may seem like nothing more than footnotes to a series of games heavily based on Arthurian fantasy tropes and imagery, an appreciation of such artistic elements might help our experience of exploring the games resonate with our experiences of exploring the world outside the games, as it has for Japanese players, who have compared Tokyo train stations to Zelda dungeons.

Although going on a scavenger hunt for parallels between video games and the real world is always amusing, the purpose of the above examples has been to demonstrate that, even in Japanese games designed with “Western” stylizations, Japanese cultural elements are present. In this essay, I want to explore some of the more notable of these elements, especially as they might be of interest to American gamers. Specifically, I will examine how Japanese cultural elements influence the portrayal of race in Japanese video games.

Part Two – On Pokémon
Part Three – On Final Fantasy

Hyrule Historia

Hyrule Historia

Title: The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia
Japanese Title: ハイラル・ヒストリア: ゼルダの伝説 大全
(Hairaru hisutoria: Zeruda no densetsu taizen)
Japanese Editors: Aonuma Eiji (青沼 英二), Shioya Masahiko (塩谷 雅彦)
English Editors: Mike Richardson, Patrick Thorpe, et al.
Translators: Michael Gombos, et al.
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: Dark Horse
Pages: 280

Hyrule Historia is divided into four parts. The first part, titled “The Legend Begins: The World of Skyward Sword,” is a collection of artwork and design sketches from the 2011 Wii game Skyward Sword. The second part, “The History of Hyrule: A Chronology,” runs through the plot of every game in the Legend of Zelda series and demonstrates how they are all connected. The third part, “Creative Footprints: Documenting 25 Years of Artwork,” is a collection of art and design sketches from the entire series with a strong emphasis on Twilight Princess. The fourth part is a 34-page manga (of which ten pages are in gorgeous color) about the mythology of Skyward Sword by Akira Himekawa, a two-person team that has drawn the official manga adaptations of many games in the Legend of Zelda series.

The “History of Hyrule” section, which is about seventy pages long, gives the book its name. When the series timeline from this section was released and translated into English, there was a bit of a kerfluffle in certain circles of video game fandom that had gradually been building their own theories and didn’t appreciate the retroactive continuity implied by the official version. That being said, the timeline laid out by Hyrule Historia makes sense (inasmuch as anything involving time travel makes sense) and should be interesting to a fan of the series. The main bulk of the section, however, consists of condensed versions of the plot of each Legend of Zelda game. These plots are more or less what appears in the game manuals with very little extra or “never before revealed” information thrown in for flavor. Unfortunately, the basic “Link must collect items in order to earn the right to wield a special sword so that he can save Zelda after she is imprisoned by an evil entity” story begins to grow stale as it’s continually repeated across two dozen three-to-four-page increments.

The main draw of Hyrule Historia is its artwork. In the first part of the book, which is filled with artistic development materials for Skyward Sword, the reader can witness the incredible attention to detail and world building that went into the game. These images are accompanied by myriad creator notes, which are often surprisingly humorous. Thankfully, unlike the Japanese original, in which many of these notes were handwritten in tiny characters, the typeface used to convey the creator notes in translation is large enough to read easily.

Hyrule Historia Skyward Sword Townscapes

The artwork on display for the other games in the Legend of Zelda series in the “Creative Footprints” section is also quite interesting. There are all sorts of designs for the main characters, secondary characters, enemies, weapons, and items. There are also rough drafts of dungeon maps, enemy treasure drop charts, and other developmental materials, such as different drafts of promotional concept art. Some of this artwork shows exactly how enemy wings, tails, and teeth work, with suggestions for how different designs accommodate different movements. There are fewer written notes in this section than in the first section on Skyward Sword, but there is still enough text to draw the reader into the image details. I particularly enjoyed the architecture and island sketches from The Wind Waker, as well as the full designs of the stained glass patterns that appear in the game’s building interiors. I also enjoyed getting a sense of the evolution of the Link character in each Legend of Zelda game, as different designs show him as younger or older, or more or less serious, or wearing entirely different sets of clothing and equipment.

Hyrule Historia Spirit Tracks Link Designs

You can’t really see this in the scans I made, but the image quality in Hyrule Historia is impeccable; the book is something that you need to hold in your hands in order to fully appreciate. The emphasis of Hyrule Historia is obviously on Skyward Sword, but all of the Legend of Zelda games get multiple pages of attention. A great deal of the book’s text feels like it’s selling the series, especially in the “History of Hyrule” section, and it can sometimes be a chore to read. Still, artists and art appreciators will love the incredible array of sharp and colorful images, and the physical book itself is sturdy enough to handle all manner of wear and tear that may occur over the course of reference use. Dark Horse did an excellent job with this gorgeous book. If you’ve been on the fence about buying a copy, Hyrule Historia is absolutely worth your time and money.