“Shadow and Light are two sides of the same coin…One cannot exist without the other. I know now the reason the goddesses left the Mirror of Twilight in this world…They left it because it was their design that we should meet. Yes…that is what I believe.”
This is our list of the top 25 female characters of all-time. We’re into the top 5 now, and counting down one by one until we reach the best of the best on Sept. 30.
2) Zelda (Legend of Zelda) – 9 votes/613 points
Chris: Like Link, Princess Zelda is tough to pin down because of her multiple personalities. In the early days of the series, she suffered from damsel-in-distress syndrome, but she’s come a long way from her NES roots. In Link to the Past, she’s at least able to offer some support telepathically, and she helps you push an object out of the way. So…that’s nice.
Her true evolution happened later. In Ocarina of Time, she gives you guidance in a covert meeting at Hyrule Castle, but it’s her actions as Sheik that really stand out. Link doesn’t have many friends in the devastated world of seven years later, so it’s nice that this mysterious Sheikah waxes poetic and teaches you important ocarina songs. Zelda also helps you escape the crumbling tower and charges your sword with magic for the final blow on Ganondorf. Now we’re getting somewhere.
In Wind Waker, she’s a pirate. The others will talk about this more, but…pirate. Mischievous pirate. And the final battle with Ganondorf becomes a two-on-one handicap match where Zelda carries her weight and then some. (Related note: the angry expression on Link’s face when Ganon backhands Zelda to knock her unconscious for a while is one of my favorite moments in the game. No, not because Zelda got hit — because you very rarely see that kind of emotion out of Link.)
In Twilight Princess, she’s rarely seen or heard from, but the moments she does get are impactful. She’s only in the Twilight Realm in the first place because she gave herself up to protect her people. She helps guide Link on what to do when he’s stuck in his wolf form, then sacrifices her soul to save Midna’s life despite very little interaction between the two. LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU DON’T TALK ABOUT THE PUPPET ZELDA FIGHT and then she uses the Light Arrows once again to aid Link in his ultimate battle against Ganondorf.
Wind Waker Zelda is also right up there, but I think my favorite version is the one from Skyward Sword. She’s not a princess yet, just a student at the same academy as Link, and their chemistry together is palpable in all of the game’s early moments. Discovering that you’re the reincarnation of a goddess would probably be kind of a downer, but she faces her responsibility in stride, even knowing that it means she’ll be stuck being asleep for thousands of years. Ultimately, that game’s Link and Zelda end up being together and watching over the Triforce, which sounds pretty cool.
Whichever version you prefer (and there’s nearly a dozen more I didn’t mention, including cool ones like the Zelda in Spirit Tracks), Zelda has endured through almost three decades of variation, but certain parts of her character always shine through. She might be the most recognizable female in gaming, a status that carries a pretty significant amount of clout.
Shaun: As Chris outlined, your perspective on Zelda will depend on what experience you define her by. For me, that answer is easily her portrayal in Ocarina of Time. When you first boot up the game, it’s the usual Zelda series tropes, all over again. “Oh good, here’s the princess Zelda. Right, she’s giving me a magical item. Ganondorf is chasing her? Annnnd cue her kidnapping. At least Zelda’s consistent. It’s good to know she won’t miss the ‘Kidnapped Princess Convention’ this year, Princess Peach would be devastated.”
And then something bizarre happened. Instead of getting kidnapped, Zelda uses crazy transsexual magic to hide her identity, and then USED that identity to fight back and assist our hero with things vital to the quest. What’s more is I didn’t see any of it coming. How could I? It required Nintendo subverting the trope they themselves had cemented for over a decade at the time.
From that moment, the series took a noticeable shift. Wind Waker Zelda was a sharp talking, no nonsense pirate leader who aided you in the final boss fight. Twilight Princess Zelda wielded a rapier to do battle against the darkness invading her kingdom, and was forced to make tough decisions — you know, decisions that actual rulers have to make. She also aided you in the final boss fight.
And Skyward Sword Zelda traversed time itself, choosing to live a tragic destiny to save the world from the apocalypse, despite yearning for nothing more than to live out her childhood days with her BFF Link in their city in the clouds.
Zelda has transformed from the weak princess unable to help herself, into a role in these games as vital to the side of good as your Link. I can’t wait to see what the future of the series holds for this evolving character.
Sorry Peach. You’re gonna have to start attending these conventions alone from now on.
Joseph: Hello, siren. Is there any trouble you won’t get into? I’ve been trying for years to bail your bloodline out of trouble, but fate can be cruel. You and your ilk are destined to watch your kingdoms
crumble, your servants slaughtered, and your … shipmates swab dirty decks. You must feel helpless, always watching me from the windows of some castle as I carve my way through every enemy the gods saw fit to create.
Do I do it for duty? Love? Because I like the taste of blood? It doesn’t matter. You can only hope the help you provide keeps me alive long enough to kick Ganon in the teeth. What do you do in between? While you wait, do you dream I’ll save you? Or do you hope this time will be the last? Do you long for the day when I am in need and you can come to my rescue? It doesn’t matter. How many times have you escaped your iron/crystalline prison without me. You might as well pray for day to turn into night (and I can do that for you). Part of me hopes you’ll find a way to live without me, but then where would my purpose be?
Jason: You know the best thing about Zelda? She’s a princess. She’s a princess who actually gets stuff done instead of sitting around waiting to be saved. She’s a princess who isn’t just competent and intelligent, but the elemental aspect of Wisdom. Is Zelda a warrior? Sometimes, if she needs to be.
But more importantly she’s the guiding light in the land of Hyrule against the forces of darkness. A light strong enough to actually, magically, dispel darkness via her arrows of light. If the going gets tough and she’s at risk of being kidnapped, does she just wait around to be saved? Nope, she disguises herself as a ninja and trolls around giving advice to the hero while staying under the radar.
My favorite use of Zelda was in Wind Waker during the final boss fight. Was Link the hero battling Ganon? Yes he was. But Link couldn’t succeed without working along Zelda (and her light arrows!) to defeat him. Courage and Wisdom were needed to defeat and harness power. The metaphor speaks for itself.
While I have nothing against Princess Peach for doing her thing and making the best of perhaps the most annoying stalker/inept boyfriend; Princess Zelda will forever be the reigning champ for best video game princess ever. At least until Princess Azula gets her own game. 😉
Michaela: Though Zelda continues to be a damsel in distress throughout the games, over the years her personality has been fleshed out to one of a wise young woman who will always do what is best for her people, and isn’t afraid to fight alongside Link whenever she can. She’s proven that even when captured for the ten-billionth time by Ganondorf that she can still pull her own weight and contribute to Link’s success.
Cary: She’s the driving force behind one of the THE most popular games series of all time, what more is there to say?
What’s that? What about Princess Peach? Well…okay, so she was the reason Mario repeatedly fought his way through eight levels to Bowser, but Zelda actively ran her kingdom and occasionally did the self-sacrifice thing. No offense to Peach’s abilities to float and bake, I mean, those are good abilities to have, but always keeping Mushroom Kingdom in a state of disarray due to the constant kidnapping?? I mean, c’mon…that’s gotta be bad for the economy.