This article contains spoilers for The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.
Despite pre-release speculation, Princess Zelda is not playable in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. That news will undoubtedly come as a disappointment to some fans. After all, a series of rumors and fan theories strongly suggested that Tears of the Kingdom would finally give Zelda the playable adventure that she very much deserves. Instead, it appears that you’ll still have to rely on games of…mixed quality if you want to play as the princess.
Don’t be too discouraged, though. Tears of the Kingdom may not let you play as Zelda, but she’s still the best character in the game.
Mind you, it’s possible to play (and beat) Tears of the Kingdom while only seeing Princess Zelda a handful of times. She and Link play a prominent part in the game’s opening cutscene, but Ganondorf’s awakening quickly splits the pair. We see Zelda disappear, but we don’t know where she goes. While visions of her appear throughout the game, we don’t properly see Zelda in the flesh again until Tears of the Kingdom’s final moments. Depending on how you play the game, you may see Princess Zelda’s appearances as the bookends of a substantial adventure.
However, it turns out that Zelda has been having her own adventure during that time. Much like Breath of the Wild, Tears of the Kingdom contains hidden memories. This time around, those memories are triggered by finding special items called Dragon Tears (which give Tears of the Kingdom its name). Discover those Dragon Tears, and you’ll trigger cutscenes that tell the story of what happened to Princess Zelda following the game’s opening events.
And what a story it is. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Zelda was transported back to the time of Hyrule’s earliest days. There, she meets King Rauru and Queen Sonia who tell her that the sacred stone she discovered in Ganondorf’s tomb and her innate abilities must have allowed her to manipulate time. They invite her to join them in the hopes that they may help her return to her own time.
We soon learn that Zelda’s arrival coincides with an attack by Ganondorf and his troops. While his assault is repelled and Ganondorf seems to swear an oath of peace to Rauru, Zelda informs the king and queen that she believes Ganondorf is lying. Naturally, Rauru and Sonia feel the same.
Zelda quickly finds a kindred spirit in Sonia. Though they share certain connections in terms of their lineage and abilities, Sonia sees a special strength in Zelda that Zelda herself may not fully realize that she possesses. Sonia almost seems to be laying the groundwork for what will come.
Tragedy soon strikes, as it too often does. Despite taking certain precautions, Ganondorf’s inevitable betrayal claims Sonia’s life. Grief-stricken, Zelda and Rauru plan to launch a counter against Ganondorf and vanquish him forever. It is then that Zelda tells Rauru that such a thing is likely impossible. After all, she and Link encountered Ganondorf in their time, which seemingly means that whatever happened in the past didn’t stop him from awakening in the future. Dismayed, but not disheartened, Rauru explains that it is his duty to try. Besides, if Link exists as Hyrle’s protector in Zelda’s time, and Zelda is now in Rauru’s time, then perhaps she does have a role to play that goes beyond coincidence.
Rauru’s theory soon proves to be true in rather surprising ways. Whale Rauru is able to imprison/contain Ganondorf, the demon king soon taunts Rauru with the same inevitably of his return that Zelda feared was true. Rauru tells Ganondorf that the warrior Link will defeat him, but Ganondorf seems remarkably unbothered. Perhaps he should be. After all, Link needs the Master Sword to defeat Ganondorf, and the Master Sword was destroyed by the gloom at the beginning of the game.
Soon, though, the broken Master Sword is transported back to Zelda. Remembering that the Deku Tree once told her and Link that the sword can be restored and “heal” itself if bathed in sacred power, Zelda hatches a plan. What if she performs a ritual that will turn her into an ancient dragon powerful enough to not only restore the Master Sword to its true form but survive through the ages and deliver that sword to Link? Mineru, the Sage of Spirit, warns her against performing this ritual. After all, doing so would essentially force Zelda to exist for thousands of years as more of an entity than an individual. What’s worse, she may never be able to resume her original form.
Undeterred, Zelda presses on. She then clutches the Master Sword and performs the ritual to turn herself into the Dragon of Light. That’s the same Dragon of Light that patrols Hyrule throughout Tears of the Kingdom, and the same Dragon of Light that Link eventually reclaims the Master Sword from. With that Master Sword, Link is finally able to defeat Ganondorf. In the process, and with a little help from the spirits of Rauru and Sonia, Zelda is transformed from the Light Dragon back to her true self. Link dives to grab her as she falls from the sky, clutches her in his arms, and is able to bring her back safely to the ground.
In an incredible moment, Zelda explains that she had been sleeping all of this time and felt a “warm, loving embrace” that caused her to wake up (shippers rejoice?). In a post-credits scene, Zelda addresses Link, the Sages, and Hyrule’s other allies. She asks them to help her secure a new age of peace and prosperity for Hyrule. Naturally, they step forward to join her at her side.
It’s a surprisingly emotional and engaging arc. The best Legend of Zelda games have often offered better stories than they typically get credit for, but Zelda’s story in Tears of the Kingdom feels special. We’ve certainly seen Zelda prominently featured in previous series cutscenes, though those cutscenes have not been voiced, presented, and directed quite like these. It’s not an entirely acceptable substitute for a playable Zelda adventure, but the film-like quality of these sequences allows us to experience an adventure that feels uniquely true to Zelda in ways that we haven’t necessarily been able to experience before.
“Uniquely Zelda” is a phrase I keep coming back to when I think of Tears of the Kingdom. We’ve seen many versions of Princess Zelda over the years, and some have certainly been more interesting than others. Yet, many of the most memorable versions of Zelda (Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess, specifically) typically portray her as a more active participant in the adventure who also occasionally showcases her combat capabilities. The idea often is that those versions of Zelda could be the playable star of their own adventures, yet they never really are.
As much as I love those portrayals of Princess Zelda, Tears of the Kingdom may be my favorite version of the character. This version of Zelda undeniably possesses strength, but her strength isn’t measured in different ways.
Zelda is that rare compelling protagonist whose overwhelming desire (and ability) to do good doesn’t feel like some cheap emotional ploy designed to drum up sympathy in lieu of a personality. She has her own demons to fight this time around, and she battles them in ways that strengthen those around her. Like Jean-Luc Picard or Leslie Knope, we come to believe in and depend on her decency because it is unwaveringly genuine.
Yet, Zelda is not afraid to draw from the strengths of those around her. In turn, her friends know that their own efforts will be paid off many times over. She allows us to take a look at the true value of our own heroic deeds, but she’s no mere reflection of our efforts. She has her own image in the game, and we aspire to live up to it.
The “Zelda is the Light Dragon” moment is a memorable twist to be sure, but perhaps it shouldn’t be that surprising. That revelation represents the many ways that Zelda has long watched over us and filled this series with a guiding light that pierces through the darkness and offers a compass to follow no matter how winding the path becomes. Perhaps Zelda has sometimes been too quiet, too often, for too long, but she’s rarely been a non-entity. On some level, the desire to play as Princess Zelda stems from our greater desire to be Princess Zelda.
We are used to rescuing Zelda, but Zelda rescues us in Tears of the Kingdom. She makes a sacrifice in order to save those that she loves, and she was perfectly ready to live with the consequences of her actions. We simply return the favor when we offer that warming embrace that brings her back. Once she is back, she does the thing that she is uniquely equipped to do: lead the noblest of souls through a period of uncertainty and tremendous potential.
One day, Zelda might be the playable protagonist in a game that feels worthy of her character. Until then, it’s surprisingly lovely to see one of the most cinematic Legend of Zelda games yet show why she’s always been more than just the name on the box.