[Ed. note: Spoilers follow for the ending of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.]
Tears of the Kingdom it ends with everything where it started. Ganondorf is defeated. Zelda returns and reclaims her place on the throne. The link even regains his arm. The motley crew of acolytes he gathered on his journey gather to pledge allegiance to the crown. Zelda vows to dedicate herself to keeping the peace in Hyrule.
Of course, we know that she will not succeed. The inevitability of a new Legend of Zelda game, a new iteration of Ganon threatening the princess and the world and being stopped by Link, is so obvious that it’s canonized within fiction itself. All three are locked in a cycle of reincarnation, driven into the universe by mysterious divine forces and out of the universe by the franchise’s ever-growing popularity.
This cycle is the great tragedy beneath the entirety of the Legend of Zelda story. And yet, Tears of the KingdomIts ending acts as if keeping things entirely as they were before is a grand victory. Winning means returning to the status quo.
But The Legend of ZeldaIts status quo is weakening every year. When Tears of the Kingdom was first announced, a look at a short-haired Zelda in the trailer had many wondering if Nintendo would use the sequel to finally introduce a playable princess. Instead, her story is the same as ever. Even the Master Sword is given more freedom. In the scene where she appears in the past, Zelda says that she “traveled through time to find me and heal me. [its] force’, implying a purposeful journey, while she was simply ‘sent’ by unknown forces.
When she returns, of course, she returns to the throne. Being trapped in the early years of Hyrule and meeting Rauru, the founder of the kingdom, she has learned that she has a bloodline of a ruler that stretches back as far as it can go, and possibly before that, if rumors of Zona’s divine blood are to be believed. Modern day sages repeat almost verbatim the oath of allegiance that earlier sages gave to Rauru. This is a game that skipped ads in my country, probably because of the death of the queen. Protesters against the monarchy at the coronation of its successor were arrested.
There is no hint in The Legend of Zelda that anyone questions her right to absolute rule – except Ganon. Zelda is presented as an entirely benevolent dictator. She wants peace, not acknowledging that this is a complicated word for those in power to speak so casually. However, the only threat to this is, as Mineru puts it in the explanatory dialogue, a “great evil rising from the desert”. This ridiculously loaded phrase and the racist tropes that have always underpinned Ganon’s story, like the gendered aspects of Zelda’s recurring role in the narrative, seem to be glossed over simply because it’s been going on for so long that mentioning them feels bad.
Tears of the Kingdom brings in its own, less trodden themes – before discarding them in favor of a clean finish. The game should have had something interesting to say about the troops, for example. Link loses an arm and gains a prosthetic; Zelda is completely transformed; Mineru is able to share her soul and use a robot construct, which she allows Link to pilot as a mech.
But instead of paying attention to the lasting impacts of these changes or their thematic implications, the writers simply brush them off. Mineru emerges from her constructed self and disappears, and Zelda’s resurrection is given a handy explanation: The combined powers of her ancestors allowed her to do the impossible and return. Apparently, the same can be said for Link’s arm, though it’s never acknowledged beyond a brief moment of surprise by our hero.
What Tears of the Kingdom After all for bodies it says that in an orderly and happy ending, they can only exist in one way. Prostheses, scars, or intentional modifications are flaws that must be hidden in the same way as the Demon King himself. Like the rest of the narrative—like the rest of the franchise—it doesn’t celebrate anything that changes.
In their excellent part in Tears of the Kingdom at the end, critic Harper Jay asks if it is “a story for our present times”. They argue that a bolder, more honest ending might have left Zelda trapped in her draconic form, never remembering why she’s crying; that a bitter move like this would show that in order for evil to be defeated, there must be a sacrifice that cannot be hidden by appropriate magical abilities.
I agree with that Tears of the Kingdom it is not a story ABOUT our current times, but it is a story BY our current times – one that says clinging to the status quo is tantamount to victory. It is the story told to us by the bosses who say that the demands of their striking workers are “unrealistic”. It is the story told by ineffective political leaders who refuse to challenge harmful government policy. It is history that motivates regressive, transphobic laws. It’s the story of allowing more oil drilling during the climate crisis.
It’s also a story that reflects the current landscape of corporate media more broadly. Remakes, sequels, artificial intelligence that regenerates the average score of everything it was fed, 45 commercials based on Mattel IP, including “grounded and gritty” Hot Wheels 0. Everything is something you’ve seen before, again, only bigger. Once, Nintendo used the success of Ocarina of time to do Majora’s Mask, something surprising and tonally unique. This time he didn’t.
What would break these cycles? Tears of the Kingdom is not interested in asking. It takes us back to the beginning so we’re ready to do it all over again, leaving no room for the fact that his apparent victory is really its own kind of tragedy.