TOTK’s Ending Sums Up One of The Legend of Zelda’s Biggest Problems

[Ed. note: Spoilers follow for the ending of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.]

tears of the kingdom ends with everything going back to where it started. Ganondorf is defeated. Zelda returns and takes her place on the throne. Link even gets his arm back. The motley crew of helpers he has gathered on his journey come together to swear allegiance to the crown. Zelda swears to devote herself to keeping the peace in Hyrule.

Of course, we know 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 been canonized into fiction itself. The three are locked in a cycle of reincarnation, pulled in-universe by mysterious divine forces and out-of-universe by the franchise’s ever-growing popularity.

This cycle is the great tragedy underlying the entire story of The Legend of Zelda. And even, tears of the kingdomThe ending acts as if keeping things entirely as they were before is a big win. To win is to return to the status quo.

Queen Sonia stands in front of a grove of trees, facing the camera while speaking, in a cutscene from The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

But The Legend of ZeldaThe status quo is getting worse 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, his story is the same as ever. Even the Master Sword has more agency. In the scene where he appears to her in the past, Zelda says he “traveled back in time to find me and retrieve [its] force”, implying an intentional journey, whereas she was simply “repelled” by unknown forces.

When she returns, of course, she returns to the throne. By being stuck in Hyrule’s early years and meeting Rauru, the kingdom’s founder, she learned that she had a ruler’s lineage going back as far as she could go, and possibly before that, if the rumors of divine Zonai blood were to be believed. Modern-day sages repeat almost verbatim the vow of loyalty that earlier sages gave to Rauru. It is a game that has not been advertised in my country, maybe because of the death of the queen. Anti-monarchy protesters at the coronation of his successor were subject to arrests.

There’s no indication in The Legend of Zelda of anyone questioning his right to absolute rule – other than Ganon. Zelda is presented as an entirely benevolent dictator. She wants peace, not recognizing that it is a complicated word for those in power to throw around so casually. Yet the only threat to this is, as Mineru puts it in explanatory dialogue, a “great evil rising from the desert”. This ridiculously loaded sentence and the racist tropes that have always underpinned Ganon’s story, like the gendered aspects of Zelda’s repetitive role in the narrative, seem to skate just because it’s been so long that mentioning them seems jaded.

tears of the kingdom brings its own lesser-known themes – before discarding them in favor of a neat conclusion. The game should have had something interesting to say about the bodies, for example. Link loses an arm and gains a prosthesis; Zelda is completely transformed; Mineru is able to split her mind and use a robot construct, one that she allows Link to pilot as a robot.

The mechanical construct in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, into which the wise Minaru transferred her mind

Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

But rather than paying attention to the lasting impacts of these changes or their thematic implications, the authors simply brush them off. Mineru emerges from his constructed self and disappears, and Zelda’s rebirth receives an explanation from the hand: the combined powers of his ancestors allowed him to do the impossible and return. Presumably, the same can be said for Link’s arm, though it’s never even recognized beyond a brief moment of surprise from our hero.

What tears of the kingdom what is ultimately said about bodies is that in a happy, neat ending, they can only exist in one way. Prosthetics, scars, or deliberate alterations are blemishes that must be erased along with 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 article on tears of the kingdom At the end, reviewer Harper Jay asks if this is “a story for our time”. They argue that a bolder, more honest ending might have left Zelda trapped in her dragon form, never really remembering why she cries; that a bittersweet gesture like that would demonstrate that for evil to be vanquished, there must be a sacrifice that cannot be swept away by practical magical abilities.

Link holds his infused prosthetic arm, which he obtained from Rauru, up to a twilight sky in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

I agree that tears of the kingdom is not a story For our present time, but that’s a story Since our present age – the age that says clinging to the status quo equals victory. This is the story told by the bosses who say that the demands of their strikers are “unrealistic”. This is the story told by ineffectual political leaders who refuse to challenge harmful government policies. It is history that drives regressive and transphobic laws. This is the story that allows more oil drilling during the climate crisis.

It’s also a story that more broadly reflects the current corporate media landscape. Remakes, sequels, AI regurgitating the most average output of anything fed to it, 45 Mattel IP-based commercials including the “grounded and gritty” Hot Wheels 0. It’s all something you’ve seen before, again, just bigger. Once, Nintendo used the success of Ocarina of time TO DO Majora’s Mask, something surprising and unique in tone. This time, that was not the case.

What would break these cycles? tears of the kingdom not interested in asking. It takes us back to the beginning so we’re ready to start all over again, leaving no room for the fact that his apparent victory is really its own kind of tragedy.

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