A Study in Legends #1 (Ocarina of Time by Akira Himekawa)

With the new release, Breath of the Wild, receiving all manner of accolade from the most unexpected of sources, The Legend of Zelda franchise has been revitalised and has never been more in vogue.

For the few who weren’t fortunate enough to grow up in the 90s saturated in video games, The Legend of Zelda is a franchise that is steeped in complex continuity, interweaving between worlds and throughout time. What remains constant, however, is a protagonist named Link that strives to save the titular heroine, Zelda.

Back in 1998, a staggering 19 years ago for those of you who want a reminder of your age, Nintendo commissioned the legendary manga duo Akira Himekawa (with pen names A. Honda and S. Nagano) to adapt their most popular game to date, The Ocarina of Time, into a serialised manga. As is discussed in the afterword to this collected volume, Akira Himekawa jumped at the chance to work on a game that they themselves were hotly anticipating.

Akira Himekawa would soon go on to adapt eight of the games in turn, putting their own little spin on each independent universe, which were released to wild acclaim in Japan and even found some success overseas. Fortunately for those of us who were unlucky enough not to have access to the material at the time of its initial release, Viz Media have been gradually re-releasing collected versions of the material in so-called “Legendary Editions”.

These editions include a limited portion of coloured pages at the beginning of each volume, while also bundling in supplementary material such as accompanying magazine interviews and bonus stories that hint at a world even broader than that seen in the games themselves. This column will cover each of these five collected “Legendary” volumes, analysing their commitment to the original source material and whether or not they can be judged on their own merits.

NOTE: All images in this article should be read from right to left, in the original manga style

The Ocarina of Time is arguably one of the most beloved video games of all time. With a remake serving as one of the first games for one of Nintendo’s 3DS back in 2011, it’s clear that the dedication of the fanbase is still as intense as it ever was. With an arguably unfair bar to meet, existing fans will go into this volume hoping for the best and expecting the worst: hew too close to the original game and the manga will suffer; stray too far from the game and hardcore fans will be disappointed.

From the offset, Akira Himekawa make it clear that while they are unquestionably retaining the spirit and overall trajectory of the plot, events will be unfolding in the way that best serves the story; it immediately defines itself as unafraid to deviate from the expected chain of events. Gone is the skipping across the pond in Kokiri village and the adventure through the maze for the Kokiri sword is no more. What remains, however, is something arguably far more engaging.

As a silent protagonist, the version of Link in Ocarina of Time can only be defined as a spunky, young adult who is unafraid to stand up against the forces of evil. What Akira Himekawa proffers is a far more nuanced, but still instantly recognisable, character that retains that characteristic zeal, but couples it with both speech and complex emotions.

Throughout the so-called “Young Era” of Link’s adventure in this story, a label required due to the aforementioned convoluted time travel, Akira Himekawa paint a character with the optimism and accompanying naivité of the young child that he is, while maintaining the grim-faced contrarian that we know him to be from the source material.

However, there is a strange and potentially unintended side-effect to inserting such a strong personality where there previously was none. Link has always been accompanied by loud-mouthed companions that allow the creators to express either guidance or exposition, given that the protagonist himself is unable to do so. In Ocarina of Time, this manifests itself in the fairy companion Navi.

Unfortunately, after her initial appearance, Navi is relegated to set-dressing by the wide array of characters that are consistently tagging along on small portions of Link’s adventure. While fleshing out these secondary characters demonstrates previously unexplored aspects of the world, which is understandable, there was something truly special about the relationship between boy and fairy that appears to have been lost in the adaptation.

One character that is one of the best-served by the expansion is the enigmatic Sheik. In the original game, Sheik is a male-presenting character that weaves in and out of the “Adult Era” of Link’s quest and provides little tidbits of information, while also teaching Link the skills that he needs to access the possessed temples. While this overall intention of the character is retained across the adaptation, the version of Sheik that emerges is something far more interesting.

Sheik is written as more of a travelling companion and, subsequently, feels less like a contrivance of the creator to convey information and more like an integral part of the overall plot. During a long trek across an expansive desert, Sheik waxes poetic about the tragic history of his people, the Sheikah, and ends up feeling like a more three-dimensional character while simultaneously setting up more of the extended universe. However, he also has an unexpected effect on the protagonist himself.

As mentioned earlier, Sheik is explicitly referred to as, and presents himself as, male. While those in the know will already understand the need for this roundabout description, it is important to stress how Sheik is viewed by the outside world and, more specifically, Link.

As a protagonist that was created in the 1980s that is an unquestionable male power fantasy, Link has always been portrayed as completely straight; his intentions for saving Zelda from the Big Bad are not wholly innocent. However, as Sheik and Link grow closer and closer over the course of their adventures, there is a culminating moment where Link is beginning to question the nature of their relationship and what it means to him. It is by no means a definitive moment for the character, but it is one that I really appreciated.

A review of this manga would be understandably incomplete without a thorough discussion of Akira Himekawa’s beautiful art. It’s worth mentioning to Western readers that may be inexperienced with the format, but this work is presented in its natural Manga format (i.e. read right to left) and it admittedly takes a while to adjust. However, from beginning to end, this book is abound with energy and aplomb. When Link fights, he glides across the page, with Akira Himekawa able to portray both jumps, lunges and the trademark sword spin with apparent ease.

Where the art in this book truly shines is Akira Himekawa’s refusal to remain within normal panel boundaries. Characters encompass large portions of the page as they spill their soul out to the reader, the greater detail on their face entrenching their emotional state and drawing the reader in that much more intensely. If you ever doubted it before, Akira Himekawa demonstrates in this book alone that each comic page should be able to be viewed as its own separate entity.

One feature unique to the “Legendary” collections of the books, potentially to re-capture people who have already purchased past editions, is the fully coloured portion at the very front of the book. While the black and white art that makes up the remaining majority of the pages is sufficiently bouyant enough to draw you in on its own, it’s difficult not to resent the coloured pages for taking the art to another level.

Beyond the adaptation of the video game, Akira Himekawa, perhaps controversially, inserts two original short stories into the story. The first, titled The Skull Kid and the Mask, has been slotted into the interval between the previously mentioned “Young Era” and “Old Era” and tells the story of a time when Link had a personal encounter with one of the unquantifiably sad Skull Kids that lurks inside the Forbidden Forest, adjacent to the village in which they grow up.

Plucking at your heartstrings from his very first appearance, the titular Skull Kid is the absolute star of the show. While Akira Himekawa’s immature characterisation of the Kokiri continues to hit every note it aims for, the exploration of the innate tragedy of what creates the Skull Kids is gut-wrenching and deserves to be experienced firsthand.

The second short story, Rouru of the Watarara, introduces a fascinating new race to Hyrule, the land in which this adventure takes place, but its plot unfortunately falls victim to a series of coming-of-age tropes. While it remains a notable story for the germination that it appears to provide to the later game Wind Waker, the finer details will fade from your memory pretty quickly.

There will be people who will be resolute in the fact that the original Ocarina of Time game is a perfect masterpiece and deserves to remain absolutely untouched in perpetuity. If you resolutely fall into this category, which is not necessarily a negative quality, then this adaptation is unquestionably not for you. Akira Himekawa takes liberties with both character and plot, some of which deviate quite significantly from the source material.

However, it’s very clear from the offset that this is an absolute labour of love for everyone involved. Adaptations require adapting, as you might expect, to best suit the format that they will be finalised into; what works as a story beat in one medium will not necessarily work in another. Long confrontations and fetch quests have been converted into personalities and character growth and the story and the reader are rewarded exponentially for it.

Hey! Listen! Give this book an honest chance! Can Hyrule's destiny really depend on such a lazy reader?