A Study in Legends #4 (A Link to the Past by Akira Himekawa)

See all past instances of this column here

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 the first 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

Previous "Legendary Edition" volumes have followed one overall story, though some contained two separate adventures. This third entry into the series contains two distinct stories from two antithetical video game eras. The resulting volume creates some fascinating comparisons between the two, highlighting both the weaknesses and strengths of adaptations as a whole. However, as they each require their own analysis, it will be split into two parts; if you haven't read it yet, you can find the first part here.

A Link to the Past is the adaptation of the SNES game of the same name. To understand some of the complexities of this story, it is important to disambiguate the various official timelines that exist as part of the Zelda continuity. As mentioned in previous entries into this column, Ocarina of Time sits as a crux point for continuity. The timeline that A Link to the Past takes place in is, officially at least, the one in which Link of Ocarina of Time fails to defeat the epitome of evil, Ganondorf. Subsequently, the land of Hyrule falls into ruin, with discontent and unrest spreading across the land like a plague.

This bleak tone is one that intially seems relatively unsuited to the franchise as a whole. Most of the recent games in the franchise have this overarching story about the optimism and heroism that fill everyday life when a hero’s arrival is not only predetermined, but inherently cyclical; the people of Hyrule often know that whenever evil begins to rear its head, a hero will subsequently rise up to strike him back down. 

However, this is a world where, not only did that hero fall, but the side of the angels was decimated. The Sacred Realm was sealed off by the remaining sages, with Ganon still inside, leaving him to insidiously leak his essence into the ether, all because there was no other option. This sequence of events reveals another type of story that is just as important, if not more, in times like these: what to do when you’ve already lost.

The version of Link that we see in this story feels the most fully-formed that we've seen so far. He is portrayed with arguably the purest heart, with the aspirations of a farm-boy that simply desires to possess the greatest apple farm in the land. While humble beginnings are a classic component of The Hero’s Journey™, there is something inherently inspiring about seeing a boy that could acquire so much, but desiring so little.

Video games released during the 80s and early 90s aren’t generally known for their magnificent storytelling and, while they may hint at rich worlds, can only do just that. This gives Himekawa the space that they require to pick out the elements of the story that they need and run rampant with them; from the smallest of seeds, the greatest trees can be grown.

For instance, the villain of the piece, Agahnim, is originally one of those antagonists who falls somewhere between “evil for the point of being evil” and “ultimate power”. While that is admittedly his role for a large proportion of the manga too, Himekawa gradually peel back the curtain and reveal the very desperate, very scared, man that sits behind the facade. It ties the entire story together beautifully, resolving a conflict that is introduced very early on, and makes his position not sympathetic, but eminently understandable.

There isn’t much doubt in the reader's mind that a Zelda story is going to have a, if not positive, then hopelessly optimistic ending. Without delving too much into spoiler territory with the specifics of why, the way that this book subverts your expectations in that regard was extraordinary. Far too often, popular franchises can hue too close to an established formula and, while the format in which this story was originally released was decades ago, it goes to show that Takashi Tezuka, the director of the original game, was willing to take the story wherever it needed to go.

Previous Legend of Zelda adaptations have skirted around the lack of dungeons with mixed results. Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask both contained abbreviated versions of the confrontations and skipped almost immediately to the final boss; this not only creates a disjointed narrative, but it leaves the reader feeling slightly cheated. An alternate approach was that seen within Oracle of Seasons/Ages, which cut that aspect of the game almost entirely and subsequently fared slightly better.

A Link to the Past takes a unique approach and converts all of the dungeons into a very clearly marked montage, dedicating no more than half a page to each fight. It’s understandable that changes will need to be made to make a story work in its new format and Himekawa finally trust the reader to be able to come to that realisation themselves. By not hiding a montage behind the facade of scenes that are quickly cut short, it’s easier to understand that the focus of the narrative has instead been placed on the characters themselves and reduces the need for prolonged confrontations.

Throughout his conquering of the dungeons, Link is joined by Ghanti, a highway robber that he meets near the start of his quest. The character of Ghanti has been created whole-cloth for the manga and falls into the oft-required role of companion. She initially finds common ground with Link due to their outlaw status from the corrupt monarchy, but their relationship blossoms into something far more intricate and engaging.

For those without any experience with the original game, there is a point at which Link journeys into a dark version of Hyrule - the "Upside-Down" Hyrule if you will. Here, people’s true selves are brought to the forefront, often manifesting in some kind of animal transformation as a commentary on the animalistic side of people that they usually keep hidden.

Ghanti portrays herself as a heartless bandit, roaming the world in search of treasure for self-fulfillment, but the prolonged contact with someone as inherently kind and giving as Link changes her for the better. It reverses the pessimistic viewpoint of the world that the game has presented so far and tells you that, while it’s the more difficult approach in dark days, there is always something to be gained by leading by example. There is one particular panel towards the latter portion of the book that epitomises this adventure for me and I applaud Himekawa for making this story feel so worthwhile.

This isn’t a story that has as climactic an ending as other games in the franchise. The world is saved, sure, but there’s no parade through the capital and no presentation of medals. Link returns to the life that he previously knew, battered and bruised, but doesn’t stake his future and his fortune on continuing on as a hero. There’s something slightly heartbreaking about reaching the end of a game with a child protagonist and see them dedicate themselves to the beleaguering Hero’s Journey™; it’s refreshing to see this version of Link choose a different path.

It’s difficult to compare the two stories in this third Legendary Edition evenly. One reeks of lost potential, stripping down a pre-existing game, while the other builds a surprisingly timely, yet optimistic-as-hell world from the bare-bones of a narrative. Overall, this is the most uneven of volumes so far, but the bleak, yet inspiring world contained within A Link to the Past feels so extraordinarily timely that I'm finding it difficult to put down at the moment.