Exploring the Archetypal Themes of Zelda II

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, for those who don’t know, is the sequel to the original The Legend of Zelda video game and the second game in the franchise. I feel a special connection to this game, although I’ve never really thought about or been able to explain why. In this article, I’ll explore some of the archetypes in the sequel which I think offer at least a partial explanation of what draws me to the game.

I should give credit first and say that I watched these videos in preparation of writing this article, and I borrow pretty freely from them:

Before I really get started, I should define my understanding of an archetype: It’s a metaphorical idea that people can understand without further explanation, i.e. by virtue of being human. One of the most basic and simple archetypes is the adventure. Many video games and movies are adventures, and they are ineffably attractive to all kinds of different people and even children. An “archetypal theme” would be specific elements of an artistic medium (story, gameplay) that express or explore an archetype.

I played Zelda 2 when I was a child, but I didn’t beat it. I beat it later when I was either a teenager or in my 20s. This is actually fitting since I think that Zelda 2 is really a game about adulthood. I haven’t played the game since then, but I have read a good deal about it and watched quite a few speed runs for it pretty consistently over the years including this year. The last Zelda game I seriously played was Wind Waker though, so my knowledge of the later games in the Zelda franchise is pretty limited.

Before I can start talking about the themes in Zelda 2, I have to talk about Zelda 1. Zelda 2 is a direct sequel to Zelda 1; it picks up where the previous game left off. These are the only two games in the Zelda franchise to be linked like this, that I know of. Both games were created by Shigeru Miyamoto who also created Mario and was at least involved in the development of many other Nintendo games. I think that Miyamoto has a distinct style, and you can tell in some sense that he has created a game you’re playing because the themes of the gameplay interact with the themes of the story so intrinsically.

Miyamoto said in an interview that Zelda 2 was the game that he was least pleased with. He wished that he could have done more with it. I think that this speaks to the value of the game. It’s rightfully considered a classic game, but even according to its creator, it is flawed. I’ve commonly read that Zelda 2 is the most underrated of the games in the Zelda series. I don’t quite agree with this. I think that, for the most part, people rate it appropriately. There are many people who don’t like it, and their criticisms of the game are valid. It’s hard to figure out what to do in the game, there is potentially some wandering and grinding involved, it’s a bit gloomy in tone, and it’s pretty hard. Its challenge also doesn’t scale evenly, and there are big spikes in difficulty. Those damn rock throwing lizard guys at the three river levels still give me nightmares. This is all in sharp contrast to Zelda 1.

In spite of all of these flaws, the game is still a polished game that has stood the test of time and remains a topic of exploration and repeated playings even today. That is to say, I think the game is still regarded as a classic. It’s hard to say whether it pioneered anything. It was a relatively early game, but it definitely had influences from other kinds of games including its predecessor.

Zelda 1 was inspired by Shigeru Miyamoto exploring caves when he was a child. Link, the main character in both games (and the same person in both games) is a child in Zelda 1. I’m not sure exactly how old he is, but I think he is supposed to be a preteen at least. Zelda 1’s focus is on exploration. Assuming you ignore the instruction manual and title screen, you start the game with no guidance at all and four branching paths in front of you. Part of the fun of Zelda 1 is not knowing where you’re going, exploring, and finding new and surprising things much in the same way that a child would explore the world. I remember that my father made maps of all the screens we explored.

The child has a challenge to face, and that challenge is the unknown. In fact, I think that most people have faced and overcome many different kinds of challenges, and that some of those challenges, or one specific and meaningful one, represented the transition between the person’s childhood and adulthood. Children don’t know what that challenge is going to be, and it works out that Ganon is unknown too. He’s a big question mark in the instruction manual. He lives at the very end of the game. He’s at the bottom of a labyrinth that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, that includes many new micro-challenges that you haven’t encountered anywhere else, and that you can’t access until you acquire a certain amount of knowledge and maturity (thematically the Triforce).

I think it makes sense that Link is out to assemble the Triforce of courage too. You could make the argument that a virtue a child needs more than anything else is courage — the willingness to put themselves out into the unknown even though they know that they will inevitably get hurt. In fact, a part of them will die in their encounter with the unknown. When you grow up, the child version of you has sacrificed themselves to give birth to you as an adult. It’s a scary idea, but I think it’s true. Being able to truly grow up requires courage.

These’s also the juxtaposition of courage against power. Ganon controls the Triforce of power, and he uses it for evil. If you’re facing a tyranny that has reached its apotheosis (it’s acquired the Triforce of power), it’s going to take a lot of courage to encounter it and take it down. I think that the idea that power can be overcome by virtue is very appealing to people too. Corrupt and tyrannical power will eventually lose out to refined virtues such as courage. When you’re a child, and you complete your encounter with the unknown (Ganon), you acquire wisdom. Zelda has the Triforce of wisdom.

Of course, courage alone is not enough to prepare you for your encounter with the unknown. You’ll gain strength along your exploratory journey (heart containers, perhaps). You get stronger when you overcome challenges bit by bit. As a child, part of nature is out to get you. You have all kinds of monsters chasing you, and you will fight a lot of them and ignore and run away from some others when it makes sense to do so. That said, the benevolent aspects of nature and society heal your wounds and equip you with what you need to ultimately win. I think that nature in Zelda 1 is represented not only by the healing fairies, but also by the random cave people. These people don’t live in a society or interact — they’re all underground. You could replace them with forest nymphs and gnomes and things like that. They give you advice and small gifts. Many of them are old people… almost like your grandparents that stand back but still give you tidbits of what you need to guide you on your journey. They let you interact with nature in a safe way. You can think of your own talents as gifts from nature. In fact, the very fact that you get to be alive at all is nature’s original gift, so it’s not all out to get you.

Society is clearly represented by all of the items that Link can get, and he even has to get some of them to complete his journey. You have representations of engineering (most of the items) and culture through music and writing (the recorder and the book). In order to complete the journey of your growth, you need courage and the help that you get from the benevolence of nature and society. As I said in the previous paragraph, I don’t think that the people you talk to in the caves are representations of society. They’re more like dreams or something like that. It makes sense to me because children’s interactions with society are very limited. For the most part, they have what’s thrust upon them, but I think that children’s minds don’t exist in society in the same way that adults’ minds do. They are in something of an exploratory dream world even while society goes on around them. I think that Zelda 1 captures that dream world perfectly too.

It’s not just nature that’s out to get you, though. I think that Ganon simultaneously represents the unknown that you have to encounter to grow up and the tyrannical state. There are tyrannical aspects to society, and I think that you probably have to overcome some of these in order to completely mature. You have to be able to think for yourself and be your own person. If the state gets too corrupt and silences wisdom (Ganon kidnapping Zelda), maybe it’s time to overcome it and start something new. I guess it took me 32 years to realize that Zelda 1 is free speech propaganda.

I also see Link rescuing Zelda at the end of the game as being a symbolic representation of the union of the masculine with the feminine which is required to become a complete person. I talk about this with people a lot, and I think that men and women are both masculine and feminine at the same time. It should go without saying, but of course there are people at the extremes and there are very masculine women and very feminine men and all of that, but I think that the proper integration of the positive aspects of the masculine and the feminine in a person is required for them to complete their maturity. You could interpret this story as being about a damsel in distress and that the lesson it teaches is that a strong man is required to save a woman to solve her problems. People have done this with Sleeping Beauty and even Mario, but I think that a more mature interpretation of the story is that it culminates in the union of the masculine and the feminine in a person, and that seals their maturity. I think it’s also important to think about the fact that Link and Zelda are children, and in part because of the limitations of the medium they appear like androgynous blobs which is sort of like what young children are.

I could go on and on about the themes of Zelda 1, but first of all that’s already been done quite a lot for Zelda 1 in particular, and second of all I think its story is a much more common story: the exploratory adventure that culminates in an encounter with the unknown and results in victory for the hero who matures as a result of the journey. That’s the original arc.

So, on to Zelda 2. As I hope I’ve been able to show thoroughly enough, Zelda 1 is a story about growing up. However, your life story doesn’t end when you grow up. In fact, you spend most of your life grown up whether you want to or not. Zelda 2’s story is a direct continuation of Zelda 1. You grew up … so what happens next? I think that this is not as commonly explored as the actual growing up story, but regardless that’s what Zelda 2 is all about.

Link is not a child in Zelda 2 anymore. I think that the manual says he’s 17 or something like that, but thematically you could say he’s a young adult. He’s already grown up, and now he’s got a lot to do.

The basic plot of Zelda 2 is that Ganon’s minions have stuck around, and they’re out to get Link. They want him not only for revenge, but also because Link’s blood can be used to resurrect Ganon. In this story, Ganon isn’t the unknown anymore — he’s shifted purely to the (now dormant) tyrannical embodiment of society or the state. That is to say, even when you’ve overcome tyranny, its minions are still roaming around, and they want a piece of you to help bring the tyranny back.

Using someone as a sacrifice to resurrect something evil is a pretty ancient idea. Curiously, in Mesopotamian mythology, human beings are made out of the blood of the son of the ultimate evil. Kingu is the son, and Tiamat is the ultimate evil, or the malevelont aspects of nature perhaps. This means that human beings are descended in part from the most terrible things you can imagine. It’s a chilling thing to think about, but in some sense it’s true — we know that the ability to do the worst kinds of things is in us. If the blood of the worst thing imaginable could be used to make humans, it follows that the blood of humans could be used to make the worst thing imaginable (Link’s blood will resurrect Ganon). One of Zelda 2’s theses seems to be that this worst thing is abject tyrannical power. I think that the events of the 20th century have effectively proven this.

Throughout history, people have lost pieces of themselves including their literal blood to the support of tyrannical states, sometimes by choice, but often through blindness or even bad luck. There are always plenty of true believers to be sure, but there are also people like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Gandhi, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and so many others who did what it took to stand up against tyranny appropriately. There were also plenty of people who did this and were quashed along the way, and I suspect, although I can’t be sure, that the majority of people fell and would fall into the category of ignorant bystander. I say ignorant, not innocent, because many of these people turned a blind eye to tyranny, and it eventually came to get them. They were also complicit by allowing its existence to continue untrammeled. Link is our representation of a person who must encounter and defeat tyranny. He can’t wait around and do nothing, or eventually the minions will come and kill him. He has to act now, and hopefully he can win.

As an aside, I think that people will point out that the thematic gameplay focus of Zelda 2 is combat, and that Gandhi practiced nonviolence, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn helped overthrow tyranny through writing. However, I would posit that even though they avoided physical violence, their actions were still combative. They were both integrated people who used their abilities to confront and overcome. A bit more integration later…

In that sense, Zelda 2 is a more mature story than Zelda 1. We don’t view Link as an innocent child anymore. He starts the game as a warrior. He knows that he has to go out and encounter difficult challenges, and he has already acquired some of the ability to do that through what he did to mature. He can already fight, and he already has some equipment. He starts the game with Zelda (wisdom), although she’s asleep. It’s Link’s duty to bring wisdom, tradition, old knowledge, culture, etc. back to the place of primary importance. Zelda doesn’t actually physically go anywhere in the game’s story, but she’s awakened when you get the Triforce back. Consciousness is a good enough representation of the primarily important place to be. When too many people fall asleep, the state can ossify into a tyranny around them. This is part of the Egyptian myth of Osiris and Set, and it’s an ongoing battle even today. Link is Horus, Marduk, Prometheus, and even a bit of Jesus for good measure. Of course since he’s the player character, he’s also us: Those are representations of the saviors of humanity which is what we could all be if we reached our full potential.

I don’t know quite how to explain this, but looking at Link in Zelda 2 and the game as a whole, I think he has a sort of “here we go again” expression. This is not a fun adventure where we get to take our time and explore and discover new and exciting things while facing interesting challenges. This is going to be a slog where we have to do the difficult things that we don’t want to do. Hopefully, we’re mature enough to do them anyway because they’re also necessary, but that doesn’t make them any more desirable. I can’t say whether the gloomy, sluggish nature of this game had an impact on its popularity, but it fits the theme of the game perfectly. This is work, and it won’t be easy or fun, but if we don’t do it, we and everything we love will get churned up into the meat grinder of the tyranny.

Shigeru Miyamoto and many of the other developers of these games are clearly geniuses, and it’s hard to say whether they knew exactly what they were doing. I think that with these games, as with all culturally significant works, it’s a mixture of intention and emergence. It’s a very odd thing to not only have the ability to incorporate a lack of fun into a game in order to fit its story, but to also actually do it. Why make a video game that’s like work? I can’t put my finger on exactly what parts of the game do this. I think it’s in part because of its sprawling nature — there are large swaths you have to walk through that have nothing interesting except that you might get into an encounter you wish you could avoid (you even have to walk through a swamp that actually slows your movement speed down), and in part because of its music. I think the music is gloomy and regretful. If Link were less mature, he’d be saying “why do I have to do this?” any time he walked up to one of the Palaces. I think that the colors are bland and desaturated too. The brightness of the world when you’re a child has dimmed now that you’re in the productive part of your adulthood. You’re less curious about the things around you.

It’s kind of awful to think about, but it’s a pretty good representation of adulthood. It’s a drudge where you have to encounter the same things over and over again, and that happens whether you want to or not. Running away, physically or psychologically, really only makes things worse. You have to do these things, so you might as well face them head on. That’s the feeling that I get when controlling Link in this game. Wow… why even play it, right? Well, why watch a sad movie?

Since Link is an adult now, he can’t avoid his interactions with other people. He has to go into towns and meet with specific people in order to progress. People give him jobs to do… menial tasks that are far beneath Link’s ability. He might have to communicate a message between two different people too. While this is an exploration of adulthood generally, I think it’s an interesting exploration of commerce more specifically. There are things like the unnecessarily well-hidden mirror under the table that have no value to you at all, but that have great value to other people. You’ll go out of your way to work at acquiring these items so that you can get something the other person has that is of great value to you. It’s annoying sometimes, but it’s also more or less the basis for modern society. I wonder if Miyamoto has read any Adam Smith.

This is of course the fetch quest. I doubt that Zelda 2 invented the fetch quest — it is an archetypal idea after all — or that it popularized it in any meaningful way, but you can’t deny that fetch quests pervade the game. When you really analyze fetch quests with a critical eye, you can deconstruct them down to boring work. It’s a wonder why people would want to perform a simulation of boring work, but people spend literal years of their life playing games like World of Warcraft which as far as I can ascertain are largely made up of doing fetch quests. We can’t even escape work in our entertainment. I suppose at the very least work can be both boring and meaningful. One of your quests is to rescue a child after all.

Link not only interacts with society to make progress on his journey, but he also interacts with old teachers to learn new speech (the magic spells) and become more proficient in his area of expertise (sword-fighting and learning the downward and upward stabs). Even though you’re a mature, complete individual as an adult, you still have to keep learning new things all the time in order to progress forward. The sorts of things that you learn now are usually more abstract, and it’s up to you to extract what you need out of them. Some of those things are something like magic words: mathematical formulas, algorithms, analyses of history and culture, and so on. You get new information all the time as an adult, and you organize it in a way that lets you continue progressing through life. Marduk, who I mentioned earlier and pointed out is the same archetype as Link, speaks magic words. One very interesting quirk of this is the ability to reveal things in the game using these spells. You could interpret the use of the “most powerful magic,” thunder, as open speech that can reveal the vulnerabilities of the tyranny (remove Thunderbird’s mask). You also continue to get better at what you do. Some of this is through your own training (experience points and leveling up), but you get new techniques from the masters of your craft too. Of course, the only way you can get any of this stuff is through interactions with other people. Sometimes you have to work to even be presented with these interactions too. You need to seek them out — those who have knowledge to give you won’t always be looking for you. Maybe you have to fall down a chimney.

Much like Zelda 1, you get items in this game too. I said that these were representations of the tools that society equips you with in Zelda 1, but I think that they have a different theme in Zelda 2. They’re something like artifacts of the past. You don’t use these items as weapons in Zelda 2… instead they act more like keys to get to the next place. Sometimes, you need to recover the ancient artifacts of your society in order to progress forward. They may be locked away by tyranny. This is something like the idea of tradition. I think that tradition tends to get a bad rap. First, I don’t think that people should unquestioningly follow traditions. Having said that, I still think that traditions are often traditions for a good reason, and that unless you have a great reason to go against them, you’ll probably do more damage to yourself by ignoring or resisting them than by going along. You can break this down to the most basic traditions you can think of like working for a living. That may seem very obvious to people, but humans are the only animals that work in the sense of sacrificing the present to get something better in the future. Even if you disagree that we’re the only animals that do this, I think you’d be hard pressed to deny that it’s an aspect of humanity. You can’t escape or ignore the ancient artifacts of the past of humanity for too long or else you won’t be able to progress.

The world of Zelda 2 is more expansive than Zelda 1. This was done intentionally by the game’s creators — a lot of the map of Zelda 1 exists in Zelda 2 on a much smaller scale. I really like this idea too: something that seemed like an entire world to you as a child is a tiny part of your adult world, and it’s a lot smaller than you remember. It’s also a lot easier for you to travel much longer distances as an adult. In Zelda 2, you even go back to Death Mountain, the final dungeon in Zelda 1, at a relatively early point in Zelda 2. Death Mountain has a big spike in difficulty compared to earlier parts of Zelda 2 as well. I interpret this as saying something like: the challenge you overcame as a child to become an adult will probably face you again, and it might be a lot tougher than you remember. As an adult, you can’t just dink around and explore your dopey little corner of the world. You have to follow the roads and go from place to place. You even have to sail to new continents sometimes. This is part of Carl Jung’s idea of the circumambulation. We even get to see the part of the game where Link goes back to the beginning to resurrect Zelda.

The general idea of the circumambulation is that you have to explore all corners of the world, and then get back to the center which is something like where you came from. I don’t think that Zelda 2 completes this story, but I think it’s something like the first half of the circumambulation when you go out into the world. In fact, the layout of Zelda 2’s map sort of pans out this way. You more or less explore the terrain in concentric circles. You start out at the center of the map having to go to the Northeast Palace, then Ruto Town which is in the Northwest, then Death Mountain to the South, Mido Town to the East, and so on. I think you can boil this archetype down in part to geometry — the most efficient way to place all these different places is in a sort of spiral (like flowers… you know, the golden ratio?)— but Link rarely has to backtrack in this game which is something you have to do in many other kinds of games. Contrast this to Zelda 1 where you start at the very bottom of the map, and you keep going back to the same places.

I think a common complaint with Zelda 2 is that it’s relatively linear. This is a complete departure from Zelda 1 where you could do the dungeons and different parts of the game in practically any order, but your ability to do this in Zelda 2 is more limited. Experienced players can break the game’s intended sequence in all kinds of ways, but a causal player will be almost railroaded into completing things in a specific way. This is a part of adulthood too. You can’t just go wherever you want and do whatever you want whenever you want. Your surroundings won’t be so forgiving if all you’re doing is randomly exploring, and because of all of the things you know, you can’t really do this anyway. You’re locked into a sort of spiral path through your adult life. Hopefully, it’s spiraling upwards.

It’s no wonder that people complain about the linearity of Zelda 2. People complain about the linearity of their own lives all the time. It’s something that’s honestly unavoidable, and the mature approach looks to me to be accepting your reality with equanimity. This is perhaps akin to the religious doctrine of the acceptance of voluntary suffering. I still can’t explain why anyone would want to play a game that makes you do that, but people do all kinds of strange things as it is. There is an idea of recovering your childhood in your older age, but Zelda 2 doesn’t explore that at all.

You might wonder — I did — what kind of final boss or final encounter would work with Zelda 2’s theme of adulthood. The encounter with the unknown as a mechanism for moving from childhood to adulthood as shown in Zelda 1 makes perfect sense to me. So what is the ultimate enemy that you encounter in your adulthood?

Zelda 2’s thesis is that it’s yourself. I think that this fits perfectly even though it only makes sense with the game’s story if you’re analyzing it the way I have been in this post. Taken at face value, the final boss is something of a non-character giant-space-flea-from-nowhere-ex-machina. More specifically than your enemy just being yourself, it’s your dark self. I’m not sure what the official name for the final boss of Zelda 2 is, but it’s something like Dark Link or Shadow Link. This enemy is literally created from the shadow of Link’s sprite in the game.

It’s an interesting idea that you would work your way through the Great Palace of the tyrannical state, encounter and defeat its strongest and weirdest guardians, and then after all that be locked into combat with yourself. You could call it a cliche, but I think archetype is a better word for it… something like a useful cliche. You are your own worst enemy whether you want to accept or deny it, and you get in your own way all the time. You probably stop yourself from reaching your full potential more than anything else does, even if you’re living in a tyrannical society, at least if you’re a mature adult. That’s what Zelda 2 says anyway.

Then, there’s also Carl Jung’s idea of the shadow. This is something like your capacity for malevolence. Jung said that people need to integrate their shadow. They need to be able to use the dark parts of themselves for the good. Link is not so much killing his shadow as he is overcoming its ability to be malevolent and integrating it into himself so that he can do the most good. I think that this is a perfect completion of the game since it finishes the next chapter of the story. You grew up, so what do you do next? You integrate your shadow. That’s the next step in your maturity.

Of course, the story of Zelda 2 is not purely bleak. Link does win at the end after all, and in that victory he manages to achieve the ultimate ideal: he seals away tyranny for another generation. He saves mankind. It’s interesting to note that this is the only Zelda game where Zelda actually kisses Link at the end. They didn’t kiss at the end of Zelda 1 in part because they were children. I think that symbolically this was a union of the feminine with the masculine, and of wisdom with courage. Zelda 2 has a similar union at the end. Wisdom in terms of the traditions of the past — the positive aspects of the state represented by a princess— are resurrected by mankind. However, with the addition of the kiss, I think that’s only part of the story. I think that, at least in part, some marriages are also a union of the masculine with the feminine. You integrate your own masculine and feminine with yourself, and then you do it with someone else. It’s a union of two people who interlock their traits to one another. Zelda 2 seems to be saying that growth through the integration of your shadow makes you nubile, and perhaps it’s something that you need to do before you’re mature enough to enter into a lifelong union like a marriage.

Overall, I think that Zelda 2 tells a unique and difficult story about humanity. Not only is the gameplay necessarily a slog to fit with the theme, but it’s also probably a story that people don’t really like to think about. It’s tough to be reminded of the drudgery of your existence. Again, I have no idea if this affected Zelda 2’s reception at all. Video games were considered to be primarily for children when Zelda 2 came out, so you wouldn’t expect them to get much out of the theme of the drudgery of being an adult. Even so, the game is clearly popular enough. With respect to its gameplay specifically, even Miyamoto admitted that he wished he could have done more with it, and I think that the game seems a bit rushed and didn’t achieve the levels that it could have. That said, I think that it’s still rightfully considered a classic for telling a rarer story in a difficult way, and for being the perfect thematic continuation of the exploration of the archetypes of growth as a human that were done in Zelda 1.