Tears of the Kingdom’s ending is tragically unique.

Tears of the Kingdom’s ending is tragically unique.

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Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via GameTopic

Perpetuating the Status Quo

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

In the grand finale of Tears of the Kingdom, we find ourselves back where we started. Ganondorf is toast, Zelda reclaims her throne, and even our hero, Link, regains his arm. The ragtag group of helpers who tagged along on his quest now pledge their loyalty to the crown. Zelda promises to dedicate herself to maintaining peace in Hyrule.

But let’s face it, we all know this peace won’t last. The never-ending cycle of a new Legend of Zelda game, where Ganon threatens the princess and the world, only to be stopped by Link, has become an unwritten law within the Zelda universe. It’s like a divine force guiding their eternal dance, or maybe the franchise’s insatiable thirst for popularity.

This cycle is the tragic backbone of The Legend of Zelda’s narrative. Yet, the ending of Tears of the Kingdom acts as if returning to the status quo is some monumental victory. Winning means going back to square one.

Except, the status quo of The Legend of Zelda is wearing thin. When the game was announced, fans were excited by the possibility of playing as a short-haired Zelda. It seemed like Nintendo might finally give us the chance to control the princess ourselves. But alas, her story remains the same. Even the Master Sword gets more attention! In a scene where it appears to Zelda in the past, she declares that it “traveled through time to find me and recover [its] strength.” Meanwhile, Zelda was simply “sent” back by unknown forces. Talk about unfair!

Upon her return, Zelda naturally reclaims her throne. Stranded in Hyrule’s early years, she discovers her royal bloodline traces back as far as it can go. There are even rumors of divine blood in the Zonai lineage. Surprisingly, no one in The Legend of Zelda questions her absolute rule, except Ganon, of course. Zelda is portrayed as a benevolent dictator seeking peace, but power isn’t that simple. Still, the only threat to her reign is a “great evil emerging from the desert.” All these tropes and clichés get a free pass because they’ve become so ingrained in the series.

Tears of the Kingdom starts exploring intriguing themes about bodies, like Link losing his arm and getting a prosthetic, Zelda fully transforming herself, and Mineru separating her spirit and using a robot construct, which Link gets to pilot as a mech. You’d expect these changes to have a lasting impact and thematic significance, but the writers simply brush them aside. Mineru steps out of her construct and vanishes, while Zelda’s revival is explained away as the combined powers of her ancestors allowing her to return. It’s as if the creators decided, “Let’s just focus on defeating the Demon King and forget everything else.” Out with the new, in with the old.

Ultimately, what Tears of the Kingdom tells us about bodies is that in a neat and tidy conclusion, they can only exist in one way. Prosthetics, scars, or deliberate modifications are seen as blemishes that must be erased, just like the Demon King himself. The entire narrative, like the franchise as a whole, resists change.

In a brilliant analysis of the game’s ending, critic Harper Jay wonders if it’s “a story for our current times.” They suggest that a bold, honest ending would have left Zelda trapped in her dragon form, forever yearning for an elusive memory, demonstrating that defeating evil requires sacrifices that can’t be conveniently resolved with magical abilities.

I agree that Tears of the Kingdom isn’t a story for our current times, but it is a story from our current times. It conveys the message that holding onto the status quo is equivalent to victory. It’s the same narrative used by bosses who dismiss workers’ demands as “unrealistic.” It’s the story told by ineffective political leaders unwilling to challenge harmful government policies. It’s the story that supports regressive, transphobic laws and encourages more oil drilling during the climate crisis.

And it’s not just a story within the game. It reflects the broader corporate media landscape. Remakes, sequels, and AI producing average content from existing material, like those 45 Mattel-based advertisement movies featuring the “grounded and gritty” Hot Wheels 0. Everything feels like something we’ve seen before, just on a larger scale. Once upon a time, Nintendo used the success of Ocarina of Time to create Majora’s Mask, something surprising and tonally unique. But this time, they missed the mark.

So, what can break these cycles? Tears of the Kingdom doesn’t bother exploring the answer. It takes us right back to the beginning, ready to do it all over again, with no room for the realization that its apparent victory is actually its own tragic downfall.