A Gender-Neutral Link to the Past

ALTTP_GenderNeutral

Today marks the 30th birthday of The Legend of Zelda, a landmark video game released by Nintendo of Japan on February 21, 1986. Over the past three decades, dozens of sequels and prequels have been released with all of the games in the series implementing the same narrative formula: Link, the young protagonist, must rescue Zelda and save the world.

My 6-month-old baby daughter isn’t old enough yet to handle a game controller without sticking it in her mouth, but I’ve already started planning her introduction to the big wide world of games. Unfortunately, many of the “classics” were hardcoded from a male perspective and feature male protagonists as the only playable characters. There are plenty of classic books and movies all told from a male perspective that my daughter will likely endure, but what makes the medium of video games unique is that it’s technically possible to hack them to remove the gender bias and present a more engaging and empowering experience for the next generation of young gamers. I was particularly inspired by Mike Mika’s Donkey Kong hack that swaps the character sprites so that his daughter could play the game as Pauline saving Mario from the clutches of Donkey Kong.

There have been similar hacks to flip the gender roles within the Zelda series. Mike Hoye hacked all of the in-game text in The Wind Waker so that his daughter could play as a female Link. But perhaps most impressive of all, Kenna W, a talented animator and retro game enthusiast, took it upon herself to “right a wrong from childhood” by hacking both The Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past (arguably the two best games in the entire Zelda series) so that she could play the games as Zelda saving Link. I highly recommend both of her patches, Zelda Starring Zelda and Zelda Starring Zelda 2.

A Link to the Past is one my favorite games of all time. In addition to Kenna W’s character-swapped version, I wanted to create a version of the game that kept the original characters intact but allowed for Link to be completely gender-neutral. Since Link’s graphical appearance in A Link to the Past is fairly androgynous to begin with, the only aspect of the game that needed to be “fixed” was all of the in-game dialogue referring to Link as a boy.

I combed through all of the in-game text and replaced every instance of Link’s male pronouns with gender-neutral language. To prevent introducing any bugs or glitches in the game, I had to use words with the exact same number of characters; “boy” and “son” were easily replaced with “kid,” but I had to get a little creative in other instances. Since I couldn’t replace “he” with “she,” I went with the Old English “ye,” which I think works in the context of Link serving as an avatar for the actual game player.

After using one of several methods to extract or “dump” your own A Link to the Past Super Nintendo game cartridge (specifically, the 1992 North American release) into a ROM file, you can then apply my gender-neutral patch of A Link to the Past as a .vcdiff patch file using the free xdelta utility which outputs a modified ROM file. You can play the modified ROM using an SNES emulator or you can play it on an actual SNES using any method that allows custom ROM files to be played on the SNES.

My hope is that Nintendo and/or ROM hackers can join the cause and create gender-neutral versions of the rest of the Zelda series (and all of the other classic games where appropriate) so that by the time my daughter stops chewing on joysticks, she’ll be able to have just as satisfying of a personal gaming experience as the opposite sex has been able to enjoy for all these years.

UPDATE 2016-02-28: I reached out to Clyde Mandelin, professional translator and author of Legends of Localization, for his take on the debate over Link’s intended gender in the early Zelda games. Specifically, I asked him if the original Japanese language version of A Link to the Past referred to the player as male in the game and instruction manual. He dug into it and found something quite extraordinary: Link’s gender is barely mentioned anywhere in the original Japanese game, box or manual for A Link to the Past!

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53 thoughts on “A Gender-Neutral Link to the Past

  1. I’ve been playing games my whole life, and I NEVER had a problem playing as female characters. If any guy told me he does, I’d laugh and think he is weak and insecure. Why do you assume your daughter will be weak and insecure?

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    1. Hi Rodrigo,

      I’ve also been playing games my whole life (about 35 years now) and I also never had a problem playing as female characters.

      The problem is that there are a disproportionate number of games that only feature male characters in the leading playable roles. The Zelda series is considered by many (including myself) to be one of the best video game series ever, and A Link to the Past is also considered to be one of the greatest games of all time. In just a few short years or months, when my daughter becomes old enough to start playing video games, she will still be at an impressionable age where she is forming her worldview and her place within it. I wanted her to start with the greatest classics of the medium to give her an appreciation of the art form and to share the wonderful experience of playing through a great game with her but without this particular game reinforcing the same old idea that the hero must be male.

      I had such a thrill playing the Zelda games for the first time as a young boy. The game has many valuable lessons to impart such as exploration, helping others, trying again after failing, and having the courage to pursue the path of a hero’s destiny. I didn’t realize it then, but I now can clearly see that the games of that era were predominantly marketed towards boys and featured boys as the leading heroes. Even today, I still don’t think there are enough great games that portray women (or LGBT or minorities) in a positive light as the playable hero of the game. There will remain many great games out there that will still have the leading role as male, and a much smaller number of great games with the leading role as female, but I hope that game companies and/or ROM hackers can continue to tip the scales a bit so that the playing field is more level. It doesn’t detract from a well-crafted game like A Link to the Past to have the hero be gender-neutral. If anything, I think it’s an upgrade / bug fix, because the game already let the player rename Link at the start of the game which would produce grammatical errors with female names and male pronouns.

      I think Nintendo and the other big game companies would be wise to enable gender-neutral language and leading heroes for most if not all of their future releases as well as for the “enhancements” and “remastered” versions of older games when re-released on newer platforms.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. The problem is people like you that have to justify changing things to fit what you want and not what is the world. There are MANY amazing female lead game out there. I hope you plan to change Metroid to gender neutral. Or is the Female lead to your liking and you are not going to change that…

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        1. “The problem is people like you that have to justify changing things to fit what you want and not what is the world.” is among the silliest sentences I’ve ever read. That’s the entire point of changing something, to make it what we want it to be rather than what it is.

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      2. I am sorry to say this but we dont need this kind of stuff. I am a male and grew up with Link, Mario, DK and many more. Link however was the first and the first thing I saw is: Link. Not a boy or a girl. I saw Link. I didnt even realise that they said that he is a boy in the game until I was older.

        What you are doing is changing the past of a game that does not need to be changed. Its 24 years old. Your girl will grow up with maybe thinking that Link is a female and what happens then? She will look up pictures of Link but probably mainly finding pictures of the male version. And why? Because that is how the game was made.

        To a game, it does not matter if the protagonist is a male or female. I can think of countless old RPGs where we had female protagonist and NOTHING CHANGED. If you want your girl growing up with strong female protagonists then let her play older Tomb Raider games. But of course you cant do that because they are a bit to complicated and not made for her age.

        This is the first time of me saying this but here it comes. Usually I tend to say: “I dont like it but its an interesting Idea.” This however is not interesting nor do I like it. Its showing a world of gaming different to what nearly everyone knows already. Especially with not so old titles like Ocarina of Time. How will you change up Links look in that game as he “should” be gender neutral? You can by modifying the game in that way but that is what you will do.

        Making Link genderneutral does not help your daughter growing up. It will confuse her later on and will get peopleto make fun of her for thinking the protagonist may be a female. *Insert old “Zelda is about Zelda as protagonist” joke here*

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      3. If you want her to play a game as a girl, get her to play Metroid. Or will you make that gender neutral too?

        There are games that let you pick male or female protagonists. Mass Effect, Fallout, Elder scrolls. They do this, not to be PC, but to add to the players experiences. Changing something for the sake of political correctness is bullshit, and is the worst thing anyone can do.

        Link, as a protagonist, is a male. ALL the games point to this. All of them. Zelda is a girl. All the games point to this. The cannon is also pointed to this. For you to change the protagonist of a game like this is wrong. As a gamer, you are a shit one. You have no respect for the game if you do something like this. You have no respect for the story that is being told in the game. The story of a BOY. A Boy who is out to save the Princess of the land. Its a GOD DAM Fairy tale in video game form, and your FUCKING with it, so your daughter might not be offended?

        How about you be a god dam fucking parent, and TEACH HER. Bubble rapping her life will only fuck her over. It makes you a bad parent.

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        1. Hi Josh,

          Yes, Metroid is a common example of one of the best of games of all time that features a female as the leading playable hero. But even with Metroid included, only 8 of the “Top 100 Games of All Time” have a female playable lead protagonist.

          Metroid is a very different style of game from Zelda, and although I thoroughly enjoy the Metroid series, I have always felt a stronger emotional connection with the Zelda series, which is why I wanted to make the Zelda games more accessible to my daughter and to share it with others. It doesn’t have anything to do with political correctness.

          I don’t believe removing explicit references to Link’s gender ruins the character or the game at all. I actually believe it improves it by making Link more of a natural avatar for all players to enjoy. In one of my previous posts, I quoted Zelda series creator Shigeru Miyamoto and series producer Eiji Aonuma who have both said that they intended for Link to be more of an avatar for the player rather than a defined character. I don’t think that they have ever said that Link’s gender is an important trait or that Link must necessarily be male. I don’t see any problems with making Link gender-neutral so that players can form their own opinions about Link’s gender (or not even think about gender at all) when playing as Link. There are many gamers like myself who enjoy playing the Zelda games with Link serving as an avatar that allows us to project ourselves into the game world. The wonderful thing about this patch using gender-neutral language is that it harms no one and it allows all players to experience the game however they wish to experience it.

          I’m not seeking to change your mind or anybody else’s mind about Link being male. If you would like to play the game and think of Link as being male like yourself, you can play Nintendo’s version or you can play this gender-neutral patched version. The gender-neutral language doesn’t change anything and if you play through it, you will find that it doesn’t stop you from thinking that Link is male, which is perfectly fine.

          It might help to think of this gender-neutral patch as just an accessibility improvement to make the game more accessible to more people. If my daughter would like to play the game and think of Link as female like herself, she can play this gender-neutral patched version and it won’t call her a boy. If a transgendered person would like to play as Link and think of Link as transgendered or not having a gender at all, they can play this gender-neutral patched version and it won’t call them a boy. Other people’s experience of the game should have no bearing on your experience of the game.

          Also, parenting young children necessarily involves editing / curating / censoring / call it whatever, because a parent is constantly making choices — consciously or unconsciously — with every form of media (games, books, movies, etc) that is brought into the household and exposed to the child. It’s not until a certain age when children begin to discover and consume media on their own. I don’t see the harm in presenting this gender-neutral version of the game to my daughter while she is very young and very impressionable, and I don’t see any harm in letting her play Nintendo’s original version of the game later as well as showing her all the controversy that this stirred up online. I think it will be a great educational experience and will open up conversations about gender in video games and popular culture.

          I hope this helps to clarify. If you do play through the gender-neutral patched version, please let me know if you find any errors or problems. Thanks!

          -Tony

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  2. Cute idea in one way, but if I’d be the child it would be traumatizing for me to know that it was all a lie and that my favorite game I played as a child was actually modded to suit me and wasn’t even ment to be played that way… and that all the sequels suddenly stars Link as a male and not a female.

    I am a guy who grew up with the Zelda series and I keep them close to my heart, extremely close… but still my favorite game character of all time is Lara Croft…?
    And I have never seen her in a sexual way at all, but that attitude and strength that woman had and portrayed.. That helped me to become the one I am today, and she wasn’t male (like me) or “gender-neutral”.

    So in my opinion it’s not actually a mod that switches genders that will form a child’s world view, but the impression each character will leave on a child, and it will be up to each child to explore and see who inspires them most.
    But that’s just my opinion 🙂

    Other than that, good luck with your project ! 🙂

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  3. One game I’d recommend would be Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior 3 (although there’s some questionably stereotyped items/sprites such as the bunnygirl jester in the rereleases for SNES and GBA, that’s the only real issue, and if you play the NES or GBA versions the sprites are smaller so the costume issue is irrelevant). WAY ahead of its time – you could make the hero/heroine and the entire party male or female and their gender didn’t change/influence their stats or anything else aside from their sprites looking different – I’m a trans guy and I’ve played through the game several times with all-female parties just to do something different.

    That said I think this is cool

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  4. Such a great idea, Nintendo should absolutely do this for future installments.

    Is “ye” the correct substitution for “he” though? “Ye” seems to be analogous to “you” (singular or plural) rather than speaking about someone in the third person. “They” or “%playername%” might work better?

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  5. Fuck your social justice agenda, you twat. Continue to live in a fairytale world and believe your daughter will never have to experience growing pains as a girl so long as you shield her by hacking classic games and going gender neutral so it’s easier for YOU to let her play what you want.

    Last I checked, this is an adult’s problem, not a child’s problem. She’s not old enough to understand your tumblr bullshit.

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  6. You’re a good dad. When I was a little girl, I always wished I could choose to have female (or neutral pronouns) to really get immersed in the game. It was escapism for me and I wanted to imagine myself on the adventure! Thanks for doing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. She’s a baby. She isn’t going to know or care about genders she’s only going to care about shoving shit in her mouth and what she can destroy. You really need to look over your priorities if you haven’t baby proofed anything but made a gender neutral Legend of Zelda.

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    1. It’s not about baby proofing, but more about how it’s nice to have representation in media. Easier for her to relate, easier for her to feel normal.

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  8. I like the way Daniel put it in the last paragraph of his comment, but now I feel the need to add my two-cents, ha-ha.

    I guess I personally don’t see anything wrong with a game, in this case Zelda, being a story from the male perspective. Why can’t she still enjoy it, whether she plays a boy, girl, or cucco for that matter?

    I suppose as a male playing a male character it can be more relate-able, and as a female playing a male it gives you the option to see things from another perspective. Zelda has been in my life for years, and as a female gamer I’ve never thought anything of it. I thought it was neat that I was a kid with pointy ears and a sword! Even if Link were female I don’t see the story being any different (or too different, at any rate), other than in newer titles there being hints of romance between Link and Zelda.

    I like that, instead of trying to change the gender altogether, you’re making it gender neutral. I also agree that it wouldn’t hurt Nintendo in the slightest to use gender-neutral pronouns, etc. in the future–swapping out a “son” for a “kid” is simple and doesn’t take away from the game at all, but leaves things open to interpretation. Whether the protagonist is quite obviously male or not. 🙂

    Er, word-vomit aside, overall I like where your head is at, and I think the project is awesome, but is it necessary? Would it not be simpler to just find a great game for your daughter to experience that does feature a female protagonist? That way she can enjoy the games in their original format but still get that idea of “not all heroes are male.”

    Best of luck with your project, and introducing your daughter to the world of gaming. She has a lot in store for her. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I think this is really sweet. 🙂 Don’t listen to any of the nonsense hate comments. I’m glad at least some people are willing to discuss this on a mature level.

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  10. Hiya.

    I’m reporting you to Nintendo for downloading a ROM of their intellectual property. You were stupid to do this under your real name.

    That’s what you get for being a fame-seeker.

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    1. Hi Paul,

      There’s nothing to report. I don’t condone piracy. Extracting the ROM code from your own game cartridge isn’t piracy. Neither is manipulating that code or hacking your own console to run modified code (which I find more enjoyable than emulators).

      Regardless, I think Nintendo is fairly savvy about keeping up with fan projects like this. I hope they have seen what I’ve done with these gender-neutral patches and consider it in a positive light.

      -Tony

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  11. Do not forget to change all classic literature and kid tales either. Let Cinderella be gender neutral… and all the tale princes, who shall from now on be referred to as “the children of unknown gendered royalty”.

    You are in your right to show whatever you want to your daughter, but please don’t change history, specially when history doesn’t belong to you. If you don’t like Zelda or Link as it is, don’t change it for her: just don’t show her. You are not doing your daughter any favor, and if anything, you are isolating her from the real world, where everyone else will think Link is a boy.

    Because the fact that Link is portrayed as a boy or not, is the least of her worries: if you are changing this simple thing for her, I wonder what kind of twisted-reality you will make her live while she grows up.

    The world might not be fair, but it’s real: show her what is good, and what is bad about it, but do not change reality for her: living in an alternate reality won’t make your daughter any good in the long run.

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    1. Hi Javier,

      That’s a bit extreme, don’t you think? I certainly don’t think every game or story should be gender-neutral. But don’t you think there be some balance? Wouldn’t it be more fair if say 1/3 were from a male perspective, 1/3 were from a female perspective, and 1/3 were gender-neutral? I think that would be more fair than what we have currently, where 73 of the Top 100 Games of All Time are male.

      I love the Zelda games and I love how Link is such a perfect avatar for the player, which is why I want to share the games with my daughter and why I thought making the pronouns for Link gender-neutral was such a good idea; it doesn’t change the experience for male players like myself and at the same time it allows female and non-male players to experience the game in the same way.

      I’m not seeking to change your mind or anybody else’s mind about Link being male. If you would like to play the game and think of Link as being male like yourself, you can play Nintendo’s version or you can play this gender-neutral patched version. The gender-neutral language doesn’t change anything and if you play through it, you will find that it doesn’t stop you from thinking that Link is male, which is perfectly fine.

      It might help to think of this gender-neutral patch as just an accessibility improvement to make the game more accessible to more people. If my daughter would like to play the game and think of Link as female like herself, she can play this gender-neutral patched version and it won’t call her a boy. If a transgendered person would like to play as Link and think of Link as transgendered or not having a gender at all, they can play this gender-neutral patched version and it won’t call them a boy. Other people’s experience of the game should have no bearing on your experience of the game.

      “History” belongs to all of us and “the real world” belongs to all of us. We all share it and we all have an impact on it. We should all strive to make it a better place. I agree with you that living in an alternate reality is escapism. But that’s exactly what video games are: alternate realities. All of our stories and narratives construct alternate realities, and it is through these alternate realities that we understand and shape our shared reality. Stories are powerful things; just look at religion and politics. Stories are especially powerful on very young developing brains and have a big role in shaping a person’s worldview. Male leading heroes are overwhelmingly overrepresented in popular games and I want my baby daughter to see that gender doesn’t define a hero. Anybody can be a hero.

      I hope this helps to clarify. If you do play through the gender-neutral patched version, please let me know if you find any errors or problems. Thanks!

      -Tony

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  12. If I were in LA, you’d have my business. The response to this has been ridiculous. I hope that by the time your daughter’s able to play the game, this all seems silly and antiquated.

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  13. ok but, whats the point? this really does nothing in the long run because she isn’t going to care what gender Link is. Kids don’t care. When do you see kids getting upset or uncomfortable because a main character in something isn’t the same gender as them? Kids couldn’t care less as long as its fun. just saying this seems like a complete waste of your time

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    1. Hi Jack,

      I disagree. Kids do care, or at least their developmental brains do. Young children go through an amazing developmental process that absorbs a lot of the culture around them and plays a big role in shaping their worldview. The stories we tell our children and the words we use truly matter. Male leading heroes are overwhelmingly overrepresented in popular games and I want my baby daughter to see that gender doesn’t define a hero. Anybody can be a hero.

      -Tony

      Like

  14. You are an awesome Dad! I totally get it. Growing up, I never really thought much about Link’s gender, but as I got older, I definitely felt the frustration of finding few games that allow playthrough from a female perspective. Now that I have two little girls of my own, I really see how the ambient culture reinforces gender stereotypes in so many little ways (don’t get me started on the toy aisle). That is such an awesome labor of love that you would mod a favorite game of yours from your childhood so your daughter can experience it the way you did, and you can bond over that experience.

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  15. *Sigh* Why did I even read the comments…
    Honestly, my only complaint is that it took me a bit of scrolling to get to the download link, because I’m lazy that way :p

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