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!