Yesterday, I released my gender-neutral patch for A Link to the Past that I made for my baby daughter and wanted to share with fellow gamers and Zelda fans. The story was picked up by Kotaku, Zelda Informer and Reddit (more), and apparently triggered quite a firestorm in the comments sections. There were a litany of vitriolic insults, diatribes, hilarious jokes, bad puns, circular debates, perfectly chosen animated GIFs, cat memes and Godwin’s Law in full effect.
But what really moved me and genuinely touched me were the heartfelt sentiments and stories that were posted in the fray by courageous, sincere voices that refused to be intimidated by all of the loud bullying. The outpouring of support from female and LGBT gamers as well as fellow male gamers around my age with daughters of their own has been a beautiful thing to witness.
So today, I am releasing my gender-neutral patch for The Legend of Zelda, the monumental game that spawned the epic franchise and pervaded the childhood of many gamers born in the 80s, mostly boys, this author included.
Granted, this patch was much easier to create since there are significantly fewer lines of in-game text in The Legend of Zelda compared to A Link to the Past, and of those few lines of text, only two required modification by replacing the word “boy” with “kid.”
And although it could be argued that the use of the word “boy” in the context of these two specific lines of dialogue — “BOY, THIS IS REALLY EXPENSIVE!” and “BOY, YOU’RE RICH!” — is meant as an exclamatory “wow,” it could also be argued that the intent was to convey the shopkeeper as an adult speaking to a child, in which case the proper, gender-neutral, 3-letter pronoun should be “kid” rather than “boy.”
I want to reiterate that other tremendously talented ROM hackers have created and perfected gender-swapped versions of this game and other classic games, and I think that’s great and I hope to see more. I have enormous respect for them and I also have enormous respect for the original creators of the classic games. I first started programming video games when I was about 4 years old on whatever computers I could find at my neighborhood library. By the time The Legend of Zelda was released in the US, I already had an appreciation of how much work and how many lines of code went into the most rudimentary of games, but Zelda completely blew me away with it’s artistry, music, puzzles, lore and addictive gameplay. Not only was it just downright fun to play, but it was one of the first home console games to “break the fourth wall” by allowing the player to name their playable character in the game. This was before the age of avatars and screen names and email addresses and Twitter handles. While players could choose any name they desired, the most immersive gameplay experience was possible by using your own name (or at least an 8-character abbreviation).
In The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia, Zelda series creator Shigeru Miyamoto said:
I’ve been involved in countless titles these past thirty years, but The Legend of Zelda is the only game series [I’ve worked on] where a player can input his or her own name. I said the name Link came from his role as a connector, but Link is you, the player. The series has been so successful because the player must solve puzzles and defeat tough enemies in order to ultimately save the world.
More recently, in an interview at E3 following the reveal of a new trailer for the upcoming and much-anticipated Zelda U title, Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma said:
… ultimately Link represents the player in the game. I don’t want to define him so much that it becomes limiting to the players. I want players to focus on other parts… and not specifically on the character because the character Link represents, again, is the player.
I also find it interesting that Miyamoto has said that Peter Pan — a famously gender-complicated character who doesn’t want to grow up to be a man and who is historically played by women on Broadway — was a direct influence and inspiration for Link, all the way from the hat and pointy ears down to the sword and green tunic.
So if a Zelda game player is not male and chooses to play one of these games using their name, and in the spirit of Link being an avatar as described by Miyamoto and Aonuma, then the game contains a grammatical error (or “bug”) when the in-game text refers to the player using male pronouns. From a purely engineering point-of-view, my gender-neutral patches of these Zelda games are nothing more than simple bug fixes. If Nintendo would like to implement these bug fixes in the copies of the game code that they still sell through the Wii/3DS online store and in future re-release formats, not only would there be precedent for implementing bug fixes in classic games, but I would be happy to provide Nintendo full ownership of my English-language patch files for absolutely free with absolutely no strings attached.
After using one of several methods to extract or “dump” your own The Legend of Zelda Nintendo game cartridge (specifically, the 1987 North American PRG1 release) into a ROM file, you can then apply my gender-neutral patch of The Legend of Zelda as a .vcdiff patch file using the free xdelta utility which outputs a modified ROM file. You can play the modified ROM using an NES emulator or you can play it on an actual NES using any method that allows custom ROM files to be played on the NES.
My next favorite Zelda game that I can’t wait to share with my daughter is the highly underrated The Minish Cap. It will take a bit longer to develop a gender-neutral patch for The Minish Cap because it has significantly more lines of in-game text than The Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past. Unfortunately, it isn’t a simple “find and replace” operation; I have no intention of changing the gender identities of the non-playable characters in the game and there is no shortcut way to determine which pronouns are referring to the player and which pronouns are referring to the other in-game characters without carefully reviewing all of the text and understanding the narrative context. But I do believe it is certainly a worthwhile endeavor!