[Ed. note: Spoilers follow for the ending of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.]
Tears of the Kingdom ends with everything back where it began. Ganondorf is defeated. Zelda returns and retakes her place on the throne. Link even regains his arm. The motley crew of helpers that he assembled on his journey comes together to pledge fealty to the crown. Zelda vows to dedicate herself to maintaining peace in Hyrule.
Of course, we know that she won’t succeed. The inevitability of a new Legend of Zelda game, a new iteration of Ganon threatening the princess and the world and being stopped by Link, is so obvious that it’s been canonized within the fiction itself. The three are locked in a cycle of reincarnation, driven in-universe by mysterious divine forces, and out of universe by the franchise’s ever-growing popularity.
That cycle is the great tragedy beneath the entirety of The Legend of Zelda’s narrative. And yet, Tears of the Kingdom’s ending acts as if preserving things entirely how they were before is a grand victory. To win is to return to the status quo.
But The Legend of Zelda’s status quo is running thinner every year. When Tears of the Kingdom was first announced, a peek at a short-haired Zelda in the trailer had many people wondering if Nintendo would use the sequel to finally introduce a playable princess. Instead, her story is the same as it ever was. Even the Master Sword is given more agency. In the scene where it appears to her in the past, Zelda says that it “traveled through time to find me and recover [its] strength,” implying an intentional journey, while she was simply “sent” back by forces unknown.
When she returns, of course, she returns to the throne. In being stranded in Hyrule’s early years and meeting Rauru, the founder of the kingdom, she has learned that she has a ruler’s bloodline stretching back as far as it can go, and possibly before that, if the rumors of the Zonai’s divine blood are to be believed. The modern-day sages repeat almost verbatim the vow of loyalty that the previous sages gave to Rauru. This is a game that skipped advertising in my country, perhaps because of the death of the queen. Anti-monarchy protestors at her successor’s coronation were subject to arrests.
There’s no hint in The Legend of Zelda that anyone questions her right to absolute rule — other than Ganon. Zelda is presented as an entirely benevolent dictator. She wants peace, without acknowledgement that this is a complicated word for those in power to be throwing around so casually. Still, the only threat to that is, as Mineru puts it in expository dialogue, a “great evil emerging from the desert.” This laughably loaded phrase and the racist tropes that have always underpinned Ganon’s story, like the gendered aspects of Zelda’s repetitive role in the narrative, appear to skate by simply because this has been going on so long that mentioning them feels blasé.
Tears of the Kingdom does bring in its own, less well-trodden themes — before discarding them in favor of a neat conclusion. The game should have had something interesting to say about bodies, for instance. Link loses an arm and gains a prosthetic; Zelda transforms herself entirely; Mineru is able to separate her spirit and use a robot construct, one that she allows Link to pilot as a mech.
But rather than giving any attention to the lasting impacts of these changes or their thematic implications, the writers simply erase them. Mineru steps out of her constructed self and disappears, and Zelda’s revival is given a handwave explanation: The combined powers of her ancestors allowed her to do the impossible and return. Presumably, the same can be said for Link’s arm, although it’s never even acknowledged beyond a brief moment of surprise from our hero.
What Tears of the Kingdom ultimately says about bodies is that in a neat, happy ending, they can only exist one way. Prosthetics, scars, or deliberate modifications are blemishes that must be erased in the same sweep as the Demon King himself. Like the rest of the narrative — like the rest of the franchise — it doesn’t celebrate anything changing.
In their excellent piece on Tears of the Kingdom’s ending, critic Harper Jay asks if it’s “a story for our current times.” They argue that a bolder, more honest ending might have left Zelda trapped in her draconic form, never quite remembering why she is crying; that a bittersweet move like that would demonstrate that in order for evil to be defeated, there has to be a sacrifice that can’t be swept away by convenient 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 — one that says that clinging to the status quo is the equivalent of victory. It’s the story told to us by bosses who say their striking workers’ demands are “unrealistic.” It’s the story told by ineffective political leaders who refuse to challenge harmful government policy. It’s the story that motivates regressive, transphobic laws. It’s the story that allows for more oil drilling during the climate crisis.
It’s also a story that reflects the current corporate media landscape more broadly. Remakes, sequels, AI regurgitating the most average output of everything it’s been fed, 45 advertisement movies based on Mattel IP including the “grounded and gritty” Hot Wheels 0. Everything is something you’ve seen before, again, just bigger. Once, Nintendo used the success of Ocarina of Time to make Majora’s Mask, something surprising and tonally unique. This time, it did not.
What would break these cycles? Tears of the Kingdom isn’t interested in asking. It takes us back to the beginning so that we’re ready to do it all over again, leaving no room for the fact that its apparent victory is really its own kind of tragedy.