More Than a Damsel in Distress: A Look at Two Iconic Princesses

Fairy tales have told the hero-saves-the-princess story for about as long as fairy tales have existed. This plot was later incorporated into video games, with some of the earliest story-driven games requiring you, the player, to save the damsel in distress. This trope has appeared in dozens of video games since, but none more prominently than the Mario and Legend of Zelda franchises.

Back in the 8-bit days, both of these franchises revolutionized gaming with Super Mario Bros and The Legend of Zelda. Though vastly different in terms of genre and gameplay, both games tasked you with fighting the villain and rescuing the princess – Princess Peach in the case of Mario, and Princess Zelda in the case of Zelda.

The appearances of Peach and Zelda in these early games are classic examples of a Damsel in Distress – no real plot importance other than being a person to be rescued, and essentially helpless (though less so in Zelda’s case). Over time, however, Nintendo has subverted these tropes in their games, especially in each franchise’s most recent entries, Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Although the safety of these princesses is still the goal of your quest, these two ladies are far more than just damsels in distress.

Warning – Spoilers ahead!

Princess Zelda has had a variety of roles over the years, but for nearly all of the main Legend of Zelda games, she’s been a supporting character. Most of the time, she has been captured or is otherwise threatened by the Forces of Evil, whether that be Ganondorf, the series main antagonist, or another one-off villain. In some games, we don’t even interact with her until the game’s final moments. Such is the case in Breath of the Wild; however, the player does see glimpses of Zelda’s character through Link’s flashbacks, and these short cutscenes reveal important aspects of Zelda’s character.

A hundred years before Breath of the Wild takes place, Hyrule is threatened by Calamity Ganon, a twisted, beastly form of Ganondorf that is literally “Hatered and Malice Incarnate.” The only way to prevent Calamity Ganon from taking over Hyrule is for Zelda to use a magical power she’s supposed to have, but for some reason cannot summon.

However, this doesn’t mean Zelda is content to sit on the sidelines – she passionately researches ancient machines known as Divine Beasts and Guardians in hopes that they will be able to fight Ganon. Aided by Link, she travels to three special springs in the land in order to awaken her abilities. Unfortunately, this doesn’t end up working in the end, and we see that after visiting the third spring with no luck, Calamity Ganon rises.

botw spring
Zelda praying at one of the springs, hoping to gain her power.

The other Champions – those chosen to pilot the Divine Beasts – insist that the princess should flee to safety, and after three successive failures, who could blame her? There’s no doubt that Zelda is discouraged, yet instead of going into hiding, Zelda insists on doing what she can to help. Even when she is the only one left standing after the Ganon takes control of the Divine Beasts and Link is (basically) in comatose, Zelda travels to Hyrule Castle alone to hold back Ganon’s full power until Link can wake up and defeat Ganon for good. In that sense, it’s less like you’re “rescuing” Zelda and more like you’re her backup – she’s had this covered for a solid century by now, she just needs you to finish him off.

Based on all of these scenes, it’s clear that some of Zelda’s defining qualities are her perseverance and courage (which is unique, since traditionally, Link possesses the Triforce of Courage). She stands up to evil, even when she knows it might cost her, and she keeps going even after being discouraged time and time again. These aren’t the characteristics of a helpless damsel in distress, but of a powerful princess determined to protect her kingdom.

botw champions
Zelda with the Champions, ready to stand against Ganon

Based on all of these scenes, it’s clear that some of Zelda’s defining qualities are her perseverance and courage (which is unique, since traditionally, Link possesses the Triforce of Courage). She stands up to evil, even when she knows it might cost her, and she keeps going even after being discouraged time and time again. These aren’t the characteristics of a helpless damsel in distress, but of a powerful princess determined to protect her kingdom.

Breath of the Wild isn’t the only game that showcases Zelda’s power, though – in Ocarina of Time, she disguises herself as Sheik to help Link in his quest, in The Wind Waker, her alter ego is a pirate captain, and in Spirit Tracks, she accompanies you for the majority of your quest (albeit in a ghost-like form). Even though she may have started out as an endangered princess, Zelda is clearly more than that, no matter what game she’s in.

Now, we’ll look at gaming’s other popular princess, the monarch of the Mushroom Kingdom herself.

Unlike Zelda, Princess Peach has played the traditional “distressed damsel” more often than not. Sometimes I feel like I’ve seen her in Bowser’s clutches more often than not. However, even though she’s a princess in a puffy pink dress, there’s a lot more to Peach than meets the eye.

Super Mario Odyssey starts of pretty much the same way as any other Mario game: Bowser has kidnapped Peach, and for some reason, you, the chubby plumber, are the only one who can save her.  So you travel the world, fight Bowser and his henchbunnies* a few times, and finally end up on the moon for some reason, where the final battle takes place just in time to stop an ill-fated wedding between Princess Peach and the Koopa King.

*no, that’s not a joke. The henchmen/women are rabbits.

You and your trusty hat-ghost friend defeat Bowser, of course, and escape the inside of a mountain as it collapses. Everyone is safe! But just when you think Mario and Peach are about to have their… *ahem* moment, Bowser jumps in, vying for the princess’s affection with a bouquet of Piranha Plants (it’s the thought that counts, right?). Not to be outdone, Mario offers her a Rocket Flower.

odyssey flowers
When I was said 1-Ups, I wasn’t talking about this

This goes on for a few moments until Peach shouts “No!” and pushes them away as she marches off to Mario’s ship, leaving the hero and villain behind on the moon. I actually thought it was a rather funny scene, but it does show us something deeper, too – clearly, this is one princess who doesn’t have time for the antics of her suitors and would really just like to go home.

odyssey denial
Peach is having none of your nonsense, boys

The game doesn’t stop there though, and after landing back in the Mushroom Kingdom, we learn that the princess isn’t actually at home (and she’s not in another castle, either). As it turns out, Peach has decided to take a vacation of sorts and travel the world on her own terms. Sure, you could argue that she’s shirking her responsibilities as a ruler, but considering she just went through a traumatic experience, I think Peach is allowed to take a short break.

In the case of Peach, the ending portions of the game show her independence – she’s perfectly capable of ruling her kingdom and traveling the world on her own. She does, in fact, have a life outside of getting kidnapped, which is more than can be said of most distressed damsels.

And if you’re thinking that Peach is still too helpless, think again: Super Paper Mario, Super Mario RPG, and Super Princess Peach all show that the princess is a force to be reckoned with. Super Princess Peach is actually one of my personal favorites, as its premise tasks you, Peach, with rescuing Mario and Luigi. A nice subversion.


As long as stories are being written, princesses will probably be kidnapped, endangered, or what have you. However, that doesn’t mean they’re useless – Peach and Zelda area both clear examples of independent, strong, and courageous princesses. There’s more to them than pretty dresses and danger, and they’re certainly more than damsels in distress.

Readers, who are some of your favorite “damsels in distress”? (They don’t need to be princesses!) Why do you like them? Let me know in the comments!

Have a great week!

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s