Short answer: It’s Princess Zelda’s brother. This dramatic little scene — recently posted on Game & Graphics, an awesome blog that features art from classic video games and their promotional materials — originally appeared in the instruction booklet for Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. But this bit of prologue illustrates a scene and characters that don’t appear anywhere in the game. While it’s not unusual for a video game to cram some extra exposition into the manual, but I’m interested in the decision to include this kid and then design him as they have. I mean, if you’re setting up a guy who’s such a short-term villain that he doesn’t even appear in the actual game, why model him after Jackie Earle Haley in Day of the Locust?
The prologue offers this much as background: When the king dies, the prince tries to get his well-manicured hands on the Triforce, but only Zelda knows its location. Aiding the prince in these efforts is an especially shady-looking magician — unnamed, like the prince himself — who threatens Zelda with a sleeping spell. (By the way, a psychologist with a penchant for pop culture could give a good take on the symbolism of the refined prince casting a hideous, demonic shadow.) Zelda still refuses and the magician, as promised, puts her under with an incantation so nasty that he drops dead on the spot. Finally remorseful, the prince locks Zelda in a room for safekeeping until someone can break the spell.
I like that story. It sets up why Zelda is napping for the duration of Zelda II, and it also gives a hint as to what the hell the franchise’s title means. (Allegedly, the prince decreed that all daughters born to the royal family should be named Zelda as a means of reminding everyone of the tragedy that befell his sister. You know, because of him.) What makes me scratch my head, however, is the prince’s look. Doesn’t he seem… a little young? a little bratty? a little effete? Why make him so much smaller than Zelda? Why give him such elegant curls? Why give him just the one visible tooth? When he could easily have been an imposing figure, why make him an angry, pubescent fop? Especially when the actual hero, Link, isn’t exactly a swaggering portrait of masculinity.
I mean, he can swing a mean sword, sure, but what kind of a guy wears jerkins and coordinates their tights with their boots? Also, I’d like to point out that this is the Zelda game where Link can transform into a fairy — wings, wand, ladyhair, pink Tinkerbell dress and all — in order to squeeze through keyholes.
The image of Prince What’s-His-Name sticks out so much because I remember playing the game through and never seeing this little shit. Honestly, he could be long dead, because who knows how long Zelda has been sleeping. But I was still disappointed. I really wanted to see him in action and find out how his appearance compared with his reputation. No, scratch that — I secretly wanted some kind of two-player co-op function in which you could play as this whip-cracking sassbucket, countering Link’s various special moves with such character-appropriate special moves as pouting, speaking cutting insults, ordering his butler to hit people and sulking while running a jewel comb through his silky locks. Now that would be an pixelly, eight-bit memory that this guy would like to reflect on.
For the record, the depiction of the prince isn’t the only bit of Nintendo-issued Zelda II art to take some creative license. For example, here’s how the booklet depicts Helmet Head, the game’s second boss:
And here’s what the same monster looks like in the game:
It’s not as show-stopping, is it? But I feel safe stating that the angriest royal dandy in video game-dom would have amped up the drama.