In honor of the release of the Nintendo Switch, I'm making this a month of video game manga! Video games and manga are not a radical nor recent combination. Indeed, today's review covers a beloved adaptation of an equally beloved Nintendo franchise from an equally beloved Nintendo magazine.
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: A LINK TO THE PAST (Zelda no Densetsu), by Shotaru Ishinomori. First published in North America in 1992.
On a dark and stormy night, Link is roused from a sound sleep by a strange voice calling him to the king's castle. There he finds the Princess Zelda under attack from the evil sorcerer Agahnim. He wants to use Zelda's life force to summon Ganon and thus take over the world. In order to save Zelda, Link must find a legendary sword and traverse all the dangers of both his own world and the Dark World where Zelda is being held.
Unlike the more recent and better-known Zelda manga, Ishinomori's take on A Link To the Past is an odd duck in many ways. It's not quite a true adaptation, as Ishinomori takes a number of liberties with the original story. It's not quite a true manga, as it was first published in North America and brought over to Japan only after it finished its original English language run in Nintendo Power. Yet it's weird and charming enough that I can understand why fans would have remembered it decades later.
Just because you've played A Link to the Past (or any other Zelda game, for that matter) does not mean you know everything that goes on here. Ishinomori went out of his way to make changes to the plot so that (in his own words) "preserve the elements of surprise and add to the dramatic flow." That becomes obvious almost right away. He does preserve the broad strokes of the main plot along with a number of main and supporting characters, but he also scrambles up other details, condenses the plot heavily, and adds in a lot of his own boss monsters and supporting characters. Ishinomori's works tend to be rather action-heavy, and this manga is no exception to that rule. Link bounces from one action set-piece to the next with only the briefest of narrative breaks between them. This was probably less on an issue when it was originally serialized, but in one single collection it can get a little exhausting at points. He even slips in some references to his own original works, as the bird-man warrior Roan will seem awfully familiar to those who have read or seen Cyborg 009.
Since the story is so condensed, there's not a lot of room for nuanced character writing. That's not to say that there isn't any character to be found here. Indeed, Ishinomori's version of Link has a sort of goofiness that comes out in lighter moments that goes a long way towards giving the story levity. You have to remember that in this pre-Ocarina of Time work, Link's backstory and personality hadn't been set in stone, so Ishinomori had more freedom to do what he wished with the character. He's also good at giving Link's many allies some sense of personality, however fleeing their actual appearances may be. Zelda admittedly spends much of the story off-screen in a coma, but her psychic dialogues with Link help to keep her present in some sense. She also gets to be involved in Ganon's defeat that I wish more of the actual Zelda games would employ. Sadly, her best character moment is in the very end, where she and Link share a surprisingly somber, even bittersweet moment.
It's moments like that justify this manga's existence and make it memorable. Ishinomori took what was likely meant to be a quick little commercial tie-in and put his own mark on it. In the process, he created a work that manages to feel true to the spirit of the original game but distinct enough to stand on its own.
Choosing a mangaka like Shotaro Ishinomori was an interesting choice on Nintendo's part. Ishinomori's artstyle never really evolved beyond the 1960s, so even by 1992 standards this manga looks very old-fashioned. I wonder if they thought that the rounded, Tezuka-esque character designs and big goofy expressions that so often define his work would appeal to children. The irony is that by going with such a old-fashioned artist, this comic feels timeless instead of a product of its time. They certainly stand in contrast to the beautiful backgrounds on display here. Ishinomori's take on the land of Hyrule is one defined by bright, bold washes of primary colors, lovingly rendered chipped and craggy rock faces, and bursts of magic, water, and explosions that seem to spatter right off the page. I don't know how good they would have looked in the original run in Nintendo Power, but they positively shine thanks to both Ishinomori's simple yet skillful composition as well as Viz's choice to publish it in such an large format on such high-quality paper. The presentation alone makes this volume worth a look, even if you've never played a Zelda game in your life.
Ishinomori's take on A Link To the Past isn't a replacement for the game, but it more than justifies its existence thanks to his own original takes on the world of Link as well as his beautiful, confident, and easy-to-follow art. It's a legendary work in its own right, able to stand alongside both the OTHER Zelda manga as well as the original games.
This book is published by Viz. It is currently in print.