All this month, SYFY FANGRRLS is celebrating Warrior Women Month, sharing the stories of female warriors in folklore, fantasy, and genre from around the world. These women — real and imagined alike — inspire us to make change and fight for what's right, no matter the cost.
In the epic saga of reincarnation, callbacks, and pot smashing that is The Legend of Zelda franchise, it’s easy to forget, what with all the Ganons, Zeldas, and Links, that Impa, bodyguard, nursemaid, and mentor to the young princess, has been there from day one.
To be clear, she’s not actually in the original The Legend of Zelda game and its sequel, The Adventure of Link, but she is in the manual; it’s Impa who chances across Link and tasks him with saving Hyrule for the first time (or 11th time, if we’re following the latest official timeline.) She, as befitting someone who prefers to operate quietly and in the shadows, can be often overlooked, but I think she’s a warrior woman worthy of celebration who also exemplifies the franchise’s amazing ability to add nuance to characters who could otherwise be completely flat.
Of course, talking about a specific Zelda character can get complicated, because what looks like one character is usually a grab bag of reincarnations. (It’s a bit like Saturday Night Live; your favorite tends to be whichever one you played in high school.) In Impa’s case, there are at least four, not counting games like Hyrule Warriors and, curse the mouth that must speak these words, The Wand of Gamelon.
But I encountered Impa in the flesh—well, polygons—for the first time the same way everyone else did: in Ocarina of Time. Far from being a weak little old lady dependent on Link to save her from Ganon’s minions, she’s introduced as a woman of many hats. Not only is she the last of the mysterious Sheikah, tasked since the dawn of time to protect the royal family and Hyrule, she’s also the village elder in absentia of Kakariko Village, Zelda’s bodyguard/mentor, and the Sage of Shadow. You spend little time with her, but her influence can be felt throughout the game: Kakariko residents speak admiringly of her decision to open up the village and her successful efforts to protect it during Ganondorf’s reign, and Zelda’s disguise certainly seems influenced by the strongest woman in her life.
She next appears in the delightful Capcom-produced GameBoy Color duet Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons, not as a warrior but as Zelda’s erstwhile nursemaid, accompanying the princess on her adventures in Labrynna and Holodrum. She doesn’t get to do much, but her character design in these games is just fun—a wimple and a sleeveless dress? Don’t mind if I do!
But she disappeared from the franchise’s mainline games for a decade after that, unless you count Impaz in Twilight Princess, but I don’t. It’s implied she’s Sheikah, but she also mentions that she’s explicitly named after Ocarina of Time’s Impa. (Funnily enough, Impaz was Old Man Impa during development, which would have both counted and told us that the reincarnation cycle of Zelda doesn’t give a hooey about gender.)
Impa resurfaced in 2011’s Skyward Sword, with a younger, lankier redesign and a more active role in the story. Tasked by the Goddess Hylia, she travels to her future (the player’s present) to protect the Goddess’ reincarnation, Zelda, in her quest to defeat Demise, the Satan of the Zelda universe. She chastises Link for failing to live up to the heroic standards expected of him, faces off against Demise’s minions, and, most devastatingly, pulls a “Girl Who Waited” across millennia at the end of the game to ensure that Demise won’t reawaken. Seriously, it’s devastating, I cried.
Breath of the Wild went both back to and well beyond basics, so it’s no surprise this game’s take on Impa is, as in the first game, a crone who sets Link up for his big adventure, and, as in Ocarina of Time, a respected elder of her people. She shares with you the story of not only what happened 10,000 years ago, but what happened 100 years ago to deprive Link of his memory and her role in it. While she doesn’t play as large a part as she did in Skyward Sword, she’s still a whole and nuanced character, doing things like embarrassing her granddaughter in front of Link by oversharing.
OK, I hear you say, that’s all well and good. But when celebrating warrior women, why choose Impa, who has only spent about half of her series appearances as a warrior, out of the legion of lady warriors—from pirates to ninjas to an entire nation composed of increasingly jacked warrior women—that can be found in the entirety of The Legend of Zelda?
Simple: her sense of duty and responsibility.
What I always loved about Impa was that she was clearly an Adult. Encountering her for the first time in Ocarina of Time, she’s the kind of hearty, kind-eyed butch in her forties that has always made me feel like “Oh, thank God, a real adult is here, I can stop pretending I’m not just a loose consortium of nonsense in a shroud.”
It’s not only that she can handle herself with a short sword, it’s that she has many clearly defined responsibilities that she thinks deeply about. In Ocarina of Time, you encounter her in her role as Zelda’s bodyguard and, later, in her role as Kakariko’s protector after you rescue her from the Shadow Temple. At the end of Skyward Sword, Zelda begs Impa to come back to the future with her, but Impa knows where her duty lies. She makes the ultimate sacrifice doing so because it’s the right thing to do.
One of the things I most value about The Legend of Zelda as a whole is that characters are rarely just one thing. (Except for Tingle, the David S. Pumpkins of Hyrule.) Respected village elders are new dads, pirates are princesses, and people live the 24/7 mermaid lifestyle while being very aware they’re just roleplaying. The execution can be hit or miss, but there is, at least, an attempt at nuance.
What’s fascinating to me about Impa is that she gets to be, well, a little bit of everything over the last 30-odd years. She gets to be the warrior and the respected village elder and the crone. When I think of her, I don’t just think of a warrior who can plow through scores of enemies (although she certainly can in Hyrule Warriors). I think of someone who truly understands and values her power and her duty. And to me, that’s the best and greatest measure of a warrior woman.