Sidekicks, by their very nature, are unappreciated. They do all the heavy lifting, while some square-jawed schmuck hogs the spotlight. There is that old shred of wisdom that Ginger Rogers had to do every step that Fred Astaire did, but backwards, and in heels. The fate of the videogame sidekick is no different. They’re put through the exact paces that the heroes go through – slogging through every ambush or pit trap, schlepping through every dungeon or monster-infested cave – but the sidekicks receive none of the payoff. They don’t get the glory. They don’t get the girl. The best they can hope for is that the girl has a palette-swapped younger sister with her weekends free.
As a further indignity, sometimes the lack of appreciation for the companions of the protagonist runs deeper and the player starts to hate sharing the spotlight. Among gamers, the dislike of sidekicks might be a conditioned response – after decades of buggy escort quests and lobotomized A.I., it’s instinctual to distrust the “plus ones” and the tagalongs of the gaming universe that seem to exist solely to drag ass, spout inane dialogue, and absorb bullets like a sponge with a death wish. Fair enough. But every now and again, this ire is directed at someone who is undeserving of such hatred – one companion who is wise and worthy, a sidekick that kicks ass. This might be why the all-time greatest sidekick in the history of gaming is also one of the most under-appreciated … and by that I mean “loathed with a thick bilious hate that chokes out the sun.”
I think Navi is the greatest partner ever to grace a videogame. I know that this puts me in the lonely minority. Link’s perpetually-nattering pixie friend has become a punching bag among gamers, who view her constant cries as a nag and a nuisance. She’s constantly calling out “Hey!” and “Listen!” – only those lines are delivered like a shriek of wonder from a precocious, wild eyed-child, so it’s more like “Heeeeeeyyyyy! LeeeeeeEEEEESEN!“
This might be the most unsung virtue of Link as a hero – not only is he the physical embodiment of courage, and a natural with a sword, he’s also a really great leeeeeeEEEEESENer.
Navi’s chattiness often has her lumped in with some unfortunate company – the most truly useless sidekicks ever to stink up a game. There’s that sniggering demon-dog from Duck Hunt, who writhes in perverse glee at your misfortune, and who no amount of bullets could touch … he’s still out there, somewhere, chortling at how poorly your 7-year-old self handled that zapper gun. And then there’s Fox McCloud’s naive and bumbling wingman, Slippy Toad, whose dialogue can be summarized as “Oh, save me Fox! There are bad guys and I am bad at spaceships!”
While all these characters may all be annoying in their own way, there is a crucial difference that sets Navi apart. The dog and the frog are either mean-spirited or incompetent, and serve to drag you down through either outright hostility or bumbling failure. Navi, by contrast, is a consummate professional. She has your best interests at heart, and she has your back through thick and thin. In fact, even a glance at the gameplay of Ocarina shows just how essential she is.
You want advice about your next challenge? Get Navi. Don’t know where to go next? Ask Navi. Is there an enemy near? Navi will glow red, and tell you to “Watch out!” Is there a secret nearby? Navi will fly toward it and glow green. How many sidekicks are color-coded for your convenience? This by itself is a marvel of physiological design.
Even more fundamentally, Navi is at the heart of the Z-targeting system, which controls and focuses your actions throughout the game. Any time you lock onto a skeleton, or target with your hookshot? That’s Navi, guiding your strikes like a laser pointer. Go at it alone for even a few seconds without the help from your fairy friend and it immediately becomes apparent how much she’s needed. Try to attack an enemy with your sword without locking on Link just ends up slashing the wall? Clang! Your sword recoils as you flail about like a cretin. Try it again? Clang! Without Navi, that’s all the game would be. If you think about it, Navi is the real brains of the outfit, out there making the big decisions. She’s there before every strike of the sword, every shot of the bow, every chest that needs opening. Forget trivial things like courage, wisdom, power – Navi deserves the Triforce of Micromanagement. As a final proof, and in comparison to her companion, she can actually talk. Forget this “Hero of Time” hokum. To an impartial observer, Navi runs the show. Link is just the opposable digits.
In a way, Navi is the purified essence of sidekick-dom, distilled down to its most basic form. Her entire lexicon consists of puzzle game imperatives – Look! Listen! Watch out! Her body itself is a gameplay prompt. She’s with you constantly, yet can shrink down and disappear into your pocket. It’s like she’s made out of concentrated, 200 proof helpfulness, garnished with wings and a dash of git-r-done. So what if she’s always nagging about this or that? So was your mother. Like your mother, Navi is always right – sometimes it just takes a little while to appreciate it.
This might seem like a little thing, but it’s something that sets Navi apart in the sidekick pantheon. So often in games we are given the illusion of autonomy – the idea that we, as players, have everything under control, that somehow it’s our own brilliance, bravado and mad boomerang skills that will win the day. By himself, Link is calm and collected. He is a bad enough dude to save the princess. Add a helper fairy into the mix, even one who means well, and suddenly he’s the guy who can’t keep his head on straight. Every reminder, no matter how benign, suggests a player who doesn’t know what for what. Look! A treasure chest! Maybe that’s worth opening! Watch out! A bad guy! Maybe do something about that! Listen! Did you pack the sandwiches?
Taken separately, this is all solid advice – after all, it’s almost impossible to muster the effort for a day’s worth of heroics if you’ve forgotten the sandwiches. But where most sidekicks serve as stepping stools, assuring the protagonist’s endless aptitude and worthiness, Navi’s presence suggests the opposite. It’s a humbling, slightly embarrassing reminder that it’s a big, scary world out there, one for which we might not have all the answers. It’s the kind of place that you’ll need to face not on your lonesome, but with a little help from your friends.
I would say that Navi is like that little voice in your ear that keeps you on the straight and narrow, but that’s not quite right – that’s not like what she is, that is literally, exactly, 100% what she is. She’s the external conscience that you can’t ignore … and if that’s something you can’t handle, then that speaks more about you than it does about her. What kind of a person ignores their own conscience?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you’re wrong for disliking Navi. I’m saying that you’re a bad person and should be ashamed.
Though she gets a bad rap for her constant advice, in my mind it’s precisely that constancy that redeems her, serving as her greatest asset, and the central characteristic of her role. For all its size and scale, the world of Ocarina of Time is a surprisingly lonesome place, separated by wide empty expanses, populated only by ghosts and monsters. What little friendly life there is in Hyrule comes and goes – in the beginning of the game, the noble patriarch of Link’s village intones that evil is afoot, and then passes away from his injuries. Princess Zelda herself is kidnapped on horseback, and later entombed within a crystal. After a trip through time, a once-lively castle town has turned into a haunted ruin, populated only by strangely-oaken zombies. Bad turns to worse. Worse turns to Water Temple.
But where everyone else in Ocarina’s cast of dozens comes and goes, disappearing into time or getting snatched away, Navi is there through it all, right by your side. Somehow, that means more to me then the annoying voice, the nagging, the same six words shrieked over and over in my ear. If you can look past all that, Navi is a character that sticks by your side through thick and thin – and, really, could anyone ask for a better companion than that? In a game so vast – and at times, so unrelentingly bleak in theme and tone – I felt glad to have Navi with me, as a speck of light against the darkness.
Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, so he knows a little something about places so vast, and unrelentingly bleak in theme and tone. He is a bad person, and should be ashamed.