Princess Zelda is the title character of Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda series, and is usually the presiding princess of the fictional land of Hyrule.
Throughout The Legend of Zelda franchise, much like the other main characters, "Zelda" does not refer to one specific character. There have been many Zeldas as well as many Links throughout the history of Hyrule. Though numerous incarnations do share common traits, they each have their own unique characteristics in terms of both personality and appearance.
Princess Zelda first appears in the game The Legend of Zelda as a damsel in distress, having being captured and held prisoner by the evil Ganon. Princess Zelda's only hope is to be rescued by the protagonist, Link.
In addition to the recurring characters Link and Ganon, Zelda also symbolizes a piece of the Triforce. In her case, she is representative of the Triforce of Wisdom, where as Link represents Courage and Ganon Power.
Despite the franchise's title, Princess Zelda does not actually appear in every Zelda game. Link's Awakening, for example, only makes a fleeting reference to her existence, but otherwise she is not mentioned, nor does she appear. Likewise, in the Game Boy Color Zelda games Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages, there is almost no mention of Princess Zelda in the main plot. The two games must be played in succession with the use of the password system that connects them in order to reveal the overall plot of the games, and Zelda's connection to it.
Depictions of Zelda
Throughout The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the supposedly male Sheik helps Link by giving him hints about where to go and teaching him the songs for teleporting to the temples on his harp. Towards the end of the game, it is revealed that Sheik is actually Zelda in disguise.
The feisty young pirate captain Tetra first comes into contact with Link when Link's sister, Aryll, is kidnapped, while the intended victim was Tetra. This leads to Tetra aiding Link in his quest throughout the game, offering reluctant help when Link is in need. She uses a gossip stone to communicate to him. It is later revealed in the submerged Hyrule Castle that Tetra is, in fact, the direct descendant of Princess Zelda. With this new knowledge, Tetra/Zelda is endowed with the Triforce of Wisdom and its powers. Her identity now revealed, Ganondorf kidnaps Zelda and takes her to his castle, where Link must rescue her in the final stage of the game. Once freed, she aids Link in defeating Ganon by firing Light Arrows (an item that is used by Zelda in many titles) at Link, which he must deflect with his shield.
Despite being the direct sequel to Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass features a pirate-garbed Tetra. Although she and her crew now knows her heritage, she would rather remain known as Tetra, captain of her ship and band of pirates than as Princess Zelda of Hyrule. In the opening cutscene, Tetra is captured by the Ghost Ship, prompting Link to launch into a valiant quest to save her. Later, it's revealed that she has been turned to stone. Link then has to defeat Gufuu, to turn her back into her standard form.
The First Zelda
The first Zelda is not a princess, nor does Hyrule as a land yet exist when she is born. She is a girl of Skyloft and a student of the Knight Academy that she and her childhood friend Link attend. But unbeknownst to her, she is also the reincarnation of the goddess Hylia, who chose to give up her divinity and live as a mortal. Throughout the game, Zelda is pursued by Ghirahim, who requires her latent divine power to resurrect Demise.
The story of Hylia herself, as well as the first Link, was chronicled in a special manga published in the Legend of Zelda art/chronology book Hyrule Historia. The manga chronicles the events that lead to Hylia giving up her divinity.
In Hyrule Warriors, Zelda appears as a playable character alongside Link and a host of other characters from across the Legend of Zelda timeline. She fights using a rapier and can summon a bow of light as a special attack. Her design in the game meshes more traditional dress elements with pieces of armor.
Hyrule Warriors marks the first time in the series that Zelda is Queen of Hyrule. The decision to cast her as queen in the game was based on the thought that the increased power in station was a better fit for her role in the story. For example, as queen, Zelda has full command of the army and is free to enter battle alongside her own troops.
Zelda is able to use multiple weapon styles in the game, including a rapier and batons like the Wind Waker.
Zelda's alternate persona in Ocarina of Time, Sheik, is also a playable character on the roster separate from Zelda. Sheik fights using a harp and daggers as weapons. Her connection to the Zelda of Hyrule Warriors is unclear at the time.
Super Smash Bros.
Princess Zelda appears as a playable character in the Super Smash Bros. series, along with her Ocarina of Time Sheik persona. Her first appearance as a playable character in the series came in Super Smash Bros. Melee, in which she has the unique ability to shift back and forth between her "Zelda" and "Sheik" forms. Each form has a completely different set of moves and abilities.
Princess Zelda is also playable in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and again can shift back and forth between her Zelda and Sheik personae. Zelda's design in this game is based on her appearance in Twilight Princess, and as such, Sheik's visual design was tweaked to reflect her being an alternate persona of the Twlight Princess Zelda.
In Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and NIntendo 3DS, Zelda and Sheik are once again playable. However, they are now separate characters with completely independent abilities and attributes, and cannot transform from one incarnation to the other.
A belief commonly held by Zelda enthusiasts is that series creator Shigeru Miyamoto named his Princess-character "Zelda" after the wife of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald.
As a big, long time fan of the Zelda series, actor Robin Williams named his daughter after the titular princess. They also recently appeared in a commercial together, promoting The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D for the Nintendo 3DS.