On Wednesday, Takaya Imamura reported in for his last day of work with Nintendo. In his 32 years with the company, he worked on some of the publisher's biggest franchises. While he spent many years working with F-Zero and Star Fox and designing some of their best characters, one of his biggest contributions to gaming history came from designing Tingle, the oddball supporting character who first debuted in The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask.
With the announcement of Imamura's departure, my thoughts turned to arguably his greatest creation. But Tingle wasn't always considered to be that. I remember when he was first introduced to the gaming world in the pages of Nintendo Power magazine back in 2000. I believe the words "nightmare fuel" were used to describe him years before that became common vernacular. I'm getting ahead of myself, though. Let's take a look back at Tingle, Nintendo's wackiest mascot this side of Waluigi, and his place in Nintendo's grander universe.
Fairies in The Legend of Zelda
Part of what made Tingle so jarring is in the nature of what he is. Link first meets him in The Legend of Zelda and he claims to be a fairy.
Okay, let's stop right there. What is a fairy in The Legend of Zelda?
To that point, there was a set idea of what fairies were and how they functioned in Hyrule. They were pixie-like beings that were small enough to fit in a bottle. Part of the fun of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was catching fairies with the Bug-Catching Net. They were small creatures that popped up whenever Link fell in battle, sprinkling fairy dust over his corpse to revive him. It's an image that was prevalent across games and even across the old Legend of Zelda cartoon from the 1980's.
That's part of why Tingle's debut in Majora's Mask felt so... weird. His very appearance went against everything that fans were told about fairies. But here he was, this weird, creepy-looking middle-aged man riding in on a red balloon. Link first met Tingle in Termina, where he claimed to be the very reincarnation of a fairy. A remark from this 35-year-old man about how his father believed he should act his age was interpreted in more than one way and gave him his own interesting lore.
Was Tingle an oversized fanboy, meant to be a parody of obsessive nerd culture? Was he the everyman counterpart to Link, trying to embark on his own hero's journey? Was he delusional, a tragic being who may have been mentally unwell? In what would have been a big twist, was he actually everything he said he was?
There were many ways to interpret Tingle's debut. However, those who weren't fans during Majora's Mask's initial 2000 release may not remember that he didn't go over well with the average Zelda fan out here in the West. Majora's Mask was coming off the success of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which many fans believe to be the series' peak and also one of Nintendo's most epic adventures. In contrast to the more whimsical tone of the Mario games, the Zelda series was comparatively more mature, something that the Majora's Mask plot as a whole seemed to fully support. In a game about the literal end of the world versus an antagonist who wished to see the world burn, finding a giant man-child dressed in Kokiri cosplay was a bit jarring.
In an age where Jar-Jar Binks drew the intense ire of Star Wars fans and pop culture aficionados as a whole, Western audiences had no time for Tingle and his brand of nonsense. Fans on and offline expressed their hatred for the character. The old IGN Cube (IGN's GameCube vertical) crew even took Tingle hatred to its most extreme level with the subtly-titled feature, Die, Tingle, Die!
Eric Bailey has been the curator of the Nintendo Legend website for 10 years and grew up on The Legend of Zelda. He remembers when Tingle first came along and tried to put his finger on the vitriol towards this unique character.
"I think Tingle is an exercise in contrasts, and forming a character that doesn't easily fit established molds of what people are 'supposed' to be like," Bailey told Shacknews. "His flamboyance is counter-intuitive to many players' understanding (and expectations) of masculinity, his age (35 years old!) might be seen as discomforting given his child-like whimsy, and despite him seeming so silly and untethered from societal norms, he is also fairly practical and useful (who wouldn't want to buy a map from him?)."
Tingle hate was a thing for years after the character's debut. Seeing supporting characters featured in multiple Zelda games is a rarity, even to this day. That's partly why many people were vexed to see Tingle popping up repeatedly in subsequent games. He was there to hand out fetch quests in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. He tried to take Force Gems from Link in The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventure. He popped up again in The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap.
But let's fast-forward to 2020. A lot has changed. It's a different world. Tingle hate not only isn't nearly as intense as it was when he first debuted. He's become, dare I say it... popular.
A fairy boy's redemption
We live in a paradox. The world today is crueler than it's ever been. At the same time, however, the world is also endeavoring to rise above the cruelty of the past. Remember the Jar-Jar Binks example I put forward a few minutes ago? Actor Ahmed Best was treated horribly by fans for many years. However, there have been sincere efforts by Star Wars fans to make amends to Best, to actor Jake Lloyd, and to actor Hayden Christensen for that whole period of overblown hatred.
While the treatment of a fictional character obviously can't compare to what these real-world people endured, there has been a similar turnaround regarding how fans perceive Tingle. I wouldn't go so far as to say intense hatred for Tingle no longer exists, but I will say that it barely registers anymore. In fact, the opposite has become increasingly true. The current sentiment leans more towards loving Tingle and appreciating his whimsy.
Takaya Imamura has officially retired today 😭!— ⭐️ GamesCage - Hype Guy ⭐️ (@OnTheDownLoTho) January 20, 2021
He was a big artist at Nintendo most notable for designing the Star Fox crew, Captain Falcon, TINGLE, and was the art director for Majora's Mask 😱!@sFO83Z2kaizn04z thank u for your work❤️ pic.twitter.com/CTQXoUqG1e
When did this turnaround first start to surface? When did Tingle hate turn into Tingle appreciation?
"I would guess about a decade after the game's 2000 release when multiple social media platforms were truly exploding and achieving omnipresence in human culture," Bailey added. "Nintendo fans worldwide were encountering a greater diversity of viewpoints -- not to mention a greater diversity of other people themselves. You end up having many of your internalized views challenged, you see certain segments of the fanbase embracing him enthusiastically, you begin to wonder why you were ever annoyed by the guy."
A part of that greater diversity comes from newer generations of Nintendo fans. A perfect example is the Zeldathon team, a crew of Legend of Zelda enthusiasts who jump on Twitch twice a year to leisurely play games in the series for charity. One of Zeldathon's most recognizable faces is streamer Douggernaught, who also happens to be a big Tingle fan. He helps explain the enthusiasm for this oddball character succinctly.
"He's the ultimate underdog, kind of like the Luigi of the Zelda universe," Douggernaught told Shacknews. "He's definitely meant to represent (and make fun of) otaku, so him being a bit of a nerd is relatable to me, a bit of a nerd myself. I was probably 11 when I first played Majora's Mask and met Tingle. He debuted in that game alongside a lot of other weird characters (like Toilet Hand, another of my favorites), but he did not let that overshadow him. At first I considered him a store-brand version of Link, since he wears green and has a pointy hat, and aspires to have a fairy companion of his own. After repeated interactions with Tingle to buy his handmade maps, and hearing his magic words (don't steal them!) enough times, I couldn't forget him. Fast-forward to my adulthood, I'm much closer to 35 (Tingle's age) than ever, so he is even more relatable."
I noted earlier that very few side characters in the Zelda universe ever returned for multiple appearances. While the Western fanbase didn't care for Tingle getting more than one spot in a Zelda game at first, things are different in 2020. Japanese fans have especially come to love the would-be elf over the years. He's been featured in multiple Japanese-exclusive games (Douggernaught offered a list below) and there have been several Tingle-related easter eggs in the past few decades, from Super Smash Bros. cameos to a full-blown Tingle outfit in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Tingle went from a strange one-shot character in Majora's Mask to carving his own place in Zelda lore, even to the point that he became a playable character in the Hyrule Warriors games.
Tingle's Japan-only library (By Douggernaught)
Tingle is much more well-liked in Japan, which explains his semi-frequent reappearances in main series Zelda titles in the last twenty-one years. He's such an iconic, memorable character that he's also had cameos in Smash Bros, is a playable character in Hyrule Warriors, and is featured as the main character in a series of DS games, none of which came out in the US:
- Freshly-Picked Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland: Japan and Europe exclusive. Localized into English for the European release, and the DS is region-free. A very unique game which defies genre.
- Ripened: Tingle's Balloon Trip of Love: Thanks to a dedicated, hardworking team of localizers and romhackers, has been expertly localized in English and is a great DS game, well worth anyone's time.
- Tingle's Balloon Fight: A reskin of Balloon Fight featuring Tingle, Ankle, Knuckle, and David Jr. that was a Japan-exclusive Club Nintendo reward. Not much reading to do and the DS is region-free so it's easy to import and enjoy.
- Too Much Tingle Pack: A DSiWare title of little minigames and gimmicks featuring Tingle. Extremely hard to obtain or emulate.
Tingle has stayed consistent throughout every main-line appearance, cameo, and full-fledged game, always dressed silly, always a bit too old, always loves money and maps, and (usually) helps the hero, despite being easily distracted by his vices.
Tingle's legacy is a complex one, something Imamura couldn't have imagined when he first created the character. It's one that still feels complicated to this day. Even when The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild's Master Trials DLC was in development, game designer Mari Shirakawa mused on the Nintendo website, "I thought 'he's such an unsettling character...but...he's also so adorable...' When I started thinking about it, I realized that sometimes hate can slowly turn into love. If you didn't care about someone at all, you wouldn't feel "love" or "hate" for him..."
And that really sums up Tingle in a nutshell, doesn't it? He's a character who drew almost visceral hate from some circles, but it was always Nintendo's hope that people's hearts would grow three sizes over time. Judging by the new generations of Nintendo fans, that's proving true. Is "Tingle hate" a complete thing of the past? No, but hate never truly goes away. But over time, hate slowly morphs into love. There's no bigger proof of that in the Zelda mythos than Tingle.
"He's the reincarnated side character of prophecy," Douggernaught said as his parting shot. "He's the fourth piece of the Triforce, the negative space in the middle of the other three. Wisdom, Power, Courage, Tingle."
"Also, he's a perfect target for fan art," Bailey added. "He is an irresistible force of nature. You cannot stop him."
Will we ever see Tingle again in The Legend of Zelda? Will we ever learn more about his true origins? Is there more to him than meets the eye or is he really just some guy in his mid-30s running around in green spandex? Maybe one day we'll learn more about Tingle and we'll learn alongside Imamura, who has more than earned a relaxing retirement.
(Special thanks to Eric Bailey of Nintendo Legend and Zeldathon's Douggernaught for their contributions to this feature. Be sure to follow both Eric and Douggernaught on Twitter.)
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Tingle Love: Reflecting on The Legend of Zelda's strangest character