Welshness In Nintendo Games Zelda TOTK + Mio
Image: Nintendo Life

It’s a uniquely Welsh experience. I’ve never been Scottish, or Irish, or Latvian, but those that have inform me when you tell someone where you’re from, the response typically isn’t “What’s that?”.

For the Welsh, that basic icebreaker question from anyone outside the UK usually prompts a deep breath and, regardless of whether you’ve got the time, a brief structured lesson on geography, history, and the world’s coolest flags. Wales, to most of the world, is a silent enigma. A country without footprint.

As a Welsh person, I don’t expect representation. I was 14 the first time I felt Wales reflected in a video game. The second, I was 26. To say the medium hasn’t exactly been kind to Cymru is an understatement. In a pre-Gareth Bale world, Wales wasn’t even in FIFA; the only reliable representation was obligatory appearances in odd rugby games, most of which skipped Nintendo systems.

Yet whilst the history of Wales in Nintendo games is sparse, it runs surprisingly deep, and has had quite the impact on me in a world where I’d never expect to see myself.

Sentinels of the Senghenydd Sky

In 1984, a young designer by the name of Takashi Tezuka was tasked with devising the story and setting for a new game. An exploration epic inspired by his colleague’s childhood obsession with adventuring through the caves around Kyoto, Tezuka decided to delve into his own childhood.

It was on the way out of mine, however, that I first noticed Wales in a game on a Nintendo system. Summer of 2010, and a slew of puns in the localisation had convinced me to try Square Enix's Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies on DS. Sat in my aunt’s spare room, gaudy painting of the 1997 Glamorgan Cricket team on the wall, I arrived at a town called Porth Llaffan. This week, revisiting for the first time since, the town’s population was warm, old-fashioned, and spoke with almost OTT South Wales accents. It’s clearly written by someone English, their backspace key probably still warm after deleting the word ‘Boyo’ from the end of every utterance, but it’s loving. 'Your' is spelt 'Youer', characters call things they like 'Tidy', and the whole town is being terrorised by a monster known as Lleviathan.

In Welsh, double L (“Ll”) is a letter. Pronounced “Thl”, it’s written as such because English printing presses were unequipped to write the Welsh character ‘ỻ’, so they approximated. Lleviathan might be a simple gag, a basic pun, but it’s also affectionate. This was the first time I’d ever seen Welsh in a game, and here was a joke that only made sense to those who understood our language.

Kiki's Denbigh Service

Yet only a mile or two from where I would one day slay that beast and in the same month Tezuka was defining another adventure, another Japanese creative was on one of his own. An animator who had just completed his first film as director, Hayao Miyazaki had arrived in Wales in search of inspiration. Weeks were spent trekking the beautiful Rhonda valley, taking it in, meeting with people, and possibly visiting my aunt. However, it was once he reached Rhymney Valley, my family’s home back generations, that he found the inspiration he had come for.

Welshness In Nintendo Games Animal Crossing
Image: Nintendo Life

Miyazaki witnessed the Miner’s Strike firsthand. Maybe the defining act in modern Welsh history, the working folk of Wales and beyond stood up to Margret Thatcher’s government, and it desperately moved Miyazaki. The spirit he saw in the Welsh made the kind of stories he wanted to tell feel obvious. The warmth, the optimism, all in the face of extraordinary hardships. This trip served as the primary inspiration for his next film, 1986’s Castle in the Sky, an idea entirely devised whilst in Wales, and the first film produced by the newly-founded Studio Ghibli.

Miyazaki would go on to drip Welsh architecture into his designs, and become fascinated by Cymraeg folklore. In 2004, he adapted Welsh author Diana Wynne Jones’ novel Howl’s Moving Castle. He moved the setting out of 1980s Wales and stripped Howl’s deep love for rugby, yet the thematic DNA remained.

What's the Nintendo link? It's indirect, but Castle in the Sky would go on to directly inspire the airship levels in Super Mario Bros. 3, whilst Miyazaki’s later work would become a key reference point for Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and perhaps Nintendo’s most outwardly Welsh franchise, Xenoblade Chronicles.

The girl with the Gelligaer

Welshness In Nintendo Games Xenoblade Chronicles 3
Image: Nintendo Life

I’d never played a Xenoblade game when the third instalment closed February 2022’s Nintendo Direct. And then, a brief burst of Aimee-Ffion Edwards’ vocals was enough to make me sit up. I’d never seen a game with a Welsh lead before. It was almost overwhelming, and enough to make me buy Xenoblade Chronicles 3. Whilst Mio might not be explicitly written as Welsh, there is a familiar tragedy to her story. A deep passion and love for where she’s from, the family she’s known and made, yet a knowledge those feelings were forged through a foot on the throat. No matter how far she gets away, she’s always looking back from where she came.

The game continues to throw out nods. I genuinely cheered out loud when I arrived at Llyn Nyddwr. 'Llyn Nadwyr' in real-world Welsh translates to 'Spinner Lake'. The previous game had another Welsh girl with cat ears, even granting her a full family of taffs, but number three allowed the scope to be the most nakedly Cymraeg of any Nintendo experience to date. Fire Emblem has used Welsh names for some time now (Three Houses’ central location Garreg Mach is a ‘copy my homework’ take on Carreg Bach, which means ‘Little Stone’), but this was another level. Llyn Nyddwr might be tiny, but it’s a meaningful acknowledgement of something significant I don’t think Nintendo itself has ever noticed.

A Lampeter Between Worlds

Welshness In Nintendo Games Zelda TOTK
Image: Nintendo Life

Tezuka, still searching for a story all those years ago, decided to lean into the overseas fantasy he loved as a child. He went back to the writing of JRR Tolkien, a Welsh speaker who built worlds out of Celtic folklore. Many of the journeys detailed in the books Tezuka grew up reading were inspired by Tolkien’s own Miyazaki-style treks through West Wales (and Ireland, but let’s not let the truth intrude upon a clean narrative).

Tezuka began to read up on European folklore, history, and myth, yet through sheer coincidence, many of the stories he pulled came from one place. The Master Sword, which would become the series' mythical blade, can be dated back to the Welsh legend Mabinogion, the origin of the Excalibur myth. In later sequels, the protagonist would gain a trusty, beloved horse called Epona, a Welsh name taken from the Celtic goddess of fertility.

As the franchise evolved, Tezuka’s aforementioned colleague Shigeru Miyamoto cited Miyazaki as a key influence on the games' visual style. Fittingly, Miyazaki’s own story came full circle in 2009 when Studio Ghibli oversaw the animation sequences of DS game Ni No Kuni Dominion of the Dark Djinn, which would become better known globally in its enhanced Wrath of the White Witch form. Welsh influences on the design were reflected in the localisation, with player-aid character Drippy being so Cardiff his first word upon bursting to life is “Tidy!”.

Welshness In Nintendo Games Ni No Kuni
Image: Level-5

These wide-reaching, yet coincidentally sourced references came together. Filtered through Japanese sensibilities and the utter wonder Miyamoto had felt exploring as a child, this became the game we now know as The Legend of Zelda.

There’s a word in Welsh that doesn’t exist in any other language: “Hiraeth”. A mournful, nostalgic, melancholy longing for home, it’s a word that perhaps reflects the Welsh like nothing else. Wales is a nation built out of beauty and oppression, not ashamed to cry over the former but never the latter. Hiraeth speaks to a deep pride at where you’re from, yet a knowledge that you’ll be leaving. The word understands the feeling of smallness that bleeds from a beautiful home, quashed for generations, to the point nobody, in those casual conversations overseas, knows it exists.

The worlds of Nintendo are not packed to the gills with outward Welshness. Yet, under the hood, something sits. Mio in Xenoblade may not be explicitly written as Welsh, yet her story is dripping in hiraeth. Miyazaki may be Japanese, yet it was a venture away from his homeland that made him understand his own life, culture, and values. And in an adventure so grand, Dragon Quest’s Porth Llanaff gave me a sense of belonging through warmth and good humour.

Welsh Flag
Image: Lisa Fotios / Pexels

Call it influence, history, coincidence, or simply cultural similarity, but whilst the mention of Wales may still prompt people to ask “What’s that?”, in the world of video games, Wales will always be a nation with a very big footprint.