Over its 25-plus-year history, The Legend of Zelda's hero, Link, has undergone many changes.

He's travelled through time, saved worlds and evolved from a tiny eight-bit sprite to an expressive hero of next-gen gaming. He's also shape-shifted himself into a wolf, a rabbit, a merman and more.

But the one thing Link will probably never be, according to his creators, is a woman.

At this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo, producer Eiji Aonuma fielded some questions about fans' desires to see a female lead in the next Zelda game, Breath of the Wild.

When images of the game first appeared in 2014, some fans noted that his figure, while typically more androgynous than many male protagonists in games, seemed more feminine than usual.

Gender-neutral but 'definitely a male'

Aonuma quashed the speculation, stating that Link would remain male in Breath of the Wild. But at one time, his team considered making Zelda — the series' eponymous princess — the main playable character instead.

However, Aounma told video game review site Gamespot,"If we have Princess Zelda as the main character who fights then what is Link going to do?"​

Aounuma said that making Link female involved "the idea of the balance of the Triforce." In the lore of the Zelda games, each main character represents one of three traits embodied by a relic known as the Triforce.

Link represents courage; Zelda represents wisdom; and the villain and main antagonist, Ganon, usually represents power.

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This early promotional image of Breath of the Wild led some fans to speculate that Link would be a girl in the series' latest instalment. (Nintendo/Associated Press)

The explanation rankled some fans more than the decision to keep Link male in the first place.

Arielle Grimes, a Toronto-based game developer, called his comments "laughable."

"It shows a lack of understanding of the power a creator has, and gives the impression that their team is unable to be creative," she told CBC News.

"If they firmly said 'We didn't make a female hero because we didn't want to,' I can respect that. That's standing on your creative grounds," says Jessica Lachenal, a writer for pop culture website The Mary Sue. "But to point at a somewhat vague plot detail as an arbitrary constraint is frustrating to see. It's — and I mean this in the nicest way — lazy."

Gender and diversity debate in entertainment

The question of Link's gender doesn't seem entirely out of place when you look at other debates about gender and diversity currently ongoing in popular entertainment.

Just look at the reactions to an all-female Ghostbusters squad. Or the current explosion of diversity in Marvel Comics' superhero roster — while their film versions lag. Characters with long histories are being reimagined to better reflect the diversity of the audience and fandom.

Emma Vossen, a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo' s Games Institute, says the closest comparison to Link might be Doctor Who, in which The Doctor regenerates into a new persona on a regular basis, each version portrayed by a different actor.

Link, not unlike the time-travelling Brit, is a different person in every game — each a new reincarnation of the so-called Hero of Time.

"If Link is reincarnated, [like The Doctor], why couldn't he be reincarnated as a woman, too?" asks Vossen.

Zelda Link Between Worlds

Princess Zelda, seen here in A Link Between Worlds, has always been a prominent figure in the games named after her, but she's never been the main playable hero. (Nintendo)

The Zelda games have always enjoyed a large and diverse fandom. Go to any Nintendo-related fan event, such as the travelling Zelda Symphony, and you're likely to find more women and girls in costume — as either Zelda or Link — than  boys and men.

"I think the appeal of the series is really cross-gender — and I don't think you can say that about a lot of games," says Vossen. 

Since she first played a Zelda game at age seven, Vossen imagined Link as a girl. "For me, it's yet to be a problem that these two girls [Link and Zelda] could have the same chemistry that a boy Link and a girl Zelda do."

Link is a blank slate, silent protagonist

When it comes to choosing how players represent themselves in a game, the options vary wildly.

Some, like The Sims, let you create a persona from the ground up, choosing gender, skin colour and other physical features.

Twilight Princess HD wolf

Fans critical of Nintendo's reasoning for why Link can't be a woman argue that he has transformed into such creatures as a wolf, like here in Twilight Princess, over the years. (Nintendo)

Others, like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, have histories and interpersonal relationships baked into the narrative like in traditional media. Flipping Lara's gender, or re-arranging her relationships with other characters, may or may not have greater implications for the plot.

Link is somewhere in between: he has a name and is brave, befitting a hero. But other than that, he's a blank slate. He doesn't even talk aside from grunts and shouts when in battle.

Legend of Zelda 'like a Shakespeare play'

Toronto-based designer Benjamin Rivers says there's nothing about Link's character that would preclude him from being rewritten as a woman, or allowing the player to choose Link's gender.

"Zelda games are like a fairytale. It's like a Shakespeare play where you can absolutely mix things up, and get interesting results by doing so," he says.

"I think if there was a gender flip option, players might flip back and forth, see which one looks more interesting to them, say 'cool, whatever' and just keep playing."

Despite these reservations, players and developers alike are looking forward to Breath of the Wild when it launches on the Wii U and Nintendo's new platform, code-named NX, in 2017.

"I'll definitely be picking up the game, but I won't give up my hopes for gal pals Link and Zelda," says Grimes.