By request: The Zelda timeline

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By request of adamhuss82

It is with a heavy heart that I occasionally must admit that I am part of the problem.

Growing up, I always felt a small thrill at the thought of grand, interconnected sagas. When serial-style cartoons I watched demonstrated some sense of continuity that hinted at patterns and causality within their otherwise disconnected worlds, I’d always sit up and take notice. Yes, G.I. Joe invariably saved the world from some terrorists plotting to rule the world by turning hamburger stands into ICBM silos or through hypnotic telethons… but then there would be these odd little episodes with very specific callbacks to cartoon-specific inventions, like Shipwreck’s doomed love for the mysterious Cobra agent Mara. These small glimpses at a world beyond the standard toys-in-conflict concept lent the show some… well, I hesitate to say “narrative heft.” But certainly a few grams of substance for an otherwise immaterial media property.



As much as I loved Star Wars, I found the “extra” material sometimes more fascinating than the movies themselves. Not the Ewoks stuff, but things like Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, or even the toys with no direct movie analogue. My parents gave me the Droid Factory playset one year for Christmas, which I loved — not just because it let me make all kinds of weird robots, but because it spoke to a world beyond Luke’s adventures on-screen. (Getting ahold of one of those playsets again is on my to-do list before I die.) Slightly later in life, I found the Star Wars role-playing source books and pored over those, transfixed by all their crazy details about the megacorporations behind the iconic space ships I loved. And any time I got my hands on a friend’s comic books, regardless of the series, I would read these tiny, 26-page slices of story and crave a chance to read how they began or ended.

Alas, though; once you introduce story to something, that work begins to conform to the rules of narrative. Concerns like causality and consistency creep in and begin to inform the direction and the nature of future creations. In time, this becomes a fixation with that most suffocating of forces: Continuity.

Some works are designed for continuity; a long-running, internally coherent narrative is baked right in. But when continuity creeps into tales designed to be compact and self-contained, when the need for rules begins to suffuse a franchised or anthologized property… that’s when the trouble begins. We nerds, we love what we love. But we so rarely understand where to draw the line. When to stop.

And this brings us to the tragedy of the Zelda timeline, the most convoluted and unnecessary story framework ever grafted onto an otherwise perfectly happy and healthy saga.

I think it’s pretty safe to say Zelda, at the beginning, was never really intended to have some overarching narrative. The NES game saw a direct sequel, yes, but subsequent games felt more like retellings of the original story: Link would take up his sword, find the Triforce, defeat Ganon, save Zelda. The specifics varied — sometimes Ganon lurked behind the court wizards, sometimes Zelda dressed in drag to offer advance — but ultimately Zelda took the form of a general monomyth. It was the hero’s journey, retold time and again. A… a legend, if you will. Of Zelda.

I can pinpoint the exact moment it all changed, when Zelda went from “nebulous legend with occasional cross-references” to “complex saga with cumbersome timeline.” It wasn’t Ocarina of Time, where the official timeline shatters into alternate realities; no, it was The Wind Waker. And, as so often happens with the insidious creep of continuity, it evolved from the single greatest and most powerful moment in the game.

Link descends at long last beneath the ocean that covers Hyrule to find a palace frozen in time. He stands out in his surroundings, not simply because he can move (unlike the paralyzed Moblins forever fixed in place through powerful magic) but because he alone possesses the gift of color. Once he claims the artifact binding the spell of stasis, color and life return to the palace and he must fight his way back to the entrance. Such a brilliant, vivid, memorable moment.

However, Link’s journey into this bubble of the past reveals something shocking: This flooded Hyrule is not simply some monomythic take on the land, but rather the same world as that of Ocarina of Time, rendered apocalyptic in the wake of that game’s adventure. The “Hero of Time” is honored in the form of a forgotten statue; Link’s green tunic pays tribute to the Kokiri origins of the Hero; and Ganon himself is a solemn, wistful old man whose heart plays host to a complex mixture of regret and resentment. It’s really the single greatest story twist in the entire Zelda series, doing that Klonoa thing where cutesy graphics hide a remarkably rich story.

But —

— with this connection established, fans everywhere demanded to know, “How does this all work?” If two Zelda games were connected, sure they must all be connected? If the Master Sword “sleeps forever” at the end of A Link to the Past, that means it must come after Wind Waker, right? But how can it take place in Hyrule after Wind Waker is Hyrule has been flooded by the gods and the royal princess ventures forth to find a new home in another realm? And where does Zelda II and its cursed, slumbering princess and lineage of girls named in her memory fall into all this?

Nintendo played coy for a decade, even giving us Twilight Princess, which also worked as a direct sequel to Ocarina of Time but completely contradicted the events and premise of Wind Waker. Sadly, though, rather than simply leave these questions to our imaginations, Nintendo finally codified it all in print with Hyrule Historia, produced as a companion piece to Skyward Sword. The entire point of Skyward Sword, of course, was to establish the ultimate origin of the Zelda saga, and with that anchor point laid down the Zelda team revealed the bizarre branching timeline that determines the relationship between each adventure. The time travel element of Ocarina created an inflection point for parallel universes — one where Link prevented Ganon from corrupting Hyrule at all, one where he didn’t but managed to triumph, and (inexplicably) one where he lost and Ganon took control. I guess you could say the third branch is a metatextual construct based around the concept of “game overs” — video games demand player perseverance in the face of failure, but what happens if they give up? — though I suspect that’s giving this whole affair a little too much credit.

This timeline concept does nothing to improve the story and nature of the games. It simply makes things messier. It honestly diminishes the series, and robbing it of much of its mystery…

…but it’s not all bad. Nintendo has said that the next Zelda, Triforce Heroes, exists outside the timeline. Clearly, Aonuma has had enough of you nerds’ nonsense, too.

16 thoughts on “By request: The Zelda timeline

  1. It changes nothing about your argument, which stands regardless, but I’d point out that Zelda LTTP was directly marketed as a prequel to the original Legend of Zelda. Even the back covers in English and Japanese reference this, and the English title plays directly into that. Also, Ocarina of Time’s story outline is largely based on the opening to Link to the Past

    However, the timeline, if anything, robs even that connection of its subtle power. Now Ocarina isn’t some vague half-remembered legend to LTTP. Now it’s… what… the downfall timeline? Which isn’t even a timeline at all because it didn’t actually happen..?

    I’d prefer vague whispers all around to something this silly and convoluted but whatever. Gaming timelines are a young nerd’s game.

  2. I really got into Zelda games with OoT when they started to get the story going. I recall even then looking at the story and thinking this story has elements of the back story outlined in LttP. Then the Hyrule Castle reveal in Wind Waker is probably one of the best moments in the whole series for me. It’s definitely cool to see these little connections and try to piece it all together.

    Now though I like to think of the different Zelda games as islands in a great sea that is all the pieces of the Zelda myth. Some connect to each other and some are separate stories reusing characters, places, and items. As you said they come off more like an actual legend. Something orally retold around the campfire from generation to generation, with each new speaker changing the story and making it their own. To me that’s more fun than a half hearted time line grafted on after the fact.

    • Yeah. I liked the hints, the enigma, before things were set in concrete. Some things are best left to the imagination, but I’m convinced the idea of using imagination amounts to nerd Kryptonite.

  3. The timeline presented in Hyrule Historia was basically everything that had been built up over the years, with a 3rd timeline that lead to the original games with the Hero of Time failing that first appeared in a 1996 manga for A Link to the Past. The hero falling makes sense because in the original backstory of ALttP, there was no hero to wield the Master Sword.

    The Zelda games are made with game play first, and then a story around that and they decided where it follows with the other games. In the beginning it was just continuing to go backwards with prequels, with a sequel follow up before then. I think a lot of people expect a series to be planned out ahead of time to have a connecting timeline, when all it takes is creating another work that follows the story of the previous game or is set hundreds of years earlier to connect them. Even at the end of the second quest of the original Legend of Zelda it says “End of The Legend of Zelda 1”, likely because Miyamoto wanted to make sequels to Mario and Zelda right away.

    The repeating legends thing is something that comes from reusing the same elements and repeating it for a new entry, and its never been the case where it was just a legend retold.

    Here’s a bunch of magazine scans relating to the earlier Zelda games and their continuity

    The Wind Waker was the one where previous games were important the story and having a new Link was central to the game’s plot, but A Link to the Past did it first.

    The original Nintendo Power preview described the game with “The story behind Zelda III links with the past in that the hero is an ancestor of Link (also named Link) and the main maiden he must rescue is an ancestor of Zelda.” It contains an origin story for the Triforce that was introduced in Zelda 2, and the series boss Ganon.
    The back of the Japanese box also describes present day Hyrule as taking place before the character “Link” accomplished something, and when Hyrule was only 1 kingdom.

    The world of A Link to the Past is actually the same world of The Legend of Zelda but years earlier. Kakariko Village becomes the cemetary, Hyrule Castle sits where Level 4 is and Spectacle Rock is directly north, there’s a lake in the south east, a field of Octoroks is in the eastern area with a wooden bridge directly north that led to Level 1. All Hyrules are the same from the original Zelda but hundreds of years apart. Ocarina of Time’s overworld is basically the world of ALttP but turned 45 degrees with a more natural layout.

    The backstory present in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link with the sleeping Princess and the naming tradition was dependent on the location of the Triforce, with the King of Hyrule leaving Wisdom and Power in the kingdom, and the Triforce of Courage that was introduced was hidden away in the Great Palace before the events of Zelda 1. So when ALttP was made as a prequel with an origin for the Triforce, it had to take place before Zelda 2’s backstory.

    The reason for the way the story developed after The Wind Waker has a lot to do with the staff involved in the series. Yoshiaki Koizumi wrote the backstories to both A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening that appeared in the manuals. (Kensuke Tanabe wrote the in game script to ALttP)

    The 1998 Link’s Awakening DX NCL website also explains it takes place after ALttP with a Quick Time movie of Link beating Ganon in ALttP.

    Koizumi also headed up Zelda 64/OoT, and co-directed Majora’s Mask. (Koizumi’s involvement in TWW was handling the Windfall town events before moving on to EAD Tokyo). The character designer and script directors of OoT were intentionally dealing with the Imprisoning War backstory from ALttP, and gave characters names of towns from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link to make it appear that the story of the Imprisoning War was passed down through the history of Hyrule, connecting games that previously didn’t have solid connections besides centries of time (ALttP’s Imprisoning War backstory-> OoT-> Zelda II)
    Miyamoto also mentioned “Ganon, from the Super NES game, is [in] a human form before he transforms into a monster.”
    Ocarina of Time was kinda like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night in the way it linked the stories together.

    “In the SNES edition game, the story “Long ago, there was a war called the Imprisoning War” was passed along. A name in the Imprisoning War era is the name of a Town later. They were like “pseudo-secrets.” We wanted to throw these out through the entirety of the game. That thing from then is now this. -Toru Osawa”

    The 2000 GC tech demo with a realistic Ganondorf facing Link in sword combat was the direction they were going at one time, but Aonuma became producer of the series and it wasn’t the kind of game he wanted to make, instead drawing from his childhood cartoons.

    On the release of Twilight Princess, Aonuma explained that Twilight Princess was parallel to The Wind Waker, which you might not realize if you played through the game since the game isn’t specific about it.

    There were also technically 2 endings to Ocarina of Time, it just wasn’t explained until The Wind Waker interviews explained it. Link seals Ganon as an adult, then leaves that future, then returns to the child area with the Triforce of Courage on the back of his hand. In Majora’s Mask, Zelda has only just met Link.

    So basically as the staff involved changed and the direction of the series changed as more entries were introduced. Zelda wasn’t really that different than Mega Man and Castlevania. The timeline is kinda restrictive now though, running out of room. Tri Force Heroes looks very different so I’m glad they have the creative freedom to not have to place it in the timeline.

    I think they needed to layout the Zelda timeline in print though out of respect for the series, as Mega Man had done earlier with the reveal of Mega Man Legend’s placement, and the Castlevania series had since connecting games with Symphony of the Night and including timeline charts as bonuses (especially since earlier Castlevania game stories were mis-translated and mis-localizied in NA. You wouldn’t know that Castlevania 3 takes place 200 years before Castlevania 1, before the Game Boy games with Christopher, instead of the 100 years before CV1 that the manual states)

    • Wow, that’s a lot to parse. Not to be too reductive here, but I think a lot of the connections people saw in the games were fans making assumptive leaps and reading a lot into developer comments.

      • I went overboard with the information dump. My point was that if you go back and look at the Zelda games at their time of release, the in-game references and developer comments are consistent with the timeline published in Hyrule Historia. (besides unknown branching timelines, and a few games like Four Swords and The Minish Cap that formed their own story within Hyrule)

        That’s why EGM magazine knew in 1998 that the order of the series was OoT-> ALttP -> LA -> LoZ -> AoL

        As you said The Wind Waker brought up a lot of questions since it was the first game that dealt with a previous hero and era as part of the plot. As new fans entered the series after OoT and TWW there was a lot of fan theorizing, even on things that were already “known”.

        It didn’t help that NOA’s website after 1998 was telling the storyline with 1 Link, and things like Link’s Awakening taking place during the raft ride of Zelda 2.

        You’re right that the Zelda series was never intended to have an overarching story, they just made it up as they went along. The developers of Ocarina and The Wind Waker have said that the games have stand-alone stories for newcomers with references to past games that players who have played Zelda before will get. – 1998
        Toru Osawa (Script Director): “In this game there are 7 sages that appear and instruct Princess Zelda, but 6 of those appear in the Disk System game “Adventure of Link” as town names.

        We were hinting that the names of the sages in the era of the Imprisoning War spoken of in the Super Famicom Zelda game became town names in AoL. The events from that time became what we have today.

        A father and daughter named Marin and Tarin that were introduced in Link’s Awakening for GameBoy also appeared in this Zelda game. We’re hoping that people who’ve played the Zelda series from the very beginning will recognize them. If you wonder “is this a reference to then?” we’ll be happy.”

        Famitsu – 2002
        Aonuma: “[The Wind Waker] features a whole new story, but it actually takes place some time after a “certain time period” in Ocarina of Time. Of course, in the game, we prepared elements that will remind players of the prequel. As a result, for those that played Ocarina of Time, there will be some parts where they will think, “Ahh, I remember this.”

  4. This is not quite correct, but I want to blame this on an debilitating narrative disease called “prequelitis.”The other famous case of this is obviously Star Wars, but with Zelda it was particularly gruesome. Zelda fell into a groove where seemingly every other game in the series was a prequel meant to explain it’s origins–A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, The Minish Cap…you began to get ridiculous moments like Ganondorf fulminating at the end of Ocarina of Time that “One day I will have escaped into the past and retroactively exterminated your ancestors.”
    Everyone remembers that right? Oh, my mistake, I think they retconned that for the 3DS remake.
    Wind Waker was, I think, only one misadventure in the painful progression of Zelda’s increasingly self-conscious storytelling–and a pretty good one at that. This reached its awful zenith in Skyward Sword’s ending, which has all the plausibility, consistency and thematic depth of the many, many Zelda fanfictions trying to tie together the timeline that proceeded it. At least it stopped the infinite regress. So, yes, we may indeed be able to go back to ignoring the timeline if we don’t have another Hyrule Warriors (speaking of fanfiction…).

    • Yeah, the one thing that’s bugged me about the Zelda series is how — barring direct sequels (Zelda II, MM) — the series tends to move backwards and sideways and upside down more than forward.

      I still want Zelda III, but I suspect we’ll somehow get a prequel to Skyward Sword before that ever happens.

    • Never say never. There could always be another preview. Skyward Sword clearly took place in the ruins of some older, high-tech civilization. We can learn that before Demise, Ganon was an evil scientist who blah blah blah

      Someday when this seal is broken, that is when I will exterminate your descendants.
      As long as the Triforce of Power is in my hand…

  5. I never really cared about the Zelda time line. As somebody who loves Zelda, I still do not understand why some people care whether this fictional world makes chronological sense.. it’s not even real. There is no canon because it is fiction and adding a canon will just limit the things that you can do in future Zelda games.

    Sorry for not making any sense.

  6. While Wind Waker may have opened the Pandora’s box of continuity yammering, I LOVED how the game’s opening cutscene integrated the whole Joseph Campbell/”The Hero with a Thousand Faces” idea into the game’s universe, substantiating the familiar Zelda story beats and iconography as derived from oral tradition. While playing that game as an easily excited preteen, I felt like I had this sacrosanct responsibility, this colossal weight on my shoulders to properly conduct myself as an honorary descendant of the Hero of Time. I would valiantly charge into battle to defeat the great evil, only ever deviating to harass some innocent farm animals, just as he once did.

  7. I guess I’m a dissenter here, but for what it’s worth I enjoyed Hyrule Historia. It thought was a fun an interesting look behind the curtains, and I appreciate that they at least seem to make an effort to tie things together rather than it truly being, as it frequently feels, the same game made over and over again. I do agree with your concerns about getting trapped in the continuity – a good game idea should certainly trump that – but as it is I found reading through Historia gave me a richer appreciation for the games.

    • Hyrule Historia is great! I just think the timeline part of it… well, I’ll let Mr. Aonuma explain.

      Aonuma drops truth bombs

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