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If you are into the video game scene, you'll likely have been inundated recently with people talking about latest game in the long-running Legend of Zelda
franchise, Tears of the Kingdom
, which came out earlier this month. It has become a commercial and critical hit, so much so that it is their fastest selling game ever
. The Zelda
series is over 35 years old now, with the most recent Switch titles being its most successful entries. Because of this, there are many players who are only vaguely aware of what came before. How do all the other titles fit together? What is the canonical history of the kingdom of Hyrule? Why are there all these nerds who grumble to themselves about "timelines" and "Historia"? Let's go back and walk through the games as they released, looking at how each entry adds new lore to the series and what it does, or doesn't do, to place itself amongst the history of its peers. I do spoil some of the endings and events for the older games, and I do mention some plot points that in Tears of the Kingdom
. Everything I mention there happens within the first few hours, and I try to give warning that it's coming, but if you want to know nothing about the game at all, you've been warned.
As you'll soon see, the timeline of the games is anything but cut and dry. I'm going to try and discuss some of the issues of putting them in a neat order, but there have been lots of theories over the years that get into the minutia of different things. For those curious, this
is a good list of some of the now defunct ideas. I would also like to apologize ahead of time for the large amount of abbreviations used in this article.
In the beginning, things were pretty straight-forward. The first few games in the series were released in a time before elaborate plotlines were typical or even possible.
In 1986, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda
(LoZ) for the NES. You play as Link, a vaguely elf-like collection of pixels as he travels the land of Hyrule to save its princess, Zelda, from the evil pig-like creature known as Ganon (or in this game, "Gannon"). With limited dialogue available, most of the plot is given to the player via the included instruction manual and through a paragraph that displays if you wait on the title screen for long enough
. The dynamic between these three characters will form the foundation for plots being used to this day. The game also introduces other series namestays, such as Death Mountain, some of the recurring bosses, and most notably, the concept of the Triforce, two triangle-shaped magical relics sought after by the characters. Only the Triforce of Power and Wisdom are described in this game, and Wisdom has been broken into several pieces for the player to reassemble. The game was a success and our series has a solid foundation to proceed.
In 1987, Nintendo released a sequel, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
(AoL) also for the NES. This title is a direct sequel to the first game, picking up with Link as he again travels Hyrule to awaken the comatose Princess Zelda
. Except... it's not the same Zelda as the first game. This is apparently the very first Zelda, who was put into a magical slumber in an age long past, and has been stored in a back room until someone will come around and wake her up. This game introduces the third piece of the Triforce, that of Courage, and features actual townspeople you can talk to as you try and stop Ganon's followers from reviving him. While the addition of a second Zelda is a bit odd, these two games fit together well enough, although if you were hoping that long lost Zelda would be mentioned later on, you might not want to hold your breath.
In 1991, A Link to the Past
(ALttP) was released for the Super Nintendo. With greater processing power came greater graphical fidelity (quote Uncle Ben, year unknown), and with it a greater possibility for story telling. Link, now equipped with pink hair, must rescue the seven Maidens, descendants of a group of sages who sealed Ganon away in an "Imprisoning War" to an alternate Sacred Realm to stop him from obtaining the Triforce. Princess Zelda is one of these maidens, and Link must travel back and forth between the normal Light World and Ganon's now corrupted Dark World to stop him. More long-running elements are introduced, most notably Link's Master Sword, a magically empowered blade that has the power to defeat evil. You may notice that this game presents a number of contradictions to the NES games. For one, this game seems to completely contradict the events of the first game with Link, Zelda, and Ganon having completely different backstories. This game sets the precedent that there are multiple Ganons, Links, and Zeldas throughout history, with the latter two rising up to stop Ganon whenever the need arises. The Link we played as in the NES games is not the Link in ALttP
, and in fact this game is set far before that game, with Ganon being defeated by the end of the game and the Triforce still unbroken and together. Fine, okay, that's potentially a bit confusing, but with only three games, it's not too much to keep track of.
Not wanting to be left out, the Game Boy got its own Zelda game in 1993, Link's Awakening
(LA), which was re-released in color in 1998 and fully remade for the Switch in 2019. This game is the first to not take place in Hyrule, instead Link is traveling by ship and is caught in a storm, waking up on Koholint Island. Given that it doesn't take place in Hyrule, some of the typical elements are missing. The Triforce does not appear, Zelda is only briefly alluded to, and Ganon only appears as a form taken by the final boss. This does imply that this Link is familiar with Ganon, and while the game itself is vague on which Link this is, it's generally assumed that this is the same Link from ALttP
, travelling after saving Hyrule. For the sake of brevity, we'll skip the discussions about this title, as there's much more to get to.
For those keeping track, the chronology of the games, as far as we understand it, looks like the following, with the left hand side being the earliest entry.
ALttP/LA - LoZ/AoL
Things start getting complicated.
While the first four games follow each other well enough, the intra-game connections aren't super important, and so far not too hard to follow. This will begin to change with 1998's Ocarina of Time
(OoT) for the Nintendo 64. OoT
does a lot to further the lore of the series, giving a backstory to the Triforce, establishing Ganon's human form as Ganondorf, King of the Gerudo people, who are also established in this game. Familiar Hyrule races such as the Gorons, Kokiri, and Zora (this type
, not the enemies
). The Triforce returns, but each of the three pieces is given to a different character; Courage to Link, Wisdom to Zelda, and Power to Ganondorf. This game also seems to represent the Imprisoning War described in ALttP
with Ganon being sealed by Zelda and six sages into the Sacred Realm, to end his reign of terror. There are some differences however. The sages are a diverse collection of characters, not a group of bearded old white guys as previously depicted, and Ganon is sealed away as Ganondorf and not as his pig-like form. These are minor discrepancies however, and for the most part OoT
seems to set itself as the earliest yet game in the series (the towns in Zelda II
also share their names with the sages, a cute homage that in-universe reinforces the idea that they were named after famous heroes).
There are two features of Ocarina of Time
that makes its entry into the series more complex than the games that came before. Firstly, the game features time travel, which naturally introduces another layer of complexity. You play as Link as a child at the start of the game, but at roughly 1/3rd the way through the game, Link is placed into magical stasis for seven years, awakening as an adult into a ruined future. While you can return to the child period in the game, the main plot has Link attempting to defeat the evil powers in the future. It begs the question to what is the actual canon ending to the game. You defeat Ganondorf in the future and seal him away, with the end credits showing the characters you've met celebrating his defeat. However, the adult Princess Zelda sends Link back to the past to "relive his childhood", with the final shot showing the child Link and Zelda. It's left ambiguous which time period continues forward, or if child Link was able to avert the future after all. The other important thing to know about OoT
is that it was incredibly popular. The game was the best selling Zelda game for nearly two decades after its release, and is often cited as one of, if not the best game ever made. This popularity will lead Nintendo to incorporate more direct references and allusions to this game in future entries, which I'm sure won't complicate things for us.
The year 2000 gave us the direct sequel to OoT
, Majora's Mask
(MM), also for the N64. The "Child Timeline" as it is now called is confirmed to continue, with the entirety of the game focusing on the child form of Link as he travels to the parallel world of Termina. Like Link's Awakening
before it, MM
doesn't impact the timeline too heavily due to being set in Termina, but it does confirm that Link remained as a child rather than return to his slumber following OoT
. It might be fair to assume that Link did something about Ganondorf before leaving for Termina, but that isn't explicitly shown.
In 2001, a pair of games were released for the Game Boy Color, Oracle of Seasons
and Oracle of Ages
(OoS and OoA respectively, sometimes collectively called OoX). These games are notable for being developed by Capcom, not Nintendo, and they form a pair; when you finish one of the games you receive a password that transfers some of your items to the other game. Upon finishing both, a special epilogue is unlocked completing the story. Both of these games take place outside of Hyrule, with Seasons
taking place in the land of Holodrum and Ages
in Labrynna. The evil forces in these games are vaguely working together to revive Ganon, who is stated to have been defeated by Link previously. The developers decided that was enough backstory and thus didn't bother to specify which
Link this actually was. The game is very similar to Link's Awakening
in gameplay and style, but the events are also vague enough to be placed after the original game, Majora's Mask
, some previously unseen Link, or maybe completely non-canon entirely given the involvement of Capcom. It's now generally accepted that this is the same Link as ALttP
, with the events of Link's Awakening
following these games, but for many years their placement in the timeline was up in the air.
Accepting the Oracle
games as following ALttP
, our timeline up to this point looks like this:
OoT/MM - ALttP/OoX/LA - LoZ/AoL
We now enter the Very Messy Time.
We are now eight games and 15 years into the series, and while things haven't been super clear up until now, it arguably hasn't really mattered. The games don't really reference each other, and some haven't had much of a plot at all. With ever increasing technological advances, however, this is likely to change, and no game throws a bigger wrench into the whole chronology business like The Wind Waker
(WW). Released in 2002 for the GameCube, Wind Waker
takes place on the Great Ocean, a large body of water with some sparse islands occupying the landscape. It's revealed throughout the game that this is Hyrule, which was flooded by the Goddesses at the request of its King to stop the freed Ganondorf, since no Link was around to stop him. The islands seen in the game are the tallest peaks of the kingdom beneath. This poses quite a dilemma as, I'm not sure if you've noticed, Hyrule is typically not under miles of water, and continues to be this way at the end of the game. The game makes explicit references to Ocarina
, such as the sages being depicted in stained glass windows and Link being told his green tunic represents the clothing a previous hero wore. Even more confusingly is that this is stated to be the same Ganondorf from OoT
, not a reincarnation, freed from his prison. Given that ALttP
also featured the freeing of the imprisoned Ganon from OoT
, this game seems to completely fly in the face of the games that came before it, and if Nintendo had an answer, they were being tight lipped about it. Much of the debate regarding the "timelines" begins here, as the advent of the internet lead to lots of online debate about how WW
fits into the overall story of Hyrule. Nintendo seemed to finally be more focused on referencing the events of previous games, but managed to only confuse the matter even further. We'll get to some of the theories in a moment.
The next three Zelda games would be once again developed by Capcom, following their relative success with the Oracle
games. The first would be a port of ALttP
to the Game Boy Advance. Nintendo wanted to market the wired intra-connectively of the GBA, and so a special multiplayer-only campaign was added to this release, titled Four Swords
(FS). This game features a new villain, the wind mage Vaati, who is defeated by Link with the help of the newly established Four Sword, a magical sword which gives Link the ability to split himself into up to four copies. This sword exists mainly as an excuse to have several Links available for this multiplayer game, and the game itself gives very little context as to where it might fit into the timeline, if at all. Note, if you want to play this game for yourself, Nintendo hasn't made it easy for you. A special single player version, titled Four Swords: Anniversary
was available for free for six months in 2011-2012 for the DSi and 3DS, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the series, and also to try and help flagging sales of both systems. It was then removed for download until 2014, where it was again made available for four whole days
before again being delisted. The game has never been made officially available by Nintendo since then.
In 2004 a follow up to Four Swords
was released for the GameCube, titled Four Sword Adventures
(FSA). Again developed by Capcom, and again an excuse to show off the connectivity features of the GameCube and GBA, with Vaati escaping her imprisonment, requiring Link to take up the Four Sword again. Given the similarity between the games, it is assumed that FSA
is a direct sequel to FS
, featuring the same Link and Zelda. Ganondorf is also revealed to be behind Vaati's actions, but this one is pretty clearly a new reincarnation than before. The game's overworld also has similarities to that of ALttP
, implying that the titles take place close together. Ganon is sealed away at the end of the game, into the Four Sword rather than the Sacred Realm, but some theorized that this could be the same Ganon as ALttP
with a slightly altered backstory to accommodate for WW
, and the two games were often placed either preceding ALttP
or left out of the timeline altogether.
The final Capcom developed game would be 2004's The Minish Cap
(MC) for the GBA. The game establishes the origins of Vaati and sets itself as the first game in the Four Sword trilogy. The game also establishes the origins of the Four Sword, created throughout the game from the Picori Blade, a legendary sword used by, you guessed it, a hero from an age long past. We'll put that aside for now, as while MC
establishes itself as occurring far before FA
, it's unclear how far in the past it is. I mentioned that Nintendo often referenced OoT
in later games, and this game is no exception. Several townsfolk have the same name and appearance as NPCs in Ocarina
and Majora's Mask
despite being clearly separate characters. This is never explained and you either need to attribute it to the reincarnation effect prevalent in the series, or just to Capcom/Nintendo wanting to have familiar faces in their game.
While Capcom was busy adding their own confusing take on the timeline, Nintendo was hard at work doing the same thing. In 2006, Twilight Princess
(TP) was released for the GameCube and Wii, featuring a very much not underwater Hyrule. The Hyrule here seems to resemble that of Ocarina
, but with some of the landmarks slightly shifted (there's a whole line of reasoning trying to identify the games' orders based on the actual landmarks of Hyrule, but it's even hard to resolve than the plots). Link and Zelda are new characters, but Ganondorf is implied to be the same from Ocarina
, again. Through flashbacks we see Ganondorf on trial for unspecified crimes, but after he receives the Triforce of Power through vague means, he attempts to escape captivity before being sealed in the Twilight Realm, another new parallel world to Hyrule which seems distinct to the Sacred Realm. He eventually escapes and is defeated by Link, Zelda, and new character Midna, the titular Twilight Princess. Given that this game also makes some direct references to OoT
, this seems to directly contradict WW
, but all might not be lost. It was left vague as to which timeline was the canon ending to OoT
, and the combination of WW
lead to the fan theory that both
are actually canon and the timeline splits following Ocarina
. In the "Adult Timeline", where Link and Zelda seal Ganondorf away, he eventually escapes and Hyrule is flooded to stop him, eventually leading to his defeat in WW
. In the other "Child Timeline", Link returns as a child with the knowledge of the future and manages to have Ganondorf arrested, where he is sealed into the Twilight Realm following an attempted escape. TP
continues from here, and given Hyrule's much less wet state, most of the other games do as well. This raises the question about where those games fit in, but we'll get to that in a second.
Let me mention two more games before we look at the bigger picture. Two sequels to Wind Waker
were released on the DS in 2007 and 2009, Phantom Hourglass
(PH) and Spirit Tracks
is a direct sequel to WW
featuring the same Link as he fights the new villain Bellum, while ST
takes places roughly 100 years after WW
on New Hyrule, founded by the Princess Zelda of that time (any actual lineage between the two generations is annoyingly vague). It does feature a new Link and Zelda, but it's pretty explicitly a direct sequel to WW
and isn't too hard to resolve into the timeline.
Alright, let's go over what we have now, and try and put everything together. The facts we have are:
- AoL is a direct sequel to LoZ. There is a new Link/Ganon/Zelda and the Triforce is not only separated but broken. Ganon ends the game dead, and there's another Zelda lying around, don't worry about it.
- OoS, OoA, and LA are (to some debate) sequels to ALttP. There is a new Link and Zelda, but Ganon begins the game sealed in the Dark World, and ends the game dead. The Triforce is completely intact.
- MM is a direct sequel to OoT. There is a new Link/Zelda/Ganondorf and the game likely splits into two parallel timelines, one where Ganon is sealed in the Sacred Realm (Adult Timeline) and one where Link returns and lives as a child (leading into MM). In the Adult Timeline, the Triforce is split into its three components, in the Child Timeline it is assumed to be intact, as it is at the start of the game.
- PH and ST are sequels to WW. There is a new Link and Zelda, but a previous Ganondorf, directly stated to be the one from OoT. He was unsealed at some point in the past and ends the game dead/turned into a statue. The Triforce is completely intact, but Hyrule is under an ocean.
- MC, FS, and FSA are indirect sequels consistent with each other. There is at least two new Links/Zeldas (MC is definitely distinct from the other) and a new Ganondorf. He ends the game sealed in the Four Sword, the state of the Triforce is unknown.
- TP has no direct sequels. There is a new Link and Zelda, but Ganondorf begins the game sealed in the Twilight Realm and ends the game dead. The Triforce is split into its three components.
There were multiple theories at this time, with some arguing the 2D games were their own continuity separate from the 3D games, or that there were even more timelines than just two after Ocarina
, but one of the more previlent timeline orderings (and the one I favored) went as follows: OoT
is the first game in the series, and following its events, the timeline splits in two, the Adult Timeline following the world ruined by seven years of Ganon's rule, the other Child Timeline where his reign was avoided.
Adult Timeline: MC? - OoT - TP - MC? - FS/FSA - ALttP/OoX/LA - LoZ/AoL Child Timeline: MC? - OoT/MM - WW/PH/ST
The placement of The Minish Cap
is unknown. We know it takes place prior to Four Swords
, but whether it was before or after the timeline split isn't clear. The Ganon in ALttP
, who was originally meant to be the one in OoT
is now a completely different Ganon, who may or may not be the one in FSA
. For this reason, and many others, this remained one of the most popular ordering, but still heavily in debate.
Finally, some answers
The year is 2011 and Nintendo is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Zelda series. The main attraction is the release of Skyward Sword
(SS) for the Wii, which will usher in a brief but earnest period of actually caring about the timeline. SS
explicitly sets itself as the first game in the entire timeline, depicting the creation of the Master Sword and the cause for the perpetual reincarnation of Link, Zelda, and Ganon. The game takes place not on Hyrule, but on a series of floating islands above it called Skyloft. Skyloft was lifted into the sky by the newly established Goddess Hylia, to protect it and the Triforce from the forces of evil below, and sealed away their leader, Demise. Hylia herself decided to become the mortal Zelda. This new Link is forced to take up the Goddess Sword (which becomes the Master Sword) to save Zelda and defeat the freed Demise who, upon his defeat, decrees that he shall be reborn time and again to defeat the reincarnations of the hero and the Hylia and take over the world. It is the soul of Demise that is reborn as Ganon and has continued to plague Hyrule from then on. Like this concept or not, the game pretty explicitly places itself as the foundation of the series, and as the earliest entry in the timeline.
In addition to releasing Skyward Sword
, Nintendo released a companion book called Hyrule Historia
is mainly an artbook featuring concept art and documents from the 25 year history of the series. However, its main attraction for many people was the inclusion of an official, definitive ordering of the games from Nintendo themselves. So, how we do? Does our timeline(s) agree with Nintendo themselves? Well, while the general order was correct, Nintendo threw a curveball into everything by announcing that following Ocarina of Time
the timeline split into three
parts, not two. One following the Adult ruined world, one following the Child un-impacted world, and another... where Link died. That's right, despite not being seen, a canonical ending to OoT
is that Link died trying to defeat Ganondorf in the future and he was able obtain the combined Triforce. Nintendo explains that despite this, the sages were able to seal him away in the Sacred Realm anyway, but with the completed Triforce. For intents and purposes this is rather similar to the Adult timeline, but allows for the distinction between Ganondorf needing the Triforce in WW
and having it in ALttP
; not to mention that they both need to co-exist. Fans argued that a timeline based on the bad ending didn't seem terribly canonical, and also opened up a can of worms for every other game having its own canon Bad End. Other more minor discrepancies from our theory are present, most notably that Four Swords Adventure
is not a direct sequel to Four Swords
but instead takes place long after, following TP
are instead placed before OoT
in the unified timeline. Personally this is the one I have the most trouble with as there is nothing really linking FSA
to that timeline at all. In any case, here is the timeline as presented:
(Child Timeline) - MM - TP - FSA / SS - MC - FS - OoT - (Adult Timeline) - WW - PH - ST \ (Fallen Timeline) - ALttP - OoS/OoA - LA - LoZ - AoL
There you have it, Nintendo's official explanation for how three games can each be a follow-up to Ocarina of Time
. The Fallen Timeline inclusion lead to many a nerd grumbling on the internet, but this is the official order of events from Nintendo themselves, and they seem pretty dedicated to the idea of keeping the timeline neat going forward.
... Or do they. In 2013 A Link Between Worlds
(ALBW) was released for the 3DS. The game was designed as an indirect sequel to ALttP
with the overworld heavily inspired by that game. Despite the similarity, this is said to be a new Link and Zelda as they stop the evil Yuga from another parallel version of Hyrule, Lorule (how clever). Their eventual goal is to, you guessed it, free an imprisoned Ganon. This begs all sorts of questions. If this is a follow-up to ALttP
, why is there an imprisoned Ganon? Why is the Triforce split again? The explanation is that another Ganon was born between ALttP
and sealed away with the Triforce of Power, eventually leading to the events of this game. Even more confusingly, Nintendo released the Legend of Zelda: Encyclopedia
in 2017 where they placed ALBW
into the timeline. It fittingly goes between ALttP
, but at the same time decides that the Oracle
games no longer feature ALttP
's Link, but the one from ALBW
. This could be taken with a grain of salt though, as the book has some errors, and in other places even says it's the same Link as ALttP
, directly contradicting itself. I'm personally prefer to ignore it.
Nintendo also released Tri Force Heroes
in 2015 for the 3DS. It's in the same style as ALBW
and probably a direct sequel, but it's really goofy and there's barely a plot.
Back to the Future
This finally brings us to the present day. In 2017, Breath of the Wild
(BotW) was released for the Wii U and Switch. Despite spending a lot of effort cleaning up the timeline in their last 3D game, this title goes out of its way to completely ignore the question altogether. When asked about its placement, the canonical reply is that it takes place far in the future from the other games, in some vague era where the timelines either have converged or it's far enough to not really matter. In any case, don't worry about it. 10,000 years prior to the events of the game (ugh), great machines were built to assist with the defeat of Calamity Ganon. With the help of the Link and Zelda of their time, they succeed, with the Divine Beasts being left to decay over the millennia. 100 years prior to the game, it was predicted Calamity Ganon would return, so a new Zelda and Link (the ones in the game) begin to prepare for that day. When it eventually does arrive, it goes very poorly, with Link being placed into a century-long stasis to recover from his wounds and Zelda alone holding the seal containing Ganon. Link eventually wakes up just in time for the game to begin, and you defeat the Calamity. The inclusion of the Calamity being at least 10,000 years old puts this game insanely far into the future, and throws the whole timeline a bit out of wack. There are some other oddities too, such as the Temple of Time as it appears in OoT
being present, and the Rito being established in WW
as the successor race to the Zora, yet both co-exist here.
I'll spend a little bit of time talking about the newest game, Tears of the Kingdom
. I won't discuss anything you won't see in the first few hours, but if you want to be completely spared from spoilers, skip the next paragraph.
2023 saw Tears of the Kingdom
(TotK) for Switch, a direct follow-up to BotW
. At the start of the game, Zelda and Link discover the still-alive mummified body of Ganondorf, sealed away in an era long past and the cause of the Calamity. He is freed and Zelda is inadvertently sent back in time to meet with the very first king of Hyrule, which would place her between Skyward Sword
and Minish Cap
. Through flashbacks you see their attempts to stop Ganondorf before eventually just sealing him away. This would imply that there has been a sealed Ganondorf throughout most of Hyrule's history, even during periods where other Ganondorfs reigned. I won't say too much else for fear of spoilers, but I assume Link is able to defeat this Ganondorf once and for all (I actually don't know, I haven't finished the game yet).
To sum up, the Zelda series has gone through periods of relative attentiveness to the connections between games to directly ignoring they exist. While all this timeline theorizing took place, there was a camp that believed that the Legend of Zelda was just that, a legend, and that each game took place completely separately, except for any explicit direct sequels. This seems to be how Nintendo views the series. The plot inside of each game is focused on, but how it features together as a whole doesn't really matter to them, and even when they tried to more actively focus on it, they quickly gave up due to the pre-existing state it was in. We'll see if future titles will try and reconcile themselves better with the older games, or if this latest trend of just ignoring the timeline will be the norm going forwards.