As we sit here on the 31st anniversary of the release of The Hyrule Fantasy: The Legend of Zelda on the Famicom and mere days away from the latest entry in the series, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for the Wii U and Nintendo Switch (each console’s last and first Nintendo-made titles, respectively), people are getting into the spirit and celebrating the franchise as a whole.
Unfortunately, that celebration brings with it an age-old debate among fans about whether or not all of the games — well, all of the Nintendo-made games (sorry, CDi fans) — exist together in the same timeline.
On a recent playthrough of Super Mario World, Cinemassacre’s Mike Matei and Ryan Schott even brought the discussion to bear, with Mike being only among the most recent to posit the same basic argument which has come from the mouth (or keyboard) of many a decrier of the idea of a timeline. According to Mike:
The game is called “The Legend of Zelda;” it’s a legend, there’s no timeline. It’s in the f***ing title.
You know what a legend is, right? It’s a story told from generation to generation — I tell you a story, you tell it to the next person, they tell it to the next person, like a game of “Telephone.” By the time it gets to the tenth person, the story has been changed because somebody tells it a little differently; they tell their own interpretation.
That’s what each Zelda game is. So there’s no f***ing timeline.
Which would be a fair argument, except for one small detail: It’s not true. It’s never been true, and this goes well beyond the release several years ago of Hyrule Historia and its decision to at long last finally publish what would prove to be a timeline that’s remained controversial among fans to this day. This isn’t just about arguing against a recently revamped “Word of God” (warning: TV Tropes); this goes all the way back, not to the very beginning, but close.
The Legend of Zelda, at least early on, definitely had a timeline in mind.
First we had the original game on the Nintendo Entertainment System, with very little in the way of backstory/world history presented. There were only two Triforces at the time: Power, held by Ganon, and Wisdom, which Princess Zelda scattered and Link must find.
From there, it seems someone at Nintendo had the same idea as every other 10-year old at the time (well, me anyway) and thought “why not make the Triforce a triangle of triangles?”
“Many seasons have passed since then,” and we got a direct sequel in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link that completed the Triforce, expanded the land of Hyrule (we should only be so lucky as to see that grand form again… maybe after Breath of the Wild? Or in it? I can only hope), and threw in some backstory that gave us a second Princess Zelda.
Nintendo eventually followed that with what was to be A Link to the Past. Originally developed as a rather different “Zelda III” (which, as I recall, took place after II and featured a party system, including a fairy and the same Link), Nintendo instead overhauled it into the game we know and love today, making it a prequel from when the Triforce was still originally whole, its placement established through various texts including Nintendo Power magazine and the official Player’s Guide.
Direct sequel aside, this was our first taste of anything resembling a timeline which spanned beyond simple chronological releases. Shortly after, we would see the further adventures of the Link from A Link to the Past on an island far from Hyrule in Link’s Awakening. Incidentally, I always wondered how he left the decidedly land-locked version Hyrule seen in the Super NES installment.
This is where things start to get a little nuts. After going back to the beginning in A Link to the Past, they then went… further back to… the even more beginning? …in Ocarina of Time. A Link to the Past gave Ganon a backstory as Ganondorf the thief, so Nintendo apparently decided they could work with that, as artist Satoru Takizawa has explained that the story for Ocarina of Time involved delving deeper into the “Imprisoning War” part of the Super NES title’s backstory. Throw in a third pair of Links & Zeldas to go with the seemingly immortal foe, and we were off to the horse races!
Then came the other-dimensional exploits of Majora’s Mask, which followed the established pattern of game, sequel, prequel, sequel. In other words, Nintendo began making a habit of “one step forward, two steps back” with their Zelda releases — and it worked! We had six games with just a touch of contrivance via our heroes (I don’t think “spirits” being reincarnated was a thing yet, we just had really unimaginative bloodlines).
So the timeline as we knew it ran like so: Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, A Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening, The Legend of Zelda, and finally Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Funny how that being the sequence of events would eventually turn out to be untrue, but that’s how it was at the time.
Now things get even more nuts, as we’re introduced to both Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons. Never mind their relation to one another, what was their relation to the other six? Who knows? They never said or gave any real clue, and unlike the other three pairs, you couldn’t even infer it from the art. It was on Game Boy with similar graphics to Link’s Awakening, so maybe could be Link from A Link to the Past/Link’s Awakening? But unlike that Link, he had the white tights of Adult Link from Ocarina of Time…
And it was from Capcom anyway, so maybe it didn’t even count?
It only got worse from there. Next up: The Wind Waker, and holy Darknuts, everything is underwater now. We can see how it follows Ocarina of Time clearly enough, but how does it fit with the rest of our simple, humble timeline? Did things dry out for A Link to the Past? Did it take place after all the rest? But the game’s story explicitly said that no hero appeared, and we had at least two since! What is this?!
Then throw in Four Swords, Four Swords Adventures, and The Minish Cap for lots more WTF is this I don’t even. Then came Twilight Princess, which seemed to be clearly after Ocarina of Time, but a lot dryer than The Wind Waker. Maybe it takes place in the new land found after? But then there are all the familiar landmarks…
This period between The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess is when I remember things going straight to Hell with regards to any sort of timeline discussion, because prior to this, there really wasn’t a discussion. There were six games with a clear linear narrative and their two bastard offspring cousins that we let hang around because they were cool, even though no one was really sure if they fit in.
Oh yeah, and among other things, Nintendo eventually thought “Hey, you know what we need? We need to go back to the beginning of the whole story!” and gave us Skyward Sword… which also had a manga prequel set before its time (and don’t believe for a second they won’t go further back; I’m just waiting for the tech in Skyward Sword to be their way of saying “it was Earth all along!“).
So there you have it. This is why I think a lot of people (myself included) believe that there is an established timeline for The Legend of Zelda: because there always was early on, and it was simple to follow — at least before Nintendo went crazy on it like Marty McFly celebrating his 21st birthday with Doc.
Now, just to be clear, I’m not saying that you have to like that there’s a timeline, agree with how it’s laid out, or even care. But to act as though there has never been one without question? That’s just patently untrue.
David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you’re interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.