Anyone who doubts that there are multiple timelines, as well as multiple Links and Zeldas, either isn’t aware of canon or is more interested in their own interpretation of the Zelda universe than Nintendo’s.
That said, we still experience the franchise in different ways. As with many gamers, I started with the assumption that there was only one Link when I first played a franchise game in 1998 (Ocarina of Time), even though there was already existing evidence to the contrary. And while I was very open, and very entertained, by the idea of multiple Links when The Wind Waker was released, the feeling that this is all one character has never quite left me.
Each Link has an individual personality. The Hero of Time comes off as fearless and unflappable, dedicated to the greater good. The Hero of The Winds is initially motivated by his love for his sister, but gradually evolves into what the Hero of Time was. Skyward Sword’s Link arguably has a bit more nuance. In the end, though, they’re all silent protagonists, heavily invested in Hyrule’s future.
I recently got into a discussion with a fellow Zelda fan about how separate these characters actually are. In the end, I’m not entirely sure. The reincarnation plot is played up in a few of the games–including The Wind Waker, one of my personal favorites–and there are almost always references to past heroes. It’s abundantly clear that each Link is separate. That said, it’s also abundantly clear that they’re all part of a much larger tapestry, a much wider story than even Zelda theorists will ever understand. And inevitably, each and every Link plays the same role, just in different ways and with different motivations.
The Zelda series is about paradoxes. Each story is a retelling of past ones, but they’re all different. An almost-realistic and toon-like universe coexist. There are multiple Links, but they are all, in the grand scheme of things, the same character.
How do you see Link? Does the occasional presentation of Link as one character ever strike you as going against the spirit of the games, or does it play into it?