The Legend of Zelda has a rich history, full of
wars between factions, the rise and fall of kingdoms, and the emergence
of heroes to battle against the demons that plague the world. For many
years, Hyrule scholars have pored into the stories that make up this
grand body of works, trying to unravel its mysteries. Among these
mysteries, foremost is that Supreme Question: how do these stories link
together, and in what order do they fall chronologically?
One of the biggest challenges theorists have faced is how best to
include all the stories in the bigger picture of the Hyrule universe
without contradictions. The most notable problem is the multitude of
stories that appear to be sequels to Ocarina of Time. Though the creators have demonstrated that two alternate histories stem from the ending of Ocarina, the fact still remains that A Link to the Past, The Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess
all portray Ganon’s exploits following his sealing by the sages. That’s
three different stories, with only two different possible histories –
one that leads into Wind Waker while the other leads into Twilight Princess. Mathematically speaking it just doesn’t add up.
People have devised their own ways around this problem. Some say Ocarina‘s legends were simply confused with the events of a later story, such as Four Swords Adventures, rather than serving as A Link to the Past‘s immediate backdrop; others proclaim that A Link to the Past is no longer supposed to be Ocarina‘s sequel at all. These answers have always left a bittersweet taste in some theorists’ mouths, however, myself among them.
So what is there to do with cases such as this? Perhaps the answer has
been painfully obvious all along. The series is called “The ‘Legend’ of
Zelda” – might they be simply that, a series of mythic tales set in the
Hyrule universe, not necessarily a literal account of Hyrule’s history?
When comparing the chronology of Hyrule to that of other bodies of
legends, namely mythologies such as those belonging to the Greeks,
Romans, Egyptians, and so forth, we see that contradictions are
commonplace among ancient lore. Nonetheless, each of these stories
attempts to fit itself at some point in the grand scheme of a greater
With this framework as a starting point, I set out to decipher Hyrule’s
history in much the same way. Discarding the traditional historical
approach to theorizing was a challenge, but the fruits of the effort
have certainly paid off. The first step was to line out all the
official chronological placements of stories, from the original all the
way to Spirit Tracks.
The Classic Timeline
Fortunately, the first few installments in the series have a multitude
of commentary regarding their placements. While the stories themselves
and thus their context in the world of Hyrule was shallow at best, they
give us enough information to come up with a rough chronology.
The original Legend of Zelda and its sequel The Adventure of Link, being the only two stories in existence at the time, were an obvious pair. After the events of The Legend of Zelda,
Link has defeated Ganon and laid claim to the Triforces of Power and
Wisdom, and once he collects the Triforce of Courage from the Great
Palace, he gains the full power of the Triforce and awakens Zelda from
her ancient slumber. Just in case things weren’t clear as crystal,
Shigeru Miyamoto, the [god]father of the series, stated that The Adventure of Link is a side-story that describes Link’s adventures after the original.
That means our timeline so far goes like this:
Barring the many spin-offs Nintendo produced in the years that accompanied The Legend of Zelda‘s wide popularity, the next installment in the series was A Link to the Past. This new story, instead of following from the events of The Adventure of Link,
instead told the origins of Hyrule, the Triforce, and Ganon. These
origin tales culminated in a great conflict, and we are told that the
resolutions of that conflict have begun to erode at the story’s outset
– thus setting A Link to the Past as the prequel to the originals.
The game’s packaging gave additional clues that it was the first story.
In Japan, the game was said to take place “long before Link’s
adventures, during the era when Hyrule was one kingdom,” a period
several generations prior to The Adventure of Link.
English-speaking territories got the hint that this game featured the
“predecessors of Link and Zelda,” although this could have easily
referred to the knights and sages, respectively, who fought Ganon in
the prologue. Nonetheless, the game carried a powerful ties to “the
past,” with the game’s title focusing on this as the central theme.
Beyond this, however, there’s really little on which to base a chronological relationship between A Link to the Past and the original stories. Some information even clashes at times – for example, we hear that the dark realm in A Link to the Past will fade away in the wake of Ganon’s defeat, but the dark realm also appears in the background of The Adventure of Link.
This is of little consequence to us, however, if we take these stories
as simply legends, and not actual history. A Link to the Past can still
be a tale of olden times.
A few months after A Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening
hit the scene, telling of yet another quest after Ganon’s defeat. Link
is on his way home from journeys abroad when a storm hits his ship,
causing him to fall into a cursed dream world. The prologue is pretty
vague on the details, but since this story was released as a
counterpart to A Link to the Past, we can be pretty certain that it’s a chronological sequel. Ancient Stone Tablets, another spin-off sequel released for the Sattelaview peripheral for the Super Nintendo (Japan-only), also made an homage to Link’s Awakening‘s relationship to A Link to the Past
via an Easter Egg that stated, “The Hero cannot leave the dream.”
Miyamoto has stated, however, in accordance with the game’s open-ended
plot, that Link’s Awakening could go basically anywhere.
Even with the ambiguity surrounding Link’s Awakening we still have enough information to default to the following timeline:
LttP-LA → LoZ-AoL
Now, I realize this is at odds with the “Miyamoto timeline” laid out in Nintendo Power’s 1998 interview:
Ocarina of Time is the first story, then the original Legend of Zelda, then Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and finally A Link to the Past.
While this translation was, for a time, the only source we had for the
complete timeline as of 1998, recent digging has uncovered another
Miyamoto interview, this one held in 1999, with Japanese gaming
magazine 64Dream. One of ZeldaInformer’s resident translators, milkjamjuice, set to translating it immediately. This was what it said:
Ocarina of Time → A Link to the Past, then comes the original one and The Adventure of Link in turn.
Years of dispute among theorists have existed over the issue of
Miyamoto’s timeline, but now it seems that the old idea that Miyamoto
is a coot who knows nothing of timelines, and cares even less, finally
can have its rest; so too can the now outdated and apparently misguided
theory that The Legend of Zelda is before A Link to the Past.
Also of note for us at this stage in building our timeline is the placement of the next game, Ocarina of Time (OoT) – it is A Link to the Past’s prequel. We can see that the same story of the sages’ seal on Ganon appears in Ocarina of Time,
this time as the current events, not an old conflict from long ago.
Both Toru Osawa (script writer) and Satoru Takizawa (character
designer) commented on Ocarina’s role as the prelude to A Link to the Past in this 1998 interview (translated by GlitterBerri):
Osawa: In this game there are seven sages that appear […] but six of those appear in the NES 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 SNES Zelda game became town names in The Adventure of Link. The events from that time became what we have today.
Takizawa: The story in Ocarina of Time isn’t actually original, it deals with the sages’ Imprisoning War from the Super Nintendo’s A Link to the Past.
Ocarina‘s Virtual Console website for Japan also made note of the connection:
There’s a similar story to the old tale from A Link to the Past in order to please those who have played the series so far.
Beyond this, several sources have cited Ocarina of Time as the first tale in the timeline, most recently the U.S. Virtual Console website:
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
reveals the genesis of the fantasy land of Hyrule, the origin of the
Triforce, and the tale of the first exploits of Princess Zelda and the
heroic adventurer Link.
These echoes that Ocarina of Time is first, and that it precedes A Link to the Past, give us the next piece of our timeline:
OoT → LttP-LA → LoZ-AoL
The Split Timeline
With the appearance of Majora’s Mask (MM) and The Wind Waker
(TWW) on the scene, theorists found themselves swamped by a slew of new
timeline ideas, foremost of these being the “split timeline.” Since Ocarina of Time
ended with Link traveling back in time to change the past, the result
was that the two time periods – the future where Link defeated
Ganondorf, and the past that Link set out fix – led into different
story arcs. The “Child Story” led into Majora’s Mask,
where Link decided to search for his long-lost fairy partner, Navi, and
stumbled into the world of Termina; the “Adult Story” led to the events
of The Wind Waker, where Ganon escaped his seal,
leading to a catastrophic flood that buried Hyrule under the sea and
culminating in an epic battle between a hero and the evil one hundreds
of years later.
While Majora’s Mask was technically the
first game to feature the fruits of the timeline split, we never heard
anything formally about its implications until an interview with
Miyamoto and the new series producer, Eiji Aonuma, that surfaced around
the time of The Wind Waker‘s release:
Ocarina of Time basically has two endings of sorts; one has Link as a child and the other has him as an adult. This game, The Wind Waker, takes place a hundred years after the adult Link defeats Ganon at the end of Ocarina.
Another interview took place not long after that would give the same
confirmation. The two timelines didn’t end there, however, as Twilight Princess
would later expand on the aftermath of Link’s travels to the past.
Aonuma gave his extensive overview of the subject in early 2007:
Nintendo Dream: When does Twilight Princess take place?
Aonuma: In the world of Ocarina of Time, a hundred and something years later.
Nintendo Dream: And The Wind Waker?
Aonuma: The Wind Waker is parallel. In Ocarina of Time, Link flew seven years in time, he beat Ganon and went back to being a kid, remember? Twilight Princess takes place in the world of Ocarina of Time, a hundred and something years after the peace returned to kid Link’s time.
These events led to the capture and execution of Ganondorf, and in turn
to the spread of Twilight across Hyrule a century down the line. This
would place Twilight Princess sometime after Majora’s Mask by proxy – and even though they didn’t take center stage, Twilight Princess did indeed feature a few throwbacks to the world of Termina within its heavily Ocarina-inspired atmosphere.
The Wind Waker wound up getting its share of sequels, too – namely Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks.
The former followed Link and Tetra on their adventures on the high seas
after defeating Ganon together. Their travels lead them to a sacred sea
several leagues from their home and into a violent struggle against
Bellum, a phantom hell-bent on absorbing the life force of all living
things. Spirit Tracks picks up a hundred years
later, after Link and Tetra have founded a new Hyrule kingdom in a
faraway country. In this land, the Lokomo sages protect the Spirit
Tracks, the shackles that keep Malladus, the demon king, sealed away
for centuries. When the Spirit Tracks begin to suddenly disappear, Link
and Zelda decide to investigate and ultimately thwart Malladus’s
attempts to escape imprisonment.
These connections were as clear as day – but while there were hints
pointing to certain elements established in the classic games, we heard
nothing about a chronological relationship. The Split story’s ignorance
of the classics in favor of new tales may indicate that these legends
do not coexist in the same mythological timeline. Whether this will be
clarified in future stories is of course up in the air, but there is
plenty of room to leave the old legends just the way they were, in a
story arc all their own. Thus, our timeline goes as follows:
Classic: OoT → LttP-LA → LoZ-AoL
Child: OoT-MM → TP
Adult: OoT → TWW-PH → ST
The Capcom Arcs
The more dedicated fanbase will note that the Capcom games are missing
from this timeline. Fear not! – I have not forgotten them! The Capcom
legends, when compared to the classics and the split stories, are
simply a little more complex to place in the series chronology due to
their different approach to the Hyrulean universe.
Capcom’s first Legend of Zelda outings were Oracle of Seasons (OoS) and Oracle of Ages (OoA) – known collectively as the Oracles
games (OoX). While originally designed a trilogy centering around an
enhanced retelling of the original story, they eventually evolved into
an all-new two-chapter tale centering around Link’s quests in distant
lands. Oracle of Seasons followed Link into
Hyrule Castle, where the Triforce sent him to Holodrum, where he
battled the evil General Onox and rescued the Essences of Nature from
falling into chaos. Ages took Link on another
Triforce quest, this time to Labrynna, where he traveled through time
to defeat the shadow sorceress Veran and restore the Essences of Time.
These two stories culminated in a greater struggle to stop the
resurrection of Ganon by the twin witches Twinrova.
A slew of references to past Zelda legends filled the game – the art obviously drew heavy inspiration from A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening, there were more than a handful of character cameos from Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, and the mark of the hero evoked memories of The Adventure of Link.
These oftentimes conflicting references, coupled with a lack of any
real background to the villains, left Hyrulean scholars confused as to
what place it had in the timeline.
A key example was the inclusion of the Master Sword in Oracles – A Link to the Past
had left the sword to rest in Hyrule, never to be disturbed again. But
Ganon was clearly dead, hence Twinrova working to revive him – which
meant that the story had to take place after A Link to the Past at
least, that tale depicting Ganon’s earliest (chronologically-speaking)
known death in the series. Should we disregard A Link to the Past? Or did we simply interpret it falsely to begin with?
Another point of contention was the brief meeting between Zelda and
Link early on in the second story. She doesn’t speak to Link in a way
that seems fitting for a reunion of two people who had once fought
together to save their country. At the same time, however, Zelda does
acknowledge that she recognized Link as soon as she saw him. Can we say
definitively that this is their first meeting, and thus that this is a
Link-Zelda pair never seen in any other story? Or was the tone of the
meeting scene meant to introduce Zelda to the reader rather than to
These and many other points of contention have kept theorists divided on the issue of the Oracles’ placement in the timeline. However, there does appear to be some saving grace to shed light on the mystery:
Back in the early stages of development, yes, we did say to Dengeki 64 that this game shared the same time line with Link to the Past. However in the Oracles endings there’s the scene of Link setting sail into the sea and since that scene exists, it gives light to the connection to Link’s
This quote is sufficient to cement Oracles as most likely after Link to the Past. Aside from the shared art style, the Oracles’ final ending is exactly as the quote says, since Link sails away from Hyrule after defeating Ganon just as in the prologue to Link’s Awakening, which we’ve already established is a Link to the Past sequel. The appearance of the boat also exactly mimics the one from the introduction. Bearing this in mind, Oracles fits pretty nicely as an interquel that falls between the two. Thus, our updated Classic Timeline, including Oracles:
OoT → LttP-OoX-LA → LoZ-AoL
This leaves us with the most mysterious Zelda story of all, Capcom’s notorious Four Swords
trilogy. Designed as a tale that would be separate from the Triforce
myths, the Four Swords legends deal, not surprisingly, with the titular
Four Sword, a magical blade with the power to split its wielder into
four beings who fight as one. Four Swords introduced a new villain to
Hyrule’s body of lore: Vaati, the wind mage. While the original Four Swords did little to flesh out Vaati’s character, The Minish Cap, the first tale of the saga, described him as a young Minish apprentice who stole power from his master. In each Four Swords
installment, Link uses the Four Sword to fight the evils that Vaati
unleashes upon the land, in the end sealing the evil mage away with the
Fortunately the Four Swords stories’ internal chronology is pretty easy to decipher: The Minish Cap “tells the story of the birth of the Four Sword,” as Aonuma described; Four Swords continues from Vaati’s initial sealing; Four Swords Adventures
has Ganon using Vaati as a puppet in order to siphon the life force of
the land. But what about the saga’s relationship to the story at large?
Like the Oracles, the Four Swords
myths are so full of references to past titles that they seem almost to
suffer from an identity disorder. Altogether the vast majority of their
inspiration draws from the classics and The Wind Waker, leading many to use the Four Swords games as a bridge between the New Hyrule story lined out in Spirit Tracks
and the classic Ganon stories. Others cite that there is no reason for
the classic stories to take place in the New Hyrule. They argue that
strong ties to A Link to the Past indicate that the homages to The Wind Waker exist purely to build off of its popularity rather than as for reasons related chronology.
The only relevant sources as to the role of Four Swords in the timeline indicate something entirely different, however:
The GBA Four Swords Zelda is what we’re thinking as the oldest tale in the Zelda timeline.
When the only installment in the subseries was the original Four Swords, this would have been easy for theorists to accept. Of all the tales in this story arc, Four Swords
relied the least on connections to previous titles, exploring
previously unseen regions of Hyrule and pitting Link against mostly new
enemies. There was little reason to place it anywhere.
The Minish Cap (TMC) followed pretty closely in the
footsteps of its predecessor. As a prequel to Four Swords, and with
only homages linking its story to any other, it could easily fall in
place before Four Swords as the “oldest tale” in the timeline. Several
details corroborated this: the story appears to treat the ‘origin’ of
Link’s trademark pointy cap, the first gift of magic to the Royal
Family of Hyrule, and the original ending of the game even concluded by
saying that “Link’s first adventure drew to a close.” However, later
versions of the story weakened the sense of antiquity by implying that
the Royal Family had another power long ago and removing the “first
adventure” line. Since these edits were made by Nintendo’s writers to
the script produced by Capcom, it’s reasonable to take them to be an
authoritative overwrite of the original intent for Four Swords to be the “oldest tale.”
The most confusing piece of the puzzle, however, proved to be Four Swords Adventures (FSA).
While not actually one of Capcom’s works, with Nintendo’s EAD studio
taking the helm instead, this tale did close the trilogy and thus
traditionally falls alongside the other two as one of the “Capcom
tales.” Like the other Capcom titles, Four Swords Adventures contained an unprecedented number of references to other titles, with its strongest ties to A Link to the Past and The Wind Waker.
Theorists who hoped this slew of connections would offer the answer to
their prayers had to keep on praying, however, since these references
were vague at best, and confusing at worst.
Of all the theories that emerged, the most popular stated that Four Swords Adventures replaced Ocarina of Time as the story in the backdrop of A Link to the Past.
A few beta elements leftover in the game’s code indicated that the
Seven Sages and the Master Sword had once made their appearance, and
while these pieces ultimately disappeared from the final version, some
look at them as pointing to the tale’s chronological intent. Instead,
we see the Shrine Maidens – echoing Link to the Past‘s
maidens – build the seal on Ganon. Could this be a simple revision, a
second telling (or third, such as it is) of the previous story, a new
legend that offers its own ties to A Link to the Past?
While it’s certainly possible, we simply can’t say for sure. We know already that Ocarina of Time tells the story of the war first mentioned in A Link to the Past – we don’t however have the same clarity as far as Adventures is concerned. Should the Four Swords saga fall first in the story as interviews have indicated, we can easily imagine a scenario where the seal cast in Adventures replaces the one cast in Ocarina from a continuity perspective.
However, given that Nintendo may have taken the authority to push the
trilogy in another chronological direction, matters may not be that
simple. Ganon is described as an “ancient demon reborn,” suggesting
that this may not be the first time his likeness has appeared to
terrorize the people. Perhaps instead of ‘replacing’ the seal story,
the people could instead confuse Adventures’ events with those of Ocarina, passed down from Old Hyrule? Link to the Past does after all mention the legends being “obscured by the mists of time.”
Who knows for sure? With no real answer and for the sake of accuracy, we’ll tack the Four Swords games onto our timeline as follows:
Four Swords: TMC → FS-FSA
The Future: Skyward Sword
Of course, we can’t forget about Nintendo’s most recent crown jewel: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (SS). Though it hasn’t received the same level of media blowout that previous console titles have enjoyed, we still know quite a bit about the upcoming title. Chiefly, we know about the titular Skyward Sword and its role as the driving force behind Link’s adventure below the clouds. We also know that the sword holds a secret: it will eventually become the Master Sword, the traditional blade of evil’s bane.
Aonuma came out with a statement regarding the game’s timeline placement in an interview with Official Nintendo Magazine not long after its announcement at E3:
Yes there is a master timeline but it is a confidential document! The only people to have access to that document are myself, Mr. Miyamoto and the director of the title. We cant share it with anyone else! I have already talked to Mr. Miyamoto about this so I am comfortable in releasing this information – this title [Skyward Sword] takes place before Ocarina of Time. if I said that a certain title was ‘the first Zelda game’, then that means that we can’t ever make a title that takes place before that! So for us to add titles to the series, we have to have a way of putting the titles before or after each other.”
In hindsight, however, this revelation is not overtly groundbreaking. We already knew Skyward Sword would feature an origin story for the Master Sword, which featured heavily in Ocarina. While he purposely avoids stating that Skyward Sword is the new “first Zelda game,” Aonuma seems to be hinting as much while putting out a disclaimer that future titles may always fall before.
This falls in line with our current placement of Ocarina, but with the new title added to the mix we now have two titles that serve as “origins” of sorts for the series at large. Rather than placing both Ocarina and Skyward Sword at the beginning of the Classic, Child, and Adult arcs, let’s set these two games aside in a class of their own: the “ancient tales.”
Ancient: SS → OoT
Classic: OoT → LttP-OoX-LA → LoZ-AoL
Child: OoT-MM → TP
Adult: OoT → TWW-PH → ST
Four Swords: TMC → FS-FSA
This timeline is near rock solid. Every
element in it has its direct basis in the most recent official
statements available. But, as this theory treats the stories as a body
of myths, thus as an ever-changing story that allows occasional
contradictions and offshoot plots, we also know that the timeline may
never be set in stone. The Classics and Four Swords
games may yet prove to tie to one (or both!) sides of the timeline
split, and there are surely many more stories to come that will only
deepen the legend, Skyward Sword among them. When that time comes, we’ll have a chance to revisit the legend and see how well it has held up over the ages.
The many references between these timeline branches hold a wealth of
potential for personal interpretation and the view that these stories
are “true history” – my previous theories on the Imprisoning War
legend should testify to that. For now, though, looking at the timeline
through the lens of legend more than satisfies.
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