The timeline is a very popular aspect of the Zelda fan base. Some people only buy Zelda games simply so they can rush to the nearest community and begin theorizing about every possible aspect. It’s engrained in us that it’s a unique and fun experience that is ultimately to the major benefit of Zelda and its fans. Zelda Informer itself was founded by a group of theorists who primarily got their start by theorizing about the timeline. To this end, the timeline is responsible for your ability to even read this article. However, setting theorizing aside, there is a chance that the idea that Zelda games have to fit in a timeline may actually be hurting the Zelda franchise.
I know the notion seems crazy. I say it out loud to myself and I can scarcely believe the thought comes to my mind. There are several quotes from both Eiji Aonuma and Shigeru Miyamoto that talk about how the timeline is more of an afterthought, and has little bearing on the development of each title. Still, part of me says that I know better. Something is out of place. Would Zelda actually be better if there never was a timeline?
One could look no further then to Nintendo’s mascot, Mario. The series doesn’t have any sort of timeline, nor could it really fit into one. The story is usually lacking, and it’s literally all about plat forming madness. The biggest advantage that Mario has over the Zelda franchise is creative freedom. Mario can be anything, do anything, and not worry about a conflict of interests with any previous title. He can go from zipping around the universe to teaming up with Bowser and traveling inside his belly. He can climb ladders to save the princess and take out Donkey Kong, or become a doctor and give us a pill based Tetris title. Mario can do anything.
Of course, I am not saying I want Zelda to become a Mario clone. That would be silly, but the creative freedom doesn’t really end there. If we stop a take a look: Most long standing franchises tend to not have an overarching timeline that connects everything, and there may indeed be good reason for it. One example that always sticks out in my mind, especially since my roommate has been on a recent marathon of the series, is Final Fantasy.
Each game is its own game. Sure some things are carried over – Swords, magic, Chocobo… but each game has nothing to do with the last. New characters, new environment, new story. Anything can happen, because they don’t have the restriction of making things fit together. As great as timelines in game franchises can be, it is indeed partially restricting.
Often times when I see timeline related talks come up I hear about the Metroid series. It’s the series that “got the timeline right”. It goes in order of the release of the games, and there is no confusion. But is it really better for the series? It’s not nearly at the popularity level of a Mario or even Zelda, for that matter. Of course, one could argue it’s because they are marketed less, which is possibly true. Still, with Metroid, like Zelda, all one can do is say what if.
Remember all the complaints about the train in Spirit Tracks? Now imagine the complaints if suddenly Link is in outer space. Creative freedom means being allowed to the leave the realm in which has been created. Thanks to a timeline, that can’t really happen for the Zelda franchise. A game in outer space would be out of place. Likewise, a game that goes steam punk would end up being out of character. While I want Zelda to change, part of the reason it can’t is it in essence restricts itself. While the timeline is essential to Zelda, it may be why Zelda can’t advance.
Obviously, this is really all just speculation. In reality, the timeline may be the reason Zelda is more popular than it ever use to be. I enjoy debating about it, and I find it a really great hobby when you have the time to spare. Still, is it possible that it also isn’t allowing the franchise to advance? I guess all we can really say at this point is… “what if”.